Colombia / Montreal
In 2020, Cecilia Araneda spoke with Pablo Alvarez-Mesa as part of a multi-year curatorial research project on Latin Canadian cinema. This is a brief extract of her research. The film on this page is viewable by the public to July 31, 2021.
Colombian-born filmmaker Pablo Alvarez-Mesa’s works have played at international film festivals including Berlinale, IFFR, MoMA Doc Fortnight, Visions du Reel, and RIDM. His most recent film looking into Simón Bolívar’s battles of Independence and titled Bicentenario played at the 2021 Berlinale Forum Expanded, MoMA Doc Fortnight and FICUNAM among other festivals, earning a Jury Mention at Festival Punto de Vista in the Main Competition. Pablo is an alumnus of Berlinale Talents, Berlinale Doc/Lab and the CFC/NFB Doc Lab and Banff Centre for the Arts, amongst others. Pablo’s interest in documentary lies in the relationship between fact and fiction; between what is recalled and what is inevitably constructed. His films all touch in one way or another issues of displacement, history and collective memory. | mubi.com/pablo-alvarez-mesa
CA: Within your body of work about Latin America, your treatment of the link between the ideas of masculinity and violence is quite fascinating, including perhaps for addressing the obvious in a way that is not often addressed. The Latin American notion of masculinity and the idea of “la patria” have been carefully branded as tools of independence, when in reality they have replaced one form of colonialism with another, designed to replace culture with authoritarianism. What drew you to investigate this theme?
PA: I have been interested for some time in structures of social control, especially soft power, which is a profound way through which societies and individuals relate and integrate ideologies and positions. Exploring this through cinema is quite interesting to me, as the politics of every day are often not obvious but rather embedded into patterns of behaviour and culture. Filmmaking, for me, is then looking for those places of tension or friction between the individual and society, places where personal ethics border tradition. In the Latin American context, misogyny permeates all kinds of human interactions, in sometimes subtle and other times overt ways, but always with deep societal repercussions. For many reasons, these expressions of masculinity generally lead to violence.
The idea of “la patria” makes us all children of a father, and that patria has the power to not only infantilise society and its inner workings and relations, but also to perpetually place the individual and society under the shadow of an imaginary father. That idea of fatherland can be used by whoever is in control – be it a government, a military or a paramilitary group – displacing any sense of belonging, and instilling perpetual hierarchies and unrest. The idea of fatherland is something that is abstracted and worn as a costume to coerce a population, to celebrate and ritualize political beliefs, and to create a state of perpetual belligerence.
That larger idea of patria and how it atomizes in society is what interests me. How this large and abstract concept is embodied, adopted, and played out in society.
CA: Your film Bicentenario (2020) is an exceptional experimental documentary. It stands out in your filmography after having directed work that follows the NFB style of documentary filmmaking that dominates in Canada. Do you view yourself as an experimental filmmaker, or as moving into an experimental way of working? As Bicentenario is the first of a planned trilogy of films exploring the branding surrounding Simón Bolívar, is it a concern of yours that Anglo or Franco audiences might not comprehend the underlying ideas of both Colombian and Latin American culture that you are responding to?
PA: My path into filmmaking began through engineering, and by that I mean that I was not interested in narrative, but rather form and function. After a few years of studying design engineering I switched to filmmaking, and what first appealed to me was editing aesthetics and experimental filmmaking. In film school, I had the good fortune of having Chris Welsby and Laura Marks as early teachers and guides into how I understand filmmaking. From both, I learned what cinema could be and how the filmmaking process could be approached from an angle not unlike my interest in design engineering.
I didn’t really touch a camera until I was 23 years old, one year before I started film school. Up until then I wasn’t really interested in cinema and had limited knowledge of it as an art form. The first few years of film school were pure discovery of what sound and images could really do through the process of editing. In my mind I related this new media like objects, just like how a particular plastic or metal could connect to a finished piece. Story for me was never a main motivation, but instead I was interested in emotion through sensorial stimuli and associations. I understand cinema as something perhaps closer to music or to a shocking piece of architecture. Having said this, I don’t consider myself an experimental filmmaker because I don’t dedicate myself to exploring form in the way experimental filmmakers do, though I do incorporate cinematic materiality and its attributes into how I understand cinema.
The NFB has been very influential to me, just like Emily Carr’s paintings were early in my career. It’s like a curse you can’t unsee! Seriously though, the films by Michael Brault, Norman McLaren and Caroline Leaf among many other classic NFB films were very influential and, yes, at some point I tried to do something that was very influenced by Pierre Perault and Michael Brault’s gorgeous Pour la suite du monde.
As to Bicenteneario, I’m very comfortable knowing that the particular history of Colombia recounted in the film may not relate to many, be it in Colombia or abroad. I’ve received emails from people who told me they were not familiar with Simon Bolivar, but that the film prompted them to research not only Bolivar, but also the siege on the Palace of Justice. I feel a film like Bicentenario works best as an invitation for the audience to engage with what’s presented within the boundaries of the frame and the reach of the sound, and to react to it on an emotional level. If they wish to learn more about the film’s subjects, they can go online and research further and compliment the film with their own findings, as some have already done.
On another level, even some Colombian audiences will struggle with the film, as the notion of Simon Bolivar has been so ingrained in society there that few notice his influence anymore or what we know or imagine about him and his actions. In every city in Colombia, there is a main plaza with a brass statue of Bolivar and a plaque describing his role in the birth of the country. His name is engraved into our subconscious, and so one of the main goals of this film was to scratch up his name a bit, to force us to pay more attention to the ideas that emanate from his name. The idea was to release some of the patina that it has accumulated over time so that we can understand more consciously how ideas from the past have repercussions in the future. I think that if any audience member leaves with this feeling in their body, whether or not they comprehend the underlying ideas connected to Colombia or Latin America, then the film succeeds at a very deep and meaningful level for me.
CA: Your film Presidio Modelo (2011), like Bicentenario, examines the idea of historical figures as monuments. In this case, you are investigating ideas that gave rise to Fidel Castro, while also examining ideas behind design and surveillance as mechanisms of colonialism. Can you talk a bit your motivations behind Presidio Modelo?
PA: Presidio Modelo was a bit of an accident. During my third year of university we had to pitch our graduating projects and mine at that point was a fiction script titled Black, Red, Yellow. I won a prize for best fiction script in my class and the award came with funds to produce the film, but instead of making that film I paid for an aesthetics of editing course at the renown Cuban film school EICTV with Nelson Rodriguez, who edited one of my favourite films, Memories of Underdevelopment. Having spent all the production money on the trip, I decided to stay for almost four months to find a film in my travels around Cuba. After many failed attempts at making a film and with just two weeks left, I ended up on a little island off the main island called Island of Pines, or Nueva Gerona. This island hosted, among many other things, a panopticon prison called Presidio Modelo and that’s where the film was found.
In Nueva Gerona, I met a very interesting young poet and his wife who were very critical about the government and the constant state of surveillance that artists, intellectuals and anyone critical of the government were subjected to. From there, it was not a stretch to relate the prison to the idea of the panopticon to these experiences of surveillance. For all the virtues the Cuban revolution has had, the constant state of surveillance has been difficult for many, and that’s how this project came about. Presidio Modelo aimed to relate the tragic ironies between the construction of a prison and the creation of a revolutionary social and political project. The panopticon as a concept employs similar conduits like the soft power that I mentioned earlier, with its imperceptible flows of control. Presidio Modelo, just like Bicentenario, shares that interest in exploring the concrete result of discourse and ideas.
- BICENTENARIO (43 mins, 2020)
- La Pesca (22 mins, 2017)
- Jelena’s Song (28 mins, 2010)
- Speaking into the Air (22 min, 2014)
- Nuestro Monte Luna (96 mins, 2014)
- Presidio Modelo(15 mns, 2011)