"Questions that once belonged to the cinematic institution have been set upon the world of spectacle we live in today. These questions belong to all of us now."
Though less than thirty years old, Portuguese filmmaker Salomé Lamas has already developed an impressive, diverse portfolio of films that fit loosely into the ever-widening bracket of non-fiction. Produced for different purposes and at varying lengths, these films have had her travel around the world, visiting increasingly marginal geographies to produce reflexive, experimental portraits of peoples and places at the fringes of existence. The location for her second feature, Eldorado XXI, must surely be the most extreme yet. Set 5500 meters up in the Peruvian Andes, the film investigates the mining community of La Rinconada y Cerro Lunar, the highest elevation permanent settlement in the world. Beautiful and tragic in equal measure, it's an atmospheric, vivid document of a struggling society; but also maybe the most fully realized example of the methodology of converting theory into practice, or experimenting practically upon conceptual ideas, that connects all of Lamas's films.
Adopting a bifurcated structure, Eldorado XXI's first half contains a bravura 57-minute shot that depicts the daily drudgery of the miner's passage up and down the cliff face to their workplace, whilst a collage of overlaid audio generates a sense of the richness of all that surrounds this largely futile pursuit. Switching to a more familiar ethnographic approach for the second section, the information absorbed through the preceding assortment of radio, conversation, and testimony from the townspeople comes to provide a more informed, emotionally resonant basis from which to receive the material that follows. Unified by their complexity, all of her films presume an engaged viewership, one that questions and challenges the meaning, veracity, and ethics of what they are presented as voraciously as Lamas does herself. Principled, intelligent, and interrogatory, Lamas stands at the forefront of a new generation of young documentary filmmakers attempting to maximize the formal and philosophical potential of the form. Here she provides some of the ways she thinks about cinema, and the questions it offers back.
Matt Turner In your letter at the beginning of the book about your films, Parafiction, you ask "Is truth an illusion, is illusion a truth, or are they exactly the same thing?" This seems like a good place for us to start—by looking at how you relate to the space between straight fiction and traditional documentary. Also, what does this word "parafiction" mean for you, and how did you come to this term?
Salomé Lamas I guess I first came across it in reference to literature, then started to mention it instinctively when asked about my film Terra de Ninguém (2012). I later used it as the title for a solo show back home at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, needing an umbrella term to hold Terra de Ninguém, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, and Mount Ananea (5853) together. So, it started as a sound bite, but now I'm afraid it might have become something else.
When you start making work there is an urgency to be tagged and fit in somewhere. You start believing those labels. But one should be cautious with such beliefs, so I picked something I was comfortable with, something that could fit my intentions both now and to come.
The long, on-going discussion of fiction versus non-fiction is a pet academic discussion, but I'm not into academia. We can linger forever discussing the process of translating reality. If we're to give names to the unnamed and later transport that language into cinematic language, taking the task of the filmmaker as analogous to that of the translator, we realize that a virtuous translation is not just reproducing an original. The break is not between fiction and non-fiction, but rather inside a new mode of storytelling that affects both. Both non-fiction characters and filmmakers are continually becoming someone else in the process of the making a film. You take real characters that ought to affirm themselves as real, as intercessors, and replace your fictions with their own storytelling.
In a wider world where fiction is documented and documentary fictionalized—where contemporary audiovisual and quotidian life is intersected by all kinds of images, displays, and technologies—the rise of the documentary within the last few years can be seen as a response to the general "spectacle." What is favored is the most authentic performance, the most amazing confession, the measure of empathy, and the character's own—whether they be anonymous or famous—spontaneity.
By being increasingly reflexive, alternately engaged and distant, binding the actual and theatrical together, contemporary documentaries make us ask: What am I watching on screen? Is this reality, truth, manipulation, fiction, or all of them at the same time? Questions that once belonged to the cinematic institution have been set upon the world of spectacle we live in today. These questions belong to all of us now.
MT How did you come to make Eldorado XXI? It seems like a very challenging project to undergo, and not just because of the location. How did it begin?
SL Back in late 2012, producer Luis Urbano suggested I write a short fiction film. I couldn't write scripts though, only non-fiction treatments. I did eventually co-write Coup de Grace (2017), which just premiered in Berlin, but back then when addressing fiction I would freeze at the multiplicity of paths. I always thought reality could take you to places where your mind would never dare. Places where your mind fails to enter. I was using reality as a playground. I tried to buy time for the unpredictable, for the encounter. I approached reality as a sculptor approaches a block of matter, looking for the hidden film imprinted in the real, like a stone pregnant with the work, ready to be shaped. Stone, at a first analysis, might not be the most flexible material, but its restrictive plasticity is also what makes it so attractive. I have the frame of mind of a collector that enjoys hunting sites—a gatherer of cut-ups of reality.
While I look for no particular destination, I tend to be attracted to subjects or territories of conflict, that are hard to depict, judge, handle, and ultimately reach—even those that have been pushed off the map. These are border territories and marginal characters. La Rinconada y Cerro Lunar had all the geographical, social, and human qualities to attract my attention. I was occupied with the desire of facing that human and geographic topography.
I rely on the encounter by acting as a "strange body" that could possibly generate some sort of tension and, ultimately, drama. That clash can trigger the film. Diving into reality is also an act of faith. It's the act of waiting until the unexpected reveals itself, until you perceive the film you had been hunting in your mind by walking its potential fabric, which crystallizes in front of you. Well, that and a lot of pragmatism. It's a paradox. I'm not romantic about it. I rely on methodology, work, but also odds and chance.
Eldorado XXI started as a bluff, on paper a hybrid film, an existential fable that narrated 24 hours in the life of a miner. We would follow a single character through the territory. There was a sketch of a plot to be fleshed out with a non-actor, facts and figures found on the web, and a baroque note of intention: Take me to La Rinconada y Cerro Lunar and there are chances that I'll come out with a film. It remained a question mark until we returned from five hard weeks of shooting. I owe my debt to producer Luis Urbano, who paid not only to see my cards but who doubled the bet. After measuring the risks and the production model, we came to an agreement. I could call Lisbon anytime and send everyone home. It wouldn't have been unexpected.
While shooting, there was a fine article in The New Yorker about La Rinconada y Cerro Lunar. It suffers from most of the issues that characterize informal mining sites across the globe and is topped with remoteness, a destructive climate, challenging geography, you name it… That adds a new set of complications to the equation. There's a spectrum of lost souls, a twisted coexistence of hope and hopelessness. Some claim the city is doomed, that the resources are spent; some believe new mining pits can be explored with heavy machinery, while even today the exploration remains quite artisanal. It's a rich city with no infrastructure, filed with myths and conflicting beliefs. At La Rinconada nothing is reliable.
MT Eldorado XXI almost feels like two films, split down the middle. Was this a way of achieving two objectives or styles within a single feature? Or was the first hour a way to alter how the material seen in the second hour is understood?
SL It opens as a classical documentary, only to later dissolve. It's made out of units of measure with cubist-like editing. In the first hour you don't "see" a lot. The frame is distant and enigmatic, but you get a lot of information from the sound design that operates as a close up. In the second half you get to wander. The aim was to generate a dialecticism where both parts would resonate into one another.
MT Many of your films reflect on conflict, violence, or suffering, Eldorado XXI included. Why are you drawn to tackling these difficult, complex subjects? Is conviction important for a filmmaker?
SL There's attempting to face amorality, perhaps? And there's something linked to adrenaline, to the act of collecting, and to trapping oneself within a reality one must be forced to face. Like "too late to go back now."
I suppose if you intend to be a documentary filmmaker, you should be aware of your own ethics. I believe if you are to turn private events into public, you should be aware of your own responsibilities. Filmmakers have to be as responsible and faithful to their audiences as they are to their subjects. I perceive non-fiction film as something "unclean," especially when dealing with complex subjects that tend to show many ethical nuances. It's a transaction, and I've always wanted to play an open and fair game. There are always power dynamics in every relationship. You shouldn't ignore that, but you should make that power productive.
One should be conscious of not crossing a very thin line into exploitation, pornography, and cruelty for the sake of cruelty. Today there is a mainstream documentary tendency to draw narratives out of marginalized social sceneries and the dramas that surround them. There are Northern-hemisphere filmmakers shooting South because they can't find enough drama back home, and pressures from funding programs, TV stations, and NGO's shouldn't be an excuse. One should be extremely aware of one's background, of one's distance and degree of belonging.
It's not just about the subject, it is about how you address that subject, what methodology you put into motion, and what you choose to put in the world as a final output. In the end, it reflects as much about the filmmaker as it does about the subject. The process should be honest and transparent, if you trick or play anyone, you should reveal it in the film.
I'm conscious that some of the films I make are perceived as ethically challenging. I'm aware they push those exact same lines. Maggie Nelson's book, The Art of Cruelty (2011), expands on the issue in a bright way. Somewhere in her work she asks whether by displaying the evilness around us, we aren't making our environment more evil. For a filmmaker, it's indeed possible that the contemplation of cruelty will not make one humane but rather more cruel—that the reiteration of the badness of our spiritual condition will make us consent to it.
We agree that by working around the bloody businesses of genocide, state-sponsored war, terrorism, and individual acts of sadism across time and space, we run the risk of floating further and further into a state of alienation. Walter Benjamin calls it "the experience of its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order." What do we do if newsreels mirror (never objectively) our society's culture of violence? To cast light on the evilness of historical events, to know the truth, unfortunately does not come with redemption, nor does the feeling of redemption guarantee an end to a cycle of wrongdoing. It can also generate the opposite; it can be the key to maintaining it.
MT The films are also very pictorial. Do you feel that an interest in aesthetics ever compromises your ability to deal with the political?
SL There are much nobler ways of creating change. Documentary filmmakers want reality to remain the same so they can go there and film it. If politics were a strict priority, I would have chosen another path. Nevertheless all films are political.
You might be right about this. But I also believe aesthetics can take you further into your reflections. By being exclusively political I would be swallowing the films and their proposals. Sometimes I'm dealing with issues that make me reflect—Who am I to dare to make such claims? What do I know?
MT Your work makes a very active demand upon the viewer, whether through presenting them with extended duration, descriptions of violence or other extremities, or ambiguous or open-ended situations that might be difficult to interpret. Do you believe that this demand upon audience is essential?
SL Those demands and the shape they take have different aims. They usually come naturally with a methodology, never a preconceived imposition upon the workflow. If you're seeking facts and data, these films won't be fulfilling enough. I care about an abstract audience, but I never underestimate their capacities. I seek an active viewer that wants to function in dialogue with the screen, that constantly projects themselves into the frame. The film should be captivating enough to allow for desire. If it turns out too cryptic it fails. The realities addressed in most of the work are dealing with contemporary history and questioning their own display, addressing the limits and the authority of non-fiction, playing with references and traditions. They replace answers with questions and thesis with the sensorial.
MT In the letter I mentioned before, you talk about your fondness for written dialogues as opposed to spoken ones, like the conversations or interviews central to many of your films. What is the source of your interest in filmmaking? Why have you chosen the visual?
SL I had to come up with an occupation. I had to pick. I picked filmmaking for the ride.
Later this April, Eldorado XXI will screen as part of Frames of Representation: New Visions for Documentary Cinema at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. Also, Kinoscope will present a program of Lamas's shorts at Anthology Film Archives on April 20, 2017.
Matt Turner is a London-based journalist and programmer.