Salomé Lamas. Photo by Ale Vulcano, courtesy of The Bogliasco Foundation.
It's one thing to head to the top of the world to shoot at the highest-altitude human settlement, another entirely different to see the result of that shoot projected on a screen. But if the screen is the giant-sized IMAX at Berlin's Sony Center, the experience may be closer than you'd think. Salomé Lamas may look small next to either the top of the world or the IMAX screen, but the Portuguese director, only 29, is a tough cookie behind her apparently fragile and youthful looks, as can be seen from Eldorado XXI, the feature film she shot in the Peruvian mining town of La Rinconada, 5500m high in the Andes—a “nightmarish shoot” by her own admission. (And not the first one. While shooting in Transnistria for another project, the KGB arrested and interrogated her and her crew.)
Eldorado XXI, an immersive non-fiction essay bridging Werner Herzog's postcards from the edge of human resilience and exploration and Wang Bing's minimalist observations of struggling communities, was one of the high points of a particularly strong line-up in this year's Berlinale Forum, and is now heading to New York's New Directors/New Films. It's the second feature-length work for Lamas after 2012's No Man's Land, an equally fascinating deconstruction of memory and history, reality and fiction, through the direct-to-camera narrative of a Portuguese special forces soldier turned mercenary for hire.
A film graduate with a masters in art from Amsterdam and currently a PhD candidate in film studies, as well as a former DAAD Berliner Künstlerprogramm and Rockefeller fellow, Lamas has also a number of short films and video installations and performances under her belt. And while theory underlies all of her work in any format, she always wears it lightly and never forgets there's an audience in front of her that may not be familiar with it. Her cinema is born out of the tension between thinking and doing, looking and sharing. Eldorado XXI widens the scope of that dichotomy, by engaging with the neo-feudal, post-apocalyptic landscapes of La Rinconada's mining facilities and the impoverished communities that survive there as best they can, in a multi-layered exploration of history, politics, society and capitalism that corresponds to Lucrecia Martel's definition of “political cinema” as raising questions and doubts rather than offering cut-and-dried solutions.
Lamas spoke at the Lisbon offices of production company O Som e a Fúria, in between arriving from France where she supervised Eldorado XXI's post-production, and leaving for Berlin for her film's world premiere. Parts of this interview were first published in and appear courtesy of Público.
NOTEBOOK: Eldorado XXI premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival's Forum. Is that something you looked forward to?
SALOMÉ LAMAS: We did discuss with the producers where we would pitch the film. Within the big carnival that film festivals usually are, the Forum is open to serious work and treats it accordingly. It's a carefully curated section, with a rigor that transcends the mere sidebar within a big festival, and that makes me very comfortable. I feel happy being in the Forum, it's the right place for the way the film turned out, within a family of filmmakers that makes sense to me.
NOTEBOOK: The Forum makes a point of looking beyond cinema, into the connections with modern visual and multimedia arts. That's something you do as well, switching between installation work and more traditional film. How do you decide what is the correct form for each project?
LAMAS: In the specific case of Eldorado XXI, the original idea was to make a kind of hybrid documentary, with a loose script and characters. But then it moved in other directions. The long shot at the beginning of the film happened because I was thinking of doing a parallel museum piece, but when I came back from La Rinconada I realized that particular shot could very well be a part of the film. From that moment on, I wouldn't use it in a museum piece so as not to cannibalize my work, and that led the film into a more radical, less classical side. That was due in part to my own way of structuring and approaching the picture, but also because we shot in such a difficult place. It was a really troublesome shoot, nightmarish almost.
But back to your question, my studies were originally in cinema and it was only later I did my masters in art, so the installations and gallery work are a more recent development. Probably, though, everything I've ever done has always had that possibility to be presented in either of those venues.
Some projects demand a more consistent financing and lead to different results. It's different to go to La Rinconada on your own than to go to La Rinconada with a team after two years waiting for the funding to come. I'm always doing many different projects at the same time. This year I'll spend a month in the jungles of Borneo, and I have another project I want to shoot in the Middle East, between Cairo, Dubai and Beyrouth. Smaller projects that I fund in other ways, but that are necessary to me. Not just for artistic reasons but also so I can have a life like everybody else and a job like everyone else. It's really a way to live your daily life.
NOTEBOOK: Shooting in the Peruvian Andes is a weird way to live your daily life…
LAMAS: But there is a practical side to it. I don't have a romantic vision of filmmaking, I find creativity and talent meaningless words. I'm closer to being a cobbler, working on a craft you have to master in order to improve. It's all about experiences, and storing experiences, and that makes you look differently at everything. I find it utterly condemnable that some directors shoot abroad in a very gratuitous way: there's not enough drama in the Northern Hemisphere or in the place they live in, so they go elsewhere in the world to look for it. Those films are very easy to spot, they're much closer to the militant, campaigning documentary, which doesn't really stimulate me as a viewer. I find lots of ethical problems in them.
So, on one hand, it's all about managing your daily life, and on the other it's about that storing of experiences and your ability to live anywhere, about understanding how other places you can live in interfere with you and you with them. That's where most of the ideas probably present in all my work come from. The sense of waiting, of finding something surprising to me that I may find interesting to record; of me being an alien in a different reality, and how the friction that creates can generate a project, a desire to bring to the forefront realities unknown or forgotten.
NOTEBOOK: But a craftsman usually sits at his table, while you travel around the world...
LAMAS: That's related to a certain mental confusion, and to my sense of hyper-activity [laughs]. I like paradoxes, I like conflict, though I don't deal at all well with conflict. I don't like to shoot, so I put myself in situations I can't later run away from. Sometimes you need to have some luck for it to work out fine; you have to be on the lookout for something, wait for it to happen, whether premeditated or unexpected. But it's also connected with the inability to separate life from work, and with my need to do several projects at the same time. I may be shooting something in a particular corner of the world and then I come across something that links to something else, so I make a note and save it for a future project. You can't just turn off your brain and say, I'm compartmentalizing this. Everything happens constantly at the same time.
NOTEBOOK: Do you find people have a different perception of your work depending on where they come across it first, in the theatre or in the museum?
LAMAS: I don't think so, but it is difficult for me to say because I'm the artist. That's something that comes more from critics, or curators, or even the institutions… It's never something I'm worried about. Also, when you are trying to invoke a lineage, that means you're not really interested in the work but in something else. I'm attracted by a series of things related to the ends of the earth, exiled places, margins; I'm always seeking the limits of the forms themselves, whether of non-fiction cinema or of presentation, showing the same work in different contexts. I don't think that theoretical reflection is what gets the films going, though. That comes from a more... kamikaze side of me, slightly irresponsible, though actually very pragmatic. I'm very aware of the risks I'm taking, which are always measured even when I'm pushing physical or geographical limits.
NOTEBOOK: Why do you feel attracted toward those limits?
LAMAS: I think initially out of curiosity towards people, towards all that's around me, and also with the idea of how to translate reality into a filmic language.
NOTEBOOK: Your work invites the audience to experience the journey with you, and not just respond passively.
LAMAS: Oh, absolutely, I don't like lazy people. [Laughs] I'm interested in how the perception of the audience changes. I like to push the limits of the audience, whether of appreciation or of understanding. I never liked going to a museum and seeing interactive pieces because they're usually accompanied by instructions on how to interact. I'm more interested in active viewers, and leave others to judge and reflect. Essentially, I ask questions, and questions bigger than myself, and bigger than the audience. There's also something else: a question always has an answer. However, that answer isn't always in the film, or if it is it's hidden in a little box, and it's up to the audience to find it.
NOTEBOOK: In shooting in La Rinconada, I'm reminded of Werner Herzog. But his work has a more spontaneous, personal side, while yours is more distanced, very thought through.
LAMAS: I'd love to meet Herzog! But I don't know what his spectrum of enthusiasm is. It probably bleeds into the films. I tend to play with the entire spectrum of what enthusiasm or emotion is, but because of the way I tend to look at things, the films look like they're very controlled. That's another paradox. I'm always looking to let go of control, but I need to have a measure of control. I don't know if both things can coexist, but I feel they do anyway... Just because you don't see me jumping for joy, it doesn't mean I don't feel it, I just don't show it outwardly...
NOTEBOOK: You keep saying you don't like shooting. Do you take more pleasure in editing?
LAMAS: I suppose so. Or maybe that's the way I found to live in the world. [Laughs] I'm always moved by the pleasure of watching, not so much by sharing my way of watching. I take enormous pleasure in watching, but that's never enough. That's why you're always looking for extremes, because it's never enough to just film reality.
NOTEBOOK: You make it sound like an addiction...
LAMAS: Yes, maybe. But that's also got to do with obsession. You're always trying to go further while knowing full well you'll never go far enough. So it's that thing of the journey rather than the destination being the thing. What matters is that I went to La Rinconada and spent time with those people. And that shapes the film, because the end result is always unpredictable. Beforehand, all I can say is, I'm going to go there and bring a film back. Now the film I bring back can be A, or B, or C…
NOTEBOOK: ...but you don't really know until you come back.
LAMAS: Precisely. Because very often I haven't even scouted locations, I just get there and set up the camera and shoot in the moment, though that wasn't the case in Eldorado XXI.
NOTEBOOK: Do you recognize a through line that connects all your films? Like a worldview of your own?
LAMAS: More than I used to, because I'm constantly asked to inscribe myself in a circle or in a world. Also, I can look at my work in other ways after doing Q&A sessions with audiences, or reading or talking with other people after the film is done. I have a lot of fun developing a project on paper, trying to imagine all the possible outcomes of a reality I don't fully know, and all I can do with it. It's a theoretical construct. Then I go out and shoot, knowing full well I'm playing with expectations, not all of which will come true. There's a more emotive, intuitive side to it; you need to react because you don't always have time to think. You need to be there in the moment, aware. Then, when I return home with the material, I can certainly go back to the theory, but that can be dangerous, because theories don't always work in practice. For the editing to work, I find I need to carry over that intuition, that emotional side from the shoot, while needing a structure. You have to accommodate the film so it becomes a film but then, once it's finished and you're free of it, it becomes something else, it's no longer yours.
Also, working with the right people can enrich the film vastly. They will open doors for you and allow you to explore territories you'd be reluctant to explore on your own. A dialogue may allow you to make a suggestion and somebody else will take it to the next level and you'll be thankful they did – that happened in Eldorado XXI with the sound work. You don't always have to have the most brilliant technicians in the world, you just need the right people to understand what you're doing as a person. When the film is done, and it starts being seen and read by the world, then you can go back to the theory, and start thinking how to speak about the film, how to put on paper what happened by impulse. This is one reason why I have a hard time communicating with people during a shoot...