Dominican filmmaker Nelson Carlo de los Santos (You Look Like a Carriage That Not Even the Oxen Can Stop) discusses his latest feature, Santa Teresa and Other Stories, which is based loosely Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, during which this interview was conducted by Christopher Heron.
The Seventh Art: What drew you to this idea and what was your process like figuring it out?
Nelson Carlo de los Santos: This film is weird because I normally know what I want to do, but this film came out as an accident. An accident in the sense that I got a lot of film and then I went to Mexico just to visit my friends and I decided to shoot. When I saw the material, I was reading at the same time Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Santa Teresa is my thesis for my MFA at CalArts and I was going to do another idea, but I said, “oh my god, this footage is great.” So I sat down and prepared a kind of a script. What I do is basically a mix of drawing, ideas or leitmotifs – so that’s kind of my script – so I went back and shot specific things after. Because I already had this structure and I knew that it was going to be a very loose film, because my mind works like that, too, it came out actually very naturally. You see the film and people say, “Oh man, this is a crazy film” – you get that – but it makes total sense in my mind. I actually edited it in five months, so it was a quick process even though it was a feature.
What are your thoughts on adaptation? Is it something you thought about prior to deciding, kind of serendipitously, to interweave 2666 in there?
Actually I found adaptation pretty difficult and I don’t normally work like a narrative film that’s trying to adapt a novel. It’s a process that I don’t follow and I don’t think my film is an adaptation at all, it’s inspired by the novel, but at the same time it’s more inspired by Bolaño’s work and how he treats narrative: the tale inside of the tale, the problems with the true. This is the big thing for Bolaño, what is truth? He’s always questioning all the time on every page in all of his novels, it’s something that repeats. There’s a lot of lies and tricks in Bolaño, also in this film there are a lot of lies and tricks; it seems to be an adaptation, but it’s not, and actually only one story that is being narrated by one of the voice-overs is coming from the book. I adapt it, of course, to the theme, but the rest of the stories I just wrote it and took the name of – not even one of the main characters of the part of the crime, since it’s divided in parts. I took one of the detectives and made him my protagonist and I took the name of the city and I just created my own movie. I think it would be impossible… I mean, if I knew that I was going to start this film trying to do an adaptation of 2666… [Laughs] I wouldn’t do it, because it’s impossible, I think.
It also works because in his books, the characters are in the same world – it’s not just the crossover with The Savage Detectives and 2666. It seems like you’re free to take that leap because those characters…
They travel from novel-to-novel and he has his alter-ego, Bolaño is Belano, so it’s true. Exactly. He moves stories and characters through his body of work.
I like the joke where you use his line, “it’s a neatly structured story.” It’s not neatly structured, nothing he does is neatly structured, your film’s not neatly structured.
[Laughs] Completely, yeah that’s true. He’s a trickster, that’s what he does all the time. He’s amazing, but if we analyze the history or any political fact or economical-social fact in Latin America, these are countries that have always been interrupted in their natural course of history. So it’s quite difficult to understand what exactly happened. For example, countries like – I’m from the Dominican Republic and I bet other countries in Central America – the academia is not very good, we could say, so the history is more mouth-to-mouth and anecdotal than a sociological ethnographic study of the society. I found Bolaño perfect to question the history of the countries of my region.
You mentioned the detective character, not really using it but having a detective character. How important was that presence? The film has been classified as a noir influenced film or there’s a noir quality to it, but it didn’t seem so to me. It seems more like there’s an idea to investigate, but it’s not strong, it’s not well-executed, but more chaotic and confusing, like the narrative.
In school we have a difference between detective stories and noir detective stories, but I don’t know why they think like that. My own opinion about it is that one of the characteristic of the noir detective stories is that everything is corrupted, even the main character. Everything from the lowest part of the society to the top of the society, so for me, I live in a noir country. I live in a noir region. If my film is a noir story, it’s because I’m trying to reflect the society that exists in a noir concept of the world, where everything is corrupt and it’s so hard to find the truth. Even the detective that is corrupt, too, but is trying to do something will not make it. I play with the idea that’s not in the novel, that when he’s about to figure out everything, he just gets killed. It happens in real life, I have some journalists in my own country where because of the dictatorship, they were trying to find something out and they were killed. They were ‘disappeared’. It’s happening right now in Mexico with the press, there’s no free press. It’s a violence we are very used to and normally it’s been expressed in a very sensationalist way. A lot of our films, I call them porno poverty. I was trying to get out of this, to get distant from this way of constructing discourse, to talk about violence. So not only Santa Teresa, but also my next film are trying to figure out this violence, but in a very abstract way – to get into the metaphysical about it, I guess.
I wanted to talk about the place, because you do take Santa Teresa the space from the novel, but it’s meant to be Ciudad Juárez?
It’s standing in for something there, but you’ve got it standing in for what you’re saying is a general topic, not unique to Mexico. How did you represent the place in a way that can act symbolically in this way? Even the first shots that set it up.
The film is ‘constructed’, speaking more to my own concept of the creation of spaces. That is something that is repeated in other types of work and now I think Santa Teresa is the best one that I’ve created and I’m hoping with the next one to continue with this. I built Santa Teresa with bunch of cities in Mexico – I never went to the north, the furthest north I went was Guanajuato – and the rest I shot in around seven or eight towns from Guanajuato down to the south of Mexico. I did this for a number of reasons: one, it was very simple, since it was part of the film to have these tricks inside, to be referential to Bolaño and how he works; and the other part is related to how I am constructing the cinematic language, which is a bunch of different formats (16mm, video, MiniDV, analog, photos). This idea of a disrupted image/visual discourse is also going to be impregnated into how I am going to work with the space. This has to be done with a very conceptual part of my own work. I’m being inspired by the orality of my own country or the Caribbean. As you might know the Caribbean is French, Dutch, English and Spanish, so I think it’s the only region in the Americas that almost destroys its mother tongue. So speaking only for the Dominican Republic, it almost reinvents Spanish. There’s a lot of onomatopoeia, we don’t finish sentences and when we don’t know the word we just make sounds. We use a very old way of speaking, the Spanish, but also with a bunch of slang. I think it’s a beautiful inspiration, it’s almost a resistance of a colonial tradition somehow. This is the realm that I am trying to do my cinema within, to think in this chaotic orality, so that’s why I’m going to create spaces from a bunch of spaces. Put in diversity and plurality in each part of the mise-en-scène: sound, space, time and narration.
Speaking of sound, you have a voice-over that’s prominent, but what about the score – the sound design you have going. How did you finalize that component?
This film was crazy. The fourth day of shooting, wandering the streets of Mexico City, I told myself, “Whatever you can do with this, the sound is going to be more important.” The diversity of the sound, in one corner you have eight musics and toys and cars, it’s quite crazy. This was the first thing, that I would focus a lot on sound in this film. I’m mixing a lot of film recordings, then other sounds, and using this basic electro-acoustic sampling of things. I repeated a lot of sounds, twist it a little bit with different EQs and create a musical aspect. Then electronic sounds I was creating through a sound generator. And the artists that I was using for this [soundtrack of the] film, most of them I was able to come to them and borrow their music because I am not selling this film. They are people that are amazing, they are creating this very strange music where they are mixing a lot of film recordings and beautiful music: Felix Laband, who I think is a genius, he’s from South Africa; Jenny Hval from Norway; and there’s an album from the brother from The Knife [Olof Dreijer] and Afro-American electronic producer who lives in Berlin [Mt. Sims], they created this very crazy album called Tomorrow, in a Year, that is like an opera that was made by a theatre. So I took a little bit of these sounds, too, these are the only people I couldn’t contact because I think they are very famous, but if one day someone wants to buy this film, I will try to get the rights of that. The other people I used were super nice and said I could use it and if one day you sell it, just let them know and give them some money. [Laughs]
What about the rest of the collaborations in this film? You’re working with an artist whose photographs are used in the film.
Ambra Polidori is the artist, he’s Mexican. You know, this is very interesting. I put them in the film because I like to be honest with my own journey making a film. So actually, I went for the first time to Mexico in 2009 and I didn’t know anything about what was happening in Ciudad Juárez and I found these in the MUAC [Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo], which is the contemporary museum of Mexico, it belongs to the UNAM [Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México], the university there. They had a political exhibition and this was the first time I realized what was happening in Ciudad Juárez. I didn’t know anything, that Bolaño had done a book about it, anything. So the first thing that I had, that opens this horrible reality, was these postcards. They were for free, so I took a bunch of them home. They’re basically postcards that are for tourism, inviting people to travel to Ciudad Juárez, but it was a joke. There is a dead woman and it says ‘Welcome to Juárez’ – it was kind of a simple idea, but for me it was great because for the first time I knew about this situation. So I thought it was important to bring this to the film, but not give names, because I didn’t want to deal with the responsibility – I was not trying to make a film about the crimes, I was trying to make a film about the violence. I didn’t find it correct just to put names. That was the worst decision, there was a moment in the film where I took them off, so it was very hard.
How does that relate to Polly?
Polly is a person I met during another visit and she was in the first group of students that went out to the street to protest Peña Nieto and she was put in jail. When I heard that story – what I like about the story that I don’t say in the movie, is that seven months before she was a film student, right? So she was making a documentary about Santa Martha, the biggest jail in Mexico City, and then she ends up there after that. Actually, she was treated good because most of the prisoners met her. I think it was great to have her in the film because this loose narrative, this kind of poetic narrative – they don’t find a base. I think Polly (Julie) brings that testimonial, this base that the film needed to get to another level and be more concrete, politically speaking. I believe that political art needs to be upfront somehow, you know, but I’m not Mexican, so I didn’t want to bring my own problems from my country to analyze Mexico City. So I think she was perfect for the film to bring that reality, I completely agree with her. I think this guy needs to leave and I can’t believe what is happening in Mexico.
Do you think it will change? The ending has a quote about not going anywhere and the repetition of something not going anywhere, which you’ve also mentioned with sentences not ending, what does that concept mean to you? Is it a political act to acknowledge that or is there a defeat associated with it?
That’s such a good question, it’s a question for life. To be honest, right now I’m in this moment in my life that I am having a huge existential crisis. I’m embracing political issues because I come from a family that were very political, not in politics, but quite political. It’s part of me to be engaged with my society and I think it’s impossible to not be engaged with the problems of my society or the world in general. But I am a little bit skeptical because I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s not a defeat, it’s just to mention that we have a problem and I don’t have the solution – and a lot of people don’t think they have the solution, either. I was reading some contemporary philosopher in Mexico and I can also see a very pessimistic vision of it. I think for the first time we are rich in a moment where capitalism or whatever system we live in now – there has always been oppression – but right now it’s the first time we are destroying the world. Big time. I think it’s going to be the Third World, if we embrace capitalism the way we are and destroying our resources, it’s going to be the Third World that is going to finish this world – with the First World corporations. Yes, it is pessimistic, but at the same time, I think it’s illustrative, too. It’s finishing the film with the idea that – is this the solution? We’re going to go back until we destroy the world? Or what? I don’t have the answer, to be honest. I’ll try to do the best I can, I guess, and I’m doing it, I think. I can do more, but then I should become an activist. But then the activism itself is in danger right now, that’s why I felt so hopeless when I saw [Sergei Loznitsa’s] The Event. All these demonstrations – is it doing anything? Peña Nieto just received a medal in La Sorbona for “Great Gentleman” so… It’s very hard.
Does this influence your next work – is it also going to be as politically engaged?
Yes, it’s politically engaged, but it’s more identity politics than an economical/social problem. It’s an identity problem because it’s analyzing two religions that are very important in the constructing of morality in my country: the Protestant Church that arrived in the second occupation of the U.S. in my country, which was the biggest occupation of the U.S. in a Latin American country; and then Los Misterios, which is a Catholic syncretism that we have – like Haiti has Voodoo, Brazil has Candomblé, Cuba has Òrìṣa – and this is one of the oldest religious manifestations. It’s very impregnated in the music even, like merengue, bachata. More than people think, but it’s always been marginalized because it’s black. They consider themselves Catholic and it’s insane how Catholicism in my own country, except for the high class, the way to practice and adore Jesus or the Saints is through this syncretism. So I’m analyzing the worst crime, murder – how these two cosmo-visions see murder. My main protagonist is the man who is carrying this conflict, who loses anyway – if he makes the murder and if he doesn’t he also loses. It’s disappointing in the end, too. [Laughs] Wow, it’s true.