A Sense of Otherness
Colombian filmmakers Laura Huertas Millán and Lina Rodriguez talk about filmmaking between cultures, the visible and invisible, and how to cook on film
Journey to a Land Otherwise Known
The films of French-Colombian artist and filmmaker Laura Huertas Millán fuse documentary and fantasy, personal introspection and historical inquiry to create “hyphenated” works that reflect the palimpsestic nature of both art and life. Prior to a showcase of her work as part of the ongoing series MDFF Selects this Friday, February 24, Huertas Millán and Colombian-Canadian filmmaker Lina Rodriguez — whose features Señoritas and Mañana a esta hora have previously screened at TIFF Bell Lightbox — connected to discuss the complexities of their respective hybrid identities, the idea of “encounter” as a guide to filmmaking, and why filming someone cleaning a bathroom can be a radical cinematic act.
LINA RODRIGUEZ: One of the reasons why they asked me to talk to you about your work and for us to share some ideas is because we are both Colombian and we’re both women, but we also spent a big part of our lives outside of Colombia. So to begin with, I wanted to maybe talk about this idea of cross-cultural references that I can feel in your work, and then maybe I can share some of my thoughts.
LAURA HUERTAS MILLÁN: Yes, it’s interesting that in this first question you are already talking about something related to identity. I’m struggling with that notion of identity all the time, and I suppose that you do as well, because we are women, and we are Colombian — that’s a lot of labels, right? And usually when I hear about “women filmmaking”or “Colombian filmmaking,” I feel it’s a way to not include different practices within the same thing, [which is] “cinema.” As if there was an implicit central cinema and a periphery, and women filmmaking and Colombian filmmaking is the periphery, clearly.
RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. I was reading an interview where you talked about how you prefer calling yourself an “artist” instead of defining what your practice is. Not as extensively as you, but I come from a more experimental background — I did a little bit of installation and performance art. But of course “experimental” then becomes another label that we share, besides “Colombian women” or “expatriate women filmmakers,” and I have very mixed reactions to that label too.
HUERTAS MILLÁN: It´s like a double bind, because even if we struggle with labels, it is true that we are part of communities, right? We are part of the Colombian community; many people that support my work are women, partly because they understand the difficulty of being an artist/filmmaker when you’re a woman. But the problem is that these sort of labels, it’s just taxonomy — an imperialist, colonialist language. Maybe I’m sensitive to that because, as you said, I had the chance to be raised in between two places so I never felt my identity as something “pure” or even decipherable. I was born in Colombia, but I spent part of my childhood and most of my adulthood in France; all of my family is in Colombia and I lived there for more than 18 years. [So] I feel legitimate to talk as a French person, and at the same time I feel legitimate to talk as a Colombian person — [though] because I don’t live in Colombia, even if I’m aware of what happens politically, I don’t have the perspective of someone who cannot leave the country and has to deal with that every day. Reciprocally, in France I have an inner perspective as an immigrant, which necessarily makes me question the official narratives about French identity. I try to create something [out of that situation] and take this in-between position as a set of tools, of different tools.
RODRIGUEZ: So, a simple question that maybe is going to make us repeat what we already said, but if you’re in a bar in Paris and somebody comes and says “Where are you from,” what do you say?
HUERTAS MILLÁN: [Laughs] It’s a funny question, because every time I say “I’m French,” and “Colombian” I say after — but not because I’m prouder to be French than Colombian. I’m both, and there is no hierarchy. But most of the time when people ask this question, I feel that they feel that I’m not from here. [Laughs] And when they ask this question, I feel such a pleasure to say, “Well, I’m French.” Because France is a mestizo country as well. And we have to accept it. […] I tend to think about my double nationality as I think about gender fluidity, or even my gender fluidity. For me, it’s very related. It’s something performative.
RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. And for me it’s similar. I’ve been [in Canada] for 17 years and I still have people say “Where are you from?” — which, to me, already implies that they don’t think I’m Canadian. So it’s a very similar reaction, where then I’ll say, “I’m Canadian. I’ve been here for this long, but I was born in Colombia.”
HUERTAS MILLÁN: Coming back to this idea of “expatriation”[:] Historically, there has been a tendency in the Colombian culture to look up to France as a sort of role model. The translation of the [Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen] and the spirit of the Enlightenment were key pieces in Colombia’s independence from Spain. So there is an entanglement between the rise of democracy in France, and how Colombia was constituted as a nation. So to me, the travel to France was somehow part of the romantic modernist dream, of coming back to the roots of democracy, the roots of the three words that are supposed to embody the French identity: equality, fraternity, and freedom. It was very idealistic, of course — I was 18 years old. [Laughs] It was also because during the ’90s, when we grew up, we saw such chaos in our country. It was a very violent place to be, and we were lucky not to be in the countryside or more disadvantaged districts, where the situation was horrendous. The society was also very compartmentalized, and social mobility felt many times inaccessible. Through education and fellowships I had the opportunity to travel to France. After a while here, I noticed that I was able to occupy a public space with more confidence and less fear, and that I could attain an independence. But ultimately I’ve always felt in-between the two cultures, like an ongoing and neverending duality that intimately nourishes me.
RODRIGUEZ: We’ve talked about the psychological and emotional and many different aspects of our mestizaje, our cross-cultural references, but in terms of the [practical aspects of] making of your work: I think a lot of your work, particularly Black Sun and Aequador, has been written, financed, and conceived in France, and then shot in Colombia. Is that correct?
HUERTAS MILLÁN: Yes.
RODRIGUEZ: With my two feature films, it’s exactly the same: I wrote them here, I thought about them here, I dreamed about them here, I got some money from here, and [then] I made them entirely in Colombia. When I first wanted to make Señoritas, I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t study film in Colombia, so a lot of my network and my friends in the film industry were here [in Canada] — so for you, how was that process, the logistics of finding a crew, finding who to work with [in Colombia]?
HUERTAS MILLÁN: I think I had a similar experience [to you], because when I did Aequador, I wasn’t at all part of the Colombian [cinema] community. I was still at Le Fresnoy, which is a French school, and when I [wanted] to do Aequador, two friends of mine who were already working on projects there would [say to me], “Your project is not possible to do because you don’t have the money, you don’t know what you’re talking about, the science-fiction documentary,” etc.…. They were not very sensitive to it and they didn’t understand it. It was very different from what they were used to seeing, and they thought I needed a huge budget to do that. So I did the film — three of us doing the shooting, one of us doing the image, I was doing the sound by myself, and we had one guide. It was a very small crew and it was a very difficult shooting.
I was seeing yesterday these friends from the Colombian festival in Paris, and the last time that I was in that festival it was five years ago, just after releasing Aequador, and my work had never been screened in Colombia at that time. During that festival I met filmmakers from Colombia who really inspired me. It was such a small-scale event, but for us, for the Colombians who were inside and outside Colombia, it was a special moment to gather together, to meet each other, and I felt exactly the same feeling yesterday when I went to screen one of my films. It’s so representative of what the Colombian cinema community is: it’s people who are inside Colombia but also people spread all over the world, and we assemble in these very special moments. So the inclusion within that community to me has been a process of meeting people like you, or Felipe Guerrero, or Luis Ospina, or Camilo Restrepo, or Marta Rodríguez — people who have been for many years working, resisting, engaged with what they do. And they inspire me, and so the process starts to be reciprocal, and sometimes we start a conversation. It’s more linked to encounters with people, and that’s how it lives.
RODRIGUEZ: I see the act of filming as an “encounter,” something that goes beyond mere observation. In your films it’s almost like the camera becomes the point of encounter [between] you as the maker and the world that you’re seeing. Could you talk about your way of working, how you look through the camera at what you’re doing, what that means to you, and [how you] blur these very outdated [categories] of “fiction” and “documentary”?
HUERTAS MILLÁN: Well, where should I start? [Both laugh] So, one thing that strikes me is that when you put my films together side by side, they all seem very different — I think there is an objective difference between Black Sun and Journey to a Land Otherwise Known. But I think what gathers together all these works is the fact that I’m obsessed with two ideas: the idea of alterity, and the idea of living together. I recall this quote from the French philosopher Levinas, who says that there is a sense of alterity when you have a deep conversation with somebody and after the meeting you are not able to recall the colour of his or her eyes. [So] in my filmmaking process or in my art process, [I think of it as] a way to relate to others that goes beyond a simple surface — [though] at the same time I’m aware that I work through surface, that this is my material. So in each one of my projects there is this tension between what you can see, what is rendered visible, and all the complexity that you cannot see, and that cannot be flattened.
I really liked the distinction that you made between the observation and the encounter. If you do documentary or if you do fiction, at the end of the day you are building reality. And if we build reality, that means people are there to work with you, that a political and social situation is going on there. It’s like when you’re the administrator of an enterprise: you have responsibilities, people have to get paid, [etc.] Many of my films have been made with insufficient money and resources, sometimes in gruelling conditions, [so] that has been something that I think about and try to improve: How to build better relationships with people when working, and how this construction of reality can get better and less distressing for everybody (including myself). It has started to translate over to the themes and content of my films, which lately address the questions of how do we live with our personal and individual necessities and how we are able to weave relationships together. So yes, this idea of encounter is very, very important to me, and doesn’t limit to the economical aspect of making a film. It has been at the core of my practice since my first films, where ethnography was addressed in critical terms and where natural entities had a leading role. It is all related to the experience of alterity.
RODRIGUEZ: For Black Sun, you approached it first as a “fiction”: you had a script, you shot, and then you went back, tried to fund the film, and went back and [finished shooting] it in this different way. And what I find fascinating about the film [is that] there’s no tension between the “staged scenes” and the [“documentary”] scenes — there’s a rhythm between these two approaches, it doesn’t feel like [you’re seeing footage from] two different film shoots. [Could you talk about] working with your family, and how you blurred that line between the recorded moment and the everyday?
HUERTAS MILLÁN: To me, Black Sun was a necessary moment, because of the question of my genealogy and my relationship to Colombia: the fact that all my family lives there, but I live [in France]. And since I have been living here for 18 years, my family... it’s, of course, something that is very related to my guts, you know, but at the same time it’s a community of people that I don’t know that much now. So they’re at the same time very close to me but very distant. So I thought that this tension, this in-between tension, was a productive place to work, and I was also thinking about ethnographers, who tend to go to the most exotic places, and I thought that it could be interesting for me to try to go to the place that was the closest to me and at the same time [a place] I wanted to keep distant.
And then more practically, working with them was challenging, because even to me it was an ambiguous moment, where we were telling each other things that are important and that we perhaps wanted to tell each other at some point in our lives, but it was on camera and playing fictitious roles, [part] of a shooting process, so to me it felt like a parallel reality. It was a privileged moment where we could engage with each other in very honest terms, and at the same time, since we had the excuse of being in a sort of play or game, you know, the game of acting, there could be a sense of freedom.
After months of shooting Black Sun I realized that I didn’t like to tell the actors when I was filming, [so that] they didn’t really know when the situation starts and when it ends. Of course, sometimes it’s very clear: for instance, with my aunt, when she was dealing with difficult topics for her and it was becoming too real, she would tell me, “No, we stop here,” or I could feel that we had to negotiate something. But most of the time, when it was possible, I preferred not to tell people when I was filming, so at some point there’s no distinction between everyday life and the moment of shooting. Like, for instance, in the kitchen scene, which becomes just a moment of shared reality that gives us the sense of pleasure and excitement of any other daily life situation.
At the same time, the fact that the camera is present of course changes something, a very subtle change — and I do like the fact that it’s a subtle change, and I think that comes across in the films because it’s not [about] this spectacular, radical performativity, but more about deconstructing the performativity of our daily lives… [The characters in the film are very] exuberant, very performative already in their private connections and relationships, and I thought that’s exactly the thing that interests me — the complexities of living together, the complexities of meeting someone, of relating to someone, of loving someone. This is the life material that I’m very curious about, where life is contaminated by fiction and narrative.
RODRIGUEZ: Hearing you talk about the kitchen scene in your film made me think about how, in Mañana a esta hora, I have this scene where we see the characters cooking and eating, and, because I was working in the realm of the “fiction film” [and we were on] a “real film set,” you have people in the art department who make the food [for the scene]. And to me, that’s just a strange way to relate, because for me this idea of living together and shared experience has to do with how you relate to that space and those objects in that moment, and there’s something with the physicality of how you eat a meal that you prepare [yourself] that just feels different.
Maybe I’m too obsessed with these little things, but to me it was like, “Okay, they’re going to create a relationship and a dynamic by cooking something, and they’re going to decide what they do, and it’s their responsibility”; it’s not just me saying, “I’m gonna tell you that you’re gonna cook this.” I don’t want to decide everything and overdetermine everything. Because the encounter is not only to encounter others as a director — you're also there and you're also willing to give and take. It’s an approach and a sensibility that I feel in Fassbinder, Pasolini, Pialat, Cassavetes… there’s this different presence that I feel, a presence beyond just being the boss.
HUERTAS MILLÁN: Yeah, it’s really great how you talk about it, this idea of reciprocity and sharing responsibilities — which I read as well as a way of negotiating the power structure of the shooting, because of course there’s a hierarchy of who looks at who and who has access to what that comes across in the shooting, so it’s very interesting to see that there’s a sense of reciprocity, and even retaliation. Of course, I do come to shooting with a horizon or a sense of direction that I have, but at the same time the shooting is also for me the opportunity to work against this production in many ways, to create a sense of friction with what was planned before. It is important to be prepared to embrace the moment where things will go outside of the plan, just to look into that otherness, that sense of otherness.
And also it’s interesting, this idea of cooking, because in feminist criticism it’s so important of course — [taking] all this labour that hasn’t ever been paid [for] women, and just putting it into the centre [of a film]. I can recall when talking about specific scenes with people involved in the film that they would say, “This is not cinematographic.” And I thought, “Well, precisely, that’s why I want to film it, because it has been left outside, so let’s put it in the centre.” [Laughs] [In the cooking scene], I was interested in how these things that we think are not interesting at all might give us the most profound materials — which in my film is, I think, the case.
RODRIGUEZ: I completely agree, and for me, I’m obsessed [with this idea of domestic tasks]: I remember I wanted to make a short film about someone just cleaning an entire bathroom. I never thought about it like this gendered thing, but you’re right — I wonder how many guys would make a film about someone cleaning a bathroom? Perhaps it requires the sensibility of a woman, maybe?
HUERTAS MILLÁN: I don’t think so, because there’s an anecdote about Maurice Pialat, when he wanted someone in front of the camera cleaning the floor, and the actors just couldn’t do it in a way that felt juste (true), so he asked someone who did actual floor cleaning to come and do it, because it was crucial to see that particular activity correctly depicted on screen. [Or] Kevin Jerome Everson, who has often focused on the labours and tasks that have been left outside of or erased from images — echoing the fact that the communities performing these labours have historically excluded from representation, in both political and iconographic sense. So I don’t think it’s a gender thing. Again, it’s more of a tension between what is visible, what has been [made] invisible, and what you want to be brought into visibility — all the dialectics of showing and not showing.