Anyone who has done more than a little research into the career of Raúl Ruiz (1941-2011) knows that his filmography is full of holes—and mysteries. No matter which version of that list you consult, there are works, short or long, that precious few people have seen; as well as some whose very existence is difficult to verify. Visions and Marvels of the Christian Religion? Responso? Mirror of Tunisia? Agathopedia? Some of these I have actually seen; others I am still chasing. I recall the advice given to me by British film historian Ian Christie, while Ruiz was still in our world: “You need to hang out with him for a while, until he mentions some secret project you’ve never heard about before …”
Ruiz made films in every possible situation, and with every kind of technology. Some he shot at home with friends, on video or Super-8. Others—the ones we know best, like Time Regained (1999)—were produced in relatively luxurious conditions, with stars and a large crew. He was well aware of the material differences between these wildly different levels of production but, fundamentally, he made no real or categorical distinction between expensive and cheap work. Ruiz was all for impurity, and for constantly displacing oneself from one camp of culture to another. When he ran the arts center at Le Havre for a period in the mid 1980s, for instance, he took every opportunity to mix up practitioners from different areas: cinema, theater, dance, music, painting, photography.
One of the least known aspects of Ruiz’s prolific career is his involvement in teaching. Although he sometimes agreed to do old-fashioned university “lecturing”—such as the talks given in the USA (Harvard and Duke) that formed the first two volumes of his Poetics of Cinema book series—Ruiz was always far happier with a looser, workshop situation that allowed the open intermingling of theory and practice. “Pure” theory was a discourse-game he could play—better than most people, in fact—but he was more at home in the impure mix of thinking and doing. Indeed, I believe it was there that he felt freest to explore the ideas about cinema that most preoccupied him.
The professional divorce of theory from practice—such as we too often see, around the world, in the official training of filmmakers—was abhorrent to Ruiz. So, whenever he could, he turned invitations from film schools or similar institutions (such as arts centers or performance laboratories) into opportunities for collective creation. This work was done quickly—sometimes within the space of a single week—and the results caught on film or videotape were occasionally left in an incomplete state, as is the case with The Wandering Soap Opera (La telenovela errante), shot as part of a workshop with actors in Chile in 1990, and finished up by his wife Valeria Sarmiento in 2017. I well remember Ruiz, upon his arrival in Australia in 1993, asking me to instantly drum up the conditions for another such project: “Just tell the film school here that I need a week, some students, a room, a camera. That’s all.” Alas, sedate institutions are not always open to such wild, on-the-spot propositions...
Ruiz’s filmmaking workshops were therefore about—as the cliché goes—process, rather than product. There are filmmakers—Marco Bellocchio is the best example—who use workshops as a way of making short pieces of film that may later find their way into ongoing or possible feature-length projects. Ruiz—although he always arrived with plenty of ideas in his head—did not take advantage of these situations in quite the same way. If a finished, screenable work resulted, that was fine, a bonus; if not, no problem, it was still worth everyone’s effort. Ruiz often said—and I don’t believe he was being merely diplomatic or polite—that he learned as much as his students from these workshops (such as those he conducted in Aberdeen in Scotland during the latter half of the 2000s); indeed, he sometimes avowed that he was able to take his experimentation—in the form of the various “exercises” outlined in Poetics of Cinema—further in the “safe space” of the workshop-classroom than on his big-budget assignments.
Although impurity, creativity, and playfulness were the keynotes of Ruiz’s various workshops around the globe, there was a fairly strict and disciplined regime involved in the way he ran them. Marie-Luce Bonfanti, who had assisted and acted in Ruiz’s Professor Taranne in 1986, relates how, in her time as director of CIFAS (“International Center for Training in the Performing Arts”) in Brussels, she invited him to work with actors over a period of several weeks. He immediately accepted (being “always ready for this type of adventure,” as Bonfanti notes), and selected 10 students after carefully examining 100 applications. As was always the case in Ruiz’s lower-budget productions (such as those he shot in Portugal in the early 1980s), it didn’t matter what anybody’s nominal métier was (actor, technician, assistant, et cetera)—when in the fray, everyone (Ruiz himself included) had to be ready to take on all the roles, in dizzy rotation.
Once the Brussels workshop started, the group needed to generate a script, based on a three-line synopsis proposed by Ruiz (see below). But no time was wasted: from Day 1, the schedule was divided into morning classes—“wide-ranging discussions” of “theoretical work” in which the director “exhibited his impressive encyclopedic knowledge touching on every possible domain”—and, in the afternoon, filming of the scenes sketched out during that discussion. At the end of each day, everyone gathered to watch and evaluate what had been shot. And then, on the following days, there was a parallel activity: simultaneous editing of the footage so far generated, an “assembly” that would spark further discussion and revision. If the calendar allowed it, Ruiz would embark upon reshoots and other additions. In the CIFAS case, all this work resulted in a splendidly odd (and today rarely screened) video-feature, Vertigo of the Blank Page.
And it started from just this idea: “A film festival jury is deliberating on a film that shows a court jury deliberating upon the case of criminal militants who have murdered a judge after having convicted him with their own jury.” If that somehow sounds familiar, it’s because it shares a “shape,” and a bunch of tropes, with many Ruiz fictions across several media: stories inside stories, mirroring each other in uncanny and comical ways, usually with a life-and death element (murder, justice, political revolution) that swings between wielding a serious, real-world frisson, and providing cartoonish, postmodern artifices (fake blood and detached body parts, characters who continually resurrect like zombies).
All these tropes return in The Wandering Soap Opera. Story-within-story takes the form of embedded telenovelas: characters exist in separate TV-show worlds, but actors cross over from one sphere to the other, as well as watching and commenting on each other’s neighboring narrative trajectories. Sarmiento, in her packaging of the 1990 workshop material, has added a score (by her and Ruiz’s regular composer, Jorge Arriagada), and divides the scenes into a fictional "seven days." This gives a good sense of the type of exercises that the teacher-ringmaster was able to set up and execute swiftly: a scene set in a car, for example, which provides the film’s best, screwball spectacle—not a real car on a real road, of course, but a prop that allows (as in his 1990 New York project The Golden Boat) a play of lights and darkness, back projection, artificial rocking motion, and the interactions between a group of actors crammed into a ridiculously tight, “aquarium” space.
Ruiz has often been credited with inventing, in his own inimitable fashion, a truly poetic art of cinema. It was not only a sense of personal modesty that prevented him from entirely accepting this particular genre of acclaim. Rather, it was integral to his deepest beliefs that artists do not really invent “whole” works, but—if they can figure out how to do it—spark or catalyse the poetic tendencies inherent in the audiovisual medium itself, and in the complicated mental processes of viewers. To that end, he pursued the ancient goal of an ars combinatoria—a combinatory and “recursive” art, constellating patterns of all kinds in ever-changing configurations. Ruiz’s workshops, with their mind-boggling “tasks” (such as: create a “palindrome” film that makes perfect sense whether projected backwards or forwards), offered him an ideal way to practically chase this dream.