The debut feature from Colombian filmmakers César Alejandro Jaimes and Juan Pablo Polanco, “Lapü,” pulled off the lofty Sundance-Berlin competition double this week. After world premiering in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance, the feature is now competing in the Berlinale’s Forum.
The film kicks off on a windy night in the northern Colombia territory of Guajira, with no introduction or explanation. Doris, a young indigenous woman has a dream which inspires her to initiate a long-held custom among the Wayúu people. After seeking out guidance from her grandmother, Doris sets out to exhume the remains of a beloved cousin who she believes is not at rest, clean the bones, and re-inhume them to calm the restless spirit.
“Lapü” raises, but never outright asks, questions of mortality and existence after death. It documents the almost-hypnotic rituals used by Doris to give a bit of insight into the Wayúu beliefs that the deceased coexist with the living.
The feature is produced by Julian Quintero at Bogota-based Los Niños Films, a production outfit started by a group of young filmmakers including Jaimes and Polanco. Toronto’s Syndicado Films is handling international sales.
Polanco and Jaimes talked with Variety about the difficulties in translating an indigenous language, representing marginalized communities through cinema, and eliminating a “we-observing-them” mentality so frequent among anthropological documentaries.
What were the practical problems you faced in terms of language with this film?
Although the language barrier was present from the beginning, the younger generation of Doris’ family speaks Spanish, so this facilitated communication. Beyond that, a great deal of our communication was done with gestures or communal activities like sharing a meal, laughing, playing or dancing. As we couldn’t understand the words of many of the people in the film, they were able to speak and act freely, without reservation. Once we saw the first subtitled cut it was surprising and beautiful how complex and profound the things they said were. We knew from the beginning that an exact translation would be impossible, so we didn’t try to clearly define or explain the Wayúu culture. We didn’t want to impose our definitions on their culture. We wanted the ritual left in the shadows.
How important is it that these communities are represented in the cinema?
The Wayúu culture’s presence in cinema is vital for the way in which we relate to them, especially in Colombia. However, it’s not just about representing this culture on the screen, but about making its people part in the creation of the film. For us it is important not to generalize a paternalistic relationship of “we” who film “them.” In Colombia, the limited state presence in the region is cause for a situation in which much of the country ignores it. Globally, representation gives us the tools to define our own cultural identity when examining how different, but also how similar the Wayúu are to our own cultures. Additionally, marginality allows for abuse by paramilitaries and mining industries. So, as with this film, generating ways of organizing outside the “democratic state” and working for its inhabitants it is very valuable.
Have the Wayúu you worked with seen the film yet? What did they think?
Unfortunately, due to lack of time, we only finished the film a few days before Sundance, we still have not been able to project the film in the Guajira. But, as soon as we return from Berlin we will show it in the house of Doris’ family. However, Doris saw the film in Bogotá a few days before its premiere. She was supposed to go to the screening at Sundance, but unfortunately the U.S. government wouldn’t give her a visa. For her the film was at times funny, and at times tough. She was confronted with the moment of the ritual, which brought both sad and joyful memories. She was also happy to see her family, especially her grandmother, who is very old. At the cultural level, it was difficult to see because her family is going through a process of conversion to Christianity, and the film confronted her beliefs and the process of syncretism that she is going through.
What was life like for you while making this film?
It was a very special time for us. For a year of writing we traveled, every two months, to Guajira, and again before filming we spent a month Doris’ house, without filming and without equipment. This time served to finish sketching out, with Doris and Carmen, the movie we would do. When the whole team was ready we settled into a small house where we cleared an area of forest to make an improvised kitchen. The time in Guajira was difficult. The days were long and the nights eternal.
Can you talk a little about working together?
We grew up together and have been going to the cinema together since childhood. This has been a great privilege in our lives that we now share with the other four members of Los Niños Films. Several years ago Juan Pablo and I attended a wake in San Basilio de Palenque, a small village on the Colombian Caribbean coast. The experience was something completely different for us. It inspired so many ideas and emotions, and above all raised questions about how we relate to death in the context in which we live. This inspired the question we carried with us throughout filming: How does the relationship that each person has with his funeral rites relate to the way of understanding this life?