Separate, Don’t Divide: Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias on "Pepe"

The acclaimed filmmaker’s latest follows one of Pablo Escobar’s “cocaine hippos.”
Jordan Cronk

Pepe (Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias, 2024).

In 2009, a male hippopotamus was killed in Colombia by German hunters under authorization of the local authorities. Nicknamed Pepe by the press—after Los Pepes, a paramilitary group that opposed Pablo Escobar—the hippo was part of a small herd of pachyderms originally brought to the country from southern Africa in the late 1970s by the notorious drug lord. Escobar kept the hippos on his estate until 1993 when he was gunned down by US and Colombian special forces, whereupon they were left to wander free from the property. Today, there are over 100 of these so-called “cocaine hippos” living in Colombia’s Magdalena River Valley.

Pepe (2024), the fourth feature by Dominican director Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias, takes this stranger-than-fiction story as the jumping-off point for reimagining Pepe’s journey from the frontiers of South West Africa (once a German colony, now the country of Namibia) to the tropics of Estación Cocorná, where a pair of fishermen attempt to convince the police of the threat that this non-native species posed to the region’s ecosystem. Told from the perspective of Pepe, who narrates from beyond the grave in humorously existential voiceover, the film expands on many of the narrative and stylistic devices seen in Santos Arias’s Cocote (2017). As in that shape-shifting work, about a gardener who’s summoned home to avenge the death of his father at the hands of a local gangster, Santos Arias employs multiple formats and celluloid stocks across Pepe’s episodic story, which pivots seamlessly between rural drama, speculative fantasy, ethnographic documentary, sequences of found audio and news footage related to Pepe and Pablo Escobar, and most memorably, excerpts from the 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoon Peter Potamus, known in Spanish syndication as Pepe Pótamus.

Drawing connections between various pop-cultural and political histories, Pepe presents a kind of patchwork portrait of the Global South, its colonial past, and the cross-pollination of cultural memory across generations. As an “exercise of imagination production” and a “bridge towards [a] much-needed utopia,” as Santos Arias has described it, the film furthers the director’s long-standing interest in cinema’s capacity to generate fantastical—if not idyllic—visions in the viewer’s mind. More impressively, it’s his first work to fashion a space where the real and the imagined come together not as an end unto itself, but to propose something beyond the realm of received wisdom and media-driven discourse.

The day before the public premiere of Pepe at the 2024 Berlinale, where Santos Arias picked up the Best Director prize, I sat down with the filmmaker to discuss his bold formal and visual strategies and how a hybrid production model resulted in a uniquely multivalent film object.

Pepe (Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias, 2024).

NOTEBOOK: I’ve heard that you’ve had this film in mind since around the time of Cocote. Do you remember when you first learned about the Pepe story? 

NELSON CARLO DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: Yes, it was love at first sight, so to speak, though there was a period of time between thinking that I wanted to make a movie about Pepe and actually doing it. I finished Cocote in February 2017, and it was a very hard experience, for personal reasons not necessarily related to the film. I went to Colombia at the end of that month, and it was Camilo Restrepo—the painter, not the filmmaker, though they are from the same city and went to the same school—who told me the story of Pepe, and I instantly knew when hearing it that I wanted to do the film.

NOTEBOOK: How did the project develop into a kind of speculative fiction about Pepe’s life?

SANTOS ARIAS: It was a process. First, because Camilo made a mistake when telling me the story. He told me that as a herd of hippos grows, there’s only one alpha that’s allowed to copulate with the females. And for the right to be that alpha, the males have to fight, which is biologically accurate. What he also told me, though, was that the hippo that loses the fight is then exiled from the herd and has to find another one. But in the case of Pepe, there were no other herds. Pepe was brought to Colombia with just a few other hippos. That idea spoke to me in a rhizomatic way. I thought about the historical immigration between Africa and the Americas, especially with me being from the Caribbean. Just the whole history of Latin America: the immigration problem, the violence in Central America, and those that have been displaced across America because of that violence. But after some research I learned that when the losing hippo is exiled, he actually goes with a female in search of a new herd, and this is how they expand in the territory. That’s why there are still hippos in Colombia.  

I started working on the film in the middle of 2019, when I moved to Berlin. I already knew that it was a German hunter that was hired by the Colombian army to kill Pepe, but what I discovered—and this is something not a lot of Germans know or acknowledge—is that Germany had colonies in Africa, and in the early 1900s waged the first genocide of the 20th century against the Herero and Namaqua people. It was while researching this history that I also started making music, and it was with all this in mind that I began to write the film and work on the soundscape. I began thinking more and more about hybridity and about how mixing stages of production, including even the more anthropological aspects like interviewing people, could yield something resembling a rhizome.

Pepe (Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias, 2024).

NOTEBOOK: Does this approach account for the film’s episodic structure? Were you adding stories or vignettes to the script as you went along?

SANTOS ARIAS: You’d be surprised how similar my initial scripts are to the films. I like the idea of chaining yourself to something in order to then improvise, or to create different strands inside of you from the same basic DNA. Like a jazz musician who’s very skilled and understands harmony very well but from there starts improvising from inside of a structure. I approach things in a similar way. I think a film fails the moment you start dividing things and seeing hybridity as a genre. I studied cinematography at a film school in Buenos Aires, but I also went to CalArts, and the main pedagogical difference between the two is that in film school you’re taught to see films as a product, of either the market or of communication, while at art school you’re taught to see film as an object. That’s a pretty big epistemological difference. So for me, a pastiche or a collage—I grew up in a cultural pastiche, you know? But you don’t have to be of mixed origin to understand that an image is an idea and a thought at the same time. People talk about plurality and diversity in the sense of different people living or being together. But what’s important is a plurality and diversity in the way that we produce knowledge. If cinema is related to life, why not embrace the particularities of this amazing medium that uninformed people have otherwise tried to domesticate into having a single narrative? This obsession with one thing has oppressed a lot of people, and has led to single-minded views on gender, race, class, and geopolitics. It’s time to get the fuck away from that. 

NOTEBOOK: One of the main visual motifs in Cocote is circular pans, while this film is built around aerial zooms. What was the idea behind using this elevated perspective as a way to move in and out of various episodes?

SANTOS ARIAS: Like I mentioned, I studied cinematography in film school, and I also come from experimental cinema, so there’s a fascination in me for technique. I often tell my students that if you learn the technique then you can free yourself. It’s like learning a language and then you can speak.

But do you want to know where the idea really came from? When I first heard that the press had named this hippo Pepe, I thought it was a great name. I thought, “Yes, all hippos should obviously be named Pepe,” after Pepe Pótamus, or Peter Potamus, a Hanna-Barbera cartoon that I grew up watching. So if I’m dealing in this film with the problems of imagination as a Latin American, it’s impossible for me not to connect the idea to American television, which so greatly influenced my imagination as a child. Disney, Hanna-Barbera, and then later Cartoon Network—these were all important for me.

But of course Colombians weren’t thinking of Peter Potamus when they named the hippo. Pepe was really named after Los Pepes, the paramilitary group that was chasing Pablo Escobar. But in my mind Pepe was Peter Potamus, who travels in a flying boat. In the ’60s, Hanna-Barbera was using a bi-dimensional animation technique, as opposed to Disney, which animated at 24 frames per second. Bi-dimensional animation, which is considered a limited animation technique, was mostly used for TV. That’s why you only see Peter Potamus’s boat going up and down. So that’s where the idea to use aerial zooms came from. You can theorize that those shots also reflect themes of colonialism, but as a technique it’s a reference to the cartoon. 

Peter Potamus (William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, 1964–1966).

NOTEBOOK: Three cinematographers are credited on the film, including you. Is this due to working in multiple formats, the different locations, or something else?

SANTOS ARIAS: Most of the images you see in the film were shot by me. I used Camilo Soratti and Roman Lechapelier as a duo for the Colombian part of the shoot, because when I work with actors, as I do in that section of the film, I don’t touch the camera. It’s a completely different job. That’s when I become a director. When there are no actors, I’m a filmmaker. It was different in Namibia. There’s only one narrative scene in that part of the film, set on the tour bus, which I shot with my first assistant cameraman. I also didn’t shoot the drone scenes, since I can’t operate a drone, but otherwise all the landscape and documentary footage in that section is by me. It was mainly me documenting the hippos, waiting for them to do something. It was similar in Colombia: we filmed the hippos and the natural surroundings for two weeks. This was all done outside the fictional shooting. I also shot some footage in the Dominican Republic, including one boat sequence and the scenes in the hunter’s mansion. It was in the Dominican Republic that we shot more of the big-value production sequences. But that’s what I mean: instead of intellectualizing the process you mix the process, and it’ll hopefully result in a more organic hybridity. 

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about your cinema in relation to ethnography? Do you consider Pepe a work of speculative fiction as much as an ethnographic study?

SANTOS ARIAS: My relationship with ethnography doesn’t come through academics. I’ve never read a book about ethnography or studied it. For me ethnography is a way of relating to people in the way that you sustain conversations with them—how you ask things and how you listen. One of the most important mentors I have is Rita Segato, the Argentine anthropologist, who has a theory called “Anthropology on Demand.” She talks about anthropology through political concepts but also practical tools, and these practical ideas have helped me most in how I direct actors, especially nonprofessionals. Ethnography for me is one of many elements I use to help find strategies to direct my performers. At the end of the day they’re just human beings—each a life unto themself. You could say that the little I know about ethnography and anthropology comes down to ethics. The method we use with actors is less homogenized than that of a professional film shoot—we take it on an individual basis.

As far as speculative fiction—I like the word. I think all discourses are speculative. I try not to divide things when I work. I separate things, which is different. If you separate things you can navigate better, so that it doesn’t become one monolithic thing. I just try to be true to the process. What I’m trying to do is present ideas with all their complexities and multiplicities intact, as it is in real life, because life is how we relate to things. Your friend is not just your friend. We’re all part of a complex ecosystem, and each person in it is impossible to define. It’s like being asked about your hometown. Well, your hometown is a lot of things, and it’s also something different for each person. I’m just trying to find beauty in the elements I’m working with. So is the film ethnography, or speculative fiction? I don’t know. I guess it’s both. 

NOTEBOOK: The end credits refer to the film as a “cinema conversation.” In what sort of dialogue do you hope to engage the viewer with this film?

SANTOS ARIAS: The idea of a cinema conversation is something I started thinking about while at CalArts. I made a film there called You Look Like a Carriage That Not Even the Oxen Can Stop (2013) that was set in New York City but included Dominican performers. The experience of representing my culture in an American context with that film was mind-blowing to me. But since this was a film spoken in Caribbean Spanish, I had to translate the dialogue myself so that my professor could understand it. So as I translated and transcribed the dialogue—with all the pauses, circularity, and repetition—I realized I was literally engaging in a cinema conversation through different means. It was almost a symphony for me. All the decisions in narrative filmmaking are based upon laws of written language, and I realized through this process, as well as through watching and learning about experimental film, that as narrative filmmakers, we’re in a prison of modeling our narratives based on those laws. My cinema since then has been an attempt to vindicate orality, specifically Dominican orality, since Caribbean Spanish is a crazy kind of Spanish even in the Spanish-speaking world. But even in our conversation now: it’s tacit that we’re communicating something. But how do we do this through cinema? For me it’s through finding new forms of film grammar. I’m trying to propose new linguistic images, so hopefully by the end you’ll think, “Wow, he started there and ended up here?”

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