Berlinale 2024 review: I Saw Three Black Lights (Santiago Lozano Álvarez)

“The scars left by these outsiders are felt especially through the film’s sound design, which richly overlays layers upon layers of natural sounds.”

The first shot of Santiago Lozano Álvarez’s I Saw Three Black Lights is of the territory. The camera lingers on a lush rainforest, all shades of green; the rich soundscape heightens the feeling of a dense, impenetrable land. Impenetrable to outsiders, at least, since we soon start following a man who moves through all of it with ease and confidence. The stage is the Pacific jungle in Colombia, and the man is 70-year-old José de los Santos, a spiritual leader in his community, who starts a journey to his land of origin after his dead son urges him to do so.

Early on, José is summoned by other villagers after a man is swallowed by the river. He finds the dead body using a floating coconut. Here, as in many instances throughout the film, the camera stays mindful of the natural elements with which José interacts. The camera looks as attentively at people as it does at the landscape, its medicinal plants, a cocoa bean, or a coconut in the river. It is as if they hold a secret within them that only people like José can access, and that we are unable to grasp through our own senses. What sensibility in him has the jungle shaped throughout the years, deeply connected as he is to his ancestral Afro-Colombian roots?

After the body is found José leads the nine-day prayers to guide the unfortunate soul to the afterlife; a ritual that he was unable to perform in full for his own son due to threats by unnamed criminal groups. It is unclear who they are and when they arrived, but it is clear that the use of force has given them control over the land, in turn causing the upheaval of social organization in the region. The scars left by these outsiders are felt and seen as José traverses the jungle, especially through the film’s sound design, which richly overlays layers upon layers of natural sounds – the flow of the river, crackling fire, screeching cicadas – that are interrupted by the cacophony of land-digging machines and heart-wrenching gunshots.

It is through sound that the weaving of life and death is presented in the first place: an empty house awakens with a jumble of voices of the spirits of those who lived, who are then shown holding objects working as signifiers of their identities – a fisherman is shown with fish hanging from his shoulders, for instance – akin to traditional Christian iconography. Religion is also present in the potent original songs composed and sung by Nidia Góngora. These alabaos, traditional chants from black communities in the Pacific coast that have a religious origin, precisely punctuate the story and contain references to the geography and natural elements of the region, further emphasizing the inextricable mingling of these communities with their environment.

When he first appears, José is portrayed with a music group playing one of these songs. He is a man of his community, and seeing it brow-beaten means that his journey is one of resistance, dignity, and courage. Standing up for a way of living that his people have cultivated for hundreds of years is his way of honouring a life dedicated to building harmony among them; it makes it all the more painful when the story seems headed towards defeat.

Image copyright: Natalia Burbano / Contravía Films