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Camilo Restrepo

Ten years ago, in Impression of a War, Camilo Restrepo explored how the war that has been tearing his native Colombia apart for decades has left traces that constitute a visual memory. With Room of Shadows, he invents an allegorical device that broadens and universalizes this reflection, drawing on examples from the entire history of representations of war and violence. At the center of the allegory stands a woman, alone in her home during wartime. She has no name, no identity of her own, like the war, from which we only hear the racket outside. Who is this woman? As she says at the beginning of the film, she is the first person to not only draw a portrait, but most importantly to memorize an image: the shadow cast on a wall by her lover before he went off to war – Pliny the Elder reread by Restrepo. Let’s imagine that this woman has since memorized all representations of war. That, in her besieged room, certain images come back to her like shadows. When she isn’t focusing on the war threatening to destroy her home, she begins to describe and interpret these images: a painting by Paul Klee, a film by Travis Wilkerson, a photo by Susan Meiselas, etc. Her words project the representations into the viewer’s brain, which in turn becomes a room of shadows and a theatre of thought. At the heart of the film, the description of Brecht’s Kriegsfibel, a.k.a. War Primer, confirms the Brechtian nature of the project: far more than an imaginary museum, Room of Shadows is a prototype of an educational machine, a war machine against the illusions that distort our relationship to representations, against all forms of manipulation of the relationship between image and reality. A camera lucida meant to enlighten us.

Cyril Neyrat

Room of Shadows was inspired by Martha Rosler’s series of collages Bringing the War Home. You’ve already shown an interest in the future of images in your earlier films, especially Impression of a War, which sought to create a memoir of the conflict in Columbia using the visual traces of violence. In what ways does this movie pursue the endeavour? Here, the war – social conflict, civil and transnational war – takes place off screen. Why did you decide on a metaphorical representation rather than anchoring it in a real-life context?

Room of Shadows continues Impression of a War’s research into traces. In both films, I interpret war using different formats that act as mediators between perspectives and the reality of the battlefield. What interests me is how reality translates differently depending on the technical means.
In this film, the scars of war are captured in works of art, books and films. Instead of just talking about war or showing it, these works address the way in which armed conflicts are represented. The series Bringing the War Home is an excellent example of this. Martha Rosler began this series in reaction to the media coverage of the Vietnam War. It became known as the ‘living-room war’ because the Americans could follow it on their TVs while, on the opposite side, the Vietnamese were subjected to the violence of the fighting. With her collages, Rosler makes us notice that the role of spectator offered to Americans by the media coverage established a new relationship between populations and war. The title of the series (Bringing the War Home) is pretty eloquent about the discrepancy between perspective and reality created by the spectacle of combat. For me, drawing inspiration from Rosler’s art as well as the other works mentioned in Room of Shadows was a way of examining the implications of how images are used in today’s screen-filled world.

At the start of the film, the protagonist says “A woman now inhabits this camera, like a conscience capable of transforming shadows to forge ideas. I am this woman”. Can you tell us a little more about the relationship between image, shadow and the memory of the image? Is this what motivates your choice to describe rather than show the images themselves? Should we see this as a form of failure in reality’s representation?

As well as being a movie, Room of Shadows is an allegory of the representation of war. To create this allegory, I worked like a classical painter seeking to include on my canvas various figures that we associate with the idea of representation. By referring to the camera obscura, the device that preceded photography, the film’s title suggests that the room in which the action takes place is an analogy of the photographic camera. In this camera lives a woman who perceives, interprets and renders images to the spectator without showing them. What does it mean to show or not show an image? To give shape to this question, I chose to use words to evoke the works of art brought together in the film, and to use sound to suggest the war that threatens to destroy the room.
Within this allegorical framework emerges the documentary component of the film. The works of art, films and books mentioned by the protagonist warn of the danger of confusing reality with its images, of believing everything we see. The quotation in the movie from a book by Kundera suggests that the mechanisms of manipulation are based on associating appearances with real situations. The writer describes an attempt to rewrite the past by erasing figures from official photographs in order to adapt the historical narrative to the message of the powers that be. This example illustrates that representation can have an impact on reality. Today, just as it was in the period described by Kundera, it’s important to know in whose interest this impact is calculated.

Beyond its theoretical force, the film is striking in its beauty and formal power, which, through the colours and framing choices, brings us back to your first creative field, painting. You designed the set for this (photographic) room. What is it that interests you about the openly artificial, contrived nature of this setting? What were your sources of inspiration?

It’s true that I designed and painted the sets of Room of Shadows as a kind of revenge on my rather unsuccessful painting career. I did it out of a pure and simple desire to play with shapes and colours. This impulse continued throughout the subsequent phases, combining the talents of the other crew members to frame and work on the images, record, build and mix the sound tracks, compose the music and so on.
I always start off with a formal intuition that I hitch onto an idea. For this film, what I really wanted was to shoot on a single set with a single character. I then thought that the set could be the place where images emerge, a room/camera obscura where we’d talk about art. I liked the idea because it made me think of a game of mirrors where one camera would film another. In this system of reflections, my film would try and mentally recreate other films, other narratives. There’s a kind of mise en abyme in the film, and I expand on this in the accompanying book where I show the preliminary designs for the set to talk about making the film. For me, revealing the scaffolding is a way of emphasising that the images are constructions, that they aren’t transparent windows that open onto the world.
As for my sources of inspiration, they’re mostly the works I quote. In particular, I’m thinking of Martha Rosler’s photomontages that show modern American homes, of the room where the story of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper takes place, or the apartment where the main character of Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor lives. My room is a place suggested by art and literature. A box placed next to reality.

Room of Shadows exists in a variety of forms, including a film and a book. Why this choice?

The film originated during two workshops I ran at the Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola (San Sebastian film school). Using examples from the history of art and filmmaking, I offered the students various teaching approaches to think about the creation, distribution and use of images. After these workshops, Carlos Muguiro, the School’s director, offered me his institution’s support to expand this work into a film. As with the workshops, I devised Room of Shadows by following several avenues, combining different narrative registers (fiction, the notebook, the essay) and visual registers (drawing and film) in different media (book, film and a new workshop). From my point of view, taken as a whole, the various formats that make up Room of Shadows resonate with the plurality of the materials of the works I quote. Whether it’s by reading a book, attending a workshop or watching a movie, my aim is to encourage the audience to explore these works to the full.

The film is carried by actor Élodie Vincent who gives an impressive, distanced performance playing an allegorical figure rather than a character. How did you choose this actress, who the majority of French audiences are discovering for the first time, and how did you go about working with her on the text?

Élodie brought her experience in theatre and radio to the movie. She found her acting style in the artificiality of the set and in the demands of the long, precisely-written monologues. I’m still amazed by how she managed to lend feelings and emotions to a character I was sketching like a figure out of a painting or a book. Like all the other members of the crew, Élodie invented her part in the film. My work as director mostly involved maintaining the overall framework within which each person created his or her role.

The motif of surveillance cameras and the suspicion aroused by their constant recording is introduced at the very end of the film. As she throws a stone at one of her cameras, she smiles at yours. What do you mean by this act of liberation?

The destruction of the surveillance camera takes place at the end to point out that in a world where images of war are becoming commonplace, the commonplace images captured by remote surveillance are perhaps becoming instruments of oppression. I wanted to end the film by raising the question of the role we play every day in front of these cameras. The ending is especially significant when we recall that at the beginning of the film, the protagonist identifies with the woman who gave birth to the representation, only to end up as the woman who destroys it. This desire to destroy images reminds me that in my very first movie, I deconstructed visual archives to remove their undertones of colonisation and war. To continue in this earlier vein, the conclusion of Room of Shadows is perhaps that the war is also being played out in images, and that the images are at war with each other.

Interview by Louise Martin Papasian

Listen to the Cinémoi interview with the director, recorded by Radio Grenouille

  • Ciné + competition  
  • French Competition
18:4528 June 2024Cinéma Artplexe 3
16:3029 June 2024Variétés 2
11:4530 June 2024Variétés 2

Technical sheet

France / 2024 / Colour / 65'

Original version: French
Subtitles: English
Script: Camilo Restrepo
Photography: Guillaume Mazloum
Editing: Camilo Restrepo
Music: Arthur B. Gillette
Sound: Frédéric Dabo, Mathieu Farnarier, Nikolas Javelle
Cast: Élodie Vincent

Production: Helen Olive (5à7 Films), Martin Bertier (5à7 Films), Carlos Muguiro (Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola )
Contact: Helen Olive (5à7 Films)

2020 / Los Conductos / 70 minutes
2017 / La Bouche / 19 minutes
2016 / Cilaos / 13 minutes
2015 / La impresión de una guerra / 26 minutes
2014 / Como crece la sombra cuando el sol declina / 10 minutes
2011 / Tropic Pocket / 9 minutes