• Other gems


Mercedes Gaviria

Mercedes Gaviria
A whistle. A cat that is watching. A bunch of flowers that are listening. A painting from which sounds may be guessed. That much is enough to make Otacustas a film both precious and subtle wherein, from the secret, and through things unsaid but suggested, we are invited to learn to prick up our ears. In the intimacy of some locked-down apartment, the outside sounds are reverberating, thus subtly closing the gap between the far and the near, the intimate and the political. Not unlike Nicolas Maes who tried to pierce the real through painting, Mercedes Gaviria does her utmost, through sounds, to unveil the mystery of silence. Much like the servant on the painting who seems to be saying “hush hush” to us, and much like these indiscreet flowers, let us prick up our ears and listen to silence, supposing this exists.
(Louise Martin-Papasian)

Interview with Mercedes Gaviria

“The Eavesdropper” is a painting by Nicolas Maes that appears in the film, and in which you decipher different “sound events”. Can you tell us about the importance of this painting and the choice of the word “Otacustas” as the Spanish title, an old and little used word?
I discovered those sound events thanks to David Toop, an English writer and musical artist. During the lockdown I came across Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener, a book that I had proposed to share in virtual classes with sound students at the Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires. The book impelled me to a constant listening exercise in that peculiar time. I started to describe the sound events around me and to record them with a Zoom H6 audio recorder. Later on, I began to look up the Dutch paintings that Toop mentioned that made up a mostly domestic sound architecture.
With Nicolas Maes’ “Eavesdroppers” series, I brought out a mirrored soundscape. It was the sound of the intimate, of private spaces which, when they begin to integrate, reveal the geopolitical tensions a subject may participate in at a given time and place. A unique sound cartography that resonates and becomes a document that reveals our ways of life. It occurred to me that, as in Maes’s painting, an entity could be listening to the noise of a stranger and reconstruct that sound map. Then what sense would it make of all those random and unavoidable moments?
At first the short was called “The spies”. But the flowers and Tomasa, my cat, were specifically related to the act of spying through the sense of listening. And with Jerónimo Atehortúa, the producer of the short film, we looked for words that could match this specific idea. “Otacusta” is a Castilian word which has fallen in disuse; etymologically, it comes from the verb “oír”, which means “to hear”. It refers to a person who makes a living by collecting and spreading stories, gossip and imbroglios. We thought that it was the perfect word to describe such sound espionage.

Through the question of silence, the film seems to wonder what the off-screen counterpart of sound would be. What was your starting point? And how did you approach the making of the soundtrack? I should add that you also work as a sound engineer and a professor of sound at the FUC (Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires).
My starting point was the lockdown we were going through, as well as the possible definitions of silence. I find the emptiness that occurs in intermittent, suspended conversations really upsetting. In those silent holes during those trying days, I could feel an enraged noise in my head. A polyphony typical of a borderland mind.
I fervently clung to the exercise of listening to my thoughts. It seemed infinite to me. That calm ambient sound and the silence induced by loneliness made me hear more clearly the voices that came from further away. Based on those specific sounds, I began to explore distances in a different way. All that external noise, coexisting with domestic resonances. Assassinations of social leaders in the Colombian countryside, the capture of Álvaro Uribe Vélez who had made us hope for justice in a country torn apart, voice messages from my friends discussing language exclusion issues, the music composed by women who accompanied me, and even nearby explosions in my neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, all of these things were given a new meaning through the sound memories of a country at war. So, I decided to base the sound editing of the film on this flow of consciousness. As a woman who remembers, lives and imagines.

The film also seems to work on the notions of distance and space: through the different layers of sound, it delicately combines the private with the public, the intimate with the political, the near with the far. Can you tell us about this aspect?
Yes, exactly. I began to perceive the sound transformation due to the confinement of a girl from Medellín who lives in Buenos Aires. The distance was shortened by a mixture of sound presences that came from different places. When you are a foreigner, you become a “borderland body”, in the words of Gloria Anzaldúa, a writer and activist of colour, a Chicana who did not mince her words. She wrote: “Borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition”. The limits are diluted and you start touching at a distance. It speaks of our selective listening, when we choose to sharpen our perception of one thing in particular. After spending many days in a studio apartment, you have no choice but to revisit all that noise and to order it, in order to find some meaning.

Flowers are a true character in the film, just like the maid in Nicolas Maes’s painting, and the cats in both your apartment and the painting. They listen and spy discreetly, silently. What led you to that decision?
Every so often I look at myself from the outside, as an exercise. When in quarantine, I did it frequently. I imagined being looked at and heard by something outside. I wondered if a flower could grasp the magnitude of the crisis that mankind was experiencing. “It’s science fiction”, we all said in unison, and we followed the orders of our world leaders. I threw myself into silence and stillness, and my senses heightened.

You have filmed on Mini DV. Moreover, throughout the film, we see details of your apartment – like the details in Maes’s painting – up to the final shot that gives us an overview of your interior. Can you comment on your choices regarding image processing, composition and editing?
With the external listening point, I tested shots, frames and I looked for lights and shadows that captivated me and gave back an active and critical halo to those coloured petals and to my partner, Tomasa.
I edited the images almost in chronological order of how I had filmed them and then I added other shots to give shape and precision to the final cut. With that first cut, I started to work on assembling soundtracks, making notes to lengthen or add shots, in case the transitions and sound compositions that were organically developing would require them. Thus, I found the required rhythm to energize the internal editing of these images that function as a quarantine diary.
This way, anyone can share this sound horizon. I have designed this short as an emancipatory gesture from the visual tyranny that has been dominating all our beliefs. I wanted to strip the image of its unique, univocal meaning. I wanted to conceive it as weak and unstable, in a format that I was re-discovering again.

Interview by Louise Martin Papasian

  • Other gems

Technical sheet

Argentina, Colombia / 2021 / 18’

Original Version : Spanish.
Subtitles : English.
Script : Mercedes Gaviria.
Photography : Mercedes Gaviria.
Editing : Mercedes Gavira.
Music : Rosario Blefari.
Sound : Mercedes Gaviria.
Casting : Mercedes Gaviria.
Production : Jeronimo Atehortúa (Invasión Cine).
Filmography : The Calm after the Storm, 2020.