There is in your work a strong interest in narrative that seems to go beyond any strict definition of fiction or documentary, or distinctions of genre, such that your films exist at a limit where one work begins to take over or supersede another.
For me nonfiction is a sort of a rabbit hole. Another thing I’m very much attached to is the notion of parafiction. Today we welcome make-believe and plausibility against authenticity. The limits of documentary filmmaking involve this idea that the documentary is constructed upon reality. If we build a brick wall upon the real, with its foundations on reality, and then remove one or two fictional bricks of this wall, the wall will crumble, so we do need these fictional bricks to believe in what is placed in the scene. Therefore we end up reflecting on how we might erase the borders of vectors such as storytelling, memory, and history. How can we liquidate, or play with, the border between fact and fiction? How can we reveal these mechanisms? There is no clear judgment or statement being drawn on reality; there is an assemblage of proposals to be considered by an audience.
JR: There is also a tension in films like Eldorado XXI between what we associate with the documentarist image and the narrative power of social reality, where storytelling and witnessing are intertwined.
SL: One should think twice about imprinting a new image because of the overall saturation of visual stimulus in contemporary society. When we create images, we are somehow translating the language of things into a graphical language. I personally like to reflect upon what is at stake in that process: what distinguishes an image from its phenomenological essence is its historical mark. Each present is determined by its synchronous images; each “now” is a “now” of categorical reference. One in which truth is filled with time until its explosion. This explosion is the intentio death, which coincides with the truth born of historical time. The image is the suspended dialectic between past and present, containing on a higher level the mark of the critical moment (to borrow from Walter Benjamin).
JR: The ethics of representation.
SL: I suppose that is the only possible way for me to bear the fact that I make nonfiction films, and to accept that making nonfiction is a dirty job. Although there are ways to seek some kind of balance. And that is also why sometimes my presence in one work is more noticeable than in others. Every filmmaker who works with nonfiction film has to deal with core ethical questions. You cannot be separated from the way you inhabit the world in general, the way you shape your relationships and your moral behavior.
Nonfiction filmmakers are responsible for what they represent, exposing personal affairs for public discussion. They are responsible for their subjects, and for their audiences. There are always judgments involved. Filmmakers need to weigh their actions, and they should regard production, representation, and reception as social acts with ethical consequences. More than simply asking if what we see and hear is credible or “authentic,” we should think about what interests a documentary serves, what impact it might have on its spectators, and whether or not it takes into account the welfare of the people represented.
Let’s think of the following vectors, and how they are related to the filmmaker: sponsors, subjects, and spectators. What is the power voltage contained in each of these links? Are honesty and fidelity equal to responsibility? No. There are different ways of pursuing equilibrium, but seeking a balanced methodology will only allow the gap to be clearer. This gap has a place, and it is precisely on nobody’s land that the film can exist as an autonomous piece.
If on one hand we might be tempted to examine documentary as an exercise of political and social power, on the other hand it does not mean that the filmmaker is the wolf—and this is precisely where things become interesting, if we regard power relations as potentially productive. As a filmmaker one should be aware that a film allows the spectator to know as much about the represented object as about the maker. Therefore it is pertinent that the maker finds an authorial and ethical voice.
JR: So the films are in some sense portraits. The structure of a lot of your work stems, I think, from how personal biography or experience intersects with larger historical, political, or economic narratives, telescoping out from the individual experience of one person and how that life is a vector for a larger context. Take for example the protagonist of No Man’s Land (2012).
SL: What is entitled to be preserved? How can ordinary people or researchers access this patrimony? Who owns it? Why are some sections confidential? Who determines confidentiality? How high are the preservation and storage costs? What is lost when the Library of Alexandria burns down? It is humanity’s duty to collect, and to remember, but collections are limited, and someone is curating.
We cannot separate history from trauma, and the question raised could be how one can represent the trauma. Something that is both unforgettable and unmemorable—isn’t it a process of desire? There are incredibly beautiful archive projects around the world. As a kid, and still today, whenever I visit a foreign country I look for the national archive. Accessibility differs enormously from country to country. Yet we—if there is still a “we” to protect—cannot forget. No Man’s Land focuses on the testimony of Paulo de Figueiredo as he narrates his involvement as a hired killer for special military forces during the Portuguese colonial war, the part he played in the GAL (Antiterrorist Liberation Group), a death squad illegally established by the Spanish government to annihilate high officials of the ETA, and his work as a mercenary for the CIA in El Salvador. Rather than being interested in affirming the veracity of the historical record or in proving an official narrative, No Man’s Land dwells in the present moment of witnessing, the space inhabited by the performance of a memory. I tried to create a set or a stage where information or document are peripheral to the question of how one plays out and affirms as history one’s own personal truth.
JR: The films also revolve around a set of relations, in that they create a space for a narrative to emerge.
SL: My work dwells on a couple of main lines. One of these could be understood as a flexible account of the notion of limit—border—margin. I flirt with “crystal-images,” and “crystal-images” are unpredictable. Images contain riddles, they set traps, and many times we must wonder if we are not just casting an illusion.
I like to lay the cards out in front of the viewer, to play a fair game, but I’m also forcing the viewer to be active in their reading. One has to cherry-pick the way one wants to perceive what is being presented on-screen, and struggle with one’s own preconceptions, ethics, judgments, and so on. It is never about the edges, the black and white. It is about the gray areas. Lazy people are a drag.
“To wait” is also a constant in my practice. That is a key question: How long do I have to wait until reality becomes extraordinary? Sometimes it comes to: How much time can the production buy?
I’m not mystical, but I have strong convictions that filmmaking, besides being the work of a shoemaker, is also an act of faith and that each image is able to communicate its duration in juxtaposition with what comes before and after. I also believe in honesty, and if your aim is to challenge or even to trick the viewer you should be explicit about what you are doing (even if you just reveal it in the end).
JR: This has an interesting relation to cinematic time. There is for example the long take in Eldorado XXI.
SL: That brings us to how duration affects our perception of the images, how the viewer perceives repetition within the extended image, and how that is linked with the notion of becoming. How duration within a particular image is also unveiling the creative process, the waiting methodology, the falling, unveiling freedom and fidelity—concepts that would never go together except in the act of translating reality.
In Eldorado XXI there is a take that is close to one hour (I let the camera roll for two hours, in fact) while dozens and then hundreds of miners, groaning under the weight of their burdens, trudge by in squeezed files, some heading up and others down the narrow, steep mountain path, the scene starting out in thin twilight and persisting into pitch black (by the end all we see are the crisscrossing beams of the workers’ hard hat headlamps), the soundtrack consisting of the crunch of their boots played off against stray wisps of audio testimony and wafting passages of radio banter. Lawrence Weschler described it as “a human ant file, a Dantesque Escherscape, Möbian Sisyphi.” I like to think of it as a fake trompe l’oeil.
JR: Tell me about your interest in particular places and landscapes: Transnistria, a Peruvian Mine, a holiday camping site, and so on?
SL: I do not have an easy relationship with borders. They frighten and unnerve me. I have been searched, provoked, delayed time and time again for having had the senselessness to cross a few meters of land. Borders are bureaucratic lines, authoritative and enemy. Their existence is routinely criticized by academic geographers, who portray them as hostile acts of exclusion. Nonetheless, in a world without borders, where would we escape to? Where would it be worth going to?
I usually address realities that present some kind of discomfort, nowhereness places, or territories hard to describe in one blow.
“No man’s land” is the natural land of the imagination. It is in that non-place that we arm ourselves to withstand the immaculate silence of the universe that goes beyond our own imaginations, so that we do not succumb to pure panic and to the threat of dissolution. Silence from the abyss that is foreign to us but to which we also belong. This part of us is abandoned to pure possibilities, unsubdued obsessions of any form, the inertia of fear, from which we falsely protect ourselves by convention.
Besides the seriousness and the honesty of the work, there is also something that you might be tempted to mask with idealistic and noble intentions, but that deep down also serves your self-obsessed needs for challenging experiences. Some of these interactions are tough, but when you look back at them, you realize that you have grown more capable of enduring the next challenge. It is a way of visiting this strange place we all call reality. Of course there are work commitments, expectations, partners, and other responsibilities, but no matter the outcome of the project, I am there first and foremost for the ride. I guess I can no longer distinguish life from what I do. I am happy I’m not working on Wall Street because I would have a shorter life. Let’s just say that creation arises from a fact that is intolerable to suppose: that what is the most precious in the world should be given a chance.
Eldorado XXI and The Burial of the Dead (2016), the latter the three-channel drift commissioned by Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, are indeed great examples. At 5,100 meters (16,700 feet), the sprawling Andean gold mining encampment at La Rinconada, in the southeastern corner of Peru, is the highest-elevation permanent human settlement in the world, with a population of close to thirty thousand souls, the vast majority of them desperately unfortunate. Nearly all the mines and miners there are “informal,” a term that critics consider a euphemism for “illegal.” Most don’t receive salaries, let alone benefits, but work on an ancient labor system called cachorreo. This system is usually described as thirty days of unpaid work followed by a single frantic day in which workers get to keep whatever gold they can haul out for themselves.
It all started in 2013, before the premiere of No Man’s Land in Berlin: one word, “La Rinconada”; one thought, that I want be make it up there; one realization, that I know there are no guarantees, given the altitude challenge and the outlaw character of the site. But let’s try to find the resources, let’s give it a try, and I’ll bring back a film—easy. Anyhow, it has come to my attention that National Geographic wants to do something up there. They want to look for the social drama. Not even once did it cross my mind to create a social drama.
JR: You process is very intimate in a way, working with a small crew and being present within the literal and thematic landscape you are trying to depict.
SL: One must be very assertive, and convince people to go along with you. Some projects start with a bluff. I guess that by now, the people I work with are expecting the bluff. I am a bad poker player. You have noticed that already in my films. I am very grateful that on a number of occasions, some facing more risks and unpredictability than others, the crew not only “paid to see,” but also tripled the bet. Let’s see how long I can keep up with the trick! I think that in most cases it is clear from the beginning that things can “go wrong,” and we accept those conditions as part of the project.
We also always have multiple backup plans. For me that is what it means to work with a good producer. It would not have been so unexpected if suddenly, while shooting Eldorado XXI, I had to call up the production company—O Som e a Fúria in Lisbon—to say that we must send the crew home. Honestly, this phone call was about to happen shortly after the second week of shooting, but we kept going, and I found another way, thanks to the crew.
The projects have different scales and commitments, crew and budget wise. There are smaller-scale projects that I self-produce or coproduce. So let’s say that, in the end, I am extremely pragmatic, and try to predict all possible scenarios and possible consequences. You have to be honest, lucid, play an open game, and find the right partners.
JR: You’ve worked in both the gallery context and more cinematic contexts. Are there qualities particular to either that interest you?
SL: I would say that each project encounters its own space, and that some of my work has the flexibility of fitting both, but even if we were screening the exact same work in both scenarios, the perception of the viewer would change. The social codes regarding how to circulate, occupy, and behave in the space of the white cube versus the black box are different. Their traditions, histories, and cultural impacts are different. Notions of expanded cinema or video installations in gallery spaces lead to different experiences, which lead to different outcomes, which lead to different ways of reaching an audience.
Also, while single-channel works may travel easily from space to space, a multichannel video installation usually is site specific, with a carefully planned display for that particular space.
In both the gallery and the theater space, the intentions are identical. The tools and means to address reality are the “same,” and only the formats and exhibition displays are different. I usually invite a designer to outline the gallery space, and together we try to direct and predict the spectators’ movements. It is fun, and I tend not to compromise, budget wise, on how the installation should be set up; I would rather design a project that suits the available budget or conditions.