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Editor’s note: The following essay explores the making of El Cadáver Exquisito, a film described as combining “documentary, fiction and experimental film-making as it traverses the social and oneiric landscape of a region struggling between modernity and tradition. It explores ritual and performance from festivals to everyday life combining the real and the surreal, the fantastical and the banal, that which is vital and that which is purely entertainment.”

Antonio Bonilla, Procesión Funeral-1990, El Salvador (all images courtesy the author)

The Salvadoran painter Antonio Bonilla is the creator of “Procesión Funeral” (1990). This image was the detonator of El Cadáver Exquisito, a film project. When director Victor Ruano was a teenager, he wanted to make a movie that could reflect in time, sound and images what that still painting said to him. In his mind, it stood as a description of certain aspects of his society and the country of El Salvador. He would dare to say, that in a sense El Cadáver Exquisito is that painting at 24 frames per second. This image is superimposed onto a billboard in the beginning of the film and serves as a kind of table of contents of what is to come. It stands as a form of dialogue in time, between generations, and through conflicts.

El Cadaver Exquisito officially began as an idea in 2008 during a trip to El Salvador when we were invited to the country to give a lecture about our previous work. Once it was given birth however, it seemed we could only run to keep up with its momentum. It had its own vision, its own soul.

It began with a broad focus on violence in three forms: poverty, decadence and violence against women. These topics became a topic of conversation through the discovery and lens in which I was absorbing a new country, and the rediscovery and lens in which Victor was absorbing his country of birth which he had not visited for approximately nine years.

Our perceptions and observations were drastically different but intersected in interesting and unexpected ways. And these topics rose up to us through various people as we embarked on this new film and our interest was peaked and the necessity felt. This topic was also influenced by Lic. Rosemarie Vázquez Liévano de Ángel , a mentor to Victor and the woman to whom the film is dedicated to. Through conversations and opportunities she was able to provide us during the trip, she aided the momentum of the idea tremendously. When we returned to the United States we began to try to understand its form. Then throughout the year we wrote for the film simultaneously as we shot the film. We spoke of using a voice-over; a narrator who might tells its story like a fable. However, as the visuals and footage piled up, it was clear they wanted to be their own narrator. So we set down our pens and released it from that constraint. We often felt blind, feeling our way through the process.

There is not a single soul
Among the trees
And I
Don’t know where I’ve gone

— Octavio Paz

In the absence of a script the film remained in alignment with its title influenced by the surrealist movement of automatic drawing. We trusted in blindfolds. The scenes were filmed organically and spontaneously at each event, without interfering in it.

The visual and sonic story formed after we completed filming and we were working in the editing room. Only the dream sequences were staged, however, that aspect of the film also took its own course. It served less as the ritual catharsis of the documentary footage as we were planning, and more as a ritual catharsis for us as we worked through the project trying to see it and digest its becoming, what it would be, who it would be and how. Rossemberg, the art director, a co-writer and an actor in the film, embodied the rebirth in those studio shoots. He worked beautifully and intensely within the sets personifying the rebirth of a splintered body.

Dear Corpse, Who are you?
When I define myself, I am dead.
— Alejandro Jodorowsky

Who are you was the immediate but ultimately unanswerable question asked as we looked at the dead body — El Cadáver Exquisito — in the autopsy room. All 400 hours of footage did not reply. Its eyes were closed to us. We pulled out our ophthalmic surgery tools, cutter assemblies and refractive lenses. Our editor Elric Kane along with input from others used his hammer and his scalpel. Afterwards we folded our hands together and held them out, a rung for this being to step on and hand-by-hand a trail formed across an ancient land for it’s wet ways. It spoke to us then.

When there is no sound, it is said that there is no hearing. But that does not mean that hearing has lost is preparedness. Indeed, when there is no sound, hearing is most alert. (Kirpil Singh) I slept for a very long time and when I woke, the webs had sewn me to the ground and I was a cocoon and mistaken for a place to sit upon so I was nearly crushed. But I woke nonetheless. The pieces of rubble skin fell from me. They fell around me, piling into a perfect circle. A well made of skin. Brickwork. When it rained it collected the water. I climbed inside of it, a house that forgot to be a home. I bathed there one last time, inside all of those tears over all of those years. I shed this heavy body. I left it there. Now you watch me climb out and say to the well you are like words, you no longer work. I will only rely only on what behaves consistently, my hands and my feet. I will make.

And it walked on.

Andrei Tarkovsky writes of his working process saying, my purpose is to make films that will help people to live, even if they sometimes cause unhappiness. And I am all for cinema being as close as possible to life — even if on occasion we have failed to see how beautiful life really is. I respect the audience too much to want or indeed to be able to deceive them. I trust in them, which is why I dare to tell of what is most important and precious to me.

Alejandro Jodorowsky works with alchemy and anarchy in his films. His own words on his process are turning blood and excrement into gold. The content of his work through the medium of film as the arena for the collective unconscious brings the audience through an exorcism of the psyche. Apichatpong Weerasethakul wrote of his work:

I, as a filmmaker, treat my works as I do my own sons or daughters. I don’t care if people are fond of them or despise them, as long as I created them with my best intentions and efforts. If these offspring of mine cannot live in their own country for whatever reason, let them be free. There is no reason to mutilate them in fear of the system. Otherwise there is no reason for one to continue making art.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog writes about what he calls the Ecstatic Truth.

Why am I doing this, you might ask? The reason is simple and comes not from theoretical, but rather from practical, considerations. Blaise Pascal once said.

The collapse of the stellar universe will occur — like creation — in grandiose splendor. In reality, the words attributed to Blaise Pascal which preface my film Lessons of Darkness are in fact by me. Pascal himself could not have said it better. This falsified and yet, as I will later demonstrate, not falsified quotation should serve as a first hint of what I am trying to deal with in this discourse. Anyway, to acknowledge a fake as fake contributes only to the triumph of accountants. With this quotation as a prefix I elevate the spectator, before he has even seen the first frame, to a high level, from which to enter the film. And I, the author of the film, do not let him descend from this height until it is over. Only in this state of sublimity does something deeper become possible, a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.

Our corpse threw disorder at us through dismemberment. It died with a grasp and a gasp, an acceptance of the wildness of being, looking toward the thin sliver right above the horizon. An epic lightness inhabited it. Our candles and headlamps paled in comparison. When all life left its body, we began searching for its ceremony.

The role of ritual and performance is an important aspect of this project.  From festivals to everyday life, the combination of the real and the surreal, the fantastical and the banal, that which is vital and that which is purely entertainment weaves through the culture. The reenactment of rituals within changing crowds and contexts illuminates the complex striving for understanding and for giving meaning to the small acts of everyday life as well as aids in healing from the large acts of devastation such as violence and war. Ritual is release and catharsis. The myths, as torrid and exuberant as the geography, are often more concrete than reality and during the autopsy the corpse itself reveals something more repugnant than death, the submission of the living to it. The release within bondage, the flight of the bird linked to the serpent on the ground, the acceptance of sorrow and shackles, the soul living freely within the container of the body until it is eventually worn out.

The surrealist use of dream imagery creates fantastical worlds that build bridges to connect the conscious to the unconscious, allowing a dialogue to flow.

A crow flies back and forth, linking landscapes. We saw it flapping inside the volumetric flask, all grace and glass. Vigorous heating of the prima materia caused it to carbonize and layers would flake off and move. Our corpse spoke to it; you and I do not come lightly to the blank page medicine bird.

It was the blocking of this dialogue, which caused our protagonist to splinter. While splintered it was tormented in its sleep as the crow attempted tirelessly to merge the whole of its psyche, illuminating the symbols of the spirit, and striping the masks of fear and desire.

What came out of the mouth of our corpse after that was not words. It was not like spoken, it was past spoken. It was humming, hissing and cracking, a very high frequency then immediately dropping very low. The sound of insects and snakes. Sound, which can only come from those who have skeletons on their outsides. Hard became heard. We did our best as surgeons and we put our ears to each organ. We did our best as composers; we tried to note these sounds.

Rocking back and forth, our corpse immerses into a dense mythological universe by narrating the life of a being in the process of unbeing, a character becoming a corpse. Or, as Hegel named poiesis; in the process of becoming, pregnant with possibility.

I Have a Scar

It was the moment in which the earth had just awakened. They did not know what was going to happen. This is the second enigma that will be proposed to them: “Go and bring the brains of heaven so that the True Man may see them, who has a very great desire to see them.” They were told to go carefully. Behold the brains of heaven are incense.

— The Chilam Balam, Prophesy of Sacerdote Napuc Tun

There is a concept, which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

— Jorge Luis Borges, “The Avatars of the Tortoise”

This film combines documentary filmmaking with fiction and experimental processes. It traverses a landscape of a region struggling between modernity and tradition, walking through a tunnel of being. Upon rebirth, we found ourselves unbathed and lying sideways, the fluid inside our lungs is dry and covered in sweat. Our heads are heavy and the stones give way and collect the sweat to form puddles. They look like empty eye sockets, pink pools clean and curved and inside them, a reflection.

When working through the film, it was important to have people involved who understood it on an emotional level first rather than conceptual or technical. With this intuitive selection process steering the ship, it attracted a diverse working team, many who took on three or four different roles. It was this emotional level that inhabited everyone that fueled the tremendous amount of time, money, resources, thought and work we put toward it without significant conflict.

There are innumerable people, places, animals and objects to thank for its realization, which operated on a dynamic level of cooperation. Like working with a network of constellations, we did our best as astronomers. We watched, listened, pointed to the stars and took notes on patterns.

There is much more to this story but we cannot write it. This is as far as we can go. The process is wide. The body waits for you and the maps you read in the rings and whisperings of your smoke trees, your water, your flames, your dead. It waits for you to point to where you keep your chant, inside your four chambered heart or your pulsing pulmonary veins, your well made of skin, your springs. Tintinnabulation. The habits of your hands and feet.

For more information on El Cadáver Exquisito, visit

Sarah Walko is an artist, director, curator, and writer. She is currently the Program Director of Marble House Project, a nonprofit arts organization in New York City and Dorset, Vermont. Recent exhibitions...