On Les Messagers

Posted by | Nicky Ni | Posted on | October 17, 2018

Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura, still from Les Messagers, 2014. Image courtesy of the artists and Prima Luce

Throughout their individual careers, artists and filmmakers Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura have produced works about borders and individuals made most vulnerable by them. The two introduce their starkly poetic feature Les Messagers (2014) which presents the harrowing testimonies of migrants traveling from African into Europe. In advance of tomorrow’s program, we repost an interview of the directors conducted by Laetitia Jourdan from Prima Luce, production company and distributor of Les Messagers.

Why did you decide to make the film?

We initially decided to focus our work on the migrants who crossed Morocco toward Europe, and particularly at the Melilla border, a Spanish city, plot of land at the edge of Morocco. After hearing numerous stories from migrants about others who had died or disappeared, we began focusing our interviews around this question. We found out that, unfortunately, these disappearances and deaths were very frequent, but also due to a collective logic difficult to understand and to demonstrate.

We decided to base our film on this idea. According to our research, the root causes of this disappearance phenomenon are blurred. European policies, surveillance devices, and border walls have forced migrants onto a very dangerous path, and increased their criminality. For instance, when migrants want to cross the border, they have to change their identity, and if they die during this unfortunate travel, no one could know their real name, nor where they came from. They disappear.

Moreover, the criminalization of migration allows third-party coastguards (contract workers from Morocco, working in exchange for development aid from Europe) to commit abuses, deportation, and exactions outside of the legal framework. In short, migrants are treated like subhumans and no one who’s in charge of these abuses is brought to justice. Besides, the disappearance of the bodies hinders any precise accounting: there is no visibility. Most of the stories we collected have never been reported in the media, so we suppose that this phenomenon affects more people than officially estimated.

Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura, still from Les Messagers, 2014. Image courtesy of the artists and Prima Luce

What are your conclusions after making the film?

The disappearance of migrants is proof of a deep dehumanization in our civilization. What we refuse them is the right of humanity — in that human society is based on the respect of its dead. By removing this human right – which distinguish us from the animals – we’re opening the door to any form of barbarity.

What do you think of the recent crisis in the Mediterranean?

The recent crisis in the Mediterranean has been made visible as “crisis” in mainstream media because of the close succession of wrecks and the number of people who are concerned. It is an “event” in our lives. However, this is nothing new. This phenomenon has been going on for many years, without anyone understanding the role that the European policies have played in it. And because there is a real eclipse on what really happens in the European border, we introduce this phenomenon as a crisis. I [Hélène Crouzillat] would assert that it is not a “crisis” but a phenomenon built over years, whose the violence will continue to increase as long as we refuse to understand what is happening and why. The more violent and coercive control and surveillance devices are, the more the ways of travel are industrialized, the more deaths and disappearances there will be.

Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura, still from Les Messagers, 2014. Image courtesy of the artists and Prima Luce

What can be done to dignify the bodies of the migrants that drown? What can be done to identify and repatriate them?

It is essential to honour each migrant’s memory, although because of the reasons discussed earlier, we often don’t know their real identities. Families, friends, migrants themselves, need to memorialize these deaths, whatever the way to do it. Unfortunately, these acts of memory make sense only when the reasons of the death are known and understood, and it’s rarely the case here. In fact, it is rare to be able to identify and repatriate the bodies. It might be possible with many human and financial resources, but I don’t know how Europe could participate in a system like that without acknowledging its role in the deaths and disappearances itself?

What we have observed during shooting is the fact that for now, the memorial process (keeping the identity and sharing it, taking care of the bodies and burying or repatriating them) is based on individual initiatives.

Where do these bodies mostly end up?

It’s difficult to say something about it… During our work, we followed no association (for example, the Red Cross, or other international organization charged with the collection of bodies). We discovered in Zarzis, in the South of the Tunisia, two common graves in the middle of a vacant lot. Concerning these two common graves, the authorities just have moved the bodies from the coast, and buried them discreetly, aside. Clearly they didn’t have the means to identify the bodies. They acted quickly, confronted by the broad scope of the facts.

Founded in 2012, Prima Luce is a production company based in Bordeaux, France.

Oct 18 – Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura: Les Messagers

Posted by | Nicky Ni | Posted on | October 15, 2018

Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura in person

Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura, still from Les Messagers, 2014. Image courtesy of the artists and Prima Luce

Throughout their individual careers, artists and filmmakers Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura have examined the harrowing histories of borders and the individuals made most vulnerable by them. Their starkly poetic film Les Messagers (2014) focuses on the border at Melilla, a Spanish city at the northern edge of Morocco. Through the testimonies of migrants attempting to cross into the European city by land or to the continent by sea, Crouzillat and Tura expose the dark irony of a guard’s claim that the border “does no harm.” Each migrant recounts the ways they escaped death over the course of their individual journeys. Each also tells the stories of those who did not—adults and children dying of exhaustion, violence, or drowning. With carefully composed shots of the Mediterranean, Moroccan desert, and migrant grave sites, Crouzillat and Tura convey the desolation of these “messengers” who bear witness to the metaphysical costs of geopolitics. In French, Arabic, English, Spanish, and Pulaar with English subtitles.

Presented in collaboration with SAIC’s Department of Liberal Arts and Department of Visual and Critical Studies.

Hélène Crouzillat is a documentarian. Her fields of investigation focus on labor, processes of relegation, and resistance in society. Speech—its collection and formulation—is at the center of her practice. She works at the intersection of cinema and live performance, experimenting with different forms of narrative. Crouzillat’s principal artworks are: Corps de métiers (2011–12), En travail (2014–15), St-Ouen 01(2016–17), Amnia (2016–17). She is currently working on a feature-length film, L’Effet Bahamas. She is a lecturer at Université Paris XIII.

Laetitia Tura is a photographer and filmmaker whose projects focus on geopolitical borders and the invisibility of the experiences of exiles. In addition to projects related to Les Messagers (2014), she has made works on the border of Southern Lebanon (Jnoub, 2001) and the border between Mexico and the United States (Linewatch, 2004–06). She is currently finishing production on Ils me laissent l’exil, a film on the memory of the Spanish dictatorship. Tura’s work has been exhibited at Galerie du bar Floréal, Paris; Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration, Paris; Galerie d’Art de l’Instituto Tecnológico de Sonora, Mexico; International Biennale de l’Image Possible, Liège, Belgium; as well as the film festivals Cinéma du Reél, Paris and Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, among others. She has held a résidence de réalisation du Grec at the Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration, Paris and a residency at Périphérie, Montreuil, France. Tura studied at Université Paris VIII.

On Stephen Varble

Posted by | Nicky Ni | Posted on | October 10, 2018

Daniel Cahill as Sage Purple Pythagoras from Stephen Varble’s Journey to the Sun, ca.1980. Photographer unknown.

In the 1970s, Manhattan-based artist Stephen Varble gained infamy for his gender-confounding costume performances. Art historian and curator David Getsy, who will present excerpts of Varble’s ribald unfinished epic, Journey to the Sun (1978-1983), at the event tomorrow, shares his research on Varble’s artistic practices in relation to the video. This screening coincides with the exhibition, Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble, that Getsy curates at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York. The following excerpt comes from his curatorial text for the exhibition.

Stephen Varble’s last five years were consumed with working on an epic, operatic work of video art: Journey to the Sun. It started in 1978 as a performance about the mythology of Greta Garbo, and Varble invited friends to his Riverside Drive apartment to view his monologues accompanied by projected slides. His ambitions soon outgrew this format, and he turned to video for its ability to combine text, image, and performance. He considered these videos to be revivals of illuminated Medieval manuscripts with their rich visual play between words and pictures, and he called his group of collaborators in the video the “Happy Arts School of Manuscript Illumination.” The aim of the “school” was to promote Varble’s vision of societal transformation through the making of modern fables in the form of videos, books, and prints.

Still from Stephen Varble’s Journey to the Sun (1978-1983)

Journey to the Sun tells the story of a musician, the Grey Crowned Warbler, who undergoes tribulation and metamorphosis on a journey to transcendence. The tale is a loosely autobiographical fable of an artist who encounters a stern mystical teacher, Sage Purple Pythagoras (played by his partner, Daniel Cahill) who tests the Warbler. Many of Varble’s iconic costumes feature in the video, and he combined elements of his own history with references to literature, religion, and popular culture (notably, Garbo). Combining heavily scripted monologues with improvised performances, Journey to the Sun does not offer a tidy or easily understood narrative. Rather, it sketches a fantastic and surreal visual world in which dreams are realized through the transformations of everyday objects, popular imagery, and rubbish.

Still from Stephen Varble’s Journey to the Sun (1978-1983)

To make this “rodeo-paced” video, Varble filled his apartment with drawings and writings on the walls, blacked out the windows, and began filming scenes both scripted and improvised with collaborators. Journey to the Sun is remarkable for its time due to the complexity and density of the video editing — all of which was done by Varble in the apartment. He liked video tape for its ability to be reproduced cheaply, and he hoped to make multiple “video books” to send into the world. Varble only completed about thirty percent of his planned work before his death from AIDS-related complications in the first days of 1984. This is but a fragment of the much longer video epic Varble hoped would be his major contribution. It is being shown publicly for the first time in relation to the retrospective exhibition Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York, from 29 September 2018 to 27 January 2019.

David Getsy is an art historian, art writer, and curator. His books include Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture in the Expanded Field of Gender (2015) and Queer (2016). His other recent curatorial projects are Jared Buckhiester: Love Me Tender, a 10-year survey of drawings, for the Bureau of General Services—Queer Division in New York (2017) and an exhibition of Stephen Varble’s xerographic prints for Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky (2018). Getsy holds a BA from Oberlin College and a PhD from Northwestern University. He has received fellowships and awards from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Queen Mary University of London, the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Clark Art Institute, and the National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, among others. He teaches at SAIC, where he is the Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History.


For further Reading:

New York Times feature on “Rubbish and Dreams

David Getsy interviewed by THEM magazine on the Stephen Varble’s retrospective

Essay by David Getsy previewing the exhibition

Oct 11 – Stephen Varble: Journey to the Sun

Posted by | Amy Beste | Posted on | October 8, 2018

Presented by David Getsy

Stephen Varble, ca.1980, wearing his Typewriter Ribbon Dress (1975-76). Photographer unknown.

In the 1970s, Manhattan-based artist Stephen Varble gained infamy for his gender-confounding costume performances and anti-commercial disruptions of galleries, banks, and boutiques. He retreated from public view in 1978, focusing instead on an epic, unfinished video, Journey to the Sun, until his death in 1984. Ribald, complex, and unorthodox, the video features elaborately costumed performers in a surrealist fable of a messianic martyr. Drawing on the legacies of Jack Smith, Greta Garbo (with whom he identified), and his own autobiography, Journey to the Sun also absorbs Varble’s previous performance characters and costumes into a self-created environment of found objects and street trash. Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History David Getsy, curator of Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York, presents a selection of excerpts from the four surviving hours of Journey to the Sun and discusses Varble’s transformative approach to gender.1978–83, USA, U-matic video to digital file, ca 60 min + discussion

Stephen Varble (1946–84) was a performance artist, playwright, fashion designer, and video artist. He studied at the University of Kentucky as an undergraduate and earned his MFA in film directing from Columbia University. In his first years in New York, he was associated with Fluxus and created a number of collaborative works with his then-partner Geoffrey Hendricks. In the mid-1970s, he became infamous for his Costume Tours of New York, which involved impromptu street performances and costume sculptures made from found objects. The 2018 retrospective at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art is the first exhibition dedicated to Varble’s work in more than three decades.

David Getsy is an art historian, art writer, and curator. His books include Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture in the Expanded Field of Gender (2015) and Queer (2016). His other recent curatorial projects are Jared Buckhiester: Love Me Tender, a 10-year survey of drawings, for the Bureau of General Services—Queer Division in New York (2017) and an exhibition of Stephen Varble’s xerographic prints for Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky (2018). Getsy holds a BA from Oberlin College and a PhD from Northwestern University. He has received fellowships and awards from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Queen Mary University of London, the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Clark Art Institute, and the National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, among others. He teaches at SAIC, where he is the Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History.

On Steffani Jemison

Posted by | Nicky Ni | Posted on | October 3, 2018

Steffani Jemison, illustration, 2017.

Spanning performance, music, video, and installation, the work of Brooklyn-based artist Steffani Jemison draws upon Black vernacular culture to produce new modes of expression. In advance of Jemison’s screening and listening session at Conversations at the Edge tomorrow, which also coincides the artist’s solo exhibition at Iceberg Projects, we have invited Sampada Aranke, Assistant Professor in Art History at SAIC to introduce the central piece of the program, Sensus Plenior (2017).

Sensus Plenior (2017), the title of Steffani Jemison’s most recent video work, is a phrase that can indeed characterize Jemison’s entire artistic practice. The phrase has popularly been translated from Latin as “fuller sense” or “fuller meaning,” and often is used in relation to Biblical exegesis on how the scripture’s meaning exceeds the mortal hands that scribed the text itself. These doublings— between the written word and the senses, knowledge and understanding, meaning and the excesses of it— are central to Jemison as they point to the limits and capacities of language and its uptake. The simultaneity of the fullness of senses and the fullness of meaning are source material in Jemison’s entire artistic oeuvre.The artist has steadily worked to point us to the complexities and limits of language, the secreted modes of Black radical expression, and activations of the body as a gestural container in all of her work. Mobilizing minimalist aesthetic forms in her video, installation, and sculptural work, Jemison’s practice searches for an aesthetics that might enable us to encounter the richness of those histories otherwise unaccounted for within dominant art histories.

Steffani Jemison, still from Sensus Plenior, 2017.

Sensus Plenior (2017) visualizes the relationship between gesture and interpretation as a considered undertaking of the hermeneutics of Black expressive form. Ordained minister Susan Webb centers the work as a figure whose movement oscillates between the quotidian and theatrical. Jemison’s adept attention to the richness of gesture appears here as a hypnotic engagement with the ecstatic. Each gesture accumulates, each bodily movement communicates, each sonic note quivers. The black, white, and gray tones of her video palette compels us towards a history of the cinematic in relation to racialized subjects. We are taken into and out of the annals of history and into the readily sensual qualities of the present. This, perhaps, is what formulates the contours of a fuller sensational experience— not the excessive but the successive, the sequential modes of inheritance that appear in the everyday.

Sampada Aranke (PhD, Performance Studies) is an Assistant Professor in the Art History, Theory, Criticism Department. Her research interests include performance theories of embodiment, visual culture, and black cultural and aesthetic theory. Her work has been published in e-flux, Artforum, Art Journal, Equid Novi: African Journalism Studies, and Trans-Scripts: An Interdisciplinary Online Journal in the Humanities and Social Sciences at UC Irvine. She has written catalogue essays for Rashid Johnson, Sadie Barnette, Kambui Olujimi, Sable Elyse Smith, and Zachary Fabri. She’s currently working on her book manuscript entitled Death’s Futurity: The Visual Culture of Death in Black Radical Politics.

Oct 4 – Steffani Jemison: Sensus Plenior

Posted by | Amy Beste | Posted on | October 2, 2018

Steffani Jemison in person

Steffani Jemison, still from Sensus Plenior, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

Taking shape through performance, music, video, and installation, the work of Steffani Jemison (MFA 2009) draws upon Black vernacular culture to produce new modes of expression and models for community. She presents a selection of audio works alongside her latest video, Sensus Plenior (2017). Taking its title from Latin for “fuller meaning,” Sensus Plenior considers the relationship between gesture and language through the ecstatic choreography of ordained minister Susan Webb and the Master Mime Ministry of Harlem. Jemison explores similar questions around translation and transformation in Recitatif—an ongoing series of performances and recordings that use Solresol, a utopian 19th-century musical language, to reinterpret Black popular and political music like Smokey Robinson’s “Quiet Storm” and the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep.” Through Solresol’s capacity to generate multiple meanings from a single root, Jemison forges alternative ways for understanding history, culture, and everyday social relations. 2008–18, USA, multiple formats, ca 60 min + discussion.

Steffani Jemison (MFA 2009) uses time-based, photographic, and discursive platforms to examine “progress” and its alternatives. Currently based in Brooklyn, New York, Jemison holds an MFA from SAIC and a BA in comparative literature from Columbia University. Jemison’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally at venues such as Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris; LAXART, Los Angeles; the New Museum, New York; Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen, Denmark; among others. Her work is in the public collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; and Kadist Foundation, Paris and San Francisco. Jemison was the 2017–18 Mildred Londa Weisman Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

Concurrent Exhibition:
Steffani Jemison: Revelation
Iceberg Projects
September 16 – October 21, 2018

On Margaret Tait

Posted by | Nicky Ni | Posted on | September 26, 2018

Margaret Tait, still from Portrait of Ga, 1952.

At the shady foot of trees
Certain things grow,
But at the foot of stone grow the sun-loving
            wind–resisting short plants
With very small bright flowers
And compact, precise leaves.
The wind whips the tight stems into a vibration,
But they don’t break.

— Margaret Tait, excerpt from The Scale of Things (1960)

This Thursday’s program at Conversations at the Edge features some of the most celebrated experimental films by Scottish filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait (1918 – 1999), who explored the poetics of the everyday life through her intimate and personal lens. While she started making films in the early 1950s, they only became widely seen in Europe after the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1970. Up until today, Tait’s films remain somewhat unknown in the United States, marking tomorrow’s program a rare occasion that surveys the filmmaker’s midcentury films, some screening for the first time in Chicago.

Born in 1918 in Kirkwall on Orkney, an archipelago off the northeastern coast of Scotland, Tait attended boarding school and studied medicine at Edinburgh University. During the Second World War, she served with the Royal Army Medical Corps and worked as a medic in India. A cinephile throughout her life, Tait continued to study after the war. She enrolled at the Centro Sperimentale di Photographia in Rome between 1950 to 1952, during which time she made her first film. In the 1950s, Tait was mostly based in Edinburgh, where she established Ancona Film on Rose Street in the heart of the city. She then returned to her hometown Orkney in the mid-1960s and, in the following decades, made a series of films inspired by the Orcadian grassland.

Margaret Tait, still from Portrait of Ga, 1952.

Tait was an avid photographer even before becoming a filmmaker. Family members appear frequently in her early photographs; she would work on composed photographs too, experimenting with material and exposure time. Her photographer’s sensibility recurs in her films, which delicately weave nature, figure, and movement into rhythms of color, light, and shadow. This is perhaps most salient in Portrait of Ga (1952), in which Tait contrasted unguarded shots of her mother–almost always puffing on a cigarette–against the vast and austere Orcadian landscape, resulting in something both existential and timeless.

Margaret Tait, still from Portrait of Ga, 1952.

As film curator and critic Michael Metzger remarked in a recent review on Cine-File, “one of [Tait]’s many strengths as a poet and filmmaker was a fathomless ability to draw out worldly richness from the modest surfaces of provincial life.” But her strength also extended to her being a fearless female filmmaker in the male-dominated field. It is worth noting that all but three of Tait’s thirty-two films were self-financed. According to film historian Sarah Neely, Tait was repeatedly rejected by granting institutions due to the ways her particular style and vision diverged from accepted professional practices. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Tait’s highly autobiographical and idiosyncratic body of work remains fresh and contemporary even of today. Her persistence and strength come through in even the most tender moments in her films.


For further reading

Sarah Neely, “Stalking the image: Margaret Tait and intimate filmmaking practices,” Screen 49, 2 (2008)

Peter Todd, “Margaret Tait,” LUX (2004)

Nicky Ni is a graduate student in art history and arts administration at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Sep 27 – Margaret Tait: Poems and Portraits

Posted by | Amy Beste | Posted on | September 24, 2018

Margaret Tait, still from Portrait of Ga, 1952. Image courtesy of LUX.

Scottish film-poet Margaret Tait produced an exquisite body of work combining poetry, portraiture, music, ethnography, and animation. She studied filmmaking in Rome during the height of Italian neorealism before returning to her native Scotland in the early 1950s where she found inspiration in the contrasting daily rhythms of Edinburgh and the Orkney Islands. In an early jewel of a film, A Portrait of Ga (1952), Tait cut together birdsong and snippets of Orkney lore with shots of her mother and the rugged island landscape to produce a startlingly poignant impression of family and place. She explored similar themes in later films like Where I Am Is Here (1964), Colour Poems (1974), and Aerial (1974), reflecting on the passage of time while attending to the details of everyday life. Tait often quoted Federico García Lorca’s phrase “stalking the image” to describe her practice, suggesting that if you look at something closely enough, it will speak its nature. 1952–74, Scotland, 16mm,  ca 65 min.

Margaret Tait (1918–99) was a Scottish filmmaker and poet. She qualified in medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1941 and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War. From 1950 to 1952, she moved to Rome and studied film at the Centro Sperimentale di Photographia. Tait made more than 30 films in her life, most of them self-financed. Tait’s films have been screened at international film festivals and venues including National Film Theatre, London; Berlin Film Festival; Edinburgh International Film Festival; Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw, Poland; Arsenal–Institute for Film and Video Art, Berlin; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; among other places. Tait also published three books of poetry and several short stories.

An Interview with Camilo Restrepo

Posted by | Nicky Ni | Posted on | September 21, 2018

Coinciding with Camilo Restrepo’s visit to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, SAIC alum and Gene Siskel Film Center Panorama Latinx Outreach Coordinator Mev Luna exchanged a few questions with the artist about sound, performance, and process.

While visiting Chicago, Camilo Restrepo mentioned that “luck is something you push, until it arrives.” Restrepo has pushed around luck–along with found imagery, documentary footage, sharp observations, poetic writings, Creole and African lyrics and music, and embodied movement–since 2011.  Born in Colombia, Restrepo has lived and worked in Paris since 1999. He has gained international attention for short works that exploring the rich and complicated histories and culture of Colombia and the African diaspora. At Conversations at the Edge, Restrepo screened two collage-style essay films on Colombia, Tropic Pocket (2011) and Impression of a War (2015), as well as his more recent, melodic and metaphorically layered diptych, Cilaos (2016) and La Bouche (2017). The program examined colonialism, slavery, and the struggle of life and death through powerful imagery and intensity of sound.

Camilo Restrepo

The end of the scene in Cilaos, the song reminds me of the post-punk band, Kleenex / LiLiPut’s song Hedi’s Head. The seemingly nonsense lyrics begin to stitch together the beat, tone, and image and create a narrative. What is the origin of the lyrics in that scene? 

To understand the origin of the lyrics it’s useful to identify who’s singing in that final scene. At the end of the film, the main character changes from the daughter to the dead father himself. She/he becomes what is commonly known in African tradition as the ancestor. The way the ancestor speaks demands interpretation, because the ancestor is the voice beyond the world. So, my fist conclusion is that the voice of the ancestor/divinity is not a voice of common day life.

The most important source of texts for the lyrics was the corpus of stories around the divine figure of Coyote in the North American Indian tradition. Coyote it’s a divinity who shows what’s right by always acting wrong. I wanted to give to La Bouche (the dead father of Cilaos) the voice of Coyote. We must keep in mind that Coyote’s stories not only take form of a fable but also exist in songs and tales to preserve the oral tradition of the communities. The second text I had in mind was Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo. La Bouche is a new representation of Pedro Paramo, the dead father of book.

Release the words is probably the main issue of the film. According to Christine Salem, the ancestors’ words in the Maloya tradition can only be released through music. I submitted my lyrics to Christine Salem to translate to Créole from French. She then adjusted them in order to sing them. So what we hear in the film is not a “my” lyrics but “ours” For me it was very important to direct the film under a musical approach to language by not understanding the words (even if I knew them), but by measuring the importance of the words by its sound.

Camilo Restrepo, still from Cilaos, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

The pair in Cilaos meet in this black space, with occasional strobing lights that seem to situate them on a highway. They tell their stories to each other, not as if they are theirs to tell, but as if they must tell them, as if they are compelled or almost possessed to do so. Can you talk about your actors’ performances and why you’ve placed them in this setting?

Let’s understand this term possession as a channel of communication, in which a superior message finds its body of enunciation through the mouth of a normal person. From there we can get to two ideas:

Let’s think about something that Christine Salem admits as a fact: while singing Maloya she has been several times confronted to the experience of possession by trance. Therefore, the first idea that I want to bring is the possibility of an unconscious state of enunciation emerging inside the film from the choice of Christine Salem, David and Harry (all Maloya’s musicians) to perform the characters of the story. My thoughts about their perception through trance states certainly dragged my imagination to a narrative choice far beyond from a conscious choice.  This narrative in the film finally drives the characters to the destination of their quest. To sum up, the characters are facing their “fate” guided by powerful forces, as in real life the Maloya musicians are the channels of powerful forces.

The second idea is that by putting the characters in the way of fate–in a situation in which they cannot feel free of deciding or acting – the narrative construction of the film only allow them to talk or to sing in non-precise spaces (like the darkness) or in transitional spaces (like the forest or the highway). This is in fact the reason why you can feel so deeply a theatrical reference in this film. Because we can consider its theatrical appearance by the constant deny of the real space in order to put at the forefront the symbolic space of the language.

The line I was most struck by in La Bouche was “even if you made your chain run backwards, you would still cut.” The camera movements throughout La Bouche are like the back and forth of a saw, caught in the monotony of the cycle. But it begins and returns to the body, through the voracious movement and textures of the dancers and their costume, and the intensity of the percussion. Despite the lyrics affirming the power of the mouth, it seems that embodiment is the force that conjures. How do you regard this relationship between body and mouth? 

In the film, the chorus’s (the family) appeal to physical action contrasts the father’s incapability of enunciating his feelings through his own mouth. If the hand signifies the tool for revenge, the mouth the tool of justice–this is a classical opposition. However, what’s not classical is that at the end of the film the words don’t come to the father’s mouth to call for justice and no revenge is done by the hand, leaving the father only to speak through his hands. The classical “hand or mouth” opposition transforms into the possibility of that “hand is mouth.” This is what I consider as the embodiment of the enunciation in the film.

Just to finish, let me bring your attention to the scene in which the camera travels down from the father’s shut mouth to the zipper of his jacket. This visual analogy is obvious but the panning doesn’t end there. The camera continues down to reveal the feet of the character smashing a dish as to enunciate the feeling. The camera continues moving to the right and reveals part of a woman lying on the floor. A dead body perhaps, the dead body of the daughter perhaps, but a body capable of sounding the words; a corpse refusing to be just the physical remains of a person; a singing corpse marking no contradiction between hand and mouth, or passion and reason.

Camilo Restrepo, still from La Bouche (2017). Image courtesy of the artist.

What’s your process like working with non-actors and how may this relate to the DIY approach with the collective L’Abominable? 

L’Abominable is an independent film lab run by artists for artists working with celluloid, which is no longer expensive in the digital era and has become an open territory for non-professionals. I’m myself an amateur: I haven’t studied film and I don’t earn a living by making films. When you’re an amateur you learn by experimentation and by cooperating with other amateurs. People such as Christine Salem, Diable Rouge, Pinky (the person who will be the main character of my next film) sparked my curiosity to a point that I can say that I became seduced by them. I felt that I need them, as persons, to be the characters. In every case, they were the base upon which I built each film.

You mention the spirit of DIY. There’s a collective effort in the idea of DIY that we always forget–the “Do it ourselves.” Just to give an example, the filmmaker Guillaume Mazloum has been my director of photography since Cilaos and he is just what I can call a “brilliant amateur” who brings a lot to my films. This is of course extended to all the members of our team.

You mentioned Punk music in your first question and I think it’s wise to end also referring to punk. When making a film with the persons I work with, we are like a band of enthusiasts who, despite a great ignorance about music, get to compose some songs.  My general feeling about making my films is clearly expressed in a sentence from a punk song by Sex Pistols, “Don’t know what I want, but I know where to get it.”

Mev Luna (SAIC 2017) is an interdisciplinary artist currently based in Chicago.

Sep 20 – Camilo Restrepo: Ghosts and Songs

Posted by | Amy Beste | Posted on | September 17, 2018

Camilo Restrepo in person

Camilo Restrepo, still from Cilaos, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

In recent years, award-winning Colombian filmmaker Camilo Restrepo has gained a reputation for striking explorations of personal and political trauma, survival, and resistance. Featuring Réunion Island singer Christine SalemCilaos (2016) uses the incendiary rhythms of maloya, ritual music derived from slave songs, to tell the story of a woman driven to meet her estranged father after he dies. Mirroring these themes, La Bouche (2017) stars Guinean percussion master Mohamed Bangoura as a father who is called upon to avenge the murder of his daughter—a story loosely based on his own. Restrepo takes up the enduring effects of colonialism and paramilitary conflict in South America, particularly Colombia, in Tropic Pocket (2011) and La impresión de una guerra (2015), which draws parallels between the deadly “invisible borders” gangs have carved across the city of Medellín, the tattoos of prisoners, and the color of the Medellín River, permanently dyed with textile factory pollution. In French, Réunion Creole, Susu, and Spanish with English subtitles. 2011–17, Colombia, France, ca 70 min + discussion

Presented in collaboration with the Video Data Bank.

Camilo Restrepo was born in Medellín, Colombia, and is currently based in Paris. He is a member of L’Abominable, an artist-run film laboratory. His films have been selected for international film festivals including Directors’ Fortnight, Cannes, France; Toronto International Film Festival; New York Film Festival; Viennale, Vienna; International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Netherlands; Berlin Critics’ Week; Belo Horizonte International Short Film Festival, Brazil; Festival Internacional de Cine de Gijón, Spain; Antofadocs, Antofagasta, Chile; Zinebi International Festival of Documentary and Short Films, Bilbao, Spain; and the Locarno Festival, Switzerland, where he has twice won the Pardino d’Argento award.

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    Conversations at the Edge is a weekly series of screenings, performances, and talks by groundbreaking media artists.


    CATE is organized by SAIC's Department of Film, Video, New Media, and Animation in collaboration with the Gene Siskel Film Center and SAIC's Video Data Bank, Conversations at the Edge is a dynamic weekly series of screenings, performances, and talks by groundbreaking media artists.


    Programs take place Thursdays at 6pm at the Gene Siskel Film Center (164 N. State / Chicago, IL / 312.846.2600), unless otherwise noted.