MEETING WITH LAURA HURTAS MILLAN
FRIDAY 5th MAY 2017 AT 3 PM. FRAC
503 avenue Bancs de Flandres, 59140 - Dunkerque
in collaboration with L’Ecole Supérieure d’Art du Nord-Pas de Calais (Dunkerque Tourcoing)
Screening of Sol Negro (Black Sun), 2016, with the presence of the artist. Laura Huertas Millan’s latest film focuses on things very close, very private, and very affective, inventing a fiction around her aunt and her mother, with herself appearing in the image. This film is a tale of flaws which deliberately excludes all victimization, and whose poetic title does not mask morbid impulses. If the aunt’s first name has been changed, if the family story is not altogether the one played out here, and if the pathology is never clearly expressed, this is above all because Sol Negro is a film and not a family film.
Antonia is an extraordinarily beautiful opera singer, at once exuberant and somber. When she ends up in a rehabilitation centre after an attempted suicide, all her links seem broken. But her sister remains profoundly affected by what has happened…
Sol Negro presents a fiction in the guise of an auto-ethnography. Family grievances and impossible relationships are here subtly explored and revealed, becoming at times music, the perfume of a melancholy and tales of deliverance. LHM
Mo Gourmelon: The screening of your film Sol Negro is accompanied by this absolute statement: “How are we to film what is closest to us, but something which we have precisely wanted to flee from?”. How did you get out of that dilemma? This film follows on from your two films made at Le Fresnoy: Voyage en la terre autrement dite, 2011, and Aequador, 2012. When and how did you find the time to wind up this project?
Laura Huertas Millan: The film actually starts from a dilemma, the broken links with my mother’s family in Colombia, and a private investigation into the reasons for that separation. The first time it was shown, at the FIDMarseille 2016, I actually wanted to introduce it with those words which are not really a production programme, but rather the conclusion to which the four years of its making led me. It seems to me to best sum up the contradiction into which the film propelled me. I wanted to film certain women who are very close to me, and I found myself in emotional situations which are precisely the ones that I wanted to leave behind in a radical way, by going to live in another country.
This desire to go towards what was, on the face of it, the most affective element also came to the fore from a phenomenon linked with the two films you’ve mentioned. Those two earlier works rummaged in dark places of anthropology, like a daughter of colonialism. After making them, I embarked on a PhD in art involving film and ethnography, and I observed on several occasions that ethnographers often start from the most remote and exotic elements—whence the opposite impulse, to go towards what is most intimate for me.
That PhD research also caused me to go to the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), at Harvard University, to study the contemporary practices of that discipline and its connections to film, and thus work on my combative stance in relation to that discipline. That laboratory, as well as the research undertaken by different artists and film-makers at the Film Study Center, enriched my prospects in relation to anthropology, but also in relation to that project about my family. I realized that my way of working was very close to certain audio-visual, auto-reflective and de-colonialist practices of ethnography.
Lastly, it was also at the beginning of that PhD that I embarked on a collaboration with the producer Franco Lolli (Evidencia Films), Virginie Legeay (scriptwriter) and Anne Marquez (art and film historian). This three-way dialogue around different scripts written at that particular moment was decisive. I knew that fiction would be a valuable tool for dealing with the dilemma at the heart of the film, and that it could be a personal language for me, my own way of becoming involved in that story which I did not want to confront head-on.
Those elements brought together, the ethnographical research and the construction of a fiction laid the foundations of the project, but it took me several more years to be able to fully develop it, and even begin to understand it from within and accept its ambiguity.
MG: I understand your project well and the fictional intent, but the interplay of the three protagonists sounds so true, and imbued with painful experienced stories, that it is difficult to separate reality and fiction.
LHM: Your comment touches me, because that ambiguity is the outcome of lengthy work. The series of films I’ve been working on for several years, which this film is part of, created in the framework of this PhD on film and anthropology, is called “ethnographical fictions”—paradoxes, where realty and fiction are interwoven. More tangibly, Antonia doesn’t exist—she’s a fictional character inspired by my aunt’s life, with a quite different first name, whose real life is different from the one you see on-screen. Some of the film’s scenes are built on a re-enactment of a episode in her life, others are invented episodes, and others still more direct shots of reality. But in each instance they are variations of this fictional character.
Sol Negro is the result of two different shoots. The first, in August 2014, was produced in the manner of a fiction—just a seven-day shoot, with a team of about 20 people. At that particular moment I had quite a complete script with scenes, characters, and dialogues. But that script was never given to the actors, it circulated among the technical crew like a score, useful for planning times, locations and cuts. Before the shooting, there were several rehearsals with the actors.. The presence of Franco Lolli was important in that preparation, I learnt a lot from his way of directing actors and trying to construct an area for representing hyperrealism—using each person’s experience, even flushing it out in a cathartic way through the acting, while giving the illusion of something natural. So by avoiding giving the script to the actors, you stop them becoming hung up on the written words, which are often less interesting than spontaneous and visceral reactions. So I spent time before each rehearsal and each scene describing the film and the challenges of the situation; the actors’ response created a dynamic of shared construction, which, in the most successful cases, went beyond the script and the initial idea. Little by little I worked a playground that was peculiar to me, removing myself from naturalistic acting in the strict sense, ad injecting my own music, and also drawing from the tools of the documentary and my theoretical research to do with ethnography.
For example, the group therapy scene is a reconstruction of a real therapy session, with people who were actually at that particular moment in that process, with whom I’d had several exchanges over several days beforehand. If each session was rooted in everyone’s sensations and experiences, I was directing the effect of each session—who, for example, had an attitude that accepted their malaise, and who for example was still up in arms? Of course, those directions were intrinsically bound up with the observation and discussions prior to shooting—a more immersive approach which I found close to the ethnographical presence. Another example would be the scenes with my mother in front of the computer. That was a scene that I’d rehearsed and written but, once again, all my mother knew about the script was my reported narrative. The first takes didn’t work, and the work between each take was a delicate process, to create the right conditions for going to look for what I wanted my mother to touch within herself, and for her to feel enough trust to share it. In this sense, and given that histrionic “manipulation” called the mise en scène, I don’t think the film is based on documentary observation; rather, it’s rooted in a more ambiguous terrain, of acting and representation.
Then there was a second shoot, which last for four months, between January and April 2015, when I worked with my aunt and my mother without any crew. The writing still had a quintessential place. The scene of the attempted suicide, for example, was written with my mother, until the moment of recording the voice-over, both of us, with no other witness. Likewise for the meal scene; I knew where we had to go, and the work consisted in creating the affective conditions for all three of us to go to the expected place and at the same be sufficiently available to go beyond that expectation and discover new things.
More generally, it’s my intention to go towards cinéma vérité or towards a camera position that would be a “fly on the wall”, an invisible eye—I don’t think I’m looking for a “truth” from somewhere else, but rather a set of symptoms, scars and perceptible manifestations of the private experience of the people I film—an experience I regard as being complex and plural, and something that can’t be reduced to a single representation. In this sense, I tend to construct a self-reflective approach, patient and inward-looking, but based in presence, and aimed at a state of suspension of temporary judgment, to reach an intimacy with the people I film, but also with regard to myself. I think I’m seeking this closeness towards myself and towards others, a certain tact and care—listening to a certain vibration, which is flushed out and made visible by film—is this memory? This is a question I ask myself. And oddly enough, in Sol Negro, it’s just when my presence as director/actress has been fully assumed that the images initially shot like a fiction start to take on another ambiguous and more realistic hue.
In the end of the day, these particular things are mysterious, it’s been a subtle balance of the false and the experienced, of staging and letting go. I see fiction—or in any event the type of fiction that interests me—like an alchemy, an interweave that’s worked out, subtle, craftsmanlike and hallucinatory, where, as you say, it’s hard to see how things have been done, where the raw materials come from, and what transformations have been experienced. Lastly, getting beyond the binary stage of fiction and documentary is an issue which interests me politically too—it also echoes the identity-related conflicts which the film presents.
MG: We can see that Antonia is an opera singer and so knows how to act on stage, with her body and her emotions. But the tears which mess up her make-up make her especially vulnerable. Another image stands out in your film. Antonia’s black silhouette on an empty stage and in front of an auditorium that’s just as empty. If the singer’s distant presence is not immediately perceived, the scale of the image and her identification are not recognized. This image raises questions and it’s Antonia’s presence which gives the image its meaning. But all of a sudden this lost, isolated being re-enacts her own erasure. I get the impression that your images in these instances pierce a state of disillusionment, dilution and death, all hard to transcribe.
LHM: I hadn’t thought of those images in these terms, especially with regard to death, and I’m very touched that these images can be seen in this way. What strikes me is that those two scenes you mention are the most theatrical in the film, in the strict sense of the term, they work equally on the costumes, the make-up and the grandiose set, and on the emotion laid bare, which is imprinted on them. Those two scenes were essential, because my aunt was an opera singer earlier on, and the film wanted to be a space for her to be on stage, operatically speaking, once again. Those scenes were important for her, they were terrifying at the start, and when they worked out in the filming, they chalked up a small victory for us—for her as a singer and actress, and for me as director. The tears you mention are the result of an afternoon’s work, a very last take when the light was going, when, finally, by dint of taking action, we managed to get beyond acting that was too theatrical. Here again, the alchemy was produced by a dose somewhere between artifice and surprise, between costumes and head-on mise en scène—singing a piece of the opera Medea to evoke the geneaological conflict between mother and son—with the expansion of sensibility peculiar to my aunt. Maybe magic contains that whole delicate dose between the person who gives himself through acting and the path that is suggested for him, the emotions that are summoned and created together. It’s a narrative already at work that has to be constructed for the actor, as if he were the first special spectator of the scene, but from an emotional and immersive viewpoint. I get the impression that the takes we kept of those scenes were those where my aunt and I were most intensely close—where we constructed a path and a shared language, new for both of us and yet very familiar for each one of us. Our blood bonds and our past experience certainly made that blending easier, but I have the impression that that is in fact what happens in the directing process when it happens, a process of dissolving the director’s subjectivity, a place of deep communication and empathy.
MG: Where Antonia’s concerned, we learn in the film that she has a mental illness, a personality disorder: “Antonia is capable of getting along with many people by giving the impression that everything is fine. But with the people who love her the most, who need her and whom she needs, relations are different.” Wasn’t that, too, a special feature suitable for nurturing the fiction, by creating from scratch a character based on a public behaviour differing from the private one? That personality disorder involving beautiful characters but often out of control and at their expense? Does the choice of a Facebook profile go in the same direction in this management of the public and private image?
LHM: Yes, in fact it does. Here you’re bringing up two essential issues which have motivated my desire to make the film. On the one hand there’s the exuberance and mystery inherent in my aunt’s personality. She embodies what people in Colombia call “a natural actor”, which means a non-professional actor but one who, to all appearances, would be very good at acting fiction. In another life, my aunt sang in the choirs of the Berlin opera and she featured in a Hollywood movie, Love in the Time of Cholera, by Mike Newell, where she played Mimi, and in the opera La Bohème, on a theatre stage. In her daily life, my aunt still performs those different incarnations—she likes talking about her tours, and singing in a spontaneous way…
Antonia’s Facebook, her fictional alter ago, full of nostalgic images of tours in Europe, was constructed from scratch for the filming, but all the images featuring in it are publications made in my aunt’s real Facebook. When I wrote the film, that public profile was a lot of help—it revealed several features of her personality, while at the same time constructing a mythical aura. My aunt’s shifts between different kinds of representations, from Hollywood film to social network profiling, in fact seemed fascinating to me. And as you say so well, it is all the more intriguing when you know about her career, the difficulties she had to face in her real life, and the painful failures which marked her existence and even made her artistic career impossible.
You bring up the issue of mental illness and personality disorder referred to by her sister in the film. In real life, my aunt was diagnosed as bipolar. My mother, who appears in the film, is also afflicted by that disorder, as was their mother—my grandmother. The second essential issue for me, through this film, was to better understand this presence of illness, floating over each one of the women in my family, because it is genetically hereditary, and to look head-on at my own fear of also being affected. And yet, that intimate necessity, that questioning of a suffering handed down from generation to generation could not topple over into victimization. In this sense, this issue had to remain suspended in the film, like the whiff of a threat or a fatality, but never as a fixed identity. So I made the choice to leave just a few avenues open and never directly name the disease which moves among the film’s characters—leaving it in its ghost-like and atmospheric state—like an invisible poison.
So, in Sol Negro, the disease being handed down from woman to woman takes shape through an action rather than through a fixed identity. Involved here is the attempted suicide scene, which is described by a voice whose body we do not see, Antonia’s, but a voice which resonates with those of the other characters (through the genetic closeness, as it happens, an intonation, a shared tone). This death wish circulating between these women, but also between the other characters, is the invisible framework of the film, which unites each one of the scenes with different chords and timbre. And at the same time, each character finds forms of exorcism in relation to this inner violence, whether they be through song, desire, narrative, introspection… The film itself is constructed and, it seems to me, presented in this way, like an ongoing struggle against that wish, by creating areas of lyricism, narrative, interplay, confessions… Once again, spaces made possible by my decision not to represent reality like a block, an untouchable “readymade”, but rather like an open stage for re-enacting oneself, a scene where you can describe yourself differently and open up the field of possibilities.
MG: Last of all, something intrigues me in particular. Why the use of German for the Facebook account?
LHM: German because, in real life, my aunt was trained to sing in Berlin, and she is still very nostalgic about that period. Her real Facebook was in German. I borrowed that factor in Antonia’s character because I really liked that nostalgia for an idealized elsewhere. A romanticism which seemed to me to fit the character—a glory of yesteryear, possibly even fictitious, which is expressed in a fable-like construction of her own persona. And at the end of the film, Antonia sings a Schumann Lied in German… This character is run through with romanticism.