Wanting to Get Closer: Traveling through History with a Bolex
Two filmmakers explore the connections between their work decades apart in Vietnam and Puerto Rico.
Sofia Gallisá Muriente, Lynne Sachs
Aug 9, 2023
Lynne Sachs and Sofia Gallisá Muriente first met in the classroom over a decade and a half ago, and have been collaborators and interlocutors ever since. Sachs’s Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (1992) was recently restored by MoMA, and Gallisá Muriente’s Celaje (Cloudscape) (2020) recently entered the Museum’s collection. As part of our summer of screenings drawn from the collection, they reflect on the pairing of their films kicking off the series Here and There: Journeying through Film on August 16 with a special screening in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden.
—Sophie Cavoulacos, Associate Curator, Department of Film
Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam. 1994. USA. Directed by Lynne Sachs in collaboration with Dana Sachs
Sofia Gallisá Muriente: It’s such a beautiful opportunity to think of these two films in relation to each other. It’s not a combination I would have foreseen but it is obvious to me now that there are so many connections.
Lynne Sachs: I’ll start with the idea that these are both 16mm films, and that goes beyond the look of them. It has to do with the way that our bodies engage with the camera, a sensibility. I will say as a backdrop to making Which Way Is East, which I shot in 1992 in Vietnam, that video was fully available. It was extremely challenging to have access to Vietnam as an American. At that time the country had really just opened up. Having a video camera would have given me so much more time to explore with the camera running. Yet there was something about taking my Bolex camera, knowing that I would have to slow down, have a relationship with the light, record sound separately so my listening had to be really sharp. My travel load was much heavier carrying all that film in my backpack. It shifted the trip to be about observation and not about acquisition.
Celaje (Cloudscape). 2020. Puetro Rico. Directed by Sofía Gallisá Muriente
I have a very strong memory of watching Which Way Is East in your class, and having that be part of finding my own voice, how I felt I could be making films. But obviously the big difference between our films is that I’m traveling through my own country and you’re traveling through Vietnam. You’re in Vietnam looking for how you are implicated in that history, for your country's implication in that place. I love that line in the beginning, where you say, “My mind is full of war, and my eyes are on a scavenger hunt for leftovers.”
I had this footage that I had shot for the thesis film and abandoned. But then I started making a film in 2019 that for me was about the trace of all of these disasters that had happened. Around the moment when Hurricane Maria was happening, the earthquakes were happening, the protests were happening, the debt crisis was happening. One thing that I was clear about was that I didn't feel compelled or interested in going out with a high-definition digital camera to make beautiful images of what was destroyed, or people suffering. I had just recently been gifted the Super 8 camera, and it was so light and automatic and easy.
But time passed, and you realize how quickly nature erases the trace of certain things. In the tropics especially, everything is always rotting, vegetation is always taking over. I wanted to make a film about the accumulation of traces of all of these different political processes and natural disasters.
There’s a moment in the film where I’m in the salt fields in Cabo Rojo, with this pink water and mountains of salt. I almost didn’t include it in the film, because that’s such a well-known image in Puerto Rico. A very photographed, very visited place. But what blew me away was that someone explained to me that the Fish and Wildlife Service has to make sure that that salt field is commercially exploited, because even though it’s a natural reserve, they need to produce salt in order to sustain the ecosystem. The mineral extraction has been happening for centuries, for so long that the ecosystem depends on it.
And that just immediately changes how you look at that place. And since the film came out, because of erosion and earthquakes, that very site has been flooded with water and the salt farming is not happening as it should. We capture something with our cameras, and we have no idea how quickly it will change and how quickly that image will become a document of a past that we can no longer witness in person.
SGM: When Hurricane Maria happened I was really struggling in how I wanted to respond in my practice to what was happening. I felt like I had to reconsider how I wanted to relate to image making. I had all this film in my freezer, film I hadn't shot and been wanting to work with for a long time, and suddenly it was decaying. Everything was decaying. Everything had been flooded. There was no power for a long time. It smelled like humidity everywhere. At the time I didn’t have a Bolex, so I couldn’t really work with the film that was rotting in my freezer, but I’d gotten deeply interested in biodeterioration and started playing with that. I started reading a lot about salt and collected salt from the fields we were talking about earlier in order to put my film in it. And the images of my grandmother on the beach that we shot together, I later buried those in her backyard. That ended up becoming a series of works of which Celaje is the final part. I was responding to a moment where climate was clearly conditioning memory and the survival of material evidence of history. Notions about conservation and preservation and archives that I had were really futile in the context of the tropics.
But then, at the same time, I was dealing with the death of my grandmother, of my father, sitting with grief and finding ways of processing: to be thinking about the country at the same time that I’m thinking about my family was a kind of affective approach to politics.
SGM: I also do love that moment where you’re observing as a tourist but some people are also welcoming your gaze. It’s interesting how that offsets this constant wanting to speak about war that you have. What is there for you to encounter? I kept thinking about how I love all of these people that look straight into the lens and are smiling or posing. I think about the right to beauty that people in complicated contexts or who have been through experiences of violence have, because when we were talking earlier about this notion of paradise or the tourist gaze, I always wrestle with that a little bit. Yes, beauty needs to be complicated but at the same time, Puerto Ricans are very proud to live in a beautiful place, and we also love going to beautiful beaches and taking that photograph that is then used by the tourism department to sell the island. How do you hold both thoughts at the same time? How do you resist or complicate beauty while also claiming it as a value that you can also treasure, in a way, about the place where you are?
You’re constantly looking from inside to outside, looking from a balcony, looking through a window, looking from darkness, through a silhouette. In your framing, there’s this constant recognition in the film that you’re outside, but that you're interested, that you’re curious, that you’re wanting to get closer.
Here and There: Journeying through Film is on view in MoMA’s theaters August 16–23. Sofia Gallisá Muriente’s work is also included in the current exhibition Chosen Memories: Contemporary Latin American Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift and Beyond.
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