Thomas Heise’s “Solar System” begins as a superbly filmed documentation of a way of life, but by its stunning conclusion becomes a tragic chronicle of the Kolla tribal people living in northwest Argentina. Much of Heise’s work has been devoted to German subjects (most recently, the fascinating “Material”), so his stark shift of focus to a forgotten indigenous group in a remote region is notable, and a demonstration of his wide filmmaking range. Smart programmers should embrace the title, and high-end cable airings appear likely.
Structured in separate sections identified by the seasons, pic balances its contemplation of the natural, Swiss-looking landscape of the Blanquito valley in Salta province and the Kolla community, and the general state of harmony between the two. Everywhere Heise points his camera (with a trio of gifted lensers, Robert Nickolaus, Jutta Trankle and Rene Frolke), the tribal group is buzzing with industry and activity, whether it’s meticulous leather making, brick-making or cattle herding. All of this work is directly tied to the immediate environment where the Kolla live.
Such is Heise’s subtlety as an artist, however, that this crucial point is never directly stated. Indeed, words are rarely spoken, as one season passes to another. Minor problems, like a tractor owned by couple of tribe members that has been knocked on its side are solved by collective effort. Summertime branding of cattle is another major group project, as is the butchering of a cow just prior to a biblical-scale rainstorm, one of many scenes in “Solar System” that seem to transport the viewer out of space and time; yet Heise’s larger intention is never mystical, nor determined to provide beautiful images for their own sake.
A final sequence with a group of community residents on a bus headed out of the region cuts to a nine-minute tracking shot seen through a train window to deliver a powerful contemplation of the villagers’ idyllic life counterpointed with the jarring reality of the city.
Heise’s patient, graceful use of pan shots — never too slow nor too fast — attest to a high level of craftsmanship, and a thoughtful attitude by an outsider filmmaker toward his trusting subject.