. Conversations at the Edge (CATE)

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.