Primitiva (Primitive) by Azucena Losana

By Katy Montoya

 Like virtual particles in a quantum field, multiple futures pop in and out of possibility; third nature emerges within such temporal polyphony. Yet progress stories have blinded us. To know the world without them [and instead with] open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life, as these coalesce in coordination across many kinds of temporal rhythms […]

-Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

Many in this year’s selection of short films in the Umbrales section of FICUNAM 13 demonstrate different ways of conceiving the magnitude of destruction that defines our present moment. As seen in these pieces, our destruction— ours because we have no choice but to embrace it as part of us and our doing—  insidiously infiltrates the most hidden nooks of our psyches as it seeps into the deepest reserves of our groundwater. But here, our responses to destruction can also find fresh roots. As Tsing asks, “How else can we account for the fact that anything is alive in the mess we have made?”

Individual and collective responses through film, both analog and digital, to the contamination now inside and outside of us say a lot about where we are, collectively. There is so much yet to explore about contamination and preservation’s relationship to the camera, to projected image and sound that don’t involve the camera, and to the mode and attitude evinced by and through what we create. The Umbrales pieces explored here can be seen as a collective outpouring, a register of various human needs, of the ways we cope in the face of omnipresent destruction.

In Desechos Tóxicos (Toxic Waste) by Arián Sánchez, excess and surplus litter and contaminate the filmic world. His is a personal story of how one can hold onto the ambition to make film when the predominant ways of doing so don’t just clutter our imaginary, but give the impression there’s nothing original or authentic left to tell. Sánchez constructs his film out of this material and imaginative excess. Using ten years of material from handmade film workshops, film archives on digestion, and other waste, the film goes deep into the toll of the “industry king’s” destruction, if that’s who we were ever supposed to aspire to. In East Palestine, Ohio, the Trump-devastated Environmental Protection Agency creates a mushroom cloud to “safely release” the vinyl chloride trapped inside twenty train cars that derailed. “We know the smoke looked alarming, but we are being told that everything was carried out according to plan,” federal agencies assured residents.[1] Discourse is radioactive. Image and sound are radioactive. “Their eyes itched. They began to hear voices that said nothing,” the narrator reminds us. We can resignify our detritus, but what’s left to do if our imaginary is exposed to radioactivity, Sánchez seems to ask.

Desechos Tóxicos (Toxic Waste) by Arián Sánchez

We can understand why Primitiva (Primitive) by Azucena Losana would take an interest in surveying the land for practices that seem to still be untouched by this toxic destruction. Primitiva, meaning the first or earliest of its kind, is part of a line of work called Bichos de Luz (Light Bugs) that is interested in the most primitive mechanics of filmmaking, portraying artisans who are masters of time or light. Doña Vivi’s candle making practice is as rudimentary as it gets, and her distribution of candles used ritually throughout Teotitlán Del Valle Oaxaca is a rare form of living labor (the living body distinguished from the working body). This is a disappearing world that remarkably is also a bastion of understated resistance. The film likewise exemplifies living cinema through its understatedness. Pure exposition is unexpectedly refreshing in the face of so many ethnographic approaches that enact the power of the gaze. There can be nothing imposing here as the film’s storyline never moves beyond the expository. Losana doesn’t explain Doña Vivi, her practice, or the place she inhabits. A denial of the impulse to explain to others, one that assumes an audience that would not know this world, is refreshingly absent. There is a complexity and maturity to such simplicity. In the glimpses that flash on expired film, we have only the preservation of preserved images.

But I was left questioning the impulse to preserve if in fact the nature of the world is a state of constant annihilation, as Nika Milano’s piece, Yo misma soy la guerra (I, Myself Am War) prompts us to consider. The urge to record may provide us a comfortable lie we cloak ourselves with. Commissioned by FICUNAM as part of Umbral 0, Yo misma soy la guerra begins with excerpts of Bataille’s “Heraclitean Meditation,” and counterintuitively, frenetic fragments seems desperate to erase and replace what has just appeared: “Everything that exists destroying itself, consuming itself and dying, each instant producing itself only in the annihilation of the preceding one…” as a previous excerpt of the text reads. Through a spectrum of colors whose tone and movement shift almost imperceptibly, we become part of this ebb and flow, this unyielding march forward, succumbing to constant change. If nothing persists, the urge to preserve becomes irrelevant.

An example of a constructed piece, everything about the visuals are determined by signals processed through a synthesizer and mixer, a sort of optic sound. The piece was recorded live, so no editing could take place. There is, in effect, no gaze, a “total abstraction” as Maximiliano Cruz characterized the piece during a talk with Niles Atallah. Honesty, acceptance, and surrender predominate. There seems to be no attempt to make ourselves and the consequences of human eyesight an exception that exists somehow apart from this violence. As such, the piece inhabits a keen awareness of the fact that the subject is condemned to encroach upon its object, the observer to collapse the infinite quantum possibilities into a sole state of being. “I laugh when I think that my eyes persist in demanding objects that do not destroy them.” Disengaging from this mutually parasitic relationship, a naive insistence to self-destruct through seeing, Yo misma soy la guerra suggests less detrimental forms of really inhabiting our present moment.

Vitanuova by Niles Atallah


20th century philosophy often told us to sacrifice the why for the how, but I think depriving ourselves of asking why leaves us bereft of a vital need for reckoning. Niles Atallah’s Vitanuova filled me with a sense of reckoning I didn’t realize I harbored a need for. Another piece commissioned by FICUNAM as part of Umbrales 0, it stages a double sided Peruvian virgin in direct confrontation with artificial intelligence— an entity that was given prompts to bear the voice of a child. This is intended to create a sense of horizontality as it opens up a dialogue on the consequences of human history:

You cut yourself and shed blood. You ripped yourself into pieces and ate your own flesh. You fed upon your own beating heart. Why did you do this? Why did you eat yourself? Why did you blind yourself? Why did you deaden your senses? Why? Why? Do you remember? Do you remember? Do you remember?

Atallah looks for recuperating the possibilities of the infantile in his cinema. Vitanuova offers an infantile gaze that opens up that space of human reckoning in the face of our self-destruction, an opportunity for atonement uniquely available to those who avail themselves to childlike vulnerability. In complex processes of justice and reconciliation, or even in the profound moments of human relationships, the ability to ask “why” on end serves a vital emotional role that cannot be conveniently omitted if healing is part of justice. AI stores the sole collective human memory of the past, putting in question how artificial a corpus and mechanism crafted by organic minds really is. United by our organic origins, perhaps AI is a stage for holding humans accountable, for paying damages for our destruction, for answering the probing questions of a hurt and shocked planetary child.

If contemporary cinema is a mirror of where we are, then it seems we are still far from a place of imagining what comes after the human. We are still understanding our devastation, mourning ourselves, and letting go of the fixation on a planetary life that centers us.