A still from Occidente by Ana Vaz. It shows a hand holding a china plate.

On the Geographies of Cinema: A Conversation Between Ana Vaz and Nella Aarne

02 Mar 2021

Hyper Functional, Ultra Healthy contributors Nella Aarne and Ana Vaz discuss the politics of perspective in cinema, the climate emergency and the role of sound and landscape in Vaz's films Occidente and A Film, Reclaimed, screened as a double-bill for the Somerset House Studios programme, following curator Nella Aarne's lecture Notes on our Collective Cosmoecological Body

Nella Aarne (NA) There's been an ongoing conversation for decades, which has maybe intensified over recent years, about who can tell whose and what kinds of stories. Thinking about the importance of lived experience and the responsibilities that we take on when we set out to tell stories in which others are also implicated, I was curious about how you position yourself politically as a filmmaker in relation to the stories, narratives, histories or myths that you set out to explore? How does that position you in relation to the imagined viewer of the film? Are you speaking with or on behalf of somebody and, if so, who might that be? 

Ana Vaz (AV) For me, cinema is above all a relational instrument and hence always shifting, there is no fixed position in a moving medium. To make cinema is to be in a consistent process of negotiation and translation. What's interesting about cinema as an instrument is that it defies any stable position, it is made of movement. Also, it does not rely only on language alone, as it is in itself a foreign and moving language. Cinema is an instrument that allows us to augment, modify and transform our perception of time, space and scale relationships. And if I make films, it is because for me film is precisely an instrument for embodying and defying fixed relationships. So I cannot in any way affirm a single position in cinema as that would betray the very proposition of the cinema I am interested in making. 

In the case of Occidente (2014), a film that challenges fixed historical positions around a lunch table, the frame becomes a battlefield of signs that are constantly defying one another. For the film, I decided to film a bourgeois lunch in which you see Lis Andrea de Melo, performing her job as an Afro-Brazilian descendant maid. Lis became the central character in the film as she is the only subject who confronts the camera with her gaze. 

And this was not something I could have scripted. Reality is always much bigger than cinema and to film is to try to accompany sudden movements, to take action within your frame. The moment in which Lis looks at me, once, twice, thrice, disconcerted and firmly straight through the camera, I began to understand that that was the crux of the film: Lis looking back. 

AV If much of the history of cinema is stained and colonised by an industry that pretends that the camera is neutral and absent, in Occidente this pact if broken. Lis looks back and the return of her gaze is historical. At film school, the first thing they teach you is that your subject cannot look at the camera. But why? Through her gaze and actions, Lis taught me something that no theory or philosophy could have ever taught me. The return of her gaze carries over 500 years of colonial violence. Her gaze is a counter shot, a body that looks back. 

So this is why I cannot say if I am speaking by, with or near (as you suggested), I am present and my presence is an intrusion as cinema is intrusive. And I guess I am interested in what this intrusion can perform, narrate, disrupt. 

NA We’ve talked about the inherent violence in these dynamics of where the lens or the camera is pointing and who is looking back. However, there's something materially significant about the camera too, in relation to colonial histories, ecologies, and specifically, the colonial violence that has been inflicted on non-humans, other-than-humans, or more-than-humans (there are many ways to talk about these worlds). I’m thinking about all technological industries, embedded in a fast paced capitalist extraction economy, which sustain present-day colonialism by unearthing raw materials to manufacture our devices. The camera is embedded in these dynamics, too. I was wondering about your relationship to the materiality of the camera as an object that has built into it the very politics that you use the camera to explore. 

AV I don't think any instrument is innocent. Consider the way many cave paintings were made with animal blood. As a technology of the 20th century, the moving image camera contains and embodies the resources, struggles and paradoxes of Western modernity. 
Yet the question of representation is ancient. 

Now, of course, everyone knows that the development of lenses and cameras is completely intertwined with the military and mining industries as is this computer that we are now using to speak with each other. 

NA Exactly, all technology.  

AV Now addressing your question about the materiality of the camera and my relationship to it, I have chosen to work with analog 16mm cameras over the past many years as I feel these cameras were made to last and they do. I am not really that interested in the novel developments of digital image technology that seem to grow old in an instant, producing an enormous amount of waste. The film industry is obsessed with novelty and consistently erasing the past. I am rather interested in working with a dying medium, threatened of extinction.  
The alchemical and unexpected process of making analogue images is for me a way to experiment and ritualise the way in which I make films. However, I am not saying that making analogue images is saintly, it also depends on toxic chemicals and minerals that pollute and intoxicate. I would actually say that there is an inherent toxicity to image making. 

I was recently writing an essay about British filmmaker Sandra Lahire, whose films deal precisely with the toxicity of mining against a certain toxicity of image making. Looking back at her films, I came to think of the role and ominous presence of X-ray images and the way in which in the end, cinema is in itself a kind of X-ray machine. So I would rather take cinema as an X-ray machine, a toxic technology that aids in diagnosing pathologies. I'm interested in that: how can cinema be an X-ray machine of sorts? What kind of radiography can it produce? Can it enable us to see, to sense, to understand something intangible? 

NA Something that I noticed when I was watching A Film, Reclaimed is its relationship to time because I feel it's positioned in a very specific moment. The general climate of urgency [with regards to the ecological crisis] has perhaps intensified since the film was made. There has been an accelerated increase in philosophical and political discourse, and in public debates, about the Anthropocene and its many cousins of many different names, each of which have their own origin stories. Because the film directly relies on sampling from other cinematic works and refers to specific philosophical and political discourses, the array of samples that you had available at that time was determined by a finite period within cinematic and scholarly history – only a certain amount of conversation and image production had happened at that point.
Do you feel your relationship to the film has changed since it was made? Films are, of course, always alive, and change depending on where and when they are shown, and who encounters them, but if this film was a living being that could materially, in the most literal sense, evolve over time, how do you think it might have evolved over the last few years?

AV The first thing that's very important to note is that this film is a collaboration, it is a conversation between me and Tristan Bera, who is a friend and ally who I have been collaborating with over the years with our collective COYOTE*.  A Film, Reclaimed began as a commission made with a very pedagogical objective. We were then studying with Bruno Latour at SPEAP (Experimental School of Arts and Politics) at SciencesPo, Paris in a project called “Le Théâtre des Négotiations”, a conceptual embodiment of his Parliament of Things. The project assembled over 250 students coming from all over the world to perform a transformed UN negotiation model pre-empting the then upcoming COP21. We were asked to make the opening film for this event and we felt that we needed to make a film that spoke directly to these teenagers who would be the negotiators of the coming COPS** over the next many years. We didn’t want to open this event with a false pretence of a positive consensus around the future of climate negotiations. Interestingly, the film was initially censored from the event by some students and organisers who thought A Film, Reclaimed was a negative film for us to open the event with. When for us, it wasn’t negative enough. So, there was a lot of conflict around it. In the end, thankfully, we were able to screen the film there, and afterwards the film followed its life. 

AV But I find it very curious that you say the climate debate has accelerated. I don't feel it has. I wish it had. The ongoing urgency we felt and feel seems like it's not really taking us anywhere. I think, actually, if we were to remake A Film, Reclaimed today, we would probably forget 20th century cinema and use more direct media images, stories in social media, self-published content. Yet, I struggle to conceive of the role of image viewing in disrupting the profound sense of impotency imposed by the neo-fascist re-structuring of politics today. 

Today, it becomes very clear that the only form of governance able to perpetuate the destructive politics of the Anthropo, Capitalo or Plantationocene is fascism. That's what we've come to. And it's very, very clear to us. This threat wasn’t perhaps as clear in 2015, when we made A Film, Reclaimed. So if there was to be a sequel to A Film, Reclaimed, it would certainly have to be a film that addresses the fascist governance devoted to the destruction of our habitat, the earth. It would certainly be a harsh and violent film. I am not sure I am spiritually ready to make that film. 

NA I think it's interesting that you say something specifically about harsh violence. I had a very visceral experience when I was watching it. At the beginning, there's very little visual content – all you see is text and the sound makes you feel like you're in torrential rain. Then you get this glimpse of an atomic bomb, exploding, and a mushroom cloud slowly forming. These quick flashes of the explosion were in perfect sync with my personal tendency to look away when I'm encountering something uncomfortable, and when I'm afraid of what I might see if I keep looking. I found it quite powerful.

AV Thank you for sharing this experience, because for us when we were starting to make the film, the most difficult thing for us was how to start. We were trying to make a film that deals with 500 years or so of history, in 15 minutes. We thought, okay, we can only start in the dark. If cinema has been a medium intertwined with the enlightenment — with light — then, we have to begin in darkness. 

NA The sound in your films is also very distinct, even though it varies across different projects. It feels often quite intimate, as if you're really close to something or something is coming really close to you, or like you're inside something. It can be drowning, but sometimes also piercing. There's very little human voice, and often when humans do produce sound or noise, it's more about their interactions with material things around them than speech. I'm thinking about the clinking of glasses in Occidente, for example – those kinds of delicate sounds that are perhaps less directly coded than spoken signs might be but produce a strong affect. And there is an abundance of non-human voices – often when someone does actually speaks, it's maybe a bird or another nonhuman animal. How do you approach the process of imagining a possible soundscape?
AV It’s very powerful to hear someone else's impression of something that is constructed very intuitively. Soundscapes come to me, in the same way, and with the same weight, as making images. Since the beginning, making films when I was very young, I came to realise that the lack of human voices in my films give a lot of space to other kinds of voices, languages. And, for me, sound is language. It's another form of communication that is very strong and touches us in a place that we can’t always locate and understand. We have been tamed, accustomed to a form of communication that tends to separate body and mind, language and sound. Not always, but often. So, what I feel is interesting is when the human animal stays a bit silent and can begin to sense its animality through hearing others. 

In the soundscape, or language-scape of Occidente, there is an encrypted language of signs that communicate in complex ways. There is irony, violence, humour, play, fantasy. There's criticism, abjection and horror. Sentiments are confused and complex when listening to sound, and I love that, it is a force. 
I think there is a kind of unschooling I'm trying to suggest with my films, an untaming of mind and body. When we're listening to sound, we're always being affected in a corporeal way. It's physical, it occupies space, just like images. I feel that there is an enormous transformative potential in listening, and it's time we learn to listen, not as a passive activity. Listening is a very active exercise. It activates your whole body.  

A still from Occidente by Ana Vaz. A close up of a peacock.

NA I love the way that you describe what the sound does, and how it confuses different meanings. I think this is exactly the beauty of Occidente, with the lunch and the clinking glasses and the exchanged looks and the peacock calls. It's kind of disgusting, it's kind of funny, awkward. To produce such complex layers of subtle, and sometimes not so subltle, meaning is an incredible skill.

I get a sense that your films are very embedded to landscapes and connected to the specific histories of these localities. Does the landscape or the site come first and then you start looking into the history? Or does it happen the other way around – that you hear about the history of a specific place? What pulls you in? And to what extent does the process or context guide what the film can become? 

AV It’s difficult to sum up in one answer. But what comes to me is the question of affect — not as a sentiment of empathy, but rather as how we can be affected by something. I believe deeply that we are porous bodies, and that there are things that speak to us, call upon us. And we have to be very attentive to these callings. Sometimes, it feels like they’re leading you nowhere, and you feel like you're lost, and then there are times in which you simply trust the calling. The callings may differ – it may be a calling for homecoming –, a calling to engage with ghosts and hauntings from my ancestors, from what precedes me in this life. There are many films I have made that came out of that impulse. Then, there are others that take me very far. As a wanderer, native, foreign, intruder or guest what guides me in a profound relationships with the geographical. And cinema is a geographical art.


This conversation was recorded as part of Hyper Functional, Ultra Healthy, a dynamic programme of new commissions, films, workshops, and conversations considering both our individual health and collective wellbeing by exploring societal and ecological issues that affect both people and planet. You can watch Ana Vaz's Occidente, screened as part of Hyper Functional, Ultra Healthy until Sun 07 Mar.


*COYOTE is an assemblage of allies focused on investigating the shifts, transformations and conflicts in the politics and narratives of ecological thought and practice.  

**UN Climate Change Conference.