After its world premiere at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, the remarkable feature debut of Colombian editor and documentarist Felipe Guerrero, Oscuro Animal, hit the jackpot in Guadalajara last March. In fact, the film swept the top four awards (Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Actress) at what is considered one of the most interesting competitions for discovering emerging Latin American filmmakers.
As the film opens, Rocío’s husband and sons have just disappeared, La Mona flees after having stabbed her rapist and Nelsa deserts the militia after having buried one corpse too many. A creeping beast keeps looming over them as they escape from the barbarity that has smashed their bodies and homes, crossing the magnificent and yet daunting primordial rainforest to reach the city of Bogotá. By following their silent, anguished journey, we penetrate into the viscera of the Colombian conflict and are thus led to measure the enduring consequences of violence on its victims.
After his last highly conceptual and niche documentary, Corta (2012) — a linear sequence of contemplative and static long takes with possible symbolic import, portraying one day of labor in a sugar cane field — Guerrero proposes a much sexier version of socially engaged filmmaking, with good chances to appeal to an audience of non-cinephiles as well. While remaining heavily preoccupied with the form, and quite demanding in terms of cinematographic language, Guerrero’s nonorthodox representation of the Colombian conflict and his engaging storytelling manage to captivate both visually and emotionally.
In this interview, Guerrero talks about some of the central aspects of the film’s poetics and explains how formal choices and strategies coalesce to produce meaning (and in a challenging way), yet with the purpose of enhancing emotions and exploring alternative forms of narration.
The opening scene of Oscuro Animal — this long take where we see Rocío (Marleyda Soto) arriving and then gazing at something in front of her, ostensibly upset and yet keeping a composed demeanor — seems to comprise all the main elements of the film’s poetics. First of all, it sets the rhythm of the storytelling. Can you explain why you adopted such a slow pace?
I like the fact that you recognized the first scene as being an introduction into the cinematographic language of the whole. For me, the question of finding the right rhythm for a film has to do with the length of my respiration as a director as I’m enunciating this specific story. This is the pace I need in order to tell it as I believe it has to be told.
This slowness creates a space for the audience to penetrate and explore the scene more watchfully, to listen carefully to the sounds, to perceive all the details in the micro movements of the actors’ bodies and facial expressions. The point is to articulate the account in a way that allows the viewer to grasp all the particulars that, in my cinematographic language, carry a narrative and emotional significance. This rhythm isn’t meant to catch you as a spectator, but rather to put you in the condition to perceive more, to read all the layers of the scene and to interpret their meaning.
Is this an attempt to put the audience into a contemplative mood?
Well, not really. I don’t like to use the word contemplative in relation to Oscuro Animal, because it’s not what I wanted to achieve with this movie. I have already amply explored and experimented that in my previous works, especially in the documentary Corta, where I explicitly aim at creating specific physical sensations in the audience by putting together excessively long takes. With Oscuro Animal, I wanted to go beyond that concept and tell more, also content-wise. This was an important premise of the whole project: I wanted to tell a story with a storyline, with a narration that would involve the spectator both intellectually and emotionally.
The camera is also rather static and tranquil, most of the time. Are you deliberately trying to innovate the language and do things differently than we would expect while dealing with a story of escape and violence?
Well, this is a very large topic, because it has to do with the representation of violence and with how violence in Colombia has been previously represented. And you’re right, violence and breakouts would almost require a different pace and a more agitated camera. But it’s not that I have purposely tried to do things differently. I’ve just been looking for my own voice as an artist in telling this story, and this is what comes out in terms of cinematographic language, this is how I transposed my way of speaking and thinking about this topic into cinema.
Another choice that works, almost as a paradox in what can be considered a social denunciation, is the absence of dialogue.
Indeed, it is a paradox. How is it possible that my film doesn’t actually say a single word about what it is denunciating? And yet I believe this verbal silence… this mutism is the key. I want to emphasize that the absence of dialogue hasn’t been a dogmatic decision nor a calculated attempt to do something radical. It’s is just that when I was working at the project, trying to understand my characters, it emerged almost as evidence that my female protagonists wouldn’t have to talk. The three of them simply do not find the strength nor the desire to say anything, as this annihilating power that pursues them is so close, so present, that it has completely silenced them, not only symbolically. Moreover, it seemed to me that it would almost have been disrespectful to put words upon their pain, as if they deserved some intimacy.
What replaces words in your movie?
The absence of words is also a strategy, because when you empty out a movie of any speech, you create a void, a space, that the audience is necessarily desiring to fill up with meaning. The viewer is thus induced to pay more attention to other elements on the auditory level that might provide narrative clues, such as background sounds or music. In Oscuro Animal, I work with sounds in a very specific manner, so as to make them carry out both a narrative and emotional function. What I did is something that I have been experimenting since my first works, that is breaking the rule of the synchronism between sounds and image. I dislocate the sounds from where they originally belong, and I put them on a different scene, so that this diachronic juxtaposition might create meaning.
Can you explain that by providing an example?
Of course. For example, when Rocío walks through the destroyed village, we hear a pounding sound of stones being thrown. This sound in the background does not actually exist in that moment, nor it is realistic, but it serves the purpose of creating an atmosphere and thus suggesting what might have happened before, by generating in the audience a sensation of discomfort due to the beating sound. In that sense, the sounds bear both a narrative and emotional significance.
You seem to be using music in a similar way. For instance, the two songs that we hear in La Mona’s house and in Nelsa’s pick-up truck are brutally disrupting.
In both of these cases, music aims at creating a very specific mood that might be of help in interpreting the situation. In the stilt house where La Mona lives almost as a prisoner, the man puts on this Colombian folk song, and really loud. This serves to evoke how oppressed she feels. Also, this sort of very heavy punk metal that we hear, repeatedly and pretty loud in Nelsa’s car, reflects the brutality of the martial world she is forced to live in. Both are disturbing songs that emotionally characterize both the inner and the outer space of the protagonists.
These tracks are intimidating, they push the two women even more into the corner, and they reverberate their fears. As a spectator, you don’t need words to understand that the atmosphere is unhealthy there, and thanks to the music, you experience — almost physically — how it feels to be enslaved in such enclosed spaces.
In your portrayal of the Colombian conflict, you show very few violent episodes and focus mostly on the aftermath. Is that a way of taking a stand against sensationalism and voyeurism in the representation of violence?
That’s true, and this has to do with the point of view I decided to adopt. I depict violence from a distance, not when the facts take place, but just afterwards. I’m not interested in the impact but rather in the resonance, not in the blow itself but in its echo, in its effect. Because violence damages people in the long term, and these women, who are spoils of war, will always remain affected. This is what interested me and what I wanted to show.
Besides that, this choice, of course, involves an implicit criticism of how the media usually deals with this topic, which is absolutely morbid. I don’t like how the Colombian conflict is normally represented, because there is too much noise, too many misused words, too much sensationalism — up to the point that we stop understanding it. I did not want to turn this conflict into a spectacle.
You don’t really point the finger at any specific military group, do you? What is it that you’re actually denunciating?
That was also an important premise. I did not want to make reference to any specific historical fact or event that anyone would remember, and I did not want the audience to be able to recognize the different military groups or political factions involved. In Oscuro Animal, I am telling real stories based on individual testimonies, but I tried to remove every realistic clue that would allow one to identify this specific conflict. For example, the uniforms of the various militia have been completely made up, so that you cannot possibly find out who they are. This is a way of decontextualizing the story so that it becomes more universal — disconnected from a specific country — because the object of my denunciation is simply barbarity, in all its forms.
The three female protagonists are all astonishingly beautiful, but not in a traditional way. It’s a raw beauty — unadorned, soiled, vibrating, full of pain — but also of resilience. I think this tension between beauty and barbarity permeates the whole aesthetic of the film.
Here, we enter a complex territory, which has to do with how you portray death through beauty. In fact, we very carefully studied every single location, every light and every framing in order to obtain a strikingly beautiful and refined cinematography. The length of the takes brings you to enjoy this aspect even more, to notice even more consciously how polished the images are. And yet behind all this stunning mise en scène creeps the oscuro animal, the beast.
I believe the film vacillates between these two poles: the aesthetic and the ethic. The first has to do with the form, and all these technical aspects that only cinephiles can consciously appreciate, while the second involves the emotions and the empathy I want to provoke with regard to the true stories I am telling. In my work, the form is always pretty evident, because I use all the strategies with a lot of care and am rather conscious of what I might obtain through specific visual or dramatic constructions. But in this project, this was not the priority, because as I said, in Oscuro Animal, I did not want to make cinema for the sake of cinema. I wanted to tell a story and stir emotions and keep the balance between form and content. It’s political art, and that’s actually what makes the film sexy.
So Oscuro Animal is meant to appeal both to connoisseurs and amateurs. How did the audience actually react at the screenings in the festivals?
I am actually really surprised to see how strong the reactions have been, both in Rotterdam and in Cartagena. And then in Guadalajara, it received all of the four most important awards. But the best reward for me is seeing how moved non-cinephile spectators are, how they get involved into the story, how they connect to it, how they cry. Seriously, there are women in Colombia who, after the screening, came to me and burst into tears. My purpose was to reach any type of audience, and I am happy to see that I achieved my goal. It’s a film that requires a lot from the audience, because the form is strenuous and demanding, but it also pays out well.
I am curious to know more about the three actresses. It seems to me that each one of them has a different light, a different way of vibrating while acting.
Oh yes, totally. When I was looking for the actresses, I wanted professionals that would be able to express themselves with their entire body, because corporal expression would be their only way of communicating emotions. I wanted them to be professionals, because they had to help me build the character, as this was my first experience in directing actors. And then during the casting, it is difficult to explain, but I very much followed my intuition in making my pick: I wanted women who would be responsive and resonating in an intense, real, authentic way, and whose look would reverberate light and images.
As for their way of playing, you’re right, it is very much different in quality. Marleyda Soto is an experienced actress who is technically very prepared. She plays in a rather classical manner — let’s say, very accurate, very controlled and calibrated, almost neorealist — because she is perfectly conscious of what she is communicating through every single movement of her body and face, through every minute gesture.
Luisa Vides and Jocelyn Meneses are much younger and inexperienced, and work very differently on the screen. Their acting is much more physical, because their stories have to do more closely with bodily violence. The story of La Mona (Jocelyn Meneses) is a story of escape, of exhaustion, of dirt, of a body that is fearful…. a body that is hurt, a body that keeps collapsing and standing up over and over again.
In the case of Luisa Vides’ character, Nelsa, we are very much closer to her face, because it is very special and it tells the story of her life. She is beautiful but somehow masculine, hermaphrodite, very severe and stark, because she has been forced to live in that merciless, manly martial world.
In Oscuro Animal, all the victims are women and the oppressors are men. In such a symbolic construction, weren’t you afraid that, in terms of gender, this could be perceived as a simplistic equation?
Not at all. Well, I have heard this objection before. It’s questionable, but I don’t agree, and I am certainly not making any statement in that sense. I don’t think things are so clear-cut in the movie. Ernesto, for example, is a highly ambiguous character, as he helps Nelsa escape, although we don’t know what his real motivations are. And Nelsa herself was part of the militia, and at some point, she took more or less a willing part in this unhealthy world. I believe things are much more nuanced, and this is how they are meant to be.
(SPOILER ALERT!) After escaping through the jungle, the three protagonists safely arrive in the city. There is some allegorical meaning in this as well. Is this ending to be considered optimistic?
The screenplay, in that sense, is pretty simple, as it is articulated in three stages: the flight, the journey and the arrival. In the end, the three arrive in the city and can start everything anew there. But the optimism of this ending is relative, because you can perceive that the atmosphere of the city is grey, sad, as if the oscuro animal was waiting around the corner. But of course their story does not end there and the audience is led to keep wondering about what will come next.
I think that the music I chose for the ending provides the key to interpret the final mood: it is a cumbia, quite refreshing, not cheerful, but still moderately jovial, and yet with a very perceptible undertone of melancholy. This song perfectly characterizes the ambivalent emotional tone I wanted to give to my ending.
Nathalie Codina is a freelance film critic from Switzerland. She has a master’s degree in English and Italian Literature. In her country, Nathalie mainly writes in Italian for local outlets. In English, she has written for Indiewire.com.