Creating Friction: An Interview with Salomé Lamas, Part 1
Borders, thresholds, and limits—these are the things that run across Salomé Lamas’ diverse, yet thematically cohesive body of work. The Portuguese filmmaker works in the grey realm between fiction and nonfiction cinema, often exposing the underpinnings of flimsy categories. She makes hybrid films about legionnaires, mercenaries, miners, and more, in some of the most marginalized and intense environments in the world. Last month, Lamas was in town to present a few of her shorts for KINOSCOPE’s screening at Anthology Film Archives, as well as to introduce No Man’s Land (2012) at the New School.
KINOSCOPE’s Tanner Tafelski spoke with Lamas over Skype in an in-depth interview. Although the interview moves back and forth throughout her body of work, one topic that pops up throughout is a formal consideration of structure.
Your films create specific conceptual frameworks: how the encounters don’t end in Encounters with Landscape (3x) (2012), the use of an actor to perform the words of a legionnaire who can be heard in voiceover in Le Boudin (2014), or splitting Eldorado XXI (2016) into two parts. Can you talk a little bit about conceptualizing your films? Do they emerge before or during shooting?
I have a couple of things that I envision in terms of structure. For me, that’s very important. The camera comes out of the bag if there is something to shoot. Even if it’s a nonfiction film or if I’m approaching a territory, there’s always this cheap methodology of waiting for the unpredictable, the unexpected, and the accidents. Nevertheless, the film has to be grounded in some kind of structure. But that also poses a question: Does this formalism kill the film’s content? I wonder if formalist aesthetic choices minimize the possibilities of the material, or of reality itself. But then it’s something I cannot control. If something is not solid in terms of structure, or clean, I don’t feel good about the film. Sometimes it becomes an obsession. For instance, in Coup de Grâce (2017), I had an organic script, a fiction about a father and a daughter. But the way I directed the film led me to strong framing, low-key editing, and mirroring effects from shot to shot.
Strict narratives don’t work well for me, so I prefer to deconstruct them and do something that transforms the actors into figures, instead of being real characters that you relate to. But that doesn’t mean that one day I wouldn’t like to write a feature that’s very narrative and you can feel passionate and engaged with the characters.
You use your body in your investigations of the environment. How would you describe your relationship with landscape, especially with ones that are remote and intense?
All the projects are quite different, but there are a couple of things that unite all my work. I don’t know if it’s landscape or just realities that I describe. I’m attracted to “nowhere-ness” or the unknown, to characters that are marginal in some way. It’s about not setting the limits or borders, because they’re in motion all the time.
The way I see it, money for production buys me time, the resources and the crew in a certain place. With Eldorado, for instance, there was always a chance that I would call production and send everyone home, because I didn’t have the film. The place was unpredictable. You must have a lot of backup plans. It’s normal that production will assist you when shooting. I tend to give this example: if you ask for a helicopter, they’ll bring you a drone. They’re certain that the drone can give exactly the same effect as the helicopter. The end result now is that if you end up with a lot of drones in your film, and no film at all. That’s why you have to come up with a new structure or a new film every time. That’s the way I protect myself, but it’s also risky. While shooting in Peru, I kept seeing the backup plans fail until I reached plan Z. You start to wonder if that’s even a plan. Should you send everyone home, keep the resources, and shoot another film in Peru for contractual purposes?
The structure and the unpredictability go together. You have to bring the film back, somehow. Of course, sometimes there’s a tentative script, and there’s always a treatment. Originally we wanted to cast a minor [for Eldorado]. We had a casting call and I sat on La Rinconada’s main square, waiting for the perfect minor to come along. That just didn’t work. I had to redefine the whole film. We faced problems with the altitude and security. Things kept changing, but when I started to shoot, I knew I had the film we were supposed to shoot. It could be a failure, but that was it.
Regarding landscape, there are all these ideas of the sublime. I’ve read Kant, and I can intellectually conceive of the sublime, but I’ve never really felt it. In Encounters. I use landscape as a playground, inscribing your body—[bodies of different sizes]— into it. I think Eldorado also plays with sizes, not just in the structure, but also in the way I inscribe the figures [of the miners]. On the one hand, landscape is why the people are there, because the ground is filled with gold. But at the same time, it’s killing them.
You brought up borders, limits, and barriers. This also applies to your work as in the way that you cross boundaries, whether in categories of filmmaking or even within your films in terms of boundaries between actor and non-actor, limits and thresholds of spaces. Can you talk a little bit about borders?
Of course, you can find those dichotomies, and that’s what interests me—dealing with events, characters, or realities that are hard to depict. My idea is never to make statements; it’s to have a dialogue with the viewer. The viewer must choose the way he wants to project himself within the frame. My desire is to have an active viewer, one that can place himself, and that poses questions. He’s not certain about his morality; he questions himself.
My films don’t provide any answers. On the other hand, I feel that they are an attempt to represent. They unveil shoddy realities and situations, and can give someone the tools to be an agent of change and to act upon reality.
As a filmmaker, I find it challenging to think about the limits of nonfiction. There’s authority in nonfiction film, inscribed within the contemporary society in terms of the tradition of documentary film, with CCTV and reality shows. How do we redefine nonfiction, in opposition to fiction? We’ve come up with this handy umbrella term, “parafiction.” But it’s hard to tell where the fiction begins and nonfiction ends.
It’s a matter of process?
It’s a life project. I don’t want to sound mystical. I’m very rational, even nihilistic and cynical sometimes. Of course, I work with crews, and they want to know what they’ll record the next day. Sometimes I pretend that I have answers. I’m just playing poker.
So do you work with a small crew?
I do. With Coup de Grâce, which premiered in Berlin, it was a proper fiction film crew, and I had problems with the hierarchy. I kept stepping on my assistant’s toes. That didn’t happen in Transnistria, or in other places where I don’t speak the language. But Coup de Grâce was made in Portugal; we shot it in Lisbon. It was shot as a fiction, and I wanted to be able to touch the sets. My production team told me, “If you want something changed, you have to ask.” They just kept me at a distance. They would say that the [hierarchy on the set] was a pyramid, and I was on top of it. I kept saying, “No, it’s horizontal.” But, of course, you’re the person that says, “Maybe you don’t need this scene or maybe you could combine these two shots.” It took me two days to realize that. I was expecting something to happen, something to invade the frame. The actors can perform differently, and you can give instructions and have things changed, but there is nothing you cannot control. It took me a bit to realize that, and to take pleasure in the process.
Bored because this was a new kind of working method?
Certainly. I worked with actors before, but in nonfiction. Some things were scripted, others weren’t, and I had little control. It’s different with fiction. There’s no single thing in front of the camera that you didn’t set up. You have five options and you pick that chair because you liked it more than the others. In that sense, it’s different than actually going to a site, even if you have a cast, and using natural décor.
How did The Tower (2015) come about? I know it was made during another one of your films in development, Extinction, and you collaborated with Christoph Both-Asmus, who’s working on his project, The Tree Walker.
The Tower is supposed to be the final scene for Extinction, which, because of the way it’s being produced, is still in post-production. It’s probably my only project that has taken forever. We’re hoping to finalize the film this year. Extinction started with me going to Transnistria, which is part of a frozen conflict with Moldova, to make a comment on Vladimir Putin’s occupation without occupation, war without war.
I wanted to deal with identity issues and borders again. We were working with Kolja Kravchenko, who’s the boy you see in The Tower, which was shot in Transnistria, in the woods. We shot the actual performance in Berlin, where I was living. I’ve always cherished Christoph’s work as a performer.
I was pretty much involved in discussions for trying to develop the Tree Walker project. I suggested to Christoph that he should direct that performance and I would shoot it. We spent about a week looking for the perfect tree. It was important to achieve a particular animation. I could push the focus differently, mechanically. Like in Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (2013), the aesthetic is lo-fi. Christoph does this performance standing on top of tree branches, using two bamboo poles. The tree was 30 meters high; we attached the bamboo poles to the tree with the techniques of a tree surgeon, with ropes and everything. My whole idea of having that scene in Extinction was an invasion within the frame. You’re not sure if he’s committing suicide or if he’s in touch with something mystical. He’s like the idiot from Dostoyevsky. That’s how I see The Tower.