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Day 3: The Art of Purgatory

A la Sombra de la Luz (Isabel Reyes e Ignacia Merino / Chile, 2023)

Diógenes (Dir.: Leonardo Barbuy / Peru, França e Colômbia, 2023)

by Pedro Henrique Ferreira

           The investment in producing the sensation of being in purgatory, damnation in a distant place, through formalist rigor and the experimentation with time, seems to permeate both the works shown on the third day of 'Territories'. This kind of affliction brings these films closer to a certain scenario in contemporary cinema where the weaving of form and its play with visual surface effects, an interest in the epidermis of the image that becomes almost a dissolution of the sign itself, seems to be the central object of investigation (slow cinema, experimental cinema of structuralist genealogy, or whatever nomenclature is given to the phenomenon), although both films operate this in very different logics.

 

             At first, A la Sombra de la Luz seems to be organized as an observational documentary of a sparsely inhabited Chilean village, with an immense spell of nature, which coexists with a thermoelectric power plant that supplies the rest of the country. The theme that begins to emerge from the very first images - where a boy plays at chasing rabbits, in meticulously composed general shots that alternate between emphasizing the virginity of nature in the trees, wind and animals, and the presence of the electricity towers, high-voltage wires and transformers - is that of this contrast and its implications, the peaceful and environmental life against the industry that violates it. It's a portrait of those who, as the title implies, live ordinary lives in the shadows of the great enterprises that sustain modern life in Chile. In practice, there are relatively few images of the village (some show a radio station, others a lady in a kind of small convenience store). The film focuses a lot on the boy's journey through the woods and forests, and on the representation of the signs associated with the electricity industry present in the region. 

 

            However, this issue doesn't develop into an actual conflict. It repeats itself, repeats the signs. And from that point on, the film seems to abandon its effort to establish a social and political view of the situation; perhaps because, in practice, there is no material to take the clash between the population and the factory forward in a dialectical process of dramaturgical development. All that's left is  a certain state of damnation. Towards the end, Reyes and Merino's feature film almost seems to unfold into another film, less anthropological and observational, and more based on experimenting with the fabric of the images, the effects of shadow, light and movement and the noises of electricity coupled with the ambience of the tracks. While this vocation always seems to be a little latent (which is why the film seems from the outset to be somewhat affiliated with the work of Sniadecki, Casting-Taylor, Paravel and co. at the Sensory Ethnography Lab), it is only in the final moments that A la Sombra de la Luz shines light to it, giving us the ostensible feeling that it has done so in order to make up for the other line of force that didn't quite work. In other words, since the problem of the electricity tower doesn't go down well as a drama, the way out is to produce the sensation of a suffocating purgatory through visual and sound effects.

 

          However, this formalist turn taken from then on - which is really where the film succeeds best, as it manages to achieve moments of real visual power - is also a little lacking. The planimetric framing of the towers, the focus on the tangles of the power lines and the movement of the lights that generate alternations between dimness and light are even visually fascinating, but they are far from suffocating. They seem to be the product of a certain Vertovian euphoria with the possibilities of the gaze, but they don't generate such an accentuated contrast with the surrounding nature. Above all, they fail to provide us with the exact emotional measure of the penance that the imposing presence of the electric power industry represents for the lives of those residents. So the problem is not just that the two films that coexist in A la Sombra de la Luz cancel each other out. It's mainly that neither of them manages to take their investigations to their ultimate consequences and produce the fascination that their subject matter, in one way or another, could generate in us. What we're left with is an interesting movie that even arouses some interest in the viewer, but which is rendered innocuous by the fact that it fails to develop into something more profound. 

 

            Diógenes, on the other hand, is one of the few films in the edition that takes a fictional stance head-on, although the signs it constructs go through a seminal dialog with Sarhua, in the mountainous region of Chile. The Andean indigenous man who gives the title its nickname (Jorge Pomacanchari) lives isolated from his own community, in a house in the mountains where he raises his two children, Sabina (Gisela Yupa) and Santiago (Cleber Yupa). For a long part of Leonardo Barbuy's debut feature film, we watch the bored routine of the three of them, preparing food, watching the mountains, playing with the surroundings, and their father's trips to the nearest village to sell the handicrafts that seem to sustain the trio's few needs. Then one day, the father suddenly dies. The girl, who is a little older than her brother, goes down to the village to try to sell his last planks. At this point, the reason for the condition of the three of them is revealed through sparse traces: in the past, armed paramilitaries who prowl the Andean region and hold the local indigenous populations hostage had killed their mother, and their father fled to the mountains with them. The innermost reasons for the incident are somewhat unclear, but it is clear that what is at stake is state violence against the Andean peoples.

 

           What could be a film of denunciation or one that explores the added value of this situation of oppression - which is not uncommon in militant cinema today - is, however, constructed in a completely different way. Diogenes is almost entirely set in the little house on the mountain, in the isolation that he transforms into a kind of purgatory where people live the routine of Sisyphus, immersed in a cyclical time that is a kind of limbo and waiting for death. The sluggish time, imprinted by the way the camera moves in slow camera movements that seem to come out of a Bela Tarr film, lays bare this series of repetitive actions of everyday life, combined with the most prosaic signs of Andean life, domestic objects, etc. Diógenes' black-and-white and enormous formal care, his mesmerizing and caravaggesque images, contribute to the sense of torment, anguish and imprisonment of the characters, of us and of art itself in the present time. The subtlety of the chiaro-escuro makes the iconography of that kind of life and its objects, filtered through a dreamlike gaze, at the same time as its impassive slowness makes all those camera movements convey to us an enormous sense of immobility. The girl seems to want to get out of there, but her father won't let her. They have been forced to live in purgatory. And that's why it's necessary to take such pains to portray the paralysis and condemnation: so that later, when we find out a little about its causes, the political effect is much greater.

 

               This kind of approach to indigenous life anywhere in Latin America is exceptional and unusual, when we are more accustomed to the anthropological gaze and the exploration of a fluid time, full of possibilities, not as rough as it is here - something that has even become something of a cliché in independent cinema dealing with these themes. What makes Diógenes a beautiful piece of work is its ability to bet on a very particular aesthetic path of its own, and to produce images of great care, using the symbolic iconography of a way of life that is rarely portrayed, let alone summed up in this way. This radical choice that Barbuy takes to its ultimate consequences, his invocation of a sadness experienced by the Andean people, forced by the state and its military forces to live in limbo against their will, is what wins us over. It makes aesthetic experience the path to a political dimension of the utmost importance.

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