“It’s the law”, we hear from behind the camera, in a self-evident tone matching the intangible reality of the juridical system. A voice without a face; still a human voice, feminine and defined by its own timber, proper to a middle-aged woman. Leaving these characteristics aside, it could be anyone whose salary is bound on filling these tasks – a cop, a jurist – a face (although here faceless) of the system, facing someone who’s out of it – here Yoceli Arias, a twenty six year old woman who has been in jail for three years and continues to be for minor, non-violent drug-traffic. Yoceli is an outcast and yet she’s also a “regular” individual, expressing wishes proper to her age and condition as a young woman living in the twenty-first century: having money, traveling, being free. She’s out of the system yet she’s given a face. We see her in close-up, hair tied up, wearing a pink t-shirt matching her pink-painted lips, standing in contrast with the grayish wall behind her. She has just learned that following the “2017 criminal code reform”, cases like hers have no day-release: she can’t go out until the end of her sentence, lasting eighteen more months. Having before been unaware about that reform, she was not expecting this. But there’s nothing she can do: it’s the law. Her eyes are humid, the emotion feels real. 

Yoceli Arias is the main character of Reas, Lola Arias’ second feature film which premiered at the Forum section of this year’s 74th Berlinale. “Character” might not be the right word as she’s playing herself and neither is “herself” a fully accurate one, as she’s enacting a position that was imposed to her in the past: the one of being a prisoner. In fact, the actors in the film have this in common; they’ve all served a sentence at the women’s prison of Ezeiza in Buenos Aires. Beyond having cis-women, the cast includes queer and trans men and women. Having not met before the shooting of the film, the ex-inmates got to know each other on set, at the abandoned prison of Caseros, a building slowly falling apart into ruins. There, they devoted themselves to recreating their incarceration experience, or at least an incarceration experience – one that under its fictional stance is foremost to be considered as one of collective emancipation and freedom. Estefi, Nacho, la tía Noe, Paulita and the others share a past of common struggles but dream for a future, one they act upon. “It’s the law”, the voice said. “Even for a first sentence?” Yoceli asks. “This has no legal relevance”. “So it doesn’t help if I work, study, behave myself…I might as well sit in my cell doing nothing?”. “If you do things badly you’ll end up badly”. To this, Yoceli nods, her face expressing disappointment mixed with contained anger. As she’s about to stand up, she’s ordered to “sign the paper”. Yoceli refuses: “No, I’m not signing anything” and leaves the room.  

This same self-awareness and confidence accompanies the characters throughout the entire  length of the piece and that’s not necessarily surprising. Fearlessness, assertiveness, boldness tend to define so-called “criminals” in many films (and not exclusively in mainstream ones) but these traits are often emphasized and exaggerated, turning personal strength  and audacity into stereotypical representations of violence and thereby reproducing on screen the way this group of individuals is perceived in mainstream media and society at large. Violence is not obstructed in Arias’ film; on the contrary, it strongly shapes its narrative. But instead of being spectacularly and brutally pictured, it’s embedded in its thread mostly through discursive allusions, for example when the protagonists recall their violence-induced past or when they’re directly confronted to the inescapable weight of “justice” and reminded of their lowest position in the hierarchy of the carceral institution, such as in the scene I mentioned above. In Reas, Violence does not define the represented criminals but rightfully characterizes the environment they find themselves in. The only scene where it’s being graphically shown – as in where there is a physical aggression manifested visually – it’s when three police officers unjustifiably beat out Nacho; and even then it’s not abruptly thrown on our face for us to frustratingly consume but is instead revealed through a barred transom characteristic of the prison cell, making us witness only the upper body of the assaulters while hearing their shouts and punches overlapping the dim sighs of the victim. 

Bearing in mind that the piece is the result of a collective work – meaning that the executive decisions are not centered exclusively around the director – it comes across as almost evident that the protagonists wouldn’t want to fight for real, unless it would just happen off the record. Realistically performed fights do require high-end special effects and most likely experienced actors, which is not what this film is made of. The actors are unprofessional and are visibly encouraged to be creative with what is at reach. In her previous film Teatro de guerra (Theatre of war), Lola Arias proceeded to use a similar approach by bringing together former british and argentine veterans who participated in the Falklands war and inviting them to discuss on how to re-enact some aspects of the conflict for a film to be made. The piece is guided by dialogues and choreographically constructed fights which in their performance molded a new language of the battle, one that albeit referring to a bloody past did not formally recreate it – fortunately so, as that wasn’t Arias’ intention. In her own words, she was rather aiming to find a way of “getting to the core of the memory that really changes a person forever1 A proustian challenge that we might all experience to a certain extent and on a very personal and abstract level – but which, in order to be given shape, requires an admirable concentration on top of an advanced mastery of any medium. 

In its form, Reas has its characters placed in front of the camera in a neat and organized way, often following gestual procedures coordinating with the theme of incarceration, adjacent with a limited freedom of movement imposed on the prisoner’s bodies. They’re either fully in the frame – often centered – or out of it; they’re also often placed in alignment with the architecture’s structure. What gives us a hint of their carceral exemption, is the lightning; even when they’re inside, they seem to catch outside’s full brightness and especially when they’re filmed in close up, a luminous sparkle is visible on their eyes. Albeit being shot in a former prison, the setting is filmed under an angle implying a certain autonomy granted to the characters. That is mostly obvious in its cinematic genre; Reas has the particularity of being not only a cinematographic docu-fictional piece, but also a queer-and-trans musical. The seventy nine minutes of the film are rhythmed by instances where the protagonists come together to sing and dance on the same music, creating numerous breaks in the narrative all the while contributing to the development of interpersonal exchanges and the growth of mutual affections – including the blossoming of deep friendships and romances. In that, Arias plays with pop-culture codes – the musical moments being ornated with catchy hair-in-the wind effects, expressive looks pointed at the camera, alternatively flirtatious, hopeless or mockingly tempered, kitschy heart-break phone calls: “Oh love! Help me live with this sadness” Paula sings on the line, her eyes turned upwards. Time stops for a moment to enter in her privacy and sorrow. Gaudy trends which many of us who grew up watching TV in the nineties and early two thousands easily fall for; they tap into our nostalgia. In the film, these “formulas” participate in a rupture with the realism generated by the remaining scenes – due to their choreographic outputs but also because of the insertion of diegetic sound. 

Still, instead of luring us in a universe of substantial magic – as can be done in big-budget music clips – the ones in Reas are explicitly shown in their DIY nature, gifting them with an additional charm but also, in a way, keeping them “real”. The set is visible numerous times; we witness the small amount of material these catchy scenes are made of. Shown in its construction, the film is given the impression of being on the verge of always changing and becoming, analogous to the method used by Paul Preciado in his cinematographic piece Orlando: my political Biography (2023). There, the concept of “biography” – and especially trans biography – goes hand in hand with the one of metamorphosis. By doing so, Precadio still enables dreamy situations of escapisms and so does Arias through the musical moments in her film; but that’s not a negative thing. It grants it with a mellow tone and brings us closer to the characters with whom we want to sing along. There is a term coining a vast amount of songs in musicals: the “I want” and “I am” songs in which the performers regularly express personal wishes (such as freedom or glory), and that also applies here. Nevertheless, whereas this tendency is commonly used in mainstream culture to define heterosexual romances or reinforce gender stereotypes, it plays out in a distinct way in this piece, serving another purpose. Firstly as a logical consequence of the characters not being all cis (Nacho is a trans man, la tía Noé a trans woman) or straight, but also because of the collective nature of the film and the shared memories of injustices; beyond being emotionally driven, their choreographies are politically motivated. When they sing and dance, they own the space and when they own the space, the hierarchies are inverted and canceled; for some minutes, “the law” is on pause. 

A cheesy romanticization of having one’s freedom reduced or obstructed?  To rebounce on Arias’ concern with memory and her ambition at having the performers “reaching the core” of theirs through re-enactment, we could rather consider these (the musical scenes) as liberating instances with active contribution to the process of reaching the actor’s – but also viewers’ – deeper emotions and psyche. One particular song and choreography in the film embodies the collective experience of injustice lived out by the protagonists. BICHA (translated as “fucking matron”) has the inmates encircling and trap the so-called “bichas”, expressing their frustration in choir. The evasion from reality paradoxically becomes an opportunity for confrontation, enabling feelings to be dragged inside-out. No wonder Arias has in the past called herself a „therapist-director2 Finburgh, Clare, Violence without violence: Spectacle, War and Lola Arias’ Minefield / Campo Minado in Theatre Research International vol. 42 (2017), p.257.: she’s managed to transfer her empathy onto the set. Yet the grace of the film – its soft tone and hope-giving force – finds its nucleus mainly in the represented community. In Reas, the characters get to know each other by teaching and learning their respective skills: boxing, voguing, dancing la marinera but also how to claim and defend their rights by studying law. Creativity rises from their companionship and it’s by being together that they improve their chances of confronting “Justice” more efficiently; there are means of resisting the law.


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    Finburgh, Clare, Violence without violence: Spectacle, War and Lola Arias’ Minefield / Campo Minado in Theatre Research International vol. 42 (2017), p.257.