A modest chair in the semi shade of a derelict place… An old man wearing a black shirt sits on that chair and starts talking with a calm voice: “Fiz um curso de engenharia elétrica, depois fui fazer o serviço militar e a partir daí dei caminho à minha vida como mercenário” (I did a course in electrical engineering, then I did my military service and from there started my life as a mercenary). Thus begins the 2012 acclaimed documentary Terra de Ninguém (No man’s land in Portuguese) directed by Salomé Lamas and now distributed by Shellac Sud in a couple of French theatres since July [Terra Nullius: Confessions d’un mercenaire, 2014].
This frail man is in his late 60s. His face is a marvel of sun-chiseled lines, like a road map defining his numerous punitive expeditions from Angola to Mozambique, from El Salvador to the Basque country. He is a former contracted killer. His name is Paulo de Figueiredo. He seems to be ready for the film and yet does not seem to know exactly why he is doing this. Paulo de Figueiredo fought in Mozambique and Angola during the Portuguese colonial wars, the Guerra do Ultrama,between1961 and 1974. After the Carnation revolution (Revolução dos Cravos) on the 25th of April 1974, he became a security guard in Portugal. Later, in 1979, he was contracted by the CIA to fight against guerrilla forces in El Salvador and other Latin American countries and in 1984 joined the ranks of the GAL, the Spanish government-sponsored death squad in the Basque country before ending up in prison for 15 years. In a calm and composed manner, Paulo de Figueiredo offers a detailed account of some atrocities he committed as a shadowy actor of the Cold War and after. The violence and the cruelty of his different stories contrast with the minimalist and static approach of Salomé Lamas. There is no redemption and no confession as the French title suggests. This empty room in an ordinary abandoned place in Lisbon is neither Paulo’s favourite place, nor that of the filmmaker. It is a neutral place as much one can think of such a thing. It is a terra nullius, a place that belongs to no one where a man who saw and did terrible things in his life is opening his dark diary and fills the vacant space with simple and terrible words about his profession of contracted killer. The flow of Paulo’s sincere and personal account is only interrupted five times by Salomé’s low key and paused voice. Each of Paulo’s sentences is numbered and all these numbers constitute entries in a life made of pure brutality, ordinary colonial racism and numerous extra-judicial killings.
I liked the army, I liked killing, and I like seeing blood. But always for the truth, never for pleasure. But blood and gunpowder are like coke and heroin. It gets in your blood.
Paulo de Figueiredo slaughtered children, women and men in the four corners of the world. He is now living the twilight of his life under a bridge in the company of an African refugee. In a mess of plastic bags and containers, Paulo sings an Angolan song in an improvised duet with his comrade of misfortune.
“Quem é Paulo de Figueiredo?” Who is really Paulo de Figueiredo? A repugnant but retired assassin? A pawn of the cold war? A specialist of counterinsurgency? An example of colonial racism? An ex-prisoner? An ordinary homeless or Paulo the African remembering his blessing childhood in a Portuguese Angola? A little bit of all of these and at the same time none of them.
No Man’s Land (Terra de ninguém) – Directed by Salomé Lamas and produced by O Som e a Fúria [Portugal 2012 – digital video – Colour -72 min.]
Interview with Salome Lamas (in Portuguese)