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Óscar Vincentelli

How can we record death and render it visible through images? This is the question Óscar Vincentelli tries to answer with his film La Sangre es Blanca. Based on the negatives of the 33 La Tauromaquia engravings made by Goya in 1816, the director invites us to witness the transformation of bodies at the approach of death. Taking bullfighting as his subject, he nevertheless strips it of all its traditional folklore in a quick gesture, as precise as it is sharp. Using a thermal camera, he exhibits the third act, the faena, a key moment in the fight preceding the killing. In a theatrical challenge, the matador shows off the technicality of his gestures, sword in one hand, muleta in the other, exhausting the bull just before the final thrust. By showing only the irradiation produced by the body, the thermal camera reduces perception to a contrast effect: black for cold, white for heat. In this exercise of observation and subtraction, we can only discern the outlines of the silhouettes cut out in the dark, caught in a dance of death. This device creates confusion: the heat reflects the material reality of bodies, but what we see are isolated specters in the arena of death. And the strangeness of this phantasmagorical, fascinating and chilling vision is only reinforced by the steadiness of the frame. For an instant, the sudden entrance of a strange animal interrupts the dull and sadistic violence of this silent drama… With no more landscape, no more colour, and almost no more sound, only the rustling of the muleta passes and the sound of hooves on the ground echo in the arena. It is only when the beast succumbs, collapsing to the edge of the frame of the picture, that one perceives the muffled whistles of off-screen spectators. The crime scene is then cleaned up. The white of blood gives way to the icy black of death.

(Louise Martin-Papasian)

Interview with Oscar Vincentelli

In La Sangre es Blanca, you present a meticulous work on bullfighting, a practice you had already approached in your project on Goya’s La Tauromachia, a series of 33 prints that recount all the stages of a corrida. To what extent did Goya’s work inspire you, and why did you choose to focus in the film on the faena, the third act of the corrida, right before the killing?
Studying Goya has been essential for the film. In La Tauromaquia, Goya managed to depict more than what a bullfighting event looked like in the early 19th century; most of the collective imagination around bullfighting stems from the popularity of his prints. When I run the first tests with thermal imaging cameras, the results didn’t remind me of the copies, but rather of the original plaques, the negatives of the final engravings. Throughout the research process, I had access to the plaques, held at the San Fernando Academy of fine arts in Madrid, and I discovered subtleties, including two major elements which I applied to the film: the distance and the isolation of bodies.
La Sangre es Blanca highlights my fascination for this transition from life to death. As Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon: “In the case of an execution by a firing squad, or a hanging, (…) if these very simple things were to be made permanent, as, say, Goya tried to make them in Los Desastros de la Guerra, it could not be done with any shutting of the eyes.” That is the key: keeping our eyes wide open, as if we could see for the very first time. Trying to get a new image, one that keeps our eyes focused and reveals something. This film is also a way for me to remodel these images.
I mainly focused on the third stage of the corrida, the last one, before the bull is killed; it is the most important moment of the fight, when the bullfighter and the bull deploy all their plastic, aesthetic and technical skills. Besides, the faena is the only act limited in time; in a way, it starts the countdown to the killing.

In your video Thermo-Trash (2016), a digital voice says: “Thermal imaging cameras capture life”. In this film, the thermographic camera does capture life, through the heat of the bodies, while exposing the danse macabre that leads the bull to its imminent death. Can you explain why you chose this technical device?
The film started out with a question: can cinema record and expand the moment of death? As I was searching for an answer, I started experimenting with thermal imaging cameras, which allowed me not only to record this moment, but also to bring its process to light, to see how death causes the body to cool down.
All bodies give off a certain amount of infrared radiation, depending on their temperature. Thermographic cameras show this radiation, which we are unable to see in what we call visible light. The images tend to be monochromatic, because we use a single kind of sensor that detects a particular infrared wavelength. The warmest zones are coloured white and the coolest zones are coloured black, with various shades of grey for intermediate temperatures in between the thermal limits that mark the difference between a living body and a dead one. It is not a mere step between two images, but a whole process that becomes visible – death cooling down a body, within an otherwise pitch-dark frame.
I used a thermal imaging camera to develop a better understanding of death, then I searched for the right object of study. Bullrings immediately came to mind, because bullfighting is one of the most important cultural events built around death. As soon as I tried out the device, I realised that it revealed much more than I had expected, like for instance the archaic temporality of gestures. Suddenly, it was as if I was looking through a spyhole that took me hundreds of years back. I feel like I have been able to see the original experience of bullfighting, by using cinema as a tool to widen and understand the world.

By reducing the sound to a minimum and by focusing on a ballet of bodies, you strip the image of bullfighting of the usual folklore, and take the killing out of its context. What made you decide on this precise and radical move?
All formal decisions for the film aimed at reducing things. The thermal imaging camera got rid of the landscape, the choice of black and white got rid of the colour, such an important element in the iconography of bullfighting. The artist Martin Scaglia and I used the same approach for sound – we got rid of all outside noises to insulate ourselves and to focus only on the protagonists’ bodies. I knew that in order to rediscover the world of bulls, I had to see them and to hear them in a different way.
La Sangre es Blanca made me reconnect with the most sincere aspects of cinema, it shook me up, it left me vulnerable, it made me think, it questioned me. The whole preparation for the film made me a filmmaker, but also a spectator. I was spellbound and I kept wandering where the film would take me. Throughout the process, I distanced myself from filmmaking and became more like a researcher, a scientist, as if I could see for the first time, or as though the only thing that mattered was to see, just like a scientist observes and analyses things for the sole purpose of seeing and discovering.

There is a form of dichotomy in the images produced by the thermographic camera: although they are a sign of the organic reality of the filmed object, their strangeness gives them a phantasmatic aspect. Can you comment on this double aspect of the film?
I am fascinated by this dichotomy. Thermal imaging makes images we are used to see look utterly foreign. Thus, they border on fantasy, but without putting reality aside. Besides, it provides the body of the viewer with a new meaning. When such images leave their technical purpose aside to arouse a potential artistic reflection, they give us a tremendous power, one that is bigger than us and that connects us to the invisible.

You use static frames, you don’t follow the movements of the bodies, you rather let them enter and leave the frame freely, like on a theatre stage. In this respect, when a duck steps into frame, it disturbs the dramatic nature of the scene for a few seconds. Why did you choose such a static and stable setting?
Our aim was to dramatize the event of corrida in the film. The decision to keep the audience still, without following the movements of the bodies, enhances the feeling of strangeness and the impression that we can see for the first time. Keeping still keeps us away from what is happening, but it also allows us to focus on the black and white contrast, and on the strangeness of corrida.

The bodies of the bull and the bullfighter seem quite close, how did you place the camera? Can you tell us about your technical set-up?
During the first trials, we realised that distance was a major factor in the tension instilled between the spectator, the bull and the bullfighter. Goya was again a huge inspiration to help us decide where we would place the camera – it had to be right were Goya himself was standing when he made his drawings, because it was the best spot to underline the emotional tensions we were looking for. Only at the end of the film does the distance increase, when the camera moves away so that the frame progressively fades to black, in an almost pictorial way.

For filming, we used a flir T1040 camera, one of our best options, a quite small camera that went unnoticed and allowed us to shoot from behind the barriers. Recording sound was slightly more complicated. In total, we used 6 microphones, including a few super-directional microphones, to record the movements of the bulls and the bullfighters in the foreground.

Interview by Louise Martin Papasian

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Technical sheet

Spain, Venezuela / 2021 / 13’

Original Version : No dialogue.
Script : Óscar Vincentelli.
Photography : Óscar Vincentelli.
Editing : Elisa Celda, María Antón Cabot.
Sound : Martín Scaglia.
Production : Carlos Pardo Ros (Dvein Films), Elisa Celda (Lejos Lejos), Óscar Vincentelli.
Filmography : Violeta + Guillermo, 2018. Lenda Negra, 2016. O tremor, 2015.