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Nelson Carlos de Los Santos Arias

Pepe is a hippopotamus that became legendary when it was violently slaughtered by Colombian soldiers in 2009. The film is nothing less than its autobiography: it recounts the life of this gigantic herbivore from the moment Pablo Escobar illegally imported its ancestors in the late 1980s from German South-West Africa to his famous Hacienda Nápoles. Although chronological – from the animal’s birth to its death – Pepe prefers intertwining to linearity, branching out as it goes, from one river and one continent to another, exploring the fragmentation specific to exile and the disorientation experienced by an animal born far from its ancestral homeland. The three languages of this ghost’s account bear witness to this. “I had never heard such sounds coming out of my mouth,” says Pepe in Mbukushu at the beginning, and then later on “sometimes it comes out one way and sometimes another” in Afrikaans. If Nelson Carlos de los Santos Arias audaciously bets on multilingual prosopopoeia, it is because he seems to find in orality and in the plurality of languages precisely what he needs to feed his Studies on Imagination – which is the film’s subtitle. He thus continues the virtuoso enterprise he started with Santa Teresa y otras historias (FID 2015), in which he adapted a chapter from Bolaño’s unfinished novel 2666 with unheard-of formal freedom. Commenting on this first film, the Dominican director said: “The Caribbean reinvented European languages; my editing was inspired by this unusual orality, constantly mutating into different modes of representation as it pursues its freedom.” Pepe is driven by a similar freedom: in diversity and connection lies the possibility of inventing a new language – unpredictable, erratic, composite -, and an opportunity for cinema to reinvent itself.

Louise Martin Papasian

Pepe retraces the destiny of the mythical eponymous hippopotamus and its ancestors, from their illegal import from Namibia (German South West Africa at the time) to Colombia by Pablo Escobar in the late 80s, to the animal’s death in 2009, shot by the military. What interested you in Pepe and his story? How did this project come about?

First of all, the fact that these animals were imported from Namibia is a complete fabrication for the film. The most likely explanation is that they were smuggled out of the San Diego Zoo, but this may also be a myth. What we do know is that they exist.
The other thing we know is that America now has the first wild herd of hippos outside of Africa. That fact, which is also an idea, explodes in diverse and mysterious rhizomes or, to quote a philosopher from the area, it shows us the benefits of our opacities. There is nothing more fun than imagining.

You chose to use prosopopoeia and to have the animal speak in autobiographical form, in three languages – Mbukushu, Afrikaans and Colombian Spanish. In so doing, you highlight the issues of forced displacement – of hippos and people – and colonial logics. When did the idea of a first-person narrative come into play in the script? How important was it for you to make the animal speak, and how did you conceive its different voices?

Cinema does not give us many options. In my case, it was important to distance this personification from the ways in which big-budget cinema considers the fantastic. This is very important because the fantastic, that hesitation experienced by a being who does not know the laws of nature when faced with an event that apparently goes beyond logic, is something that in film writing leads us to genres like science-fiction, fantasy, horror, etc. It is an element that confronts us with the greatest of writing challenges, because we must imagine something that we have never seen or that does not exist.
But there is something quite complicated about this cinema of the fantastic, because it is about imagining worlds. Just watch science fiction films from 50, 40 or 30 years ago, for instance. Movies made by an all-powerful Hollywood, the owner and master of the fantastic in film. These movies are part of the contemporary imaginations that produce, among many other things, scientists, who in turn inspire films. The world to come is still a world imagined by the West. In this sense, these minor genres such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc. begin to orbit around a powerfully political and urgent task, which is to imagine the world from other rationalities.
That being said, the voice without a body foreshadows a world that will manifest itself in the traces of something invisible, like a ghost. In these lands, we know a lot about what is not seen, because it is precisely that invisible realm that sustains and keeps producing our language, and we know that language not only describes a territory, it also constructs it.

Through this story, your film questions man’s relationship with the animal, an object of both fascination and fear. How does this question enable you to address the broader issues of our relationship with otherness?

To quote Pepe himself: “There is a ‘Them’ that can create a we, and a ‘them’ that destroys any possibility of being one.” I think that it was important to summon up this idea in the film. The core that has originated this world we live in and its rationality, in the words of professor Quijano, this rationality is called eurocentrism.

Pepe’s first-person narrative is interwoven with fiction, which in the film’s second movement focuses on life near Estación Cocorná, where the animal ended up after being chased from his herd. How did you work with the actors? Are they from the area? How did fiction and staging help you tell the story of this territory?

In my case, I don’t know if it is a strategy, but I have worked this way for my two last films. I work a lot on territories, and with Pepe, it was a little more extreme, because I realized that it would be impossible if I didn’t live there.
I work with a casting team, but before I get them involved, I need to become the person who knows the place and who already has a bond with that territory. The characters in my films are not based on real people, but the character I have in my mind is nourished by my exchanges with the communities.
Let’s say that between them and me, we create a plausibility, right there in the act of writing, which in film is made of images and sounds. Their story is the one that decides on the moments of creation. Once these characters are constructed, we go out into the territory again, as if we had forgotten that we were ever there.

The fragmented, contrasting logic of your previous film, Cocote, is echoed in the variety of materials used – cartoons, archive footage, infrared camera shots, real 16mm footage. What does this diversity of images allow you to do?

The question might as well be: what doesn’t it allow me to do? It is pure freedom. All of us who study film know that in the end, screenwriting classes are meant to repeat narrative models based on two very important people for the West, Aristotle and Shakespeare. And so imagine, who grew up listening to stories in the Dominican oral tangle, with very different structures. The other aspect is tacit but present.

The fragmentation also stems from the editing: while the film follows a form of chronological time (from Pepe’s birth to his death), it also interweaves different temporalities, through color and black and white. What principles governed the editing, and why did you introduce these temporal interplays?

The comings and goings from color to black and white do not follow the film’s temporality. I always say, starting from the fact that films are usually made under the idea that all the elements of the directing are to serve the narrative, within this rationalization of cinema, I would say that my decisions are arbitrary. What happens is that if you go beyond the mise-en-scene, and if you understand that what matters behind it is the articulation between images and sounds, that’s where the real meaning lies (for me). That relationship precedes the noise of the “narrative” idea, and one mustn’t forget that this is the starting point for understanding this language.

As director, producer, cinematographer and editor, you also conceived the sound design and the music, which feature prominently in the film. How did you work out the relationship between the music and the image? When did it come into play? What were your inspirations for the sound design?

There is something about this question that has to do with my training. It is not the same to study film at a film school, with all its various departments, as it is to study film at an art school. I studied in both, and within those worlds, I have created films that feed from both ways of thinking about images, sounds and their translation into words.
For instance, at art school, film is considered an object, and as an object, its form is where its only possibility of existence lies. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t convey a discourse, if it is pure expression. It is a very interesting approach, more than people might think.
There is something about the films I made in art school that stayed with me. It is the way I think about cinema, the other cinema I also studied, the one that is interested in words. What you refer to in your question is not peculiar to Pepe, I would say it has to do with the way I make films.

Interview by Louise Martin Papasian

  • Ciné + competition
18:3027 June 2024Cinéma Artplexe 3
20:4528 June 2024Cinéma Artplexe 3
10:0030 June 2024Variétés 1

Technical sheet

Dominican Republic, France, Namibia, Germany / 2024 / Colour and B&W / 122'

Original version: Afrikaans, Spanish, German, Mbukushu
Subtitles: French, English
Script: Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias
Photography: Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias, Roman Lechapelier, Camilo Soratti
Editing: Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias
Music: Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias
Sound: Nahuel Palenque, Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias
Cast: Jhon Narváez, Fareed Matjila, Sor María Ríos , Harmony Ahalwa, Jorge Puntillón García

Production: Pablo Lozano (Monte y Culebra), Tanya Valette (Monte y Culebra SRL), Andrea Queralt (4 A 4 PRODUCTIONS), Mani Mortazavi (4 A 4 PRODUCTIONS), Christoph Friedel (Pandora )
Contact: Andrea Queralt (4 A 4 PRODUCTIONS), Mani Mortazavi (4 A 4 PRODUCTIONS)

PEPE / 2024 / LM
COCOTE / 2017 / LM
Pareces una carreta de esas que no la paran ni los bueyes (You Look Like a Carriage that Not Even the Oxen Can Stop) / 2013/ CM
La última golosina / 2011 / CM
Should We Go Home? / 2010 / CM
SheSaid HeWalks HeSaid SheWalks / 2009 / CM animation