FIFM interview: Nicolás Rincón Gille (Valley of Souls)

A couple of days prior to receiving the Étoile d’Or at the 18th Marrakech International Film Festival from the hands of Jury President Tilda Swinton (who insisted on the unanimous decision of her jury), Nicolás Rincón Gille gave a wide-ranging interview to ICS President Cédric Succivalli about his harrowing debut feature Valley of Souls (review on ICS shortly) that looks recent Colombian history right in the eyes and wowed audiences and critics in the Moroccan Imperial City.

CS: You come from documentaries and Valley of Souls is your debut feature film, competing in the Official Selection here in Marrakech. How did you shift from documentary to fiction to tell such a personal political story deeply rooted in Colombian recent history?

NRG: For me, it is always a question of cinema. My previous films had to be documentaries because they were direct testimonies, so to speak. When I shot my second documentary, Los abrazos del río, that dealt with the same region as the one in Tantas Almas (editor: on the Magdalena River in the Bolivar region), I collected a lot of testimonies. But there was something missing for me in my filmic process, namely the emotional component, the emotional journey of a person. A journey of sensations, feelings. And this was an impossible thing to do with a documentary, because it was all about violence. Starting from the testimony of this person who told me the story of her father, who had been looking for the dead bodies of his two sons on the Magdalena River, and who became mad afterward.

CS: So Valley of Souls did come from a true story you had been told about?

NRG: Absolutely. So starting from that story, I gathered all the testimonies I had received and started writing a fictional story, but with elements deeply rooted in reality because the main question I had was how to deal with mourning in cinema, in a feature film. For me, it was an impossible thing to do in the documentary format because of ethical reasons. There is no distance. Whereas with fiction, it was feasible, particularly the question of tragedy. How to approach tragedy? How can we involve the viewer in a playful manner, if you see what I mean. That was the big question for me and the reason why I chose the fiction format to tackle such a traumatic topic. But it had to be in a continuum with the documentary, that is to say with an approach towards reality that respects real characters who have personally been affected by said violence. So we had a lot of reality-driven elements but approached from a fictional narrative perspective.

CS: How many testimonies did you end up collecting and how long did it take you altogether?

NRG: It took me two years altogether, off and on. I went down the entire Magdalena River, even in violent zones. Then the writing process did not last long but the most laborious part was to convince people we could actually do a feature film on such a topic, because on paper it scared people, it was too morbid. And there was also the bias, the cliché that coming from the documentary field, I was not allowed or I was not the right person for such a fictional work. So that was the laborious part.

CS: Correct me if I’m wrong, you shot the entire film in the Bolivar region, on the Magdalena River, didn’t you? Colombia is the second country in the world after Brazil in terms of biodiversity, and the first one for birds. In that regard, I was extremely impressed by Vincent Nouaille’s work with the sound in your film. We are not totally in Malickian or Herzogian territory but the authenticity of the restitution of this particular biodiversity through the film’s soundscape is cinematic mastery in my book. How did you work with Vincent Nouaille and with your DP Juan Sarmiento to capture this flamboyant and yet complicated nature? They never overdo the poetical side of nature, they restitute it in its barren authenticity.

NRG: Exactly. This was a fundamental element for me. The essential was that we should never overdo things. The ideal for me is to watch the film and not ask yourself who did it and how. There are trackings, dollyings and whatnot, but it must be an organic process, following characters and keeping track naturally with one’s theme. As for the sound, my idea was that there shouldn’t be any original score even though there is some music in the film, some diegetic music that is. Although I love films with original scores, this one didn’t need any and what constitutes the music somehow is the natural acoustic atmosphere, the soundscape as we say these days. There was a lot of work on sound recording and sound structuring. But it all came from reality, from all these moments we had spent listening to nature and not necessarily from the post-production process. Birds are very important in the film, they give acoustic signs, I don’t know what they are saying but it is important nonetheless.

CS: The film has a lot to do with the theme of memory and memorialization of those people who have disappeared under the paramilitary regime. One of the reasons why I think it is a grand cinematic achievement is that it pays tribute to these victims without ever resorting to pathos or over-sentimentality. José, the main character, is rather placid. He is marked by self-determination and he always stands against resignation. Where did you find this incredible actor?

NRG: This is exactly what I had in mind too while looking for my lead actor. It had to be someone from the region but also someone who would not fall into pathos. Filming men in Colombia is very complicated because of the war. In my previous film I shot mainly with women, because women open up more easily, they can show their pain whereas men are scared to let it go, they want to remain like stoic figures and all because of the war. I needed someone who was capable of transmitting a certain sensitivity without engaging into pure tragedy. So we did a casting for two years. We started from a documentary point of view. I didn’t want to look for characters with specific features, or a predetermined look. Among the people we found during the casting, I would say, well this one would be interesting for this character, that person for that other character. So we modified the screenplay a bit in accordance to the people we had chosen. And when I saw Arley (José Arley de Jesús Carvallido Lobo) for the first time, it was like love at first sight. He was standing in the corner, in a video, and as soon as he started talking there was something incredible emanating from him. And when we started simple screen tests, such as walking in front of the camera, he was literally beaming and I offered him the part on the spot. He has such an incredible range of acting. And he also personally lived throughout all these atrocious stories. Although his direct family was not impacted, nonetheless the paramilitary forces came to his village and killed some of his neighbors and friends. In fact, every single person in the film had to undergo this tragedy on a more or less personal level. They were all witnesses of it, if not direct victims.

CS: There is a purely tragicomical sequence in the middle of the film, when José is faced with the paramilitary boss who is watching the Tour de France on a TV with the victory of a Colombian cyclist in one of the most prestigious and legendary stages of the tour, namely the Deux Alpes mountain one. I had to look up his name, Santiago Botero. He won that mythical stage on July 23rd, 2002 and your film takes place in 2002, so the reference was direct, wasn’t it?

NRG: Oh yes, absolutely. I really wanted José to be confronted directly, face to face, with the Devil impersonated at some point and that is how I came up with that scene with the paramilitary boss watching the Tour de France. I read a lot on those paramilitary chiefs, they were surprisingly not armed people to start with but more so big land-owners from extremely conservative families, with a very strong bond to the land. That boss needed to be a full-on testosterone evil impersonation. Someone who thinks he can crush everybody, who thinks he is at the top of the pyramid, and a sports contest was the perfect exemplification of that narratively. I am Colombian but I don’t like films that show Colombia as an exceptional country, a country on the fringes. And there is this universal data that men with too much power think they can change the world. So I needed a confrontation, and sports, particularly cycling, is very important in Colombia. And it had to be something totally unexpected in the course of the film.

CS : There is also a very strong feminist component in your film. All these female characters are purveyors of hope, they are those to open doors to José, to give him a glass of water, to tell him who to find, where to go in his quest for the bodies of his dead sons. So Colombian society was almost saved by women, wasn’t it?

NRG: Not almost, entirely! My answer is yes, absolutely. It is a film centered around a male character. You may think he is the hero but he would never have been able to pursue his quest if these women hadn’t been there to help him along, doing small things like offering him a glass of water. It was very important for me to stress all these daily gestures, to show how the banality of daily life with its routines can impact one’s destiny. Offering a glass of water to a stranger is not that easy a thing to do. So there really is this network of women, who don’t necessarily know each other, but who allow Colombia to carry on living despite all adversity.

CS: There is this devastating scene in a village with the woman who keeps the diary of the dead bodies. I imagine that in your preparation work for the film, you came across such women?

NRG: Actually that woman did that for real back then, but I did not choose her real diary but one whose cover was similar in color and shape. She did that for 8 years, not on the Magdalena but on the other river, the Cauca River. She is an extraordinary woman and an extraordinary film character as well. She is a bit masculine, she has such a charismatic presence on the silver screen, don’t you think?. She possessed that Diary of the Dead, that is both incredible and so sad and at the same time she also found those bodies and with her own hands, she took care of them and noted everything she could in this diary. So I wanted her to act in the film the way she had been in real life, it was vital.

CS: What do you think about and where do you stand as regards this new Colombian wave of film directors, such as Alejandro Landes and Ciro Guerra? Do you feel some affinities with them?

NRG: I must confess that I adored Porfirio by Alejandro Landes but I have a huge problem with Monos, because I think he turns war into entertainment. It is an artistic position that is a bit self-detached and when one knows the context of the guerrilla a little bit, I know he does not necessarily want to reproduce a certain reality but still, there is something that rubs me the wrong way here. But we all keep an eye on each other and even though we do different films, we move on together and we are nourished by the other’s work. There is a sort of cinema cartography that progresses slowly but surely in that region, because we really need to express ourselves. We need to tell these important stories, as artists and as citizens of our country.

CS: To go back to the theme of memorialization, Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona tackles this topic with an astounding force too. Have you seen this one?

NRG: No, I haven’t seen it yet but it is true that the big question we all have at the moment has to do with the violence that crushed the population here and there in our societies, and it is extremely difficult to carry on living and doing films without confronting said violence at some point in our work. There is something that some people want to hide from us and the question is how can we make them visible without redoubling violence. How can we survive such violence? So there is something happening lately in cinema in that regard. And not just in Latin America, there are Asian and African films that confront this topic too. So we have to go back to something that is not that remote or distant in our personal, national history and show what happened, and not pretend it has been dealt with already when it hasn’t. These stories need to be told.

CS: And in the meantime it takes some European countries half a century to even start digging in one’s violent past, such as France, where I come from, which only recently started talking about the Algerian War in its cinema. So it’s very important we have young directors like you who dare facing the traumas and violence their country has faced in recent memory, be it through fiction or documentary. It has a symbolic value that is cinematic and cinematographic but also meta- and para-cinematographic.

NRG: Oh, most definitely! It is the cathartic component, it is pure catharsis. When people reenact in a film somehow things they either witnessed or lived through themselves, we cannot turn the page in one go, and we really need to ask ourselves questions about the past, all the more so when it has been that traumatic.

CS: Let’s talk a bit about spirituality, faith and religion in your film now. Saint Anthony is invoked in one of the very first scenes of the film. How deeply rooted are spirituality and faith in Colombian society?

NRG: Absolutely, but in a very practical manner. What I wanted to show is that it is not what the church says, it is what people do with that. In Colombia you really have a popular mix of African, Indian, and Spanish traditions, so there is a lot of syncretism and it enables José to use St. Anthony and make him his own, use him in his own way. And everybody can borrow religious elements and adapt them to his or her own story. This is very important for me because if we take France for instance, people are either into rationalization or pure religious faith with hardly any in-between, whereas there is a middle position that enables us to tell stories with spiritual elements and reconstruct the past, to tell stories like the 1001 Nights.

CS: Almost like religious pragmatism then?

NRG: Absolutely! This is very present in Colombia. For me it was important that the film remained realistic even though it deals with faith and religion often. We never see saints being represented. Personally I don’t believe in God, but I am amazed by all the possible stories that take birth in such faith.

CS : Let’s talk about the river for a second, since your film takes place there entirely. It is difficult to do a tabula rasa of all the films that were shot on a river, be it Herzog or Malick. Did you manage to detach yourself entirely from these films?

NRG: Yes, for me, the films Herzog shot in Latin America are very important because it truly is the vision of the Conquistador, of someone who carries this logic to its extreme, to the point of literally crossing the mountains with a boat! Most of his films there deal with that urge of (absolute) power over the land and the populations. So that was an important reference for me, but the Magdalena River is not like the Amazonia. It is more quiet, or so you think at first sight. In fact it is fakely quiet!

CS: Well, we see that when José gets carried away by the current and almost drowns himself at the beginning of the film!

NRG: Absolutely! You only truly realize its force when you are inside the river. And what José does there is pure folly!

CS: Is there a release date already in Colombia?

NRG: Yes, next March. We worked hard for that! It is going to be very important for us, and seeing the emotional response to the film so far, be it in Busan, Nantes or Marrakech, it is going to be extremely cathartic for Colombians after what they went through.

CS: The original title of the film in Spanish is Tantas Almas, what does it mean exactly?

NRG: I guess you could say, So Many Souls, but it did not sound very good in English. But I am only half happy with Valley of Souls because I think it is a little bit too poetic. Tantas Almas sounds better, it is more factual, like the Diary of the Dead the woman kept during all these years.