Reimagining an Elephant: Discussing "Cemetery" with Carlos Casas

The Spanish artist talks about his shapeshifting documentary about the stories, traditions, and myths surrounding Sri Lankan elephants.
Andrew Northrop

Drifting between observational documentary-like forms, homages to adventure films and experiments drawing from artist moving image practice, Spanish filmmaker and visual artist Carlos Casas’s shapeshifting film Cemetery charts the movements of Nga, a Sri Lankan elephant travelling to the mythical elephants’ graveyard as the world outside begins to collapse under the spell of natural disaster. Set into motion by Casas’s desire to better understand the myth he frequently saw in adventure films as a child, Cemetery is a deeply researched film that incorporates the stories, traditions, and pieces of mythology that Sri Lankan mahouts (figures who look after elephants) imparted upon him into a three-part narrative, with the elephant as the central protagonist, and largely taking place in the amorphous space of the jungle.

Despite experimenting with genre in each chapter, the film forms a connective tissue in the bond between the viewer and the elephant, largely defined through the caring actions of the mahout, tactile cinematography, and the impending threat of poachers, who dominate the second chapter with their pursuits. Even at its most spiritual—with a third chapter that invites the viewer to surrender their position as a spectator and become synonymous with the elephant as it approaches the graveyard in a challenging yet tangible, shadowy sequence—the film finds itself grounded in reality through an engulfing sequence of sound design, featuring field audio by renowned sound recordist and frequent David Attenborough-collaborator Chris Watson. Forcing the viewer’s eyes and ears into overdrive in its formally rigorous climax, Cemetery presents an experience that illustrates and transcends cinema’s affective abilities, whilst leaving space for the spectator to form their own associations in turn.

Casas’s film is also part of a wider network of projects including “Sanctuary”—an installation which reproduced the binaural frequencies of elephants in an exhibition setting—and a vinyl release featuring a fictional radio station originally intended for the film. 

Following its showing at the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival, Casas sat down to discuss formal representations of animals on screen, working with Chris Watson, the logistics of working with an elephant who is locally recognized as a God, speaking to different audiences through form, and the echoes of research that lie hidden in its composition.

NOTEBOOK: Quite often, the way we see animals depicted on screen follows a very specific rulebook—there’s the typical tracking shot of a pet dog running for example, and there’s a focus on “cute” moments that often prevails. Were you thinking about those typical representations going into this project, especially when dealing with a wild animal?

CARLOS CASAS: Yes, it was important to break that spell of how we see animals, and elephants in particular. One of the reasons I wanted to film with that particular elephant was to get those moments and to get to know the different parts of the elephant. You’re not usually allowed to spend 20 seconds looking at an animal of this kind in this way. I have these two moments where you see the elephant in the dark and during the day, which to me connected to the parable of the blind men and the elephant. I wanted to touch that story in a way that was not too direct, but at the same time allowed the spectator to reimagine the elephant and connect to it in a different way.

NOTEBOOK: And those early moments in the daylight have the quality of touching the elephant through the camera—through close-ups. I wondered, how much of a concern was scale while shooting this film? It’s not until you see the mahout against it that you really get an appreciation for the scale, which really comes into play when the viewer effectively rides the elephant through point-of-view shots in the end sequence. Was it hard to adapt to scale, especially when you’re shooting in the environment of the jungle, where it’s already easy to lose a sense of scale and direction?

CASAS: Yeah, one of the more difficult tasks was to find jungle locations where the elephant would have space to pass with a camera as well. Creating the POV of the elephant was not an easy thing, especially with how I really wanted to make the spectator feel the rhythm of the elephant’s footsteps. That slow pace was something we talked with the DOP about a lot, so that it would feel right when it needed to. I was trying to create this fusion of the elephant and the spectator. There’s a lot of moments, especially with the end sequence, where you cross this threshold of human POV and elephant POV, and you don’t necessarily know what you are. I don’t know if that’s necessarily how the viewer feels, but it’s something I was trying to achieve. 

NOTEBOOK: What was it like finding and directing the elephant? I know there’s an elephant sanctuary in that region…

CASAS: It was very important for me to connect with the right people on the first trips that I took—to find the right mahout, and in the right way. These people deal with these elephants since childhood, so it’s important. A lot of the people with whom we were speaking to about this elephant talked about it as a deity, a God. It would take people to a nearby Buddhist temple, an ancient city, which for me symbolically connected to the idea of the elephant graveyard, so I fantasized about shooting with that elephant. Eventually I met the royal elephant keeper and he figured everything out so that we would be able to work the elephant. It was amazing. It was a very well-known elephant in Sri Lanka, so people would recognize it in the street as we made our way to locations. They knew its name and it was a bit like shooting with George Clooney in a way. He had an entourage of people taking care of his food and needs. It was also very interesting to be a 5-foot-6 person standing very close to this elephant. It was very magical. 

NOTEBOOK: Even though you’re dealing with mythologies and spiritual concepts in the film, it really feels like its grounded in reality because of having that elephant. In many ways, as much as you try, you can’t remove the documentary element that working with this kind of animal brings…

CASAS: For me it was initially difficult to adapt to that typology. I had to find the right character to represent the mythic side, and be careful not to mix in a tourist representation of elephants. Maybe it bought us more difficulty in terms of shooting, but for me it felt like a healthy connection, and it was easy for the elephant to represent something that he was already. We had to think about the scenes in very particular ways to get moments like the bathing and when the mahout is saying goodbye. A lot of those scenes were based on moments from mythical stories told to me by mahouts, and it was important to marry those with the idea of this journey—the call to the graveyard.

NOTEBOOK: The concept of the journey is the core of so many of the adventure films you’ve referenced when discussing this film at Q&As, such as the Tarzan series you grew up watching, which feature the myth of the elephant graveyard as a plot device. The middle sequence in the film feels very much like an adventure film. Were you thinking about broader audiences when making the film? The film drifts between genres and formal elements, but it still feels easy and comfortable for all kinds of people to follow.

CASAS: It’s been really interesting to see the reception to the film, because there are different people who come from different cinematic worlds. For me, the film was supposed to be a chimera that changes itself and kind of represents the history of cinema. It’s interesting to see that there’s a wider audience that connects to certain things because the narrative allows it, or some people connect more to the section with the poacher because it’s more of an adventure, who-done-it, or a jungle persecution type of story. And other people connect to the dark part because its more abstract and talks to an experimental cinema background. I really wanted to splice the film and give each part its personality, but it couldn’t be too experimental or too abstract. In the end this is something that was largely balanced in the edit, or even in the writing, because it takes a certain amount of intuition to find that middle ground. I hope that this film can create a space where all of these people can mix. 

NOTEBOOK: Yeah, and it also gives things up to the viewer’s imagination too—like how you hear about the earthquake through the radio, but it’s up to you to imagine what the world beyond the jungle is going through. That leads me on to the sound, because we hear those artificial sounding noises in that sequence with the poachers, and so much of the way we perceive sound these days is through our relationship with the urban landscape. What was it like balancing sound in the film, and choosing where components would be introduced? 

CASAS: From the beginning I knew that I wanted to work with Chris Watson, and I knew that I would have the dark part—the arrival to the cemetery—which would be mostly sonic. I wanted the spectator to arrive there in the darkness and use their ears to navigate the shadows; to imagine their own space. Chris and I created a narrative that is purely sound in a way. One that can create a vision of the whole world. The viewer is kind of listening to the whole natural world at once. You’ve got underground sounds from the caverns of Iceland, seals from another space, and falling water in places like Iceland and India, all of which is from Chris’s archive. So even though its natural sound, we really tried to set it in a way that was similar to noise art. There’s also a lot of small audible narratives like the story of genesis in there—from the birth of the planet to the first water species and the emergence of elephants. And when the last poacher dies, we incorporated a series of sounds related to tinnitus. I wanted to prepare the spectator’s ears for the journey to come.  

NOTEBOOK: I make a connection between that sound and the sounds they often play around shopping centers and public places, to deter young people from congregating…

CASAS: Yeah, it’s very much like that. It’s that audible phenomenon of tinnitus, a strong headache or the calibration of your ears under pressure. It’s got that association of being the cause of death for the poacher, but it also has a natural connection. The idea of nature as a means of communication with different species—the threshold of hearing. There’s a lot of little details and connections like that, and it’s not always obvious, but they’re little things we decided to include.

NOTEBOOK: In the dark sequence I noticed the really faint, grainy images of the elephant passing by. Are those real images produced by a camera, or something else?

CASAS: All the shadow play is a mix of archive materials that I used during the initial research. It was important for me to put all of the ghosts, all the influences that I had, back into the film. I don’t know if it’s particularly noticeable or important to say, but it’s like the cemetery of all the films that had an influence on me, like Tarzan and The Jungle Book—it’s a kind of composition. I took them and distorted them, collided them, remixed them. At the end, all these films are in the DNA of this film, even if they’re totally destroyed or really subliminal.

NOTEBOOK: That’s really interesting, because in other films the traditional use of material like that would be very straightforward, but it’s much more nuanced here.

CASAS: In a way it’s very alchemic, and very personal, but it’s important that they are there in some way. Like the falling water is a mix of everything from Tarzan to La region centrale. It gets discussed in dialogues like this, but sometimes it isn’t important at all, and for me it’s not that everyone has to know about it. But I enjoy that all the process of the project is open. Sometimes I’ve shown this archive stuff in other contexts, but it’s not a requirement for understanding the film. 

NOTEBOOK: It’s an interesting echo of the research you put into the film.

CASAS: And it’s a homage to cinema’s power. This film really started because of this idea of the elephants’ graveyard and how I just never knew where it had come from. But all those ideas and images came to me from the films I watched as a kid, and it put me in a different state. A lot of my films starts from an image—a ghost image—that I don’t know the source of. It’s usually an image that impressed me in the past, and a lot of the time it comes from other films. 

NOTEBOOK: Those images can feel very ghostly when you don’t know the true origin, especially when things are inherited and adapted in such unusual ways in Western culture.

CASAS: That’s why it’s so great when you’re doing the research and you get these strange vibrations, like while watching a film for example—that’s something that stayed in my mind, and why I had to make this film.

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