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Morelia: ‘From Afar’s’ Lorenzo Vigas Discusses Documenting His Family in ‘The Orchid Seller’

Vigas' father was one of Venezuela's most transcendent artists; the Venice Golden Lion-winning director shares his family's quest to find a long-lost painting while confronting painful memories

MORELIA, Mexico — Oswaldo Vigas, one of Venezuela’s most prolific and influential painters of the twentieth century, is the subject of “The Orchid Seller,” a documentary screening at this year’s Morelia Film Festival, which world premiered last year at Venice.

The film was directed by the painter’s son Lorenzo Vigas, an established artist in his own right having been nominated for awards at the Goyas, Mar del Plata and San Sebastian, and winning the Golden Lion at Venice in 2015 for his feature debut “From Afar.”

Mexico’s Lucia Films and Malandro Films co-produced the film which was co-financed by the Venezuelan Film Center (CNAC) and the Mexican Cinematography Institute (IMCINE), in addition to private funds.

“The Orchid Seller,” is a film with two stories. The first is the story of a cross-country quest, embarked upon by a famous painter and his dearly beloved wife, to find a painting that was lost nearly 60 years prior.

The second, and the real heart of the film, is an examination of the weight of memory.

“My calling as a painter, to a large extent, is owed to the fact that when I paint, I don’t think. I am set free from the guilt with which I am shackled,” reflects a tearful Vigas during a solo interview in the film.

The model for the missing painting was Vigas’ brother Reynaldo, and it was the last painting in which Reynaldo ever modeled for his brother. Vigas was chosen to go to France to continue practicing his art, and to no avail Reynaldo begged to go with him. After Vigas left, he never saw his brother again, and the guilt of leaving him behind is the shackling to which he refers.

This movie took a long time to make. What were some of the reasons?

With such a personal story it was virtually impossible to determine how long it would take to finish at the beginning. I unearthed aspects of my family that I never knew. As I progressed, I gradually assimilated and tried to create a logic within the universe of the film. I wanted something that would unite the search for my father’s lost painting with the physical loss of his brother Reynaldo. I knew that was the dramatic heart of the story, but when I started to edit I finished defining the tone and elements that were needed to tell the story.

We filmed in 2008. I was nearly finished, but I set the project aside to make my first fiction feature “Desde allá” (From Afar) in Caracas. After releasing that film I returned to “The Orchid Seller” to get the final cut. Although he did not see that cut, my father was able to see the film before his death in 2014. In total there were 9 years between the beginning of the recordings and the world premiere in the official selection at Venice in 2016.

What was your parents’ response when you told them you wanted to make this film?

I knew both my father and mother would make amazing characters. My intention was to make a film that was not only important as a historical legacy of Venezuela, as my father was one of the most important artists on a continental level of the last century, but that could connect emotionally with audiences of the world as a universal story of the passage of time and the weight of memory. When I told my parents about the project, their responses were very different. My father, who always felt very comfortable when being interviewed, had no problem with a production team invading his private space. On the other hand, it took my mother some time to feel comfortable and accept them.

Your father is an icon in Venezuela, but this film shows that your mother was just as important to his work. Can you talk about her a bit?

My mother was indispensable to telling the story. The transcendence of my father’s work has always counted on the efforts of my mother. She went out to sell a painting when there was no food in my house. She kept in touch with the art galleries. He was a social animal that needed continuous human contact with friends and strangers. He was never interested in promotion, there was no relationship with him and the “art business.” It was my mother who had to do that, sometimes behind his back.

Venezuela is in a difficult moment now. What would it be like to film today?

When the film was shot you could still travel across the country. Today it would be impossible to make a film like this the way we did it. In life, my father was publicly very critical against the regime that was being installed in Venezuela. He was often interviewed by the media and always had strong words against the regime. If we had tried to make the film today surely we would have had many governmental obstacles preventing it.

Oswaldo always spoke his mind. How did he respond to being directed?

My father was fine with the production team from the beginning, but as was his temperament, from time to time he expressed his emotions in the same way as he did in life itself: Without any measure. That meant filming was loaded with continuous surprises.

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