Camilo Restrepo’s Impressions

The Colombian director—one of the great contemporary filmmakers—shares with us his journey through his artistic biography and filmography.
Aaron Cutler

Camilo Restrepo's Impression of a War (2015) is playing August 10 - September 8, 2017 on MUBI in many countries around the world as part of the series Direct from Locarno.

Like Shadows Growing as the Sun Goes Down

The characters in Camilo Restrepo’s films make art in the face of death. They are dancers, jugglers, tattoo artists, painters, and singers who collectively rise to exorcise hardships. Their journeys are chronicled in lucid, elliptical fashion by an artist whose handheld pursuits of people endow them with explosive and ethereal impressions of force and power.

Restrepo was born in 1975 in Colombia, where he lived until a scholarship took him to Europe to study painting. His first three films were shot in his birth country on Super 8 and 16mm and additionally utilized digital archival materials to tell parts of the nation’s recent past in relation to its present time; his two subsequent films were both shot in France as direct registers of people on 16mm. The works range in length from 10 minutes to 27, resulting in a roughly 80-minute-long filmography—realized in its entirety during the past decade—that has established Restrepo as one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers.

Tropic Pocket

Tropic Pocket (2011) and Like Shadows Growing as the Sun Goes Down (2014) offer mixtures of black-and-white and color portraits of young Colombians that seem to exist out of time. The first film quietly provides a series of lyrical and fantastical registers of residents in a tropical zone of conflict who spend their days dancing and performing in Nature while onscreen text provides a possible history of the place. The second film locates itself among urban street artists who showcase themselves before passing cars in locations with names such as General Bolivar Avenue, while also occasionally dislocating to show work done on tires and other car parts throughout the city of Medellín.

Impression of a War

Restrepo’s third film, which is streaming on MUBI until September 8th, is an opus called Impression of a War (2015). The film seeks to catalogue registers of Colombia’s 70-year-long period of internal armed conflict through an ongoing dialogue between a calmly essayistic narrator’s voice and screen-impressed appearances of the artworks themselves. Batches of defective illustrated newspapers, tattoos on former prisoners’ bodies etched with homemade machines, performances of punk songs, and graffiti drawn on the walls of a hotel formerly used for abduction and torture join together on 16mm film stock whose precarious essence comes across with rips and fragmentations intact.

The two films that Restrepo has made following Impression are also murky 16mm works in which materiality spotlights mortality. Both films are allegorical performance-based works, made in collaboration with fellow émigrés to France, about encounters between life and the afterlife that call on film’s innate ability to revive the deceased.

La Bouche

In Cilaos (2016), Restrepo’s most celebrated film to date, a young woman (played by Réunion-born singer Christine Salem) fulfills a promise to her dead mother to find her long-absent father, a womanizing alcoholic named “La Bouche” (“The Mouth”); she eventually learns that he, too, has died, and her pursuit of him into the underworld leads to a cathartic jam session between her and other musicians touched by death. La Bouche (2017) picks up with a group of singers and dancers beseeching the aging title character (Guinean percussionist Mohamed Bangoura, a.k.a. “Diable Rouge”) to respond to his daughter’s murder, which the largely silent and impassive man finally does through a volcanic drum solo. The diptych’s narratives unfold primarily within closed quarters and focus in intimate fashion on the faces and bodies of their performers; the roaming and eclectic approaches taken by Restrepo’s earlier Colombia-set trio, which gather diverse materials to gesture towards vital universes of imagination, harmonize with this pair of firmly concentrated works that transmit forceful musical expressions with the sensation of gesturing the same way.

Over the past three years, Restrepo’s films have won prizes at Locarno (among many other festivals) and screened in the Directors’ Fortnight section of Cannes. Even so—and thanks in part to frequent considerations of shorter films as being less important than their 60-minute-plus counterparts—his work has not yet received the consistent auteurist attention that it deserves. Restrepo’s films, made virtually by hand, are amateur in the most primitive and useful sense of the term: They pulse with artisanal passion for the subjects that they record.

The news of Restrepo’s recent turn towards preparing his first feature-length work made this moment seem an especially adequate one to discuss his artistic corpus up to now. What follows is a monologue delivered by someone in constant dialogue with a world; an exchange of e-mails with the self-effacing filmmaker suggested this sculpted form for an interview that might prove appropriate to the shapes of his films.

CAMILO RESTREPO: I came to filmmaking late in life, after having rid myself of artistic ambition.

I grew up in the city of Medellín during its most violent period. My studies were in plastic arts, with a particular focus in painting. Soon after leaving university, I passed through a period of artistic frustration, a time of constant uncertainty over what my future would be that accompanied the financial difficulties in which I lived. Over time, I decided to abandon making art and instead obtain purely technical work in a gallery.   

Years after making this decision, I felt that there was still something left for me to try. I still held onto the intuition that I could make a work of art. I told myself that if I did not try at least once more, then I would be doomed to live forever with frustration.  

After having this reflection, I bought a Super 8 camera, six rolls of black-and-white film, and one color roll. My wife and constant collaborator Sophie Zuber and I took a journey together into an isolated region of Colombia to shoot. Tropic Pocket combines the little material that we filmed ourselves along with audiovisual records that we found of the place. The film, in fact, seeks the first image of a place, one sometimes known as the Darién Gap, a small piece of the Colombian jungle on the border with Panama.  

The film is a kind of cartography of the jungle laid out through four different image sources recorded over 60 years, including my own footage. It is a space mediated by gazes, each one imposing a single point of view. The images were made by men following different motives and interests: Missionaries, soldiers, traffickers, each one trying to justify and spread knowledge of his actions. They all doubtlessly coincide in hiding the violence through which he who believes himself committed to a just cause ends up subjecting others.

When I watched these images made by others, I felt that it was fruitless to organize a tension beyond the games between different forces that were already operating in the Darién Gap. The engine behind the film thus became to propose an imaginary map of the zone that might liberate the space from points imposed by private interests upon it.  

I added my own images to the found footage, forming the testament of a tourist with a handheld camera. With the Super 8 camera, I sensed that I was capable of greatly concentrating my gaze. I felt that if I wanted to make another film, then I should make it in this way—with the concentration that celluloid allowed me, with the tension of knowing that I would have only a few minutes to work and that I would have to work a bit blindly, without knowing what the processed material would finally reveal.

I therefore threw myself into another short, and then another and another and another, always in tandem with my gallery work, which I continue to maintain. 

Like Shadows Growing as the Sun Goes Down presents Medellín from the point of view of some of its marginal inhabitants: Jugglers at traffic lights. The point of departure for the film consisted of bringing together gestures—all circular, all cyclical—performed by people who go to work when cars cease at traffic lights reaching the end of their service lives. It is a film about those who do not advance, a work in which delay and repetition impose themselves upon speed, and one in which the cars are always sensed somewhere out of sight.  

The film’s title comes from a celebrated tribute to Simón Bolívar: “Over the centuries, your glory will grow like shadows growing as the sun goes down.” The present moment of the film’s characters is tied to Medellín’s symbolic tissue, and the journey through its physical strata is also a journey through historical strata, with streets marked by the names of heroes and great battles associated with the Independence. As I explored the streets with the jugglers, I grew aware of our displacement within a vast space amplified by time, the terrain of a stratified society in which past and present never stopped meeting.  

During the time that I was making the film, I perceived another opposition coming into view, one between manual and mechanical work. This resonated with my practice as a filmmaker now working on 16mm, thanks to an association of independent filmmakers in Paris called L’Abominable whose ranks I had joined. I found in the filmmakers of L’Abominable (with my mentors being Stefano Canapa, Guillaume Mazloum, and Nicolas Rey) an enormous urge for independence from the ordinances dictating the making of industrial cinema. We were able to work with celluloid, in fact, precisely because most of the industry had left the terrain free in favor of digital technology. The prices of film stock and processors fell, projectors could be found in theater waste bins, and a number of resources were suddenly within our reach.

I learned how to develop film stock, better manage a camera, and make screening prints. All of this manual and technical work recalls my formation in painting. I myself develop my films. I am the only one responsible for any technical problem that emerges. If the negative rips, or the image comes out too dark, or the chemical balance comes out incorrectly, then I must assume the error. Of course, I am not alone when I develop—my friends from L’Abominable are around in case any problem arises. A great solidarity emerges within systems of fragile production.  

Although I was born in Colombia, for the past two decades I have lived in France. My distance from Colombia allowed me to believe that I could appreciate the country as a field of study. Impression of a War, in an intuitive way, emerged from a series of encounters that helped me find a possible reading of the armed conflict that has mined the nation. 

For over twenty-five years I have bought batches of defective newspapers, initially to paint over them. I knew that they were more than just wastepaper, but it still took me years to discover that they were message and not only medium. I understood this for the first time when I saw a tattoo marked on the body of an ex-prisoner. The shock that I sensed between these two means, of being simultaneously source and information, inspired all that came afterwards, during vacations taken to Colombia. 

Impression of a War explores three classical genres associated with painting: Portrait, landscape, and still life. Each has confirmed its superiority over the others at different points in history with its capacity to represent symbolic actors and sites of power. The film could be seen as a portrait of a group of extreme complexity. A subjective gaze that I call an impression tries to organize and order the group by its interactions within an uncertain space that we call a country. 

The film’s landscape is filled with vectors, as in a field of war whose actors involve themselves in flawed representations inside a world of deceptive appearances. Their world is camouflaged for war, camouflaged in the quotidian.  

Still life has only recently acquired nobility and left behind its status as a minor genre, an evolution that coincided with the reorganization of a political order freeing itself from monarchies. The genre is therefore one of modernity’s most privileged with its potential to claim any single object or person as worthy of an attentive gaze. Impression of a War takes its time in collecting images of “anythings.”

The film allowed me to conclude a series of reflections on Colombia. Cilaos was my first non-Colombian work. I believed that it could be the film to transmute my rootlessness into a bonding with more profound roots. The very theme of the film explores the ambiguous space between gaining and losing one’s identity, and between gaining and losing it voluntarily or through a miscarriage of justice.  

Cilaos began as a work realized with the musician Arthur Gillette. It was he who presented me to the film’s protagonist, Christine Salem, who in turn revealed the mystical territory that impregnates the film’s atmosphere. She offers an immaterial mystical force while representing a living Death, highly material and highly spiritual, as it could be conceived on the island of Reunión as well as throughout Africa and South America. She holds the capacity to enter into a trance state and communicate with the ancestors during ceremonies such as the servis kabaré; the transcendental search undertaken by her character is, in reality, not very far from her.

La Bouche, set in Guinea, is the mirror film to Cilaos. The roles change: The strong becomes weak, who abandons is abandoned. I was not looking for its story, which came from the mouth of my neighbor Ella Bangoura. He beseeched me to film a tribute to the tragedy of his sister, a process that pointed me in a direction inversely reflective of Cilaos, as if the first film’s fiction had been rapidly caught up in the second’s reality.  

But what took place beyond this anecdote? I wasn’t interested for reasons of form. In La Bouche, Cilaos, and Impression of a War, the characters are confronted with what they consider to be a loss, a misfortune, an injustice. They physically react, whether through waking the dead, through hitting and beating, through grabbing skin… Their presence is what matters most, and from this presence I wish to seize the traces that they might leave, even if blurred or trembling or poorly filmed. During the developing of Impression of a War, for instance, the film reel tore in precisely the segment presenting the ex-prisoner’s tattoos. The work itself became tattooed with a mark that appears quite clearly in the image: A blurred line dividing the frame into two halves. 

Cilaos and La Bouche are both tied to darkness, which is a method not only of being light, but also of being space and time. The lack of realistic definition of space in the films removes specific references to past and present and allows for their narratives to advance and retreat through time in fluid ways.

In both films, the enclosure within darkness breaks as a result of a scene in a forest. The clearing becomes a place of passage within which characters are confronted with a failed reality that conducts them towards the mental labyrinth of abstract space, a terrain in continual construction and destruction that follows their certainties and doubts.

If there is something concrete in both of these films, it is language: Creole in Cilaos, Suso in La Bouche. Music and tongue correspond to local color, and through speech and song, the films invoke the inherently oral nature of myth. Diable Rouge and the other musicians in La Bouche and Cilaos bring to life the dramas of their pain, and all the energy contained, accumulated, and eventually released in the films come from them.

At the outset of making both films, there existed only the fascination that I felt from encounters with the musicians. Both La Bouche and Cilaos indicate exactly that the collective finds an exemplary expression through music, which serves as a vehicle to explore common ties between distant populations. In both cases, the space of collective tale-telling, stirred to life by music, makes of itself the space for a film. 

I make musicals for three additional reasons. The first is that the current of so-called realism that has overtaken narrative cinema bores and despairs me, much as it did when I studied “realistic” figuration in painting. With that said, I also feel despair when faced with the vacuity of a contingent of purely formalist works in cinema and in the visual arts. The musical genre presents itself as an adequate way to make films without falling into dominant contemporary schemes; music gives my work power through a distance from reality, and thus gives me a critical point of view with which to better understand our world.

Secondly, the words in music mark, more so than in any other mode of expression, an alliance between form and sense. The sung word—filled with timbre, tone, volume—is a passionate word. And this leads to the third reason, which is purely passion-based: Music holds a force that absorbs me. It is a reasonless reason, which to me, makes it a valid one.

When directing a film, I aim for the role of orchestra conductor, capable of measuring the capacities of my different collaborators and achieving their maximum without exhausting them. It is crucial to be able to stop at just the right moment, before someone feels that the rhythm has passed him or her by. My indications to actors are always very brief. The only useful thing I can tell them is that, in cinema, everything is amplified: The smallest gesture turns into caricature, the rapid grows ever rapider, feelings inflate as though under a magnifying glass. The best they can do is go towards the essential. Their presence is already idea and emotion.

What will I find through following a face? I always begin with a kind of intuition emerging from something emanating a particular force and follow it, as in an investigation. I aim to make internal connections throughout a film, though always in a painterly way: With the sensation of taking the good or the bad path, but without knowing why. 

I work from a personal place, and I am skeptical about the role of art in political and social processes—for instance, it has been clear to me ever since Tropic Pocket that my work could not substitute, nor even activate, real political will to change the critical situation of the Darién Gap. Instead, my first three films arose from an individual search to understand, through my own means, the society in which I was raised.

Afterwards came the diptych that considers society in a theatrical way, through interactions between individuals and a social group. The individual assumes a role determined by group pressure, and the group absorbs and transforms the individual. La Bouche offers perhaps the clearest example of this dynamic; La Bouche himself encounters his words through the chorus of other characters, and the impossibility that he faces in completing basic functions such as speaking and eating impacts both the social body and his own. The physical position of a person in space is also a social position. Films are important not only for the stories they tell, but also for the spaces they create within which the trajectories of different characters can cross.  

I have been classed as a director of short work. When I watch films by Bruce Baillie, Peter Hutton, or Agnès Varda, though, I never think that they made short films as the form is generally understood. A Hutton film’s value cannot be measured in minutes, just as the quality of Juan Rulfo and Robert Walser’s texts cannot be measured by page count. My friends from L’Abominable and other independent labs do not measure time like those involved in marketing do. The result is that each work’s length is determined by the time that each filmmaker needs and has the conditions to pay for.

Save for a French association’s support of Cilaos, I myself have paid for all of my film production; save for Like Shadows Growing as the Sun Goes Down, my work only exists to be screened digitally, with 16mm prints yet to be made. Through directing cheap and short films, I have achieved an accelerated production rhythm.

I have reached a point now, though, at which the experiences of my previous works have come together into a desire to make a longer piece, one that unites the impulses of my Colombian works with those of the musicals. The film will not be a musical itself, but it will nonetheless employ particular usages of word, narration, and space. For the first time, I feel I have material that demands a greater time investment, a duration innate to the project. For the first time, I am also unable to finance my work on my own.

My current place thus requires me to reevaluate my expectations. I began making cinema so that I could satisfy an artistic urge inside myself away from my daily working life. Now I hope not to spend years rewriting a script to appeal to fundraising bodies. It is possible that I do not need to make features, but I will only be able to more concretely know my work’s future once this experiment is done.

Additional statements by Camilo Restrepo about Impression of a War and Cilaos can be found on MUBI here. An essay by Michael Pattison about Impression of a War can be found here.

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