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By Aaron Cutler
“Upon entering men in landscape and landscape in men the eternal life of Galicia was created,” reads a quote by famed Galician nationalist Alfonso Daniel Rodriguéz Castelão at the start of Lois Patiño’s film Costa da Morte. Made in collaboration with photographer Carla Andrade, the film goes on to explore the relationship between humans and nature in the titular sea region through long-shot-rendered scenes of people working and telling stories about the history of the area, including adventure tales of pirates chopping off fishermen’s fingers and fighters hiding in mountains during the Spanish Civil War, while seagulls call on the film’s soundtrack.
Costa da Morte (or “Coast of Death”) mixes distant sights and immediate sounds to give the curious sense of the past being assembled, block by block, in the present. Each of the film’s segments focuses on one specific piece of Costa da Morte’s oceanic, forested, and cliff-strewn region as small human figures move through it, narrating its history to one another. The sounds of their voices mix with the ambient noises of wind, water, and crackling fire, and travel across a series of static frames that the editing assembles like puzzle pieces, culminating in a single synthetic landscape view which unites them. The cumulative experience of witnessing all these different locations—built up over the film’s 83 minutes—is that of coming to know Costa da Morte as though the region itself were a living character.
Costa da Morte is the first feature-length work by the 30-year-old Patiño, who won the Best Emerging Filmmaker prize for it at the most recent edition of Locarno. The Spanish filmmaker has also made multiple short films and video installations that take different approaches to exploring landscapes, all of them centred around how perception of a place changes through the simple act of watching it over time. Their titles—such as In Landscape’s Movement (2012) and Into Water’s Vibration (2012)—announce the linear journeys that the films will take. In the following monologue, created with Patiño over e-mail, the filmmaker discusses how he created Costa da Morte as well as several of these works.
Lois Patiño: Costa da Morte is in Galicia, close to my hometown of Vigo. It contains a large and legendary history of shipwrecks to which it owes its name. I have known about this history since I was young, and it has always fascinated me. The landscape—most of all the sea—is full of danger, which attracted me to it.
Costa da Morte seemed like a mythical place before I went there, as though it contained the end of the world. I didn’t know the area well before going, but as a Galician I already knew something about the people and their culture. I felt that I could go deep into exploring the landscape by exploring how history and legends help to create a landscape’s atmosphere.
I focused my filmmaking on the area’s inhabitants who were working in the environment, such as fishermen and women, and boat workers, all of whom I met during the shooting. The pre-existing stories that they tell jointly form part of a collective imaginary. The film’s images usually present the people from a distance as they work, while the sounds of them speaking feel immediate: their words, their breathing make them seem as though we were next to them.
Yet the immediacy of the sounds of the words combined with our distance from the human beings also makes it seem as though the landscape itself were telling its own stories like a voice floating through space. I chose not to show human faces, and instead searched to find faces within the landscape, even using five different shots of the same location at one point, as though different instances of weather and atmosphere in the place were like the same face expressing melancholy, sadness, happiness, or fear. The film suggests the breathing we hear to be the breathing of landscape.
Throughout each of the film’s individual images, the spectator senses a relationship between the intimacy of the human experience and the immensity of its surroundings, creating a new understanding of landscape out of this perceptual contradiction. I am reminded of something that I once heard the Spanish film programmer Carlos Muguiro say: “The landscapes are layers of time condensed in one image.”
I find Costa da Morte to be a kind of conclusion to many ideas on which I have been working, including issues of distance and the pictorial image, attention to natural elements, and the search for the sublime. What the film brings to my work that is new is an anthropological approach, arising from a desire to represent a landscape’s history, culture, and people. In the film, through using different voices, I wanted to explore layers of the past.
This was also a new approach to filming landscapes for me, even though I worked on the contemplation of them as I have in my other films, trying to stay open to and surprised by what I saw, seeking powerful frames and poetry in the image. For the past few years I have been reflecting in general on how landscapes can be depicted audiovisually, with my greatest interest lying in how we relate to landscapes both as viewers and as people immersed in them. The short films that I made prior to Costa da Morte reflect on how our vision builds landscapes from a distance. They are contemplative films in which I try to be sensitive to Nature’s subtle movements.
This practice stems from my upbringing. Both of my parents are painters, and they would take my sister and me to museums and to galleries, beginning when we were children. Being immersed in an artistic atmosphere helped inspire me to make art myself. But the history of painting (as well as of writing and of music) is long and seems to be well-covered; by contrast, even though I started seeing more and more video work in visual art spaces, I found the new language still unexplored and with millions of possibilities.
I have been inspired by painters such as Turner and Rothko, who explore the space between figurative and abstract images, distorting shapes until real places are transformed into something else mysterious that one views with estrangement. I have also drawn from the works of installation artists such as James Turrell, Anthony McCall, and Olafur Eliasson, who change the atmosphere of a room to create a new sensorial experience and a new space for perception. My own work, in some ways, tries to explore the audiovisual language through combining cinema with painting.
The short films Duration-Landscape (2011-2012) and Mountain in Shadow (2012) are both good examples of how I have done so. In the first case—a series of short films set in different landscapes—I applied paint and Vaseline over a filter in front of the lens, distorting the image. I did this in order to break with the seeming objectivity of the camera and to bring what one sees closer to the subjectivity of the painter’s view.
The opening image of Mountain in Shadow, in which a number of small skiers are seen moving across a snowy black mountain, goes even further in condensing many of my explorations with image: the balance between abstraction and figuration; the pictorial approach achieved through a flat image and spots of black shadow; the work with the immensity of landscape and the insignificance of a human being in it; the creation of a double perception arising between image and sound; the physical effort made in open nature; the search for a poetic image.
This poetry is found largely through my editing process. I spend a lot of time watching the images that I have filmed in order to select the most powerful ones. I then spend a lot of time again watching these selected images to find the exact duration at which their maximum energy is expressed before it disappears. Throughout this process, I try to find the hidden film inside all the material, building a narrative out of what happens when images touch each other. The final running time comes together as a consequence of all this, even though it has also been in mind since the film’s initial idea.
I have some very close collaborators. Carla Andrade, an artistic photographer with whom I have worked on several films including the four-month shoot of Costa da Morte, has travelled the world together with me; Pablo Gil, my sensitive and precise editing partner, is someone that I have known since we met as students in Barcelona; Miguel Calvo, who reconstructed all the sounds in Costa da Morte as though it were an animated film and who does my sound work generally, has been my friend since we were four years old.
But even with their aid, I still largely work alone, in a process guided less by reason than by intuition with a bit of structuring. As I am young and have only recently begun making films, I am just beginning to know myself and the kind of cinema that I want to make. In this process I am growing more conscious of the value of each image. There is this sentence by the French philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman that I use at the beginning of my newest short, La Imagen Arde, that helped guide me: “We should, in front of each image, ask ourselves the question of how it gazes (at us), how it thinks (us) and how it touches (us) at the same time.”
This development in my work has come jointly with a development of my vision, as I try to improve my way of seeing reality and of finding the mystery and poetry that is hidden everywhere. Nathaniel Dorsky’s book Devotional Cinema has given me many clues for how to see images. I have also learnt how to contemplate landscape with the help of the films of Peter Hutton, James Benning, and Sharon Lockhart. Their films in particular have helped me understand time as a result of the process of contemplation, with an image’s energy developing over the course of the length of a shot. The action of time passing leads our consciousness to re-evaluate an image constantly, giving it new meaning. We never see the same image twice from second to second, even if it seems like the shot has not changed.
Similarly, in my films, memory and its unconscious associations are working with vision to lead a spectator to a point of deep contemplation. Within it, we can find the idea of duration as expressed by Henri Bergson: an instant of time expanded within our consciousness through the intensity of its experience. Bergson distinguishes external time (time moving across space) from internal time (time as our inner selves perceive it). I try to create this distinction within my films.
Heraclitus said, “If you don’t expect the unexpected, then you won’t find it when it arrives.” Robert Bresson expressed the thought another way: “Nothing in the unexpected that is not secretly expected.” When I am shooting or otherwise seeking an image, I have these ideas in mind.
I have tried a few times to work in black and white, but in the end I can never do it, always finding images without colour to be incomplete. In Mountain in Shadow, I filmed snowy mountains that are almost naturally black and white, but I couldn’t pursue this palette, and so I gave the imagery a warm tone and emphasized the colour red whenever it appeared. This might be related to my parents’ uses of colour in their paintings, but in the immediate moment I sometimes feel something weird in the presence of colour, a kind of synesthesia that gives taste to my tongue. I think a lot in the presence of colours, and in my future projects I will explore extreme instances of them.
I will also combine them with greater explorations of sound and of time. I have recently begun working with sound in a non-naturalistic way that heightens one’s perception of it. The soundtrack of Costa da Morte, as I have discussed, plays with distance, bringing a new idea of space to the spectator by focusing attention on different small points throughout the image. La Imagen Arde, which recently premiered at the Rome Film Festival, consists of one single 30-minute image of a fire burning in a field at night as firefighters try to put it out. The film runs in extreme slow motion, with the soundtrack frequently changing throughout—electronic noise, ritual music, sounds of a real fire, human movement, silence. The image ostensibly stays the same while different sounds change its meanings and the ways in which we relate to it.
For my next feature film, Vertical Time, I am thinking a lot about the Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz and the feelings I experience in front of his works. He works with human figures distributed throughout space in a narrative and theatrical way, giving the sense that time has stopped for them and that you—the visitor to this room—are the only one who can move within this paralyzed instant. The experience of time sensed while walking is something that you can also experience within Richard Serra’s sculptures, as well as in the writings of Gaston Bachelard, whose line inspired my project: “In every poetic image can be found the elements of a detained time, a time that doesn’t follow the compass, which we call vertical time to distinguish it from common time, running horizontally with river’s water and with the passing wind.”
I will thus look to establish a dialogue between two temporal experiences: the horizontal, outer time of space and Nature, and the vertical, inner time of consciousness, static and ecstatic within the poetic experience. This is just the seed idea, though, for a film that will follow many open lines.
My work can be understood as conceptual, with each new project offering a different approach to the same concept. The films have been shown in theatres as well as in museums and galleries, which I find interesting, as each new context leads them to be understood from a different point of view. It is important during creation to think about how the spectator will watch the film, whether seated from beginning to end or moving about the room.
It is also important to think about who that spectator is. It’s difficult to say. I am probably the first spectator. For me, making films is a way to make myself feel more complete. The challenge is to improve my work and feel more identified with it. But you always have some people in mind, close friends that understand your work. I make films for them as well.
You look to your past works and to the works that other people are currently doing, and you think: How can I try to explore something new? I am very conscious that we will all die at some moment and that, if you are able to make a good film, then it will remain after you are gone. It would be nice to live a little bit longer through the films.