Interview with Luis OspinaWednesday, March 13, 2019
The following interview is the first of a series conducted by the Venezuelan artist Ángela Bonadies. Her conversations with Latin American visual artists and filmmakers continue the CPPC's tradition of preserving first-hand cultural testimony.
In 2018, the magazine South as a State of Mind commissioned me to do an interview with Colombian filmmaker Luis Ospina, which formed part of a dossier exploring the concept of pornomiseria, coined by Ospina and Carlos Mayolo in the 1997 film Agarrando pueblo. The movie, which moves between registers of fiction and nonfiction, activates the term and, through humor and irony, raises a critique that avails itself of the same resources used by “vampire filmmakers”: those who cultivate pornomiseria, those who practice a mix of committed exoticism and adventurous tourism that speculates audiovisually with poverty, exploiting it to capture an audience, to commercialize—time after time—the poor, foreign body, considered an object deprived of voz y voto (voice and vote), perfect for unconscionably trafficking with the conscience via quote-unquote “political film.”
In his answers to a few questions, Luis Ospina generously revealed a few of his thoughts about the concept, about the initial idea for the film and how it transformed. Ospina and Carlos Mayolo belong to the group known as Grupo de Cali, which was born from the Cine Club de Cali, founded by both of them together with Ramiro Arbeláez, Hernando Guerrero and Andrés Caicedo. The latter is an emblematic critic, filmmaker and writer about whom Ospina made a beautiful film homage: Andrés Caicedo, unos pocos buenos amigos.
The interview that follows seeks to explore the concept of pornomiseria and underline its relevance, which is a lesson in ethics comparable to that of Serge Daney’s article “The Tracking Shot in Kapo,” in which he points out that “cinema (alone?) was capable of approaching the limits of a denatured humanity.”
Ángela Bonadies: In an interview you mention that Agarrando Pueblo was meant to be a fragment of a longer film based on one of Mayakovsky’s writings. What happened with the initial idea?
Luis Ospina: Agarrando Pueblo was initially conceived as a segment within a feature-length film about cinema, El Corazón del Cine, where fiction and documentary would blend together inspired by a script of Mayakovsky with the same title. I believe this writing is also known as Encadenada por la Pantalla.
Carlos Mayolo was a great admirer of Mayakovsky, of his poetry, his cinematographic projects, and his vigorous personality. If I’m remembering correctly, the book that introduced Mayolo to the cinematography of the Russian poet was called Mayakovsky and Cinema. We even anticipated having an epilogue for Agarrando Pueblo based on this.
In my archives I found the following scheme for the film:
El CORAZÓN DEL CINE
“Fiction-Happening in four parts with a prologue and epilogue”
- Prologue. A sociological investigation of the phenomenon of cinema.
- El Corazón del Cine.
- Agarrando Pueblo.
- Pura Película.
- Ladrones y Policias.
- Epilogue. A sociological investigation of the phenomenon of cinema II.
For you cinema is spectacle
For me – a view of the world
Cinema – conductor of movement
Cinema – innovator of literature
Cinema – destroyer of aesthetics
Cinema – fearlessness
Cinema – sportsman
Cinema – distributor of ideas
Vladimir Mayakovsky, Kino-Foto Magazine (1922)
Cashier. Ticket sales. Ticket lines. Major business. Survey-type questions.
“Why do you go to the movies?” or “What is cinema to you?” for example.
The journey of empty reel tins, from the distributer to the movie theatre. An interview with the film projectionist (The Captain) while film is being loaded. A montage of film paraphernalia, posters, photographs, stars, etc.
First Segment: El CORAZÓN DEL CINE.
(Adaptation of Mayakovsky’s script with the same title). This segment closes with the question: “Why won’t cinema occupy itself with Life?”
Second Segment: AGARRANDO PUEBLO.
(See episode attached, AGARRANDO PUEBLO). Ends with the shot of a suitcase full of empty reel tins. The title of a third segment is displayed.
Third Segment: PURA PELICULA.
(A thriller episode about Cocaine trafficking). To be written. This episode ends with a closed-case legal-type scene where the detectives discuss the destiny of the characters). A television parody. The title for a fourth part is displayed on TV.
Fourth Segment: LADRONES Y POLICIAS.
(See script, previously titled VA A VENIR VISITA).
A conclusion to the prologue investigation.
The full project didn’t come to being for various reasons; one of them was our lack of funding for the development of a feature-length film of such scope. The second reason was our inability to integrate all chapters into a single piece. A few of the prologue scenes were shot and their film negatives now rest with my archives at Patrimonio Filmico. As we shot Agarrando Pueblo we decided that this segment could stand by itself and didn’t need to be part of a larger project, even the Mayakovsky epigraph was cut out. The entire correspondence between Mayolo and I can be found in my book of complete works, Palabras al Viento, including our exchange about the film and some disagreements we had. A PDF copy of this book is available on my website www.luisospina.com under “books”.
AB: How does the notion of Pornomiseria resonate with you today, given the popularity of the term?
LO: Mayolo and I invented this term in our short manifesto What Is Pornomiseria? I delivered this document as a mimeograph handout during the premier of the film in Paris at the Action République theatre on May 12, 1978.
This term is still valid. You can measure its currency by how much the film continues to travel to different venues after 40 years. The term has even extended to other fields such as Photography, Fine Arts, and Literature, and it is almost a compulsory point of reference for any discourse dealing with an ethics of filmmaking.
AB: How can we avoid vampirism?
LO: Vampirism in filmmaking is inevitable. The photographic lens as well as the cinematographic camera ‘feed’ on the subject; they ‘mummify’ it and ‘steal’ its soul whether we want it or not. André Bazin had already warned us with his famous essay The Ontology of the Photographic Image in 1945. One must analyze ethical schemes in order to avoid falling into the trap of Pornomiseria. An individual’s approval of the fact of being filmed is one of the biggest gestures of generosity gifted by a human being. It is one’s decision to remain loyal while having many opportunities for betrayal and manipulation, such alterations can turn the material against the subject as a consequence.
AB: What type of contract, oral or ethical, was established with those who participated in Agarrando Pueblo?
LO: The first part of the movie is completely improvised. We envisioned it as a Happening where we’d face people using our camera. There was no oral contract then, it would have prevented us from obtaining such ‘real’ scenes. Mayolo and I have continuously stated that Agarrando Pueblo functions as an antidote against the Cinema of Misery, a genre that exploits misery as if it were merchandise. One must use some of the original poison in order to manufacture a cure, same as with any other antidote. The second portion of the film, set in a hotel and within the property of one of the characters, was fully scripted including dialogues and camera movements. The third part, the interview, follows the documentary format entirely. The film begins a documentary, makes its way through fiction, and ends a documentary again.
AB: Similar to you, there are filmmakers that record The Archive and use it as material. They reference memory and the passage of time through the subjects and settings they reconstruct and evoke. How did the country and its social conditions change since Agarrando Pueblo?
LO: This is a difficult question to answer in just a few words. To summarize things, I would say that my films have always dealt with the changes in our society and world throughout the 20th Century. Some of my films such as Andres Caicedo: unos pocos Buenos amigos, La desazón suprema: retrato incesante de Fernando Vallejo, Un tigre de papel and Todo comenzó por el fin are generational portraits enveloping history from 1934 to the end of the 20thCentury. All these films share a pessimism and jadedness that may be best communicated in the words of Fernando Vallejo himself: “What used to work is now broken, what was bad has gotten worse.”
AB: You mention that filmmaking, from and within the Third World, consists on a search towards South American grounds and a desire to lay bare our image of underdevelopment. Does this quest also entail working with a low budget and a limited production team?
LO: There were no private or governmental funding opportunities when I started making film. We composed films out of odds and ends. Young people today have it on a silver tray; everyone has access to a camera, editing software, and an unlimited offer of movies on DVD, Internet streaming, and pirate sourcing. Glauber Rocha’s dream from the 60s has finally materialized; “One would only need an idea in sight and a camera to make a film.”
Translated from the Spanish by Mayra Rodríguez Castro.
This interview was originally commissioned by the editors and published in the "Maintenance" issue of "South As A State of Mind" publication (Issue 10, Summer/Fall 2018). Please click here for the original publication.