By Mónica Delgado
Colombian Pablo Álvarez-Mesa is one of the figures of contemporary documentary filmmaking in his country. With a work expanded from the hybridity of documentary and non-fiction, Álvarez-Mesa presented his film Bicentenario at the virtual edition of Forum Expanded at the Berlin International Film Festival. His films have been seen on different occasions at festivals such as IFFR, Visions du Reél and Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal. He has a Master’s in Film Production from Concordia University and experience as a director, cameraman, and editor. Among his works we have Presidio Modelo (2009), Jelena’s Song (2010) and La Pesca (2017).
About Bicentenario, which we were able to watch (spa) in the framework of the International Documentary Exhibition of Bogotá (MidBo), we noted that “it plays with the idea of a séance to name entities that no longer want to return (or are forced not to). In the historical metaphor proposed by the filmmaker, the figure of liberator Simón Bolívar crosses various dimensions of the social and political, but is perceived as part of certain mythical, superstitious stories and sound compositions from an intermediate position, in a “being”, which coexists between a world of the living and the dead”. We spoke with Pablo Álvarez-Mesa about this film and other points of his work,in the context of the exhibition of his film. Also, one of the few Latin American works included in this edition.
Desistfilm: What attracts you the most about making documentaries? Your filmography shows that you have explored a bit of everything: the intimate portrait as in Jelena’s Song, the testimonial document as in Nuestro Monte Luna or the most sensible filmic essay, as in the case of Bicentenario.
Pablo Álvarez-Mesa: Each film requires a reevaluation of everything, from the aesthetic approach – both visual and sound-, such as the production scheme, to the ethical and representational problems that are always present, in documentary filmmaking. Documentary constantly challenges you personally and creatively and that is something that motivates me to explore different modes. So maybe what I do is so varied. In every movie you start over from scratch, and that’s fascinating.
In Jelena’s Song we enter into a reflection about images and the reinvention of identity. The film itself begins by creating its own language in order to express itself about itself in an active, thinking and sentient way. For me, my films do not seek to document, but to be. In another film, Presidio Modelo, we dealt with a panopticon and that makes all the elements work practically to create and feel the panopticon. The film ends up becoming a panopticon.
At Bicenenario, from the beginning my intention was not to document – but to create – a séance. That the film itself became the object. This intention then begins to require a number of elements that create the language that the film uses to create itself.
Although I work professionally as a cameraman, I love direct sound and a lot of my work on my films is developed through acoustic experimentation. Not with music, because I don’t use music, but using ambient sound elements as a source for electroacoustic compositions. Sound is perhaps what I enjoy the most when making a movie and it greatly influences my visual and editing decisions.
Desistfilm: I find it interesting what you propose in Nuestro Monte Luna, your film from 2015. You register a group of young people who want to be bullfighters and you put that in relation to a political context, such as the dialogue for peace between Colombia and the FARC. Bullfighting is highly despised, and perhaps five years later, it would be more difficult to launch a proposal like this. How was the reception of the film?
Pablo Álvarez-Mesa: The idea of Nuestro Monte Luna emerged as a concrete action to the ethical challenge that the peace talks represented for the country at that time. A large part of the population was very enthusiastic about a dialogue where everyone would comply with the peace treaties and with the possibility of participating in an inclusive society; that we do a class of collective therapy to hopefully among all the differences make a country that will represent the vast majority of populations with their interests and needs. Obviously it would require the entire country to reflect on a number of uncomfortable and challenging issues.
That is where my desire to make a film on this controversial subject came from. I was interested in trying to understand a sector of society that challenged me as much as bullfighting. In my perhaps naive mind, I thought that if we all practiced a little empathy, maybe the country could heal so many wounds.
As you say, bullfighting is very despised and is on the verge of disappearing. It seemed important to me to reflect on this activity in Colombia, again, within the framework of dialogue and negotiation as an example of the changes that must take place in the country. Under the framework of the bulls, the film gave rise to a number of themes such as colonialism, ideas of masculinity, different types of violence: domestic, animal, human, etc.
Regarding the reception, although the film was presented internationally at various festivals, we decided to emphasize local screenings. I was interested that the film would be screened in communal halls, instead of large theaters and that a conversation would always be established after the screening between bullfighters and anti-bullfighters. For each sample we made invitations so that there would be spaces for dialogue between young people. In this way, instead of throwing stones at the front of the square, they could debate ideas in the movie theater. Ambulante was very important in this strategy and they did a very good job in this regard.
Desistfilm: Tell us about Bicentenario, which premiered at Forum Expanded. I am very interested in the way in which you have approached in this medium-length film not only a historical icon, Bolívar, but also the elements that call into question its validity in the memory of the people, so to speak. You start with the archive material of one of the events with most impact in Colombian history, and then you mix it with records of places and shape certain views, where there is even room for the paranormal. How was the process to achieve this treatment?
Pablo Álvarez-Mesa: This film began with the question, what do we celebrate on July 20 every year? This is exactly where all the visual and sound treatment of Bicentenario starts. All the formal elements of the film revolve around that question. From the beginning, the film began to be nurtured by all the elements at once: the paranormal, the archives, the active interviews in the field, the ambient sound, the interest in filming the territory, the squares and their monuments, the rituals, politicians, etc. My creative process involves doing research, filming, recording sound and editing material without a pre-established order, so that an action in one of these fields generates reactions in the others, constantly opening new creative routes.
The paranormal, for example, arose from an article that I read in a newspaper about a Linguist from the National University who did a very interesting work on the writings left in the tombs, and on spiritism in the city. He investigated the cultural and religious relationships of the practice. That, as a game, interested me a lot. He asked me, if I would talk to spiritualists, and if we did sessions where we invoke Bolívar, we woud have at least two potentially interesting results. One: we talk to Bolívar and ask him what we want, or two, we cannot communicate with Bolívar and what the spiritualists tell me will be their own prejudices and memorized historical data about liberation, which also interests me a lot as a contemporary oral story.
In this way I began to search for and record the sound of séances with many women in Bogotá and the towns on the Bolívar route, taking the opportunity to film places, generate new ideas and begin to spin the meaning of the search, that is, the film. From this work, I became very interested in the notion of the witch, or the medium, as a female figure in resistance to the history described by the colonial patriarchy. The witch, yerbera or sorceress acts on the margins of colonization, religiosity and independence and that is why I was interested in her voice in the investigation and narration of History. The witch proposes alternatives to the hegemony of warlike acts and celebrations that inhabit our collective consciousness, evoking and proposing alternative wisdoms that can heal and exorcise the violence that we carry so deep within.
With this understanding, it was important that all the elements of the film ended up being as evocative as these seances and that they stopped being paranormal to understand them as with the political and social power that they really have. The monuments in the squares, the images on the walls, the cave paintings, the band marches in the villages; All these acts call upon the spirits, in a way as concrete as the calls of witches.
Witchcraft, or the paranormal then, is not a common thread or a narrative device, moreover, it is not something paranormal but rather a network of concrete manifestations of calls to other beings or certain ideologies that are constantly made with very clear purposes. The calls that are made to Bolívar each year in official celebrations, and in particular in the Bicentennial, have a very strong political influence. This is how I started to approach the question, what do we celebrate every July 20? And from there other questions arose: How do we celebrate? Who celebrates it?
Desistfilm: How was the work with the archive material? Since you use video recording, which was done for more journalistic purposes… What was the process? Because you also use celluloid.
Pablo Álvarez-Mesa: The attack on the Palace of Justice is one of the most traumatic events that the country has experienced and of which there is still no clarification. The attack on the Palace, especially the second time we see it in the film, shows the excessive violence and the state of absolute horror that we can only imagine was lived there. That particular archive interests me as a record of a place of immense national and historical grief that we internalize without finding explanations and that makes us sick. The deathly silence of that tormented space is what comes closest to a psychophony, where you can hear the pain in the silence.
I am interested in those files so fragile but so deep, especially after seeing that in the palace, apart from so much death, hundreds of extremely important files were burned. The archives are then the registry, and other victims of the cycles of violence that the country is experiencing. This denial and destruction of memory is one of the themes that the film addresses, so it was important to let the archive express its own precarious condition.
The decision to include the taking of the Palace, although difficult due to the traumatic nature of the images, was necessary to consider some kind of conclusion of the libertarian journey. There, in the Plaza de Bolívar, the liberation campaign ended, and at the head of the government house, almost two hundred years later two sides face each other, the guerrillas and the government of the day, who, evoking Bolívar, faced death, destroying everything. What do we celebrate, then, when we are destroying ourselves internally?
Desistfilm: Bicentenario is part of a trilogy. Tell us what you set to do with it; what is it that groups together and differentiates the films that make it up.
Bicentenario is the third of three films following the route of Simón Bolívar through Colombia in his liberating journey of 1819. The first two parts, which are in development, will take us from the eastern plains of the country where Bolívar armed his liberating army, to one of the towns that we see at the beginning of the Bicentennial. The three films will search through oral stories and interventions in each place the legacies of Simón Bolívar’s passage, making a political, environmental and cultural reflection. The project is something like a psychogeography of the route after two hundred years of history.
Desistfilm: In Bicentenario there is a particular sound work. In the synopsis you mention that you use as a spirit box to capture psychophonies. Tell us about this sound design, with the recorded voices, but also about this experience from the editing of the film itself.
Pablo Álvarez-Mesa: The sound work of Bicentenario is based on psychophony, which is the impression of hearing or discerning voices in electronic records. In a very direct way, the sound treatment guided the visual treatment. The idea of psychophony transcended the simple act of hearing voices in sound and became a creative motivation to understand spaces, times and images more deeply, assuming them in a very concrete, political and malleable way.
I learned the method of psychophony in one of the séances, where a medium shared recordings with me where she had recorded some voices captured by her recorder. I don’t know if I can understand what she heard in that recording, but what I did perceive was that the recording was made with equipment that technically compressed the sound a lot, giving it a very expressive digital texture, especially when the levels were low. That same night I changed the parameters of my recorder, raising it to compression and lowering it to recording quality, trying to increase the chances of inferring some spectral voice in field recordings.
In the same way, celluloid is used by clairvoyants – in the format of still cameras – and from there arose the need to use celluloid to capture in the images the spirits that she saw in her photographs. The spirit boxes then were the tools I used, a 1947 Bolex 16mm and a non-professional recorder with very high compression. Psychophony, then, entered both the documentary object and the search method in Bicentenario.
In post-production, I worked a lot on the sound to highlight the texture and voice of the digital material, especially in silence. The silence is as loaded with content as a wide shot of the field that at first glance is only green. When I did interviews, or rather, when I recorded conversations in the field, I always did them on the road to Bolívar, since it was important to print the need to assume territories and orality in an active way. The montage then was constantly exploring how sound affects the perception of the image, or rather how the perception of sound approaches the perception of the image. This is how psychophony becomes the film’s creative logic and political filter.
Desistfilm: I find the Bicentennial journey interesting, precisely in a special context of discussion about what we find in our Latin American countries after 200 years of independence (in Peru, for example, it’s in 2021). How have you been thinking about the route of the film for its exhibition and has the pandemic affected this planning?
Pablo Álvarez-Mesa: Yes, the pandemic affected everything. In fact, the second part should already be in post-production. With Bicentennial it was difficult to know what the best strategy for its release was like, because like many people making films today, I was reluctant to think that it would only be seen on computer screens and not in movie theaters since the film was conceived as a collective session. Eventually I decided to finish the movie and found value in taking this séance to places as intimate as someone watching the movie on their bed or couch with the lights off might be.
I also decided to release the film when I did it because although in November we were at the peak of the pandemic, and MidBo is not necessarily a premiere festival, it was very important for me to show the film in Colombia, while there were official Bicentennial celebrations and not to leave it aside. for later. As with Nuestro Monte Luna, it was important that the film be shown locally and that it dialogued with its world, and the MidBo turned out to be a perfect setting to start the route.
In the coming months, at the same time that the film is presented at festivals like this one, we are planning presentations in the towns of the Libertadora route. I am excited to think that the film follows Bolívar’s route not only through Colombia but also through the Andean countries where he himself passed and that it dialogues with other territories that perhaps have similar historical complexes. Soon the film will be in Ecuador and Peru and I have great expectations of its reception in the region. That the film is presented at the Berlinale and very soon at MoMA gives me great pride because it means that the film also resonates internationally, but it is essential that the film is seen locally and regionally, especially when our countries are reflecting on all kinds of monuments from the past.
Desistfilm: Tell us about Chrononauts, since I saw on the Internet that you have it in production and it would be your second foray into feature film. Or, what plans follow in any case.
In 2016 I started with Chrononauts and since then she has become a kind of mother nurse for three films that I have done. Having gone through various documentary labs including the Berlinale Doc Lab and a ton of research and filming in different locations, Chrononauts is currently hibernating.
The Chrononauts project proposes an exploration of different understandings of time in different parts of the world, but ironically as time passes, it gives me less interest to develop it as I had started to do. Thinking about time, however, has generated a lot for me about the Bolívar trilogy, another film that I am editing at the moment, and a short film that I made in 2017 entitled La Pesca, which is basically a film about time lived by a group of artisan fishermen in Colombia.
Chrononauts itself is going to be something one day, maybe a feature film, or maybe an augmented reality project, I don’t know, but for now it is the source of many things and there are times it is better than ideas, no matter how much energy they put into them. we have dedicated, be just sources.
Desistfilm: How do you see the current Colombian documentary panorama. For example, watching your film on MidBo in relation to other documentaries, even putting them in dialogue, allows us to appreciate perhaps similar sensitivities and interests, what do you think?.
Pablo Álvarez-Mesa: This last MidBo seemed wonderful to me. Aside from a number of very productive seminars and dialogues, the national program showed very important films that really made a kind of intersection of many current concerns. It caught my attention that several films including El Renacer del Carare by Andrés Jurado, Las Razones del Lobo by Marta Hincapié, Pirotecnia by Federico Atehorúta Artega, Dopamina by Natalia Imery Almario, and Limbo by Alex Fattal, among others, all made their own ways and reflections on violence and the body. I felt a concern in these films to embody the trauma, to heal the daze of so many years of violence. Apart from this, I feel that there is a national interest in understanding and participating with our memory and our future, which are so closely linked.
Not only thematically but also formally, documentary film, as well as urban music and other forms of contemporary art in Colombia, is doing very interesting things and what we need is more spaces that dare to show different forms and ideas so that this cinema is practiced and seen more. There is still much to do, especially in terms of diversity and inclusion of voices, funds, access to equipment and places for experimentation and exhibition, but I think that the documentary in Colombia has diversified quite a bit in recent years and there is a lot of cinema to come.