Cinema Scope Issue 79 with Features including .. Truth and Method: The Films of Thomas Heise by Michael Sicinski, Thinking in Images: Scott Walker and Cinema by Christoph Huber, 58th Venice Biennale, Cannes and DVD Reviews.
By Michael Sicinski
Salomé Lamas’ experimental feature Eldorado XXI is a film that we might call a “modified ethnography,” in the sense that Lamas has gone to a particular location—La Rinconada y Cerro Lunar settlement in the Peruvian Andes—to observe both the landscape and those individuals who populate it. But as with a number of similarly minded films in recent years, the ethnographic “subjects” are understood to be heavily involved in the versions of themselves they choose to expose to Lamas and, by extension, the film’s viewership. Lamas herself refers to Eldorado XXI as a “critical media practice para-fiction attempt,” and while that string of verbiage may seem like a great deal of post-structuralist throat-clearing, her tentative genre designation is well worth considering.
We can understand her claims much better, of course, by looking specifically at Eldorado XXI and considering its creative choices. The beginning of the film, for example, reflects a desire to problematize one of the most basic aspects of conventional documentary: the co-presence of a subject’s image and voice as a guarantor of truth. After some widescreen images of a breathtaking but inhospitable mountain landscape in the Andes, we hear a woman sing, a capella, a folk song about the general worthlessness of men in the face of adversity. (“Fighting mother, you who work day and night/While the men thinking themselves brave abandon their children…continue drinking at the bar.”) The juxtaposition provides a prelude to the fundamental premise of Eldorado XXI, which can actually be intuited right from the title.
This is a film about desperate and deluded fortune hunters, families who are subjected to gruelling working conditions on the promise that they might have the chance to discover a few flecks of gold. In these early establishing shots, Lamas moves us from extreme long shots of the landscape into long shots, providing us with a look at the small, white modular structures built into the side of a mountain, a village that from a distance simply looks like jagged rock. Played against the counterpoint of the song, the unexpected beauty of this snow-capped cubist town is ironized. Lamas lets us know that there may be hardscrabble labour within this landscape, but there is nothing heroic about it.
And then, “the shot.” For precisely 57 minutes, Lamas provides us with a single, unblinking view of miners negotiating a precarious path down into a mine. The terrain that forms the path is something like a bulbous valentine or a bowtie of rounded rockpiles, the one in the upper left of the screen filled with debris, the pile on the right featuring flecks of colour that look like discarded shirts or kerchiefs. The movement of the miners is consistent and endless: they cross directly in front of the camera, left to right; they curve diagonally down through the middle, right to left, vanishing behind the upper-left rock formation; and then we see them re-emerge in the centre and exit the screen via the centre-top of the frame. There are miners going in both directions along this steep but foreshortened path. Lamas, for her part, seems to begin the shot at the “magic hour,” because over the course of the hour the scene becomes black as pitch, the movement eventually visible only due to the wobbly but regimented traces of the miners’ headlamps.
There are a number of complicated things happening in this hour-long shot. One, of course, is endurance. Lamas is implicitly asking her viewers to sit and observe the most basic difficulties the miners face in this pitiless region, to share in their monotony as they spend their labour power travelling in and out of the mines. Miles away from the sort of aestheticized heroics (and implicit masculine labour discourse) of a figure such as Sebastião Salgado, Lamas presents this garbage-strewn human highway with a minimum of fuss. It is not an unappealing shot by any means, although one must realistically acknowledge that any hour-long shot in any film is a tough proposition for the non-specialist viewer unaccustomed to the tendencies of “slow cinema.”
Lamas has composed the miners shot with a great deal of care. The camera is angled down, generating an ambiguous space for the viewer. Miners are moving in both directions, but it is not immediately apparent whether the men are descending into a pit or simply moving along a slightly pitched horizontal axis. The more time we spend in the company of this extended sequence, we begin to notice the miners themselves, who answer this question for us. Heading into the shot, they skitter, struggling not to lose their balance; climbing out of the shot, they trudge. Their bodies express the gravity that Lamas’ composition obscures, and it is the time of the shot—our interpretive labour, time logged along with the miners—that clarifies things. The choice of location, along with the strict and unmoving position of the camera, provide a winding path (complete with momentary obstructions) that introduces a temporal element within the sequence—the journeys of individual miners—in addition to the expanded time of the shot itself.
Furthermore, Lamas’ decision to create a foreshortened composition, together with the gradual setting of the sun, results in an encroaching modernist flatness. The hillside trail begins to dissipate, becoming a blotchy, speckled form against which indistinct points of light trace repetitive patterns. This action in itself creates a fascinating tension. The ordinary, even aggravating, scene becomes more aesthetically engaging on purely formal terms. At the same time, this appreciation threatens to occlude the specific human life that is, if not the “true” subject of the shot, at the very least its raison d’être. Lamas prompts a viewer to consider the tussle between politics and aesthetics, which is without a doubt a primary component of her “para-fictional” project.
The second half of the film marks a radical shift. It could be said to be more “conventional” although, given the context Lamas sets up for these additional sequences, they take on a meaning in excess of their concrete information. We spend time with a group of women denizens of La Riconada, who describe the specific problems of the mining practices there. (Without going into great detail, it is a lottery-style system in which workers are not guaranteed even to have the chance to try to find gold.) Lamas takes us into the village, where we gain a glimpse of how the miners blow off steam on their days off. And toward the end of Eldorado XXI, we observe the outdoor Catholic mass and a lively celebration that, in a more traditional ethnographic film, would be a sort of cultural money shot. Here, however, these sequences take on a different formal and affective valence, precisely because of what has come before. If, following Jonathan Beller, we understand cinematic spectatorship to be a form of labour, then Lamas has set forth very different tasks with “the shot” and the rest of the film.
There is no question that Eldorado XXI is a critical intervention, a piece of protest cinema of sorts. Although I think this can be read rather directly off the surface of the film, it is all that much clearer when considered in light of Lamas’ broader cinematic practice. Her earlier work has engaged with problems of global displacement and the encroachment of neoliberal capital into all aspects of life. Prior to Eldorado XXI, Lamas’ best-known work on the festival circuit was her previous feature, No Man’s Land (2012), a 72-minute film that consists almost entirely of a performative “interview” with Paulo, an international mercenary who is discussing his role in international terrorism and the destabilization of various governments and anti-colonial movements. To hear Paolo tell it, he is the Devil for whom Mick Jagger asks us to find sympathy: Angola, Mozambique, Portugal, and Spain—he was there.
In her organization of No Man’s Land as an extended interview that transcends the transmission of facts, becoming a kind of cinematic portraiture, Lamas indirectly references such key documentaries as Gianfranco Rosi’s El Sicario, Room 164 (2010) and Wang Bing’s Fengming, a Chinese Memoir (2007). However, Lamas has a different project in mind, and the “no man’s land” she ends up mapping, along with “Paulo,” is the gulf between performance and the cinematic codes of authenticity. By the film’s conclusion, both Lamas and Paulo are performing quite different roles, and the viewer is uncertain whether No Man’s Land has mutated into an unexpected new kind of documentary, or revealed itself as the para-fiction it has been all along.
What we see in some of these earlier Lamas films is a kind of template for Eldorado XXI’s formal procedures, wherein the extended gaze of the documentarian does not simply map onto observed reality with clean lines. Time allows that reality to shift, of course. But perhaps more significantly, the schemata that Lamas introduces for making sense of what we see and hear—in certain ways the most basic terms of nonfiction cinema—are shown to be increasingly unreliable or even arbitrary. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (2013) provides a perfect example. In it, Lamas superimposes dense, dark footage of the restless sea with images of a woman (Tabu’s Ana Moreira) examining fossils and studying maps. The film alternates between Moreira in the geological lab, examining samples in glass cases, with images shot from a craft on the water, tossed by choppy waves as the camera examines the igneous textures of the rocky shoreline.
As with the first hour of Eldorado XXI, a great deal of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum is so inky black that it is only with sharp white highlights that a viewer can even discern a picture—cresting waves, the edges of other skiffs in the water, or distant lights on the shore. Lamas plays not only with the intense absence of light in this film, but with a very direct representation of order and chaos. When we see the cubic glass display case of the museum superimposed over the somewhat threatening jetties, moving about as the boat is tossed, we are witnessing rounded forms competing with clean metal lines, the organizational impulse of modernity meeting its match in nature’s fervent expanse.
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum is a theoretical exploration of landscape as a dialectical problem. Will we be Cartesians or Heideggerians? Are we going to apply the templates of abstract knowledge in order to artificially rationalize our relationship to the lived environment, or are we going to recognize our “thrownness,” our mutual dependency on and envelopment by the spaces in which we dwell? We can see Lamas considering these questions in a very different manner in the 2012 performance-based work Encounters with Landscape (3X), a short film based on a set of procedures that allow the artist to place herself at the mercy of topographical features, dramatizing their impact on a vulnerable body.
It should be noted that, although Encounters does involve a degree of physical stuntsmanship and a not inconsiderable element of risk, this is also a work that displays a sly sense of humour, an aspect that is not always immediately apparent in Lamas’ oeuvre. In #1, we see a lovely shot from the bank of a river. Only after a few seconds do we notice that Lamas is climbing a tree on the right-hand side of the screen. She works her way out onto a sturdy branch and gets herself stranded, dangling over the water. She is the anomaly in a painterly scene, and we wait for gravity to eradicate her spoliation of the pastoral image. In #2, the longest segment, Lamas is walking along the edge of a cliff, struggling to avoid falling over the edge or getting wedged in unseen crevasses. Adding to her performative plight, she is roving the area at sundown and is eventually trapped in the pitch-black night.
The third segment, considerably different in style and presented as a kind of dramatic sketch, shows a backpacking Lamas getting close to the lip of some indistinct but clearly unstable volcanic activity. A distant cousin to the bodily endurance works of Chris Burden and the phenomenological/architectural body-studies of Vito Acconci, but filtered through the feminist alienation of Valie Export, Encounters with Landscape shows Lamas using her own body to take the measure of the natural world—like a German idealist, or at the very least a rationalist, presuming that its very existence is predicated on its utility and comprehensibility to humans. The joke, of course, is that Lamas finds that the Earth strikes back. Encounters begins each of its parts with Lamas taking on a self-directed challenge. And every time she is bested by physics.
I am reminded of the fact that Theatrum Orbis Terrarum starts out with a young boy spelling out the film’s title in semaphore. (Lamas helpfully subtitles the boy’s gestures.) Most of us do not immediately understand the boy’s communication, because we lack the code. In a way, we could say the same of Lamas in Encounters as well. What she is in fact “encountering” is a series of limitations to the human body. Are Lamas’ physical challenges worth undertaking? Well, it seems so, inasmuch as they postulate a subject who is literally “lost in nature,” who doesn’t know its code. Lamas uses her body, in tandem with cinema, to engage in a kind of comedic mapping of the environment—a telemetry that fails. The Encounters are about, among other things, the pitfalls of exploration, which even in its most benign forms has been construed as a modernist conceit.
When we consider these works in the terms Lamas herself has established for them, as “para-fictions” straddling the border between documentary and fiction filmmaking, it becomes a bit easier to place her practice within a burgeoning cinematic discourse of our moment. It also becomes clearer just how Lamas’ work differs from that of her contemporaries. In the preface to an upcoming collection of essays on Lamas’ films, João Ribas compares her to Robert Flaherty, a filmmaker whose creative nonfictions have fallen into considerable scholarly disrepute in recent years. While there is no question that Flaherty was blinkered by his national and historical circumstances (i.e., he was an unwitting agent of white colonial privilege), this viewpoint hardly exhausts his contribution. As Ribas notes, Flaherty’s Moana (1926) turned the South Seas into the setting for an island paradise; he used the power of cinema to strategically elide the stirrings of Samoan anti-colonialism.
Ribas explains that Lamas absorbs the lessons of Flaherty in order to turn them on their head. That is to say, Lamas relies on the facticity of nonfiction material in order to lend credibility and force to the difficulties that certain populations face under the current conditions of global capital. And if we acknowledge that Flaherty staged his “facts” along with willing ethnographic actors, then Lamas similarly directs her subjects, but for a very different purpose. “Much of Lamas’ cinema, in fact, is structured around a set of relations that are created to be filmed,” Ribas writes. “There is, on the one hand, a relation to the ostensible subjects of the film [such as] the lives of immiserated Peruvian miners…The documentary image, in this case, both creates and registers the event. Filming, in this sense, is waiting, constructing time.”
Put another way, in Eldorado XXI, Lamas is composing a legible point of view regarding La Rinconada, together with the men and women who live and work there. That point of view is radically bifurcated, between the absolute horror of fruitless, grinding labour—a descent into hell whose rewards are available only to the viewer, not to the participant—and a closer, more intimate look at how life in La Rinconada, like anywhere else, is a variegated set of practices, with a multitude of meanings.
It is possible to view Lamas’ films, and Eldorado XXI especially, in terms of an exploration of the varied crises of ethnographic modernism. This would be partially correct, although from her own standpoint I doubt she is making “ethnographies” at all, and this is absolutely a fair assessment. Eldorado XXI should be situated within a cluster of recent experimental documentaries that signify traditional “ethnography” only by way of what they refuse or avoid. (Following Freud’s retroactive theory of the unconscious, I suppose we could jokingly call them “deferred-action ethnographies.”) A highly selective list of recent examples would include Let Each One Go Where He May (Russell, 2009), Oxhide II (Liu, 2009), Le Quattro Volte (Frammartino, 2010), The Strawberry Tree (Rapisarda, 2011), Two Years at Sea (Rivers, 2011), Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor/Paravel, 2012), Costa da morte (Patiño, 2013), and Manakamana (Spray/Velez, 2013).
Many of these films are divided into sections or otherwise segmented. They tend to retain the long take as their primary aesthetic engine, something that is a dominant feature of earlier forms of ethnographic modernism as well. However, by employing structuralist conceits—the length of a camera roll, or of an objective action, or simply a predetermined time period—these newer films foreground the arbitrariness of even the most dedicated of Bazinian modes. What’s more, the emphasis on the concatenation of segments—an old Brechtian device—asks us to recognize that even when addressing these “slabs of truth,” we are receiving them as ordered fragments, conducted by the organizing intelligence behind the camera.
With Eldorado XXI, Lamas goes all of this one better. By devoting virtually the entire first half of the film to a single shot, she emphasizes the break at the centre of the film. This has the effect of making nearly everything in the second half, namely the mundane life of the “wretched of the earth,” seem extraordinary. In affording the residents of La Rinconada y Cerro Lunar this opportunity not only to step into the light, but also to implicitly defeat cinematic miserablism by doing so, Salomé Lamas has shown herself to be one of the few artists sensitive to the lessons of Pedro Costa. She is helping to create a post-liberal progressive cinema.