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Simón Vélez

From the very beginning, Simón Velez’s film instils a sense of dramatic tension: moving from a sudden crescendo and the grainy sounds of nervous electro noise to a bucolic archery scene between two men, and the texture of analogue film. Twenty-year-old Sofí visits a fortune teller, who doesn’t forsee any good news, rather only bad moods, indecision, and problems. The mysterious, profane accessories the young woman surrounds herself with—coloured nightlights and other gadget lamps—are not enough to counter the prevailing gloominess. Signs seem to confirm the bad omens: a fire she films from the metrocable in Medellin, a failed casting with an impassive director. Eluding any excessive intrigue, the film follows the wanderings of its protagonist and procedes in stops and starts. A documentary protrusion, filmed at the flea market, shows Sofí, idle, roaming the depths of reality, among the stalls or standing facing cathode-ray tube screens, reflecting both a bygone era and a fantasy world. In the middle of the film, the notes of Lucio Battisti and the noise of a motorcycle engine backfiring interrupt her idleness and begin a journey: Sofí holds onto Gina’s waist, and leaves the city to reach lush nature and pristine waters in which to swim. A little love is finally imprinted on the expired film negative. As time seems to stand still in this Edenic landscape at the world’s edge, the enchanted interlude suddenly gives way to an accidental drama, whose cruel and unexpected emergence is accompanied by the return of the scathing noise from the beginning of the film. As in his previous films, Simón Vélez handles the tension between a tragic death and an acknowledged sensuality with grace and skill. Once again, in the exploration of the ridge between life and death, lies all the beauty of Underground Rivers.
(Louise Martin Papasian)

Interview with Simón Velez

After having shot two shorts in digital, you return to 16mm with a film that seems slightly altered. Why this return to film and this choice of image processing? How did you work with your director of photography, who was also present on two of your previous works?
When I was a film student, I bought a batch of expired Fuji film at a very low price. I shot my first short film with four of these reels and the other twelve that I had left were stored in a closet for ten years until I decided to shoot this film. When I received the material from the laboratory, everything was stained with a magenta color and thanks to a meticulous digital processing I was able to obtain a lot of information: the filmic is very grateful, despite the years and poor storage, the images are there. Working on film is not more difficult or more special, the value of the images is not contained in their support or in their technology, all the images go to the timeline of an editing program for montage, which is where the true magic of cinema happens. The most valuable image of this film was taken with a cell phone and it was the image from which I started to put together the rest of the story. I like having the possibility to use any support. Mauricio Reyes Serrano is a very talented director of photography, he is patient and resourceful. Working with him has been an apprenticeship from the beginning and I hope it stays that way. Mauro has been very flexible and very willing to work on my projects that are full of uncertainties. I trust a lot in his gaze and in his ideas that are not only in the images.

The film was inspired by the song Los Mayores Ríos se Deslizan Bajo Tierra by the group Sales de Baño, a jazz ensemble led by Carlos Quebrada. Can you tell us about this inspiration and about your collaboration with this artist for the film’s compositions?
Carlos Quebrada is a very eclectic artist and I am a great admirer of the diversity of his projects. Sales de Baño is special to me because several years ago Carlos asked me to make a visual record for the recording of his album Estrangulado el mundo, the song of the album where the title comes from was an absolute delight for me and I thought I could make a film version of it, a tribute. Throughout the montage we always used the original version until Carlos suggested doing a special version with modular synthesizers which gave a different identity to the film and the song.

In your three previous films (Por ver la luz en tus pupilas, Historia del Agua, La máxima longitud de un puente), water was present: in the sound, in the image, in your titles. Here again, the title refers to it and the sequence of the river appears as a transitional moment. What role does the motif of water play for you in this film and your cinema more generally?
Our body is mostly made of water. I am interested in creating images that make the body vibrate, since when water vibrates, it recomposes itself atomically and according to its frequency generates internal movement patterns in our body. This is more evident with music, but our bodies not only perceive vibration waves through sound. The fascination with water is still a mystery to me and perhaps it has to do with the fact that I spent part of my childhood living by a lake, it is the lake that is seen in Historia del agua.

Once again, you combine a form of enchantment and sensuality with the unexpected appearance of death, without directly talking about the context of violence in Colombia. Can you tell us about this tension?
Characters in my films die and are also resurrected. Cinema serves as a dream machine or as a sensitive production vehicle of the unconscious. Death in my films does not refer to physical death but to the transformation of the state of things. In the case of this film, it supposes the transformation of someone who, unable to work as an actress in the city, is resurrected in an idyllic forest with cows.
Violence in Colombia is part of the landscape, I find it all the time, wherever you put the camera you will see it. Colombian cinema has tried to denounce, portray and heal the wounds of a violence established in the region since the European Catholic colony and both avant-garde productions and commercials abuse and insist on delving into this topic without much success (and I’m not referring to success in theaters and festivals). Producers have found that it is a very reliable route to obtain financing. Some of these productions are pathetic and harmful in their banal attempt to give a mute voice to the victims, to the other, to the marginalized, when the vanity of the filmmaker is so evident. In addition to the “Independent” cinema, Amazon and Netflix found a gold mine in the narrative about violence: Guerrillas, paramilitaries, politicians and drug dealers have become heroes and have been characterized at the service of capitalism without any reflection. As spectators we must demand creativity. Other arts have reaped fruits in their dialogue with the country’s violence. Art helps to transform, it is death, the death of violence.

At the end of the film, the main character goes deep into the forest. What does this passage and ending, which incorporates a disruption of the camera, mean to you?
The ground was muddy and we dropped the camera by accident when we were shooting one of the forest walks. At the moment I was scared for the camera but this is a very solid iron object and it was not damaged at all. In the montage, the image was very pertinent so I did not hesitate to use it. This passage is that transformation that I spoke about before and for me it means a moment of light and vibration, it is the moment where Quebrada’s music sounds and the cows appear.

The non-professional actress from La máxima longitud de un puente is featured alongside the lead actress. How did you choose and work with the performers?
In my films, acting has to do with the disposition of the body in space more than with the dramaturgy itself. In that sense, I find myself more attracted to dance than to theater. I choose the interpreters based on something they transmit to me as beings and not through a casting. I had a good experience with Gina Caicedo in the previous film and it seemed interesting to me to invite her to be part of this project. The main protagonist is played by Sofía Jaramillo, a professional actress who did a very complete job in building her character and understood the film very well. Her interpretation is very good and I would also work with her again.

You recently founded your production and post-production studio Triangulo Lab in Medellin. Can you tell us a little about the projects you are developing there?
On the production side we are working on a film by a very talented Dominican filmmaker, it will be ready in 2023. On the post-production side, we have built a comfortable room that is equipped with all the technical image and sound requirements to finish film projects in person and remotely from Medellín. This post-production room has been designed as a place to discuss and rethink films before they are screened.

Interview by Louise Martin Papasian

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Technical sheet

Colombia / 2022 / Colour / 16 mm / 20’

Original version : spanish
Subtitles : english
Script : Simón Vélez
Photography : Mauricio Reyes
Editing : Melissa Jurado
Sound : Deimer Quintero
Casting : Sofía Jaramillo, Gina Caicedo, Daniel Cortés

Production : Simón Vélez (Triángulo).

Filmography :
La máxima longitud de un puente, 2018
Historia del agua, 2016
Por ver la luz en tus pupilas, decía mordicante el réprobo, 2015.