Why do we categorize documentary films as non-fiction? If fiction is a means to truthfulness and documentary filmmaking attempts to represent the realities of lived experience, then can’t the languages of emotion and introspection operate within the genre?
These are the questions that preoccupy the students of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. At this year’s Open City Documentary Festival will be the U.K. premieres of films produced by Colombian filmmaker Laura Huertas Millàn during her practice-based PhD there. Sol Negro (2016), La Libertad (2017) and jeny303 (2018) are part of her ethnographic fiction series. In dialogue with visual anthropology, they consider how narrative creation can liberate the single, fixed colonial viewpoint.
In the tradition of Jean Rouch, ethnofiction filmmaking uses less conventional techniques to provide an insight into the lives of an indigenous population. Rouch compared this form of filmmaking to Surrealism, defining it as an art form that exploits the “most real processes of reproduction, the most photographic, but at the service of the unreal, bringing into being elements of the irrational (as in Magritte, Dalì)”. Troubling concepts of identity and alterity, they seek to destabilize the traditional documentary standpoint, ultimately striving to decolonize ethnography.
This form of ethnography—both an academic discipline and hybrid film genre—gives agency to its subject, using fiction to suggest the potential for other realities. After agreeing on the outline of a story, the filmmaker follows the subjects’ improvisations of their own lived experiences. Discarding empty metaphors for the oneiric poetry of the subject-matter as it exists, ethnofictions operate beyond the realm of language. As the filmmaker and postcolonial theorist Trinh T. Minh-Ha stated in her 1982 essay film Reassemblage, this form of anthropological practice does “not wish to speak about, only to speak nearby.”
In her critically-acclaimed Sol Negro, Huertas Millàn portrays the pillaging and displacement of her country and its people through her own family tragedy. Documenting the aftermath of her aunt’s suicide attempt, Sol Negro connects the psychiatric hospital, the family home, an abandoned theatre and a barren precipice. Huertas Millàn prompts many a tender moment from her aunt, an opera singer. A notable scene is one in which she stands unsteady on a rock face, clutching a blood-stained white rag with tears of mascara falling down her cheeks. The quickened, shallow breath of a panic attack is contrasted with measured non-diegetic soprano performance of Schumann’s Frauen-liebe und Leben (A Woman’s Love and Life). In this two-fold composition, Huertas Millàn illustrates the emotional legacy of her country’s colonization as the European language stifles individual expression.
Huertas Millàn renders her inherited experiences through conversations between her mother and aunt as an internal monologue, appearing before the camera herself as well. The medium-length film is shot in the half-light of a prolonged eclipse, both planetary and emotional. The cosmological conceit that is used to express national grief through family tragedy bears a resemblance to the work of Patricio Guzmán. She declares her admiration of the ‘de-colonist’ poetics of the Chilean documentarian in her essay ‘Cuerpos celestes’/‘Celestial Bodies’ for TerremotoMagazine. Huertas Millàn confronts the symbolic production of memory in Chile and Colombia—two nations divided by violence.
In Nostalgia for the Light (2010),Guzmán connects the astral with the ancestral through the calcium chemistry shared by the human skeleton and the galaxy far, far away. With her metaphor of the black sun, Huertas Millàn explores how the disinherited contemplate their position in the universe through a metaphysical connection with it. Two documentarians’ inquiries into the universe on behalf of their nation are connected with a contemplation of anatomy, anthropological origination and the heavenly transcendental.
Huertas Millàn explores the dark iconography of the ‘black sun of melancholy’ from ancient Greek humoral theory to Durer’s engravings, and from Gérard Nerval’s poetry to Nazi mysticism. She concludes that the way to ease pain, absence and loss is to surrender to the sovereign otherness of the celestial. Huertas Millàn quotes Valentina Rodríguez from Nostalgia for the Light: “When pain gets really oppressive […] To think that everything began with a cycle and that it neither began nor will it end with me, nor with my parents, nor my children; that we’re all part of a current, an energy; so that life can emerge… In light of that, I believe what happened to them, their absence, takes on another meaning…”
Following Sol Negro’s solar eclipse, La Libertad offers a glimpse of the freedom enjoyed by the matriarchal communities indigenous to Oaxaca, Mexico. Resisting the traditional conventions of documentary filmmaking, Huertas Millànconceives of a new way of voicing the subaltern. Within the Navarro community groups assemble around the backstrap loom, a pre-Hispanic weaving technique preserved for centuries by indigenous women in Mesoamerica. The first eight minutes of the film do not feature voices or even faces, but, instead, hands and handcraft. Reducing the depth of field, Huertas Millànoffers an intimacy into the quotidian. The threads suspended across the screen are so delicate they vibrate like vocal chords in response to their environment. By substituting taking heads for talking hands, the film resists the super-imposition of meaning-making metaphors. Essential to the film is a scene shot inside the Textile Museum of Oaxaca in which a group of curators cannot find words to adequately describe an antique Iranian fabric. Sometimes language just simply doesn’t suffice.
Before her ethnographic fiction project, Huertas Millàn produced a series around the concept of exoticism taking the form of ‘jungle-movie’ pastiches. Combining fantasy, science fiction and mockumentary, they stage the discovery of America. Journey to a Land Otherwise Known (2011) is a ‘first contact’ film formed of the travelogues of European scientists, conquistadors and missionaries. Among the source material is Hans Staden’s 1557 account, ‘True Story and Description of a Country of Wild, Naked, Grim, Mean-eating People in the New World’. Isolated from their origins and framed in this way, the entries are ridiculed. Shot in Lille’s tropical greenhouse, the film undermines the colonizers’ heroic adventures. Huertas Millàn’s experimental approach resists the narrow compartmentalization of post-colonial filmmakers, establishing her as one of the most urgent filmmakers of the present.
Alongside Patricio Guzmàn, Huertas Millàn is indebted to the great Trinh T. Minh-Ha. In various interviews Minh-Ha has spoken about the burden of representation that non-Europeans filmmakers must bear. Minh-Ha expresses her feelings coming from a country as culturally and demographically diverse as Vietnam. From an anthropological perspective, there is no simple, singular form of experience to package up and export to a Western audience. The solution is a hybridization of genre. Paradoxically both inside and outside, a similar sense of alienation is felt in Huertas Millàn exoticism series. The othering within the title of the 2011 film implies the toppling of perspectives, not simply through the French setting but through its cultural translation and twenty-first-century reconfiguration. The French title Voyage En La Terre Autrement Dite contains suggestive nuances that implies the land has not just been ‘otherwise known’ but hegemonic discourse has been irrevocably and irreducibly ‘otherwise said.’
Speaking and speech-making is a preoccupation in the latest films of Huertas Millàn’s ethnographic fiction series. Speech (2017) is a found-footage film that edits together actress’ Oscar acceptance speeches delivered in the ceremonies in the years between 2000 and 2015. As opposed to her ethnographic fictions, the seemingly-spontaneous emotional outpouring is exposed as artificial and mechanical. The majority white actresses kiss their partners, thank the Academy and their husbands in between making self-deprecating comments and downplaying their achievements. The dominant discourse of the new millennium is deconstructed, its hegemonic noise and bombast contrasts against the intimate quietness and grace of her earlier ethnographic fiction films.
Found-footage combined with 16mm stock is also the material that forms her most recent film, Le Labryinthe. The Locarno prize-winner has also been selected to screen in the TIFF Wavelengths and NYFF Projections sections. It traces a journey back in time through the memories of a Uitoto man who worked for the drug lords in the Colombian Amazon in the 80s. He recounts the death of Evaristo Porras, who oversaw the trafficking of tons of cocaine via Brazil, Ecuador and Peru. Porras was the chief of the Medellín cartel which, at its height, supplied up to eighty per cent of the global cocaine market. Porras built a replica of the mansion famous from the recently-rebooted American TV show Dynasty, the home of Blake Carrington the oil tycoon. Huertas Millàn features clips of the TV program in Le Labyrinthe.
By drawing a parallel between one empire and another, Huertas Millàn implies the violence of the drug wars is just another iteration of the violent European conquest of Colombia. The replica mansion now in crumbles, the ravages and repetitions of time’s onwards march exposes the built projects as ephemeral. The psychological consequences of narcocapitalism, however, are deeply entrenched within the memories of the film’s protagonist. As the impressionistic and imagistic narrative progresses, we venture further into his labyrinthine mindscape to witness his near death experience. The final shot shows men around a campfire at night time, disappearing into the darkness—gesturing to that which escapes representation. The audience is left helpless.
The Ethno-Fictions of Laura Huertas Millán plays at the Open City Documentary Festival on September 7, 2019.