Creating Friction: An Interview with Salomé Lamas, Part 2
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 that grey realm between fiction and nonfiction cinema, often exposing the underpinnings of such flimsy categories.
In Part II of KINOSCOPE’s interview with Lamas, the director discusses at length two of her films, Le Boudin (2014) and No Man’s Land (2012). Although released two years later, the latter is a blueprint for the former. Le Boudin is both a testimonial and an exercise in the documentary hybrid genre. A black screen punctuates the film at intervals. Over it, the broken voice of a former legionnaire recounts his life story. When there is an image onscreen, it is of a young male actor who continues the legionnaire’s story, reciting his words directly to the camera, sometimes flubbing them in the process. Le Boudin was the seed that sprouted and became No Man’s Land, a lean structuralist feature, in which a mercenary may or may not be telling the whole truth when describing assassinations in El Salvador and elsewhere. Lamas also cites projects she’s working on at the moment.
Tanner Tafelski: I found Le Boudin similar to No Man’s Land. The voice of Nuno, an ex-legionnaire, is heard over a black screen. Did he not want to be filmed or did you have that structure in mind already, of having Elias Geißler recite Nuno’s words on camera, for the most part, while his are spoken in voiceover?
SL: Le Boudin was an exercise. It’s evident who’s the actor. It’s very easy to tell one thing from the other. I conducted that interview during the pre-production of No Man’s Land. Before No Man’s Land had that structure, I knew the story of Paolo de Figueiredo, but I hadn’t met him. While I was waiting to be introduced to Paolo, I started to run a couple of interviews and research. That led me to write letters to the Baltasar Garzón International Foundation in Spain and look at similar cases around me, or people who knew of similar cases, of those who had been mercenaries. I also visited a psychiatrist. He’s a specialist in PTSD here in Portugal. He was the first guy to fight for the official recognition of PTSD and for it to be in the law.
I met Nuno, who was around 38-years old when I spoke with him. He was in a welfare shelter, where he still lives. Nuno is a different character from Paolo de Figueiredo. There’s no redemption in Paolo; the redemption is in the viewer. With his moral stance and his radical approach to what he did, he’s sadistic. In opposition—forgive me for this expression—Nuno has been fucked all his life. He was taken places he never chose to go to. He wasn’t even aware of what would be the consequences of saying “yes.” I was intrigued and it was probably the hardest interview I ever directed. He’s traumatized, and it’s very hard. That’s why he has difficulty with metaphors. He’s not even able to name things properly sometimes. I was interested in a character whose life experience was quite similar to Paolo’s, but at the same time, that didn’t choose those experiences.
I ended up going back to that interview years after No Man’s Land. Again, I was living in Germany. I thought, “OK, this is just perfect. I will pick an actor, a very young actor, inexperienced, that is just a pretty looking boy, kind of androgynous, and he will say these lines.” During the process, I realized that Elias Geißler could say the words, but he couldn’t feel them. Sometimes, he tries really hard, he’s trying to do his job as an actor, and he fails constantly. I was interested in that friction.
Nuno Fialho’s voice is like that because he had a stroke. Part of his story is the whole episode with drug abuse that eventually led to a stroke and being wheelchair bound.
TT: Paolo in No Man’s Land has no remorse and he’s very much a performative figure. How did you go about interviewing someone like that?
SL: I created the conditions of staying in front of that person for five days. There are a lot of other films that are No Man’s Land’s brothers when dealing with perpetrators or unreliable narrators. They use different strategies. Some of them have talking heads, some have reenactments, and others play with archival footage. I was eager to empty the film and just focus on language and the way Paolo would present himself in front of the viewer.
It’s also related to the way I see the ethics of documentary film. In order to respect my character and the audience, the only possible way is to empty the whole thing. I feel that absence. We already have so many images in our minds that it’s not very hard to come up with some for what Paolo is describing. I realized that he was an amazing storyteller. I was aiming to erase the borders between the act of storytelling, remembering a past event, almost like Wittgenstein’s language-game, and between history itself. How can we, as viewers, wander around those territories? This again addresses the idea of fact and fiction. It also plays with the limits and the authority of nonfiction film. I tend to use this metaphor: If we are to build something that’s grounded upon the real, let’s say it’s a brick wall, if we remove one or two fictional bricks from this wall, it will crumble. We need these bricks in order to hold up the wall. Paolo was the perfect character to do that.
Leading the whole thing, finding a place that was comfortable for Paolo and me as a meeting place—all these things are important for the film. Also: allowing Paolo to sit in front of the viewer and to select how he wants to tease the viewer, to place himself in front of the other. And then I had my notes, and that’s all the doubts and the questions—it’s about doubting.
TT: You brought up ethics, and going back to our conversation about structure, you segment and number No Man’s Land, creating a distancing effect. It makes the viewer an active participant in what they’re watching.
SL: Yeah, because I think what cinema does is blend or erase the difference between the filmmaker and the protagonist. You’re constantly trying to understand who’s making what for the film? What am I making for the film? What is Paolo making for the film? You try to project yourself within the frame to be a part of that dialogue. That was my whole ambition, and it led to a certain aesthetic.
TT: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (2013) was first a three-channel installation piece?
SL: Yeah. I think the three-channel gives you a more immersive experience and works better than the single-channel. It was setup in the shape of a “U.” Three big projections. I think it was never shown on screens because it doesn’t work that way.
TT: Does your approach change when shooting moving images that are either exhibited in a gallery or a theater?
SL: It does. For an installation, you have to think differently because the viewer will approach the object differently. Within the space, you could choose and design the whole installation; you can direct or control the way the viewer will enter the work. I usually work with a designer, and the installation goes along with an exhibition design.
The sound is also mixed differently sometimes. The white cube is a different environment. Installations usually run in a loop, and some of them last a long duration. With The Burial of the Dead (2016), a commission with footage from Peru, I just reedited the whole thing. Each channel is roughly 90 minutes. It’s long and you have to sit through it if you want to get the whole. You could get a piece of it as well. You’re a mobile viewer within the art institution. It’s opposite to a theater, having a collective experience. Usually if you leave the theater, you won’t come back.
It all started because curators recognized that some of my works, even the single channels, could move across setups. I was skeptical. Some of the films, if they are to be exhibited at an art institution, there’s a timetable with schedules. You could know when the piece will start and when it loops. Sometimes that’s important, sometimes it’s not. It’s not new, but filmmakers with those qualities have been asked in recent years: can you do this, can you do that, can you select something, and can you make a detour? You have to be very careful with that. It has to be a new experience for the viewer. It cannot be lazy, getting a fragment of a film and using it. I guess No Man’s Land could work as a video installation because it has that fragmented structure and I’m interested to see how that would play. It’s also an experience for me.
The Burial of the Dead was a way for me to empty the long shot and get rid of the subtitles inscribed in the frame so you could really be with the image. Then I could use the left and right channels to inscribe the subtitles. If you’re not familiar with Spanish, even Spaniards struggle with the way Spanish is spoken in La Rinconada. You have more options, or to explore other shots with different lengths. I’m careful with instructions, like the minimum size of the projections. This “U” structure; it’s actually more like a pentagon. In opposition to a Dolby 5.1, each channel has a mono track. When you walk the space, you can have different sound perspectives.
TT: Would you like to share what you’re working on now, any new upcoming projects?
SL: I do a lot of projects in parallel. I’m trying to finalize my PhD thesis on problems of translation and critiquing documentary filmmaking. I see the filmmaker as a translator of reality, in a way that this translation is one of the few places where concepts like fidelity and liberty go together.
Extinction is in post-production. I made a trip to Indonesia in Kalimantan, Borneo, and brought back a drive of fragile footage that I recorded by myself. I may dig into that as well. Fatamorgana was a commission for the stage, but it is also a film that I will shoot in October in the Middle East. It’s supposed to be a feature and it has French production. The basic plot is that you have Hanan, who is a fictional character. She is in a wax museum after hours and she’s like Molly Bloom/Penelope waiting for her husband. She’s also a character that resonates with today’s reality in Lebanon where a lot of women are still waiting for their husbands and sons to come back, and they still believe they’re in some Syrian prison. The museum is where you have all these connected figures like Bashar al-Assad, George H. W. Bush, Muammar Gaddafi, and Hosni Mubarak. All of these characters are in dialogue. We use public speeches after the Second World War and try to create friction. You see alliances that existed between countries that are totally different nowadays. You just edit information and that makes us question how we perceive information today; how information is selected; what remains a mystery in opposition to other events; what defines nations; what defines alliances; and what [defines] power.