By Monica Delgado
The work of young filmmaker Felipe Esparza is one of the most stimulating in current Peruvian cinema. Although to date Esparza has directed short films, such as the Espacio Sagrado series (2016), Laguna Negra (2020) or The old child (2021), in them he has been demonstrating the configuration of a particular world based on careful sound work and in the construction of spaces and characters from a point of view that identifies peculiarities and sensibilities from the relationship with nature and the gods.
In the shorts Pawqartampu, Cautivos and Rope de muerto, which make up the Espacio Sagrado (Sacred Space) series, Esparza establishes a way to approach those peoples that have been suffocated with exotic gazes, Andean or jungle communities explored from pain or from an innate subalternity: there are songs in quechua but they are present to show an out of field, different from the planes of skies or fields that someone observes. There are dances of little devils in Paucartambo, in Cusco, silenced, because the laughter and laughter of accomplices of some girls who we do not see interpose, or faithful devotees on pilgrimage in Ayabaca, north of Peru, in an atmosphere of prayers’ mantras. Or also the icaros of teachers in the jungle who transmute nature into a psychotropic fantasy. While in Laguna Negra, the healing experience becomes an opportunity to deal again with that which is imperceptible, it looks powerful and vital. As the critic Carlos Renteria said in a Desistfilm article, Esparza’s cinema “is not that of those who consecrate some films as otherness.”
In June, in the second part of the 2021 edition of Rotterdam International Film Festival, Esparza presented a world premiere of his new short film, The old child, which is a preview of a more extensive work and which he plans to release next year. We talked about this film, his creative processes and interests in this interview conducted via Zoom.
Desistfilm: What motivated you to go from your studies in Audiovisual Communication to cinema? What was it that triggered this shift from learning from a more conventional production system to the cinema you wanted to do?
Felipe Esparza: I took film courses at the university closely linked to advertising and the most mainstream cinema. Then, even though I was in college, I worked on a bigger production, on the film Tarata (2009), after that experience I didn’t want to participate in that kind of show. There I did making offs and was an assistant director, but that system of filmmaking seemed very rigid to me. Along these lines, I went to Puerto Eten, in Chiclayo, to make a film with a script, called Christian, but it turned out terrible. I think it was the declaration of almost everything that I didn’t want to do, but it left me certain ways of capturing spaces that I can recognize now. I started working in some ad agencies as a graphic designer, another job that I liked and that gave me money to live on, and in parallel I bought a camera; I would go out and record. But, I was never clear about the formal production system, the operation of the cinema exhibition and distribution circuit, I was slowly learning to create mechanisms that accommodate the themes that, unconsciously, I wanted to talk about. Later, I enrolled in the Mono no aware courses in New York, as I was interested in delving into analog, something that I had not learned in college. And there I found interesting things, but I also found a pornography of analogue, a fascination that often remained in technique, in formal exercises and it was not that route that I wanted to take. As romantic as I want to be, I grew up with video, and I wouldn’t give as much importance to the fact of the format itself. It also generates another problem: looking for a meaning to do it. I’m going to use whatever camera I have on hand, within my possibilities, it’s simpler.
Following this process, I did some works in analogue, such as Untitled # 2 (Our Father), from 2013, or Hypersomnia, in 2012. Then, I bought a camera and traveled, that’s where I produced the shorts Pawqartampu, Cautivos and Soga de muerto. I was clear about what I wanted to talk about, but not how to edit them. I left that material on a hard disk for a year, in the end I edited them as I wanted, it was a process of taking off some responsibility to tell a story and the pretense of documentary objectivity. Then, in 2015, I was surprised that Lima Independiente Film Festival wanted to show them. It was like a push and the proof that what I was building intuitively could be a valid language.
Later, I was finding more possibilities to produce and show my work. You gain confidence, you begin to adapt your interests to the mechanics, the equipment, the work times and the people you want to work with. As part of my more theoretical experience with the image, I got a master’s degree at Centro de la Imagen, where the guest professors were artists with great work, from the most conceptual to the purely documentary. There I met Luis Gonzales Palma, a photographer who helped me in the process of verbalizing what I was doing and being able to transmit it, something that until now has been very difficult for me. He introduced me to Gabriel Figueroa’s films, which until then I had no idea. At the end of those studies, a Chinese photographer and artist named GaoBo offered me to work on some of his projects with him, so I went. It was a good opportunity to close the design studio and dedicate more time to what I had been doing at times. It was like a retirement home outside of Beijing. I got calm and time.
Finally, in 2017 I participated in the Videobrasil biennial, where I met Ana Vaz and Andrés Padilla, who told me about their experience at the Le Fresnoy Contemporary Arts Center, which encouraged me because it is a laboratory/residence that promotes auteur cinema and other disciplines of contemporary art. Also, luckily, GaoBo told me that he was a visiting professor at Le Fresnoy and his advice for the selection process helped me.
Desistfilm: How was this stay at Le Fresnoy? Did it totally change what you had already learned or assumed from the cinema?
Felipe Esparza: On whether Le Fresnoy changed my way of seeing and making films, perhaps it will be seen a few years from now. For now, I was able to map what was being done in various parts of the world, understand and know the people behind it. See more closely what is fashionable in certain circuits, the theoretical discussions that were taking place, anthropology in contemporary cinema, academicism, and new techniques such as forensic architecture. Anyway, I think that that does not help you to find your own look, it can even be counterproductive. For example, the ethnographic idea in the cinema, which has interested me because of the appearance of my work, there are questions such as Who is filming? Where is he from? Where is he filming from? In what context is he filming?, It seems to me that it focuses attention on a very closed discourse that is decoded under certain paradigms, valid but closed. It can be a trap, a very rigid responsibility. I still have qualms about stating that there is an anthropological film or documentary, it seems paternalistic to me. The costumbrism or the folkloric seems to me a lack of respect. There is custom in everything. I’d rather say that it is a place to go and have a particular gaze, an encounter that tries to avoid the tourist gaze.
Going back, having spent two years in the same program with people from Israel, China, Colombia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, etc., was invaluable. However, despite the good reputation and aura of mystery that surrounds the school, it can feel like a production house. The bureaucracy ends up obstructing and limiting the vision. In the second year you practically work for them, because their flag is the new technology, you take it or you leave it. For example, making 3D animation, working with algorithms, robotics, to give a few examples, is new technology, and it does not matter much if you are talking about the effects of that technology on people or about some critical discourse, but many times it remains on the façade and on the look of new technology that they can sell.
Furthermore, it is a very hierarchical institution and very inflexible in the modes of production it proposes. What creates a conflict with the ways of artists or directors from other countries. At the level of the French film industry, there is a specialist for each task, in my case, I have to do several things to be able to produce, which for its structure was very difficult to accept. The interesting thing in that is to realize that the ways in which one produces affect the intangible or the spirit of the work.
However, there are guest artists such as Bela Tarr or Wang Bing, and spending a year talking with them and receiving their contributions is fortunate.
Desistfilm: Also to apply an anthropological reading or to call some films anthropological is perhaps to easily offer an exotic side, or to affirm that others are observed as distant, as objects of study, and perhaps that is not the look that is applied in these types of works. As you could generalize, or as you say, assume a paternalistic reading of something by using the phrase “anthropological film”.
Felipe Esparza: Yes, this starts from respect. I start from the idea that I am not going to sell something that is there, but to transform what is happening there, to transfigure it; without any pretense of objectivity. There is no pretense of revaluing or generating lectures in the political sphere of a past that was conflictive … I don’t want to go there, because it would be difficult for me to have a more activist position. It seems important to me to be aware of these readings, but I would not make it the fundamental basis of my work. For example, in a text from Desistfilm, by Wilder Zumarán, it is mentioned about Laguna Negra, that I take a political position, it may be true, it can be analyzed from that point, but the film is not put together like that, it is one more layer. Perhaps, just for wanting to counter some phenomena, the work can detach itself from clichés and say that it is political, but it is not my main intention.
Desistfilm: In your short films you have recorded the rural area of Peru through regions that we consider very coastal, such as Piura for example, since you have gone to Ayabaca, Huancabamba. How did you get interested in these scenarios?
Felipe Esparza: My father worked in the Air Force, and I lived for many years in the north of Peru. My mother, on the other hand, is from Arequipa, and she studied Fine Arts. Due to the nature of my father’s work, I got to know different parts of the country, and as a child one is imbued with these stimuli, animals, beliefs and myths. I arrived in Ayabaca thanks to Sebastián Castañeda, he was taking some photos of the pilgrimage and I accompanied him.
In many cases there is a separation between school education, what is considered true, and what you see and hear outside of it. At school, they don’t teach you to pass the egg to a child so that he stops crying, for example. Also, I come from a Catholic family, and the syncretism with local demonstrations is fascinating. There is also conflict there, in my films as well. It is the conflict, in part, Catholic. So all of this is like a reaction, something personal, with guilt, with hope, with a kind of poison, or it crushes you or you transform it into a work.
Desistfilm: Your most recent short films maintain a style, those of the Espacio Sagrado series, and Laguna Negra. How did you fine-tune it, if this was conscious or not?
Felipe Esparza: It was in the process, I didn’t calculate it, I made it conscious while I was showing it. For example, in the Sacred Space series, which consists of Pawqartampu, Cautivos and Rope of the dead, I was not aware of whether or not I had a style. These shorts, as I mentioned, I edited them however I wanted, and put them together in a series because they breathe the same way. If there is one thing I can say that I have fine-tuned it is the technique, the ability to think about sound with greater confidence, the style of photography that interests me, and to choose the people with whom I would like to work. Mary Jimenez recently told me something funny and that she sums up the idea of tuning by learning to handle all the instruments and the processes of making a film, “you have to go to bed with the material.”
Going back, I think I’ve been adding more narrative structure, more fiction (whatever that is), to what I’ve been doing lately. But I also do not want to use the momentum already taken to exploit it to infinity, and perhaps, just to give the counter, I end up doing something else. It is always a struggle, continuity / discontinuity, control / chance, veiling / unveiling, documentary / fiction, black and white/ color, cooking /menu. The only thing I am almost sure of is that without enigma there is no fascination, there is no game, there is no intuition. Allegories without enigmas become advertising campaigns. Marcel Proust said: “Only a crude and erroneous perception places everything in the object when in reality everything is in the mind.”
Desistfilm: Let’s talk about Laguna Negra, your 2020 short film. It was made in the Piura mountains, in addition to the intention of capturing a specific environment, of the master healer at work near a lagoon on a very dark and stormy afternoon. How was the filming and those days there in town?
Felipe Esparza: We didn’t plan to have a climate like this, we arrived very early and that’s what we found. You leave the closest city of the lagoons and then we walk for an hour and a half, through muddy or rugged terrain due to the rains. Three days before filming there was a dead man in the place who could not get out of there, because there was a storm and there are no shelters.
The contact with the characters was through producer Lady Vinces, who helped me by recording the short film in Puerto Eten that I mentioned earlier. With her we arrived in Huancabamba, and later Fernando Criollo, the director of photography, and Christian Ñeco, the sound engineer, arrived. The first days were of approach, of being with them, and then we contacted three shamans, but in the end, one did not want to participate. Some wanted us to make promotional material for their business. We got to know the places and we knew to what extent we could approach their rituals, where we would record and how. Returning to that discussion of the anthropological or of taking advantage of certain things to sell folklore, there were some conflicts. For example, I wanted the shaman to remove the chuyo that said “Huancabamba”, but he did not want to. I understood the commercial function of why I wanted to show the name of his community, and there I had to be more respectful because insisting on taking it off would perhaps be to reproduce the same system, disguised as anti-folklore. It was what it was and period, we were shooting for Duberly. Then we looked for characters, we found the girls in a warehouse, we followed them and we went to talk to the mother.
I use fictional elements in Laguna Negra, (like the girl trying to heal her grandfather) that serve as an excuse to record the time and atmosphere of the characters. Trying to explain why, who he is, what he does, and why he does it would end up making the film anecdotal. On the other hand, the sound is very important, since it narrates, it allows you to give the feeling that the film is floating and try to catch you. It gives you the breath and the rhythm, it’s the beat. Unlike the image, which are mostly still images, except in the register with the shamans, where there are circular movements in their rituals and I wanted to achieve the feeling of being trapped.
Desistfilm: The opening scene of Laguna negra, with the shaman in a trance with sampedro, was that dramatized or how did it happen?
Felipe Esparza: It was as is. The shaman had some patients and it was in a place outside, at night, so we just put a light on him to illuminate him, and that gave the feeling that there was nothing else. We all took the sampedro and that’s how that record was made. I don’t think counting this as an experience gives this part of the film a special value. I have qualms about seeing it like this. It is my experience at that time, of contact with the people who were there.
With the group of dancers that appears in the film it was a collaborative work, we reached an agreement that some of them would participate with their costumes, doing something other than the typical dance, and we, in return, would provide our registration service photographic and video that helps them to postulate the dance of the devils of Huancabamba as Cultural Heritage of the Nation before the Ministry, and they obtained it later. That is, there were dynamics beyond the film in any case. But that remains there, the film tries to fiction to achieve something else, to find a new meaning. It is not about illustrating reality, but finding a very intuitive and subjective concentration to find something, and that something is motivated by the look, by the observation. Sometimes dramatizing, other times not. It is a truth and a lie in an extra-moral sense.
In the scene of the lagoon and of the dancing devils with the drunkard, all that was written, but many things were transformed along the way. If I decide to film nature, for example, it is because I like it, it is a point of contemplation in relation to the character. Thinking about a movie before, trying to define it in a script, plays against me, since I go to the place and find other nuances and possibilities. For example, in Pawqartampu there is a chant in quechua at the beginning, but subtitling the translation did not seem necessary to me, as it would ask the viewer to focus on what was not important at the time.
Making movies is a game, parts of interpretations, intuitions, personal ideas, but when you mix what is recorded in the edition, other different things may arise, and it works as in the edition of photobooks, you establish connections with each photo, between them, without a logically concatenated timeline. Perhaps in the editing room this is not seen clearly, since the software is made on a timeline, but when you see your shots as if you were on a table, you can order under another logic, open new correspondences. You can decide whether to be explanatory or not, in a way you play with the obvious and the hidden. One of the Le Fresnoy freshman caregivers told me that he should put up more conversation between the shaman and the girl, more dialogue. I understand from where he said it, it’s another way of thinking about the moving image, compared to what I wanted for Laguna Negra. On the other hand, Bela Tarr, who said: Don’t even think about it, it would seem very National Geographic.
Desistfilm: In Laguna Negra, in the shaman’s scene there is a notion of time, from the camera movement. When the rite is over, time seems to change. I thought of a Peruvian short, by Jorge Vignati, Danzante de Tijeras, and how it creates an idea of time in relation to an Andean worldview.
Felipe Esparza: I didn’t see it. But I understand what you say. I would be careful to make an illustration of a time formula as an empathic trick to fable, because it could trivialize it and become a resource as used as flashback. In the case of Laguna Negra and the decisions about the discontinuity in time, they respond in large part to my way of structuring and thinking / feeling in images, and because I do not consider myself good at constructing a story and concatenating ideas that lead to a clear conclusion. This is a more atomized time, the atomized enhances the poetic capacity (if Laguna Negra has any) and I feel more comfortable there. I do not think that in Laguna Negra there is a clear representation of what is called Andean worldview, because in any case it would be very subjective. As Leonardo Barbuy once mentioned in an interview with whom we do a kind of random correspondence: The only fiction is that of the self. I don’t remember who he quoted her from.
Desistfilm: Tell us about the film that you will present in June in the second part of the 2021 edition of the Rotterdam festival.
Felipe Esparza: I went to Beijing to record the project for the second year of Le Fresnoy, due to the more flexible production costs and because it did not require me to record it in a hurry. It is a project that begins with the idea of using robots with artificial intelligence in Buddhist temples and their relationship with people. I arrived in Beijing at the beginning of the pandemic, and seeing that the plans changed, I went to live with a friend, his wife and his son. He has practiced Tibetan Buddhism for many years. So the project became an orphan boy and a Buddhist monk living in a sort of confined and ruined future. In addition to his relationship with a robot and other strategies to experience other realities, creating a connection between spirituality, technology and nature.
I used the story The Dream of the Butterfly by the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou and that serves as a parable to think about reality and dreams, and I connected it with the idea that in the not too distant future we will not know where what we call reality began, and we will be immersed in a loop of digital realities that are being transformed. The first cut of The Old Child is about seventy minutes long, but due to the pandemic and the contract with Le Fresnoy I had to edit a short film that lasts sixteen minutes. It was difficult and ends up being a bit abstract, but it is part of a process to continue with the project.