Paying Attention: New Shorts by Salomé Lamas and Eliane Esther Bots
Invisible people put up with the weight of the world so that others can carry on with their livelihood, be it happy or miserable, exciting or boring. They are facilitators, liaisons who provide something unseen to make reality bearable. Discretion is crucial in their profession. Hospitality workers are the silent partners laboring to maintain an artificial environment simulating personal comfort in the confines of a hotel room. Such a protagonist stars in Salomé Lamas’ “Hotel Royal”: a temporary chambermaid (Ana Moreira) works in the eponymous establishment. Alternating first-person voiceover with an omniscient point of view, “Hotel Royal” emulates the conventions of a screenplay. In a meta-cinema mode, a voiceover announces sluglines each time the scene changes, signaling an interior scene corresponding to a different room number.
The unnamed protagonist silently passes by endless labyrinthine corridors decorated with geometric carpets akin to The Shining’s iconic set design for the Overlook Hotel. The source of unease comes from the anticipation of opening one door after another, revealing unexpected details from the unseen guests’ intimacy. Devoid of any human presence yet filled with objects and evidence of an inhabited space, every room tells a different story of its occupants. The Portuguese auteur plays with the fine line between fiction and reality, precisely with the stories we create based on assumptions, imagination, and our subjective interpretation of reality. In this regard, even the voiceover description of each room conflicts with the image, leaving the viewer permanently questioning their perception. In the beginning, the narrator describes the chambermaid as a woman wearing a brown raincoat, while the camera clearly shows her wearing a white trench coat. Later on, the point of view changes, and objects go missing onscreen or are replaced by others listed by the protagonist. Methodically tidying up rooms, analyzing crumpled bedsheets, and scanning scattered personal belongings, the protagonist seems to apply a specific method to this detailed, extensive sidebar commentary. According to it, bedsheets convey a couple’s unhappiness, while tourist guides and ticket stubs suggest capitalist dreams and conformity.
“Hotel Royal” fits in Lamas’ body of work because it demonstrates her preoccupation with limits and boundaries; the short scrutinizes the quotidian to the point of deconstruction. This conceptual framework in which belongings reveal not just facts but vulnerability has an impersonal approach to it, Lamas opting for detached, controlled storytelling to a nuttier one. The photography consists of establishing shots with each room change, following the maid’s routine, registering, and analyzing different livelihoods without interaction. The inaccuracy between descriptions and images actively immerses the viewer into the voyeuristic endeavor. While no guest is seen, and the maid is present in voiceover and onscreen doing her job, the feeling of intrusion pervades. It feels like we partake in more than just a regular cleaning of the rooms; it’s as if we’re tiptoeing in someone else’s home as Lamas mimics an unsought sharing of personal space. Through storytelling, the lines between fiction and non-fiction are blurred as the ending confronts us with a real-life event. By emptying the rooms, Lamas urges us to fill them with our own imagination, contradicting or even wrapping up the speculative descriptions. The behavioral, unnatural acting supports this constructed reality, with Ana Moreira eerily dancing through the hallways for no reason or solemnly standing near an impromptu piano performance.
Similarly austere and minimalistic in style is “In Flow of Words” directed by Eliane Esther Bots, screened in the Pardi di Domani competition and Locarno’s nominated short film for the European Film Awards. Like “Hotel Royal,” Bots uses first-person narration to describe the experiences of three interpreters (Alma, Besmir, and Nenad) working for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The breakup of the federation in 1992 resulted in a series of disputes in the newly formed countries, leading to war, mass killings, and the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Croats and Muslims. The story favors the perspective of third-party individuals, people who are less seen than heard through their confessions. Of three depicted objects — a toy soldier, an antelope figurine, and a vase — the interpreters declare they identify with the latter, a go-between object that stands for a repository of other people’s thoughts. The tone is set with a surprising confession: Alma thinks that if someone would ever make a film about her, she would be the voiceover. Her profession requires such a high level of engagement that her personality comes second: the thoughts of the person she’s translating have to become hers. This statement defines the form of the film, as it carries on alternating first-person confessions of its protagonists throughout.
Like in Lamas’ film, human presence is scarce. The Dutch director’s mise-en-scène prioritizes symbolic objects over the victim or perpetrator or interpreters. Bots pays special attention to the position of the speakers; in one scene she recreates a testimony with outlines like in a police investigation, some contours on the floor. In another case, she does the same thing, diagramming on a window the seating plan of a prosecutor, defendant, and interpreter. One of the interpreters highlights the importance of sitting between the prosecutor and defendant and avoiding eye contact as key to an impartial job. Almost every depicted person averts their gaze from the camera, turning their back to it or looking outside the window. Unlike the chambermaid from “Hotel Royal,” shunning involvement is far more challenging since the interpreters experienced the war themselves during their upbringing in Yugoslavia in the 90s. They realize they could have been victims if they were born closer to the conflict zones. Their memories clash with the defendant’s testimonies, piercing their protective shield of a booth.
Probably the most telling image is the one of an eye gazing through the walls of a translator’s cubicle, scrutinizing the exterior from a safe point of view. On a smaller scale, this claustrophobic space is a relatable image to our domestic confinement, void of social interactions during the COVID lockdown, as we observed the outside world from inside. As one of the protagonists confesses, words penetrate through this solitary existence in a bubble as some personal statements sound all too familiar. Both wordy, the two short films focus on the protagonists’ need to contain themselves in their profession and less on the actual image of their isolation. “In Flow of Words” likewise explores the gap between reality and expectations, this time confronting the interpreters’ perception of the dreadful testimonies they have to interpret and their own experience and its recollection. In this way, “In Flow of Words” continues Bots’ efforts to depict war through the storytelling of people who weren’t necessarily directly involved. In her last short, “Cloud Forrest” (2019), the image of the Yugoslavian conflict is reassembled out of vague memories passed on to children from their parents. While Lamas’ film is rather observational and invites watching, Bots’ focus is on listening. Both films require viewers to fill in the gaps, recording and reconstructing livelihoods out of a collage of impressions.
The austere interior settings of basic hotel rooms and the cold, impersonal tribunal spaces strengthen the ambivalence of the trade, that of providing a channel for transmitting thoughts in an institutional environment without taking sides. Emphasizing impartiality, one of the interpreters states that she cannot intervene as she is only a “glorified phone.” In this aspect, the dehumanization and distanciation strengthens the linguistic perspective of the cinematography. Deriving from Wittgenstein’s image theory of language, that words capitalize on imagination to provide meaning, “In Flow of Words” delivers more emotion with genuine tones of voice than any distressing photographic archive.
The device of ritualizing the quotidian by following a protocol and strict rules to regulate human interaction proved to be a rewarding imposed limitation for both directors’ endeavors. While their approach offers a complex but incomplete image of reality, it allows the protagonists’ input to shine through.
“Hotel Royal” and “In Flow of Words” screened at the 74th Locarno Film Festival.