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What is Presence? And Other Lessons From Carlos Reygadas

With five feature films to his name, Mexican lawyer-turned-filmmaker Carlos Reygadas has received much critical acclaim—and his fair share of criticism.

His films—Japón (2002), Battle in Heaven (2005), Silent Light (2007), Post Tenebras Lux (2012) and his latest, 2018’s Our Time—have been labelled existential and deeply psychological, and played at prestigious film festivals around the world. Sight & Sound described Reygadas as ‘the one-man Third Wave of Mexican cinema’. Yet his detractors accuse his work of pretension. What makes him so divisive?

Carlos Reygadas delivers a Masterclass on 8 December 2018 at the National Museum of Singapore. Photograph by Paolo Ty

During the 29th edition of SGIFF, days after a screening of Our Time, Reygadas sat down at the National Museum of Singapore, his wife and children in the audience, to speak about his ideas and beliefs about cinema. That 8 December Masterclass was many things: a contemplation, a call to action and an inspiration to all cinema-lovers and -makers present.

Speaking initially about his writing process, Reygadas noted that it’s a mistake to imagine screenplays as pieces of literature. ‘The screenplay is just a device so you may shoot your film,’ he said, explaining that screenplays should be compared to architectural blueprints, and not be confused for the final artistic product. To that end, Reygadas revealed that his creative process involves writing shot by shot (i.e. a technical screenplay). For him, being able to conceptualise reality using cinematic language (and not literary language) is the essential role of a filmmaker.

A still from Our Time (2018)

Reygadas also takes a similarly unorthodox approach to narrative. A narrative is classically defined as a series of events happening chronologically, typically structured by cause and effect. Reygadas, however, challenges that idea using the example of music:

When you hear music—let’s say a long symphony of classical music—there is a narrative, like Stravinsky’s The Firebird and, of course, Wagner. But what is essential is the music itself. Every single moment of the notes you’re listening to is what it is all about in the end… That is why in music there are these highlights of a whole symphony, because the highlights in themselves are valuable. This is something that I think about in cinema too. It’s not about the story. You don’t have to see everything such that everything is validated and so the story is what matters, as in literature. [Rather], things in themselves. The presence, the moment, what things give off at every moment—the molecular life of anything in the world becomes present, powerful and meaningful.

For Reygadas, the narrative of a film is built through presencethe physical presence of objects, of people, of landscapes, etc.

On one hand, filmmaking is about creating the image and sound of what is directly before the camera. Reygadas firmly believes in shooting on film, and limiting post-production effects. Most of what you see was captured in-camera. In the case of Our Time, that’s people (Reygadas himself and his wife, Natalia López, playing a couple whose relationship takes a sour turn after she has an affair) crawling through mud, fighting with bulls, having sex, crying and singing without restraint.

Reygadas at a Q&A after the SGIFF screening of Our Time. Photograph by Dean Koh

Yet ‘presence’ also pertains to the audience. Being present also means being in tune with the moment, being made aware of things that we would not normally pay attention to. This element of re-evaluating what we see around us in a new, non-literal light is missing from most forms of cinema, in which ‘a tree is just a tree’.

We can see the elements of a tree, like the trunk and the green thing on top. And that is enough. We conceptualise it and we move on so the story can unfold. But the actual tree, if you really look at it, it can be something else, something beyond the concept of a tree itself. Then, you connect more like the way children see life.

Reygadas’s films often boast memorable and beautiful opening sequences that draw the audience in. The Masterclass audience (re)visited the majestic opening sequence of Silent Light (his third film, about a man whose love affair threatens his standing in his Mennonite community). As the camera dances elegantly from the starry skies to a glorious sunrise, viewers were awe-struck. Similarly, the opening sequence of Our Time features children playing in a mud pond. Behind, the vast rural landscape of Mexico remind audiences how small humans are. You feel lulled into contemplation. Somehow your breathing becomes calmer, as you reflect on Reygadas’s expansive vision; maybe your own life is put into perspective.

Reygadas reminded us that even if his films give audiences plenty of room for contemplation, contemplation is not an end in itself. According to Reygadas, contemplation in cinema has two stages: The first is using the camera and sound equipment as a ‘funnel’ to capture what is in front of us. The second stage is about building a narrative or some kind of meaning out of these contemplative sequences based on one’s unique perspectives—one’s ego, so to speak.

Once that movement, that time, those parts of life are captured, then they have transfigured into something new, with which you now build fiction. You now cast your shadow—your ego, your thoughts, your ways—to build this emotional time. And then, the film has a narrative [because it exists chronologically] and has a text and even a message, if you want. It can be an open message, but it is saying something. It is not fixed anymore.

Among other things during his Masterclass, Reygadas also spoke about his contempt for the conventional film industry and the so-called star system, reiterating why he chooses to work independently and with non-professional actors.

Reygadas’s fans meet the master at the National Museum. Photograph by Paolo Ty

Finally, he also talked—perhaps controversially—about the importance of piracy in the shifting landscape of global film consumption. It is important, he believes, for people to be exposed to things that organisations and corporations are unwilling to show us. In fact, he argued, many of the best films made throughout the history of cinema cannot be found on streaming services like Netflix. For many viewers, therefore, they can only be attained through piracy.

So if piracy is the way to free our hearts and minds, then long live pirates like Carlos Reygadas.

  • – Brandon Chai
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