An Economy of the Gaze: An Interview with Camilo Restrepo
Camilo Restrepo is a late bloomer, creating works that are tactile and impressionistic, whether focusing on the fraught history of Colombia (his home country) or the worlds of the living and the dead for a small band of African émigrés in France. At the age of 36, he shot his first short, “Tropic Pocket,” (2011) a handcrafted, poetic ethnographic work consisting of original and found footage that scrambles four imperialist narratives in the Darién Gap region of Colombia’s Chocó Department. Since then, Restrepo has made up for lost time, crafting one work roughly each year. His initial films capture the turmoil and civil unrest in Colombia by drawing attention to the material means: actual and fictional anthropological footage in “Tropic Pocket”; the misprinted newspapers, DIY tattoos, discolored water, and ghoulish mobile phone footage that are traces of the decades-long armed conflict in “Impression of a War” (2015). No longer using found footage and montage techniques, his recent work indicates a shift in aesthetics and subject matter. “Cilaos” (2016) and “La Bouche” (2017) — companion pieces in a way — are musicals with non-actors. They’re shot in France — where Restrepo has lived for over twenty years now — and deal with African diaspora and folk tales through music.
Coinciding with the streaming debut of “Tropic Pocket,” “Cilaos,” and “La Bouche” on Kinoscope, I asked Restrepo a dozen questions over e-mail about working with sound, shooting on and developing film stock, intuition, and more.
Sound and music are major components in your films, whether it’s the punks in “Impression of a War”; the Réunionese maloya and Colombian mapalé slave rhythms, and the Creole language in “Cilaos”; or the drumming by Guinean percussionist Mohamed Bangoura (“Red Devil”) and the Susu language in “La Bouche”. There’s a density to the sound (you also don’t hear the sound until about a minute into the film), particularly in “Tropic Pocket.” What was the process like for creating the sound?
You are right to have noticed the origin of my research on sound in the silence at the beginning of “Tropic Pocket.” It is a silence I thought long and hard about because we all tend to fill an empty space with sound and noise when we have nothing to say or listen to.
“Tropic pocket” is my first film, so I wanted it to be original in a way; or rather I wanted it to be a point of origin. And because I had trained as a painter and had learnt to rapidly identify my visual possibilities, image was always going to be the starting point of my filmmaking.
This is why I decided to shoot “Tropic Pocket” without recording sound, with only a Super 8 camera. I didn’t feel — already at the time — the need to give an impression of realism in my films, and I told myself that sound was not captured, that it was built. Coming from painting, I understood that the audio-visual format (this mixture of sound, image, and movement) was a very sophisticated form of trompe l’oeil, of trickery, or of illusion. A sophisticated structure that one had to be wary of, as one would be wary of not bumping into the wall on which a trompe l’oeil painting hangs. In this mistrust, and also in a great ignorance of the audio-visual craft, I decided to do without sound.
Very quickly my decision confronted me with a significant problem: I realized that more than sound, I needed a voice that would tell the stories I overheard, those that I invented, and those that I found … And I could not find this voice, it was as if it didn’t exist.
My intuition told me this voice was partially present in the music used for rhythm and, at times to narrate, the archival films that I used in “Tropic Pocket.” But it was also present in the titles I wrote to tell each story, in the sound of car engines in virgin jungle, in the disparate associations between a sound and an image, in the silences. It was a mix of incongruous voices that I needed to bring together in order to create my own voice. This is how I began to explore sounds, texts, onomatopoeia, melodies, and distortions.
Working towards sound has been a long process. It was while making my film “Impression of a War” that I consciously looked for a band whose words of rage and despair could become mine. I used to listen to punk, and still do, and knew it to be music made by activists with politically or socially engaged discourses.
At last, I began to sense where my own voice lay, how loud and silent it was, and how it belonged to me but also to those who interpreted it in my films. I understood how this voice was passionate, musical, able to link reason and irrationality, and to wake the dead if necessary. A voice that allows me to speak languages I do not know, like Susu. A voice that is mine only for the short time of the film, before falling back into the banality of day-to-day life.
“Tropic Pocket” consists of four kinds of footage, including black-and-white and color Super 8mm that you shot. Where did you find the other footage, such as the clips from the “fictional documentary” La isla de los deseos?
All source material was found on the Internet by researching the place where I wanted to shoot: the Darién Gap region on the border between Colombia and Panama. I wanted to go to a wild and isolated place where I naively thought I could shoot something that would resemble a “first image.” At the time, I loved reading about anthropology films that described the first encounter of a tribe or social group with a camera. I couldn’t find the films that these books described, so I simply imagined these “first images” by looking at the static and silent photos printed in the books.
I was also tired, as we all are, of the profusion of images depicting our contemporary world. And in this visual fatigue, I tried to understand how our world — made up of images — could have stemmed from a “first image.” It was as if, in order to give myself an excuse for the absurd and contradictory desire to add yet another image to the lot of existing images that I could not tolerate, I had to work like an anthropologist of our times and go and find the “good savage.” I am analyzing this with hindsight, however, for at the time of making “Tropic Pocket,” nothing was clear in my head.
In order to prepare for the trip, I documented the region I wanted to film. This is when I discovered so many images shot before my film, proving the region was not “virgin” territory in terms of filmic images. The images are emblematic of the conquest of the jungle and the population that inhabited it, for any “first image” is an image of conquest, of a confrontation that resolves itself, more or less, violently. When I saw this archival footage on the Internet, I thought I could see a way of adding a relevant image to the existing batch. I was about to add a new series of images to the power struggles in the region, and for that I needed to place my images next to the pre-existing ones, to create a tension between them.
This is how I decided to make an eclectic montage of all the source material. It was a choice that allowed me to defuse the discursive force held by the archival footage and prevent them from becoming the ideological or propaganda vehicles that they originally were. Montage, a purely cinematographic tool, allowed me to quieten their discourses, to force them into silence in order to examine them in confrontation with one another.
“Impression of a War” is about the violent traces left amid the long-gestating armed conflict in Colombia. How long was the research process for it?
The movie begins with a series of defective newspaper prints. I have been collecting these clippings since I was 18. Intuitively, I thought they had an important message to deliver. 20 years later, when, by chance, I met the tattooed man who appears in the film, I finally understood why I had been collecting them for such a long time. In both the newspaper clippings and the man’s tattoos, the method used to make the inscription, the technical failures that arose from these methods, and the surface onto which each inscription was made were as eloquent as the messages or information that they inscribed.
Suddenly, the overall arc of the film became apparent. I started to write the film with my wife, Sophie Zuber, over several trips to Colombia visiting relatives. From the moment of intuition that connected the tattoos to the defective newspaper prints, it took us around three years to find the body of the film. We had already worked together as a duo on “Tropic Pocket.” Our discussions and joint reflections, before and after shooting, meant that I could save film and understand at which point I should capture an image and at which point I should turn the camera on. When faced with the abundance of images, I feel a necessity for frugality that prevents me from shooting for hours without knowing what I’ll do with it. At the end of each film, I realize that the footage I shot fits almost exactly into the final edit, that I shot almost nothing that isn’t in the film. I now know that I shoot with great economy: an economy of the gaze.
By shooting on 16mm, could your film be considered another trace of the conflict?
With “Impression of a War,” I was trying to understand how the material aspect of the world is a significant part of its construction. Our world is not only composed of our ideas, ideals, and desires, but also of matter in which these ideas, ideals and desires take shape. The material aspect of the remains of the Colombian conflict, even the most banal traces, is important proof of the destruction of Colombian society. The material aspect of my images, their defects (scratches, out of focus or overexposed moments, spontaneous cuts, and the desynchronization of the sound, etc.), reflects the journey I took to collect these traces, and the way in which these traces revealed themselves to me. For me, the means used to produce an image, as with the botched newspapers or the tattoos, are an integral part of the message the image conveys. This is perhaps what needs to be studied if we want to understand shooting film as a way of inscribing the experience of war.
I do not believe, however, that the simple fact that I shoot on film allows me to claim my film is a unique trace of the Colombian armed conflict. In any case, I am not so bold as to claim this. My film is undoubtedly a trace of this conflict, but one trace among many other films on the same subject.
You’ve said that your background in painting influences how you work and your choice of subjects. You’ve discussed in the past its impact on “Impression of a War,” but could you talk a little more about this in relation to your other films?
This comes back to the question of modesty in filming excessively. I film in Super 8 and 16mm simply because it limits me in the number of shots I can take and there is an obligatory lapse of time between shooting and watching the results (a few weeks to develop the footage). I know that this way of working forces me to focus on the choices I make when I turn the camera on. I wouldn’t regard the 24 frames per second in this way as a filmmaker if I hadn’t had the painter’s experience of staring at one single “frame” over a long period of time. I think it’s true that my training as a painter comes through “Tropic Pocket” and “Impression of a War.” I even write on one of the title cards in “Tropic Pocket” that the film is a landscape made up of various source materials. Landscape, portrait, still life, all of these grand genres of classical painting, appear more or less clearly in these two works.
At first glance, painting’s influence is less evident in “Cilaos” and “La Bouche.”
During my years as a painter, I was particularly interested in perspective as a means of structuring the world. It was a theoretical interest that I never managed to tangibly transpose to my paintings. Everyone knows that when constructing a perspective, the first tool the painter uses is the chessboard on the ground in which he places the elements and characters of his painting. From the ground up, the painter places in hierarchical order each character in accordance with an ideal point of view from which the spectator will reconstruct the scene most efficiently. In “Cilaos,” I decided, quite simply, to erase this floor and have the characters float in an undifferentiated space. This space is the blackness on screen that we also understand to be darkness. It is a space that has no shapes simply because light does not fully penetrate into it. Once I had gotten rid of the floor’s perspective, my characters could now talk to the dead beneath the earth, they could cross through scenes in a non-linear order, and they could relax a moment in a forest before returning to blackness. You will no doubt recognize a space made up of vertical lines in the forest that is present in both films. You will see many examples of lines trying to construct the space: neon tubes in “Cilaos” or the cabin in “La Bouche,” amongst others… These lines are the means that I found to plastically explore my interest in perspective, at last. In this way, my films complete the work I began as a painter.
Your latest films, “Cilaos” and “La Bouche,” are more performance-based than your previous work. Why the shift in aesthetics?
With “Impression of a War,” I felt I had momentarily reached the end of everything I could make about Colombia, but also the end of my narrative possibilities with my voice. I had to find a new mode of making films, since I had worn out the one I had. The facts addressed in “Impression of a War” and “Tropic Pocket” described a very local reality, but they were part of universal topics like injustice, for example. After “Impression of a War” I thought it was time that I take interest in the world around me in France, in my current reality, and that the way to do that was to cover those universal topics already present in my previous works.
By then I was reading the book Partition rouge by Florence Delay and Jacques Roubaud that talks about the songs, poems, stories, and myths of the North American Indians. In them, a divine being named “Coyote” regularly intervened. Coyote would always make a mistake, therefore showing the way of doing good just by doing wrong. He was giving an example by committing the fault. I wanted to stage this character, a clumsy moral guide, but of course I did not know how to do it. I started talking about this subject with my musician friend Arthur B. Gillette who then introduced me to the musician Christine Salem, the main actress in the film. Arthur and I were discussing the possible scenes of a film in which Christine Salem would play Coyote. There was a lot of dialogue in these scenes and I didn’t know if a non-actor like Christine would be able to remember all of their lines. We quickly reached the conclusion that a musician remembers and interprets better through music. That is how “Cilaos” was born. The movie was shot eight months after finishing “Impression of a War,” so quickly that many choices were intuitive. This means my drift towards musicals was not really conscious, I was more or less going where the wind guided me.
You’ve said “La Bouche” “is the mirror film to ‘Cilaos.’” Did this reflection come about during the process of making “La Bouche,” or was that your intent from the very beginning, before production?
“La Bouche” is sort of an accident. I had no project after “Cilaos.” One day my neighbor Ella Bangoura asked me to film a concert that he was going to do with his father, the great drummer Red Devil. [This was a tribute] concert for his sister who disappeared under horrible circumstances. I went to film the concert and I saw onstage the way “Cilaos” played in reverse. Red Devil hit his drums in a way that one wondered if his daughter didn’t hear him from the afterlife. It happened exactly like in “Cilaos” in which the main character — a girl — descended to the kingdom of the dead in search of her dead father. When “La Bouche” was released, I started talking about “mirror films” in the sense that the story and the characters reverse themselves; if the girl is living in the first [film], she dies in the second [film], if the father is strong in the first, he is weak in the second, etc. “La Bouche” is in a sense an unexpected way in which reality has caught up with fiction. [It’s] a film that seemed to write itself, to go with “Cilaos.”
In interviews and articles that I’ve read, distance seems to be a key asset for you. With “Impression of a War,” your time spent away from Colombia allowed you to critically examine the violence there. You chose the form of the musical in “Cilaos” and “La Bouche” as a filter to see reality through. Is distance a key principle for you?
Distance indeed gives us the possibility to be critical when confronting a situation. Reality in Colombia can sometimes be so violent that, when facing it every day, it’s difficult to analyze it. Distance can therefore help to reach an ideal point of view to analyze a situation. I always keep in mind a sentence by Johan van der Keuken in which he said one must film people from the distance of a punch, allowing them to physically react to a camera’s intrusion. In cinematographic language, I believe one must know how to use focal length to be near and far from his subject when need be.
To counterbalance this idea of long distance, I would note the proximity at which I film my characters in “Cilaos” and “La Bouche.” But this proximity is not a kind of intimacy. It’s another way to comprehend distance. This distance must be understood as the fundamental separation between the viewer and the interpreter/actor. In my films I create emotion, but I avoid allowing identification with the character. The scene that unfolds in my films is far from us, the spectators. It can make us dance but under no circumstance make us cry. It is a critical distance from the gaze as Bertolt Brecht has stated it under the term “Verfremdungseffekt” translated in different ways as “the distancing effect.” I’m only one of thousands of heirs of Brecht, and I am a total fan of the musical works that he made with Kurt Weill.
When you talk about the music in your two shorts, you say that it “holds a force that absorbs me. It is a reasonless reason, which to me, makes it a valid one.” That last line fascinates me, and I was wondering if intuition in any way guides your working process?
All the time! I think I make very few conscious [decisions] when starting a project and when filming. It is only when I edit the film that I become aware of the consequences brought upon by these intuitive choices. I seek to get rid of any thought that is too reflective at the time I approach a subject or film it. I want the first impulse of a film to be passionate and that this passion be present on set. A lot of well-thought-out films seem too predictable, too academic, boring. If I had to choose between intelligence and passion, I would choose passion, which does not mean acting and deciding in an idiotic manner.
When I thought that one of my films could be called “the impression” of something, I was thinking, among other things, the meaning of the word “impression” as the first approach towards knowledge: I have the impression that the path is here or there… I approach my topics in this fashion.
Will your next film, your feature film, be along the lines of your more recent theatrically inflected works, or will it be something else?
It will not be a musical film like my two previous works. I think it will be a film that feeds as much on the research of “Impression of a War” as that of “Cilaos” and “La Bouche.” I had already imagined for quite a while that I needed to create a more precise space where my films about Colombia would cross with my African films, where the aesthetic choices of either would converse with each other. This is my work at present.
You work at a collective film lab in Paris, L’Abominable, and you make the prints for all your films, effectively taking control of all aspects of production. First, what is it like working at the lab? Second, how long does it take to make a print?
There is a misunderstanding. In fact, I only make a single release print because I lack time and money, not because I lack the desire to do it. However, I develop the negatives of all my films.
We work at L’Abominable with a few tools cast aside by the film industry, but also with handcrafted tools largely made by ourselves. In these conditions, the work is laborious. To give you an idea of the amount of time, to develop half an hour’s worth of negatives takes an entire day of work. Making a positive sound copy of a ten-minute film can take up to three weeks of constant work. This is probably why so few filmmakers arrive until the copy for projection is made. In my case, it is very difficult to free three weeks to make a copy, given that I work during the week to make a living. We are often losers in the time/money equation.
Do you see yourself ever shooting digitally?
I am too young to shoot digitally. Film is the future of cinema!
Special thanks to Helen Olive and Sarah Bean for the translation.
“Tropic Pocket,” “Cilaos,” and “La Bouche,” are now streaming on Kinoscope.