Neighboring Scenes: Laura Huertas Millán on her hybrid film, SOL NEGRO

Interviewed by Ela Bittencourt, published in two parts, in publications Kinoscope and Brooklyn Magazine.

Laura Huertas Millán’s feature hybrid film, Sol Negro (Black Sun, 2016), explores a family history, in which a painful past causes close members to disperse. In this context, film becomes a privileged, shared space for expression and healing. Two generations of Colombian women—the filmmaker, her aunt and mother—gather to cook, share a meal and to overcome their reticence. The conversation does not obliterate the distance, signaled especially by the aunt´s theatrical performance that betrays profound alienation, yet it introduces a glimpse of future understanding. In her intricately structured, multilayered film, Huertas Millán expands the possibilities of cinema, by constructing a space that is both literal and imaginary. Mixing personal introspection and fantasy, she allows the unspeakable, or the repressed, to surface. 

Sol Negro was part of the Neighboring Scenes program at the Film Society of Lincoln Center that showcases the new ambitions of Latin American cinema. I spoke with Huertas Millán via email.

Ela Bittencourt : Your work is often called “fiction-documentaries." What possibilities did you discover in this "hyphenated," hybrid form? 

Laura Huertas Millán: Virgil Vernier once compared the documentary approach to Marcel Duchamp´s ready-made. To me, documentary is an extension of conceptual art and an engagement with the representation of History. Even if I considered Sol Negro as a strict documentary—though my film is, in the end, much closer to fiction—I would be happy if someone called it “mere fiction,” or a trompe l´oeil

That´s why the word “hyphenated” feels very opportune. I don´t experience binaries in my life, or in my creative process, but rather complexities, mestizajes, collaboration, and shared influences. Thus, it would be impossible for me to create a form that proclaims purity or a fixed identity. Instead, in my practice, it has been important to explore cross-cultural influences, to assembly disparate elements, and to deconstruct and transcend well-established narratives. I create displacements and estrangements, as a form of political engagement. 

For the past few years, aesthetic miscegenation has been for me an important topic of reflection and research: from the cultural anthropophagy that inspired my previous films, to the “ethnographic fiction” film series that I developed for my PhD in ethnography and cinema, and for which Sol Negro is the key piece. I am interested in syncretism, in the plurality of voices and narrative structures. In this, I am inspired by authors, such as Roberto Bolaño, Virginia Woolf, Julio Cortázar, Henry James, Gloria Anzaldúa, Peter Watkins, Annie Ernaux, or Ursula K. Le Guin, who distill reality in forms that blur the distinction between what is true and what merely plausible. This aesthetic calls forth an altered state of perception, a temporal/spatial voyage into the depths of the self, of dream, and memory—a truly embodied experience. 

E.B: Tell me how you came to cast your aunt and to appear yourself in the film. 

L.H.M: I created Antonia Marín, a fictitious persona, based on my aunt’s life. My aunt is a former lyrical singer who stopped performing a few years ago, following personal struggles. Sol Negro was tailored specifically for her, as a space where she can perform, as an actress and singer. 

At first, my film was supposed to have an omniscient narrator, the opposite of an intimate journal. But the more writing I did before the shoot, the more it was evident that the reality and the logistics of the project—the fact that it is also my own story—were actually a very important part of it. This made me reconsider the subjective point of view. After seeing in some of the rushes the similarity of my aunt and my mother to myself—our shared features and voices—my onscreen presence seemed like a powerful tool to visually convey complex ideas, such as legacy and kinship. Nevertheless, the film was never supposed to be strictly about me. So there was a long negotiation, especially in the editing room, to find the right balance, and to create an immersion in a subjectivity that results from three different voices.

E.B: Partly due to your aunt´s performance, and to your own presence, Sol Negro has a deeply psychoanalytic feel. Tell me more about your process.

L.H.M:Psychoanalysis is definitely important to my project, perhaps as a counterpoint to psychiatry, which plays an important role in my family, but which I have always resisted. It is possible that the psychoanalytic process and tools that I discovered— for example, the willingness to create new narratives about oneself, through immersion and introspection—have inspired me, though not consciously. The film had to be a place where we could see ourselves in a new light, hence the use of fiction, in order to abandon our position of victims. 

I like to think about fiction as a pharmakon, poison and remedy, and of “fixion,” as Avital Ronell puts it, as the yagé, a drug that allows you to have healing visions, by intoxicating your body. The film evokes forms of healing that are ambiguous. It operates as a melancholic state, rather than as an objective explanation.

More concretely, the film is a result of four years of work and of two different shoots. I first wrote a fiction script that was elliptical, with several narrative threads in a parallel montage, as well as glimpses of my presence. The crew had a copy of it, but not the actors. Each scene was rehearsed several times before the shoot that lasted only a few days. At that time, I was under the influence of a certain naturalist approach of the French cinema, searching to build hyper-realistic situations, close to everyday life. For example, the rehabilitation institution is a real place, and the actors talking during the therapy are persons who actually live there. My aunt and actor playing her boyfriend were the only ones who came from outside.

After this first shoot, I edited for several months, but couldn´t find the film´s form. Back in Colombia, I did a second shoot with my aunt and mother that lasted three months. I continued experimenting with the idea of the mise en scene, trying to blur the distinction between the recorded moment and the everyday life. I added scenes, such as the dinner and the attempted suicide, whose voiceover I wrote in collaboration with my aunt. My being alone, or, eventually, with one or two sound persons, created the necessary intimacy.

My editor, Isabelle Manquillet, helped me assemble this disparate patchwork, avoiding an oppositional structure (i.e. reenactment versus observational cinema). We searched for the right pacing and for image associations that enhanced the mythological feel of the documentary shots, as well as enhanced the naturalistic style of the fictional ones. We wanted to build coherence and chiaroscuro, the eerie emotional temperature that circulates through the whole film.

E.B: The violence against the self that you portray is powerful and also tied to national violence, which has a uniquely Colombian setting.

L.H.M: My work has advanced as a resistance against violence in multiple forms. It certainly comes from growing up in a context, in which violence is omnipresent in everyday life. For the past century, Colombia has been mired in civil wars that could be considered as the legacy of the colonialist conflict (the indigenous genocide, the expropriation of land, racial and class conflicts, social inequality and injustice).

The topic of violence in Colombia is so complex that it constantly occupies our research, literature, the arts, and the minds of our country. To this extent, it is also a very difficult topic to address and to represent, in a pertinent way.  

I knew that I wanted to link history and intimacy, to talk about history through a woman’s body. The project gradually unfolded as a reflection on trauma. Is trauma lived in solitude? In very concrete terms, how does trauma affect a community? Can it be passed down the generations?

I started to dig into my family’s chronology of displacements, and realized that my grandparents on both sides were deeply affected by La Violencia, i.e. the civil war between 1948 and 1958. Both sides of my family moved to Bogotá to escape violence. These stories have been kept in silence for years. It is not easy to unearth them. I feel grateful that Sol Negro could also be a space to think about where we come from as individuals, and how we deal in the present with past injuries.