Over the past decade, director Laura Huertas Millán has been working on unique and boundary-pushing documentary projects that subvert and deconstruct the colonized gaze. Born in Colombia, Millán studied art at the Fresnoy and the Beaux-Arts in Paris before undertaking a fellowship at the Harvard Ethnography Lab. She uses cinema to challenge the authoritative colonial views about exoticism, ethnography, and anthropology. Her films are conceptual; form and image work to draw unexpected comparisons and explode preconceived notions about the relationship between colonizers and the colonized, the “new” world and the “old.” She maintains subjectivity as a means of breaking with the objective and authoritative gaze of the colonized point of view.
In a retrospective of her work at the Montreal International Documentary Festival, Millán presented six of her films: Journey to a Land Otherwise Known (2011), Aequador (2012), Sol Negro (2016), La Libertad (2017), jeny303 (2018), and The Labyrinth (2018). She sat down with Hyperallergic to talk about her thought and filmmaking practices.
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Hyperallergic: What is ethnographic fiction?
Laura Huertas Millán: The concept is rooted in a tradition of visual anthropology. Jean Rouch coined the term ‘ethnofiction,’ a practice intended to challenge the usual hierarchies between the filmmaker and their filmed subjects — a form of ‘shared anthropology.’ In Rouch’s case, the persons involved in his films were active parts of their construction. Some of them were recorded while reacting to [the work in progress], playfully commenting on the images. In some works, such as 1967’s Jaguar, all the actions and storyline were co-created and improvised with the characters.
I have been using the term ethnographic fiction rather than ‘ethnofiction’ because it creates a light shift. It’s a way of referencing the practices combining anthropology and fiction that have existed since the very beginnings of cinema without limiting myself to Rouch’s heritage and what it represents in geopolitical terms. On the contrary, I am eager to include non-European / North American practices in my research, as well as highlight female and nonbinary voices in critical dialogue with anthropology.
My cinematic practice started with a series of films about the notion of exoticism, with a very critical look toward anthropology’s iconography, which I found were rooted in colonial processes and narratives. Looking at these constructions of ‘otherness,’ particularly the first accounts of European travelers in the Americas, I started to consider ethnography as a form of storytelling. This critical approach slowly shifted to a more nuanced one when I realized how contemporary anthropologists (some of them from the Global South) have integrated fiction into their discipline in order to decolonize it. ‘Anthropology is ready to fully assume its new mission of being the theory/practice of the permanent decolonization of thought,’ said Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. It’s in the ambivalence and paradox of ethnographic fiction, a process of both deconstruction and reinvention, that I have been developing my films in the past years.
H: Many of your films deal with the relationship between the body and their environment.
LHM: It is a question increasingly present in my work, although I don’t think about it as its main subject. Perhaps because it’s such an omnipresent question that I have integrated it unconsciously. But also the very concept of the body doesn’t resonate that much with me, because in my work, I’m attached to all the layers constituting a person. This often feels like an attempt to represent scents or sensations of the being that are not immediately visible or strictly physical. So I’d say my interest is in the corporeal, rather than the body. The corporeal feels closer to my interests, because it implicitly evokes a set of inner and outer relationships, toward oneself and other beings. It implies an ecosystem.
I’m also obsessed about how we negotiate our intimacies and dissidents within a collective, and how we can share common spaces with radical alterities. Thus naturally, I have integrated nonhuman presences in my films, and some gestures to communicate with them. And I try for each film to immerse in the specific environment that I am trying to represent, to be sensible to the historical complexity and specificity of each context. Which is, at the end of the day, a process resembling anthropology’s fieldwork.
H: When you’re approaching a film that is about your own life, do you feel the difficulty in translating it truthfully?
LHM: When it is related to my own life, or people vulnerable in a psychological or political sense, I haven’t been interested in translating our experiences truthfully. My aim is not to expose my/their privacy, but to talk about intimacy in aesthetic and political terms. To that extent, fiction is instrumental for me, I see it and I use it as a layer of reality, helping us to understand and to relate to the world. Fiction also allows me to protect the people involved in my films. It allows them to have an agency on what and how much of their intimacy will be exposed. In some of my films, I have built plausibility instead of truthfulness to address very private spheres.
But it depends on the films, because some other of my works are in conversation with movements that quest for social, political, or historical reparation. For example, I have been working recently on Jíibie, about the Uitoto people’s traditional uses of the coca plant. Many communities, including the Muiná-Muruí in the Colombian Amazon (who are also present in the film), have reclaimed to grow and use the plant, anchored in metaphysical practices that have existed since before the arrival of the Spanish. In this case, I have tried to find ways of enunciation that are subjective and personal, and at the same time have made efforts to respect and honor the context and reality of the Muiná-Muruí community.
In both cases, it is extremely difficult to translate one’s and other’s experiences onscreen. It’s a huge responsibility that I don’t take lightly … a never-ending process and negotiation.
H: Many of your films are about the relationship between architecture and space, can you elaborate on that?
LHM: Ruins are very present in my work. In my first short films [Journey to a Land Otherwise Known and Aequador], they were the testament of past colonial ‘civilizational’ projects: botanic gardens, greenhouses, mega-projects in the forest … At the time, I was trying to articulate authoritarian architecture, America’s colonization and its subsequent transformation/destruction of nature. I dived into theories of the Anthropocene, which according to some researchers started with the creation of the ‘New World,’ and related those ruins to the vestiges of a human and wider ecological cataclysm.
But in my most recent films, the link with ruins became more effective. It certainly comes from growing up in a chaotic, aggressive, and devastated city like Bogota, where places that I loved were often on the verge of collapsing. But it also comes from European culture, where the iconographies of ruins and vanitas are omnipresent. Architectural ruins can represent both mental illness and resilience, or they can embody the mysteries of memory. As a result, decrepit spaces literally haunt me. I have recurrent dreams of nightmarish labyrinths and enclosed spaces. They are ghosts, phantasmagorias, but also the ground for present and future constructions.
There is also in my work a need for altered states. Architecture in my films are vessels for traveling, ‘heterotopias’ — spaces within spaces. For example, in Journey to a land otherwise known, there’s the fake jungle inside the greenhouse, or in Aequador, buildings looking like UFO, or Evaristo Porras’s mansion replicating another house in The Labyrinth. These architectures are somehow evocations of artificial paradises. They embody cross-cultural and paradoxical influences and desires. Seeing cinema as the possibility to build virtual spaces has helped me to unfold these geographical, psychological, and cultural complexities — in my first films through architecture, and in my most recent films through the presence of psychoactive drugs.
The Montreal International Documentary Festival ran November 14 through 24.