At its most rapturous, cinema conveys the thrill of artisanship—tinkering with physical material, the spools of celluloid delicate yet pliable, the projector manipulated with our hands. This mix of manual control and wonder—that motion and flight come about from crudeness—must have been what the first filmmakers experienced. And though we’re far removed from their original enchantment, some filmmakers, particularly experimental ones, still evoke the early cinema to regain that familiar sense of play.
This is what watching the films of Jeannette Muñoz, the Chilean, Switzerland-based filmmaker, is like. Muñoz had a retrospective last year and then gave a conference this year at S(8) Mostra de Cinema Periférico, in A Coruña, Spain—one of the most beloved European film festivals that has become a destination for experimental film lovers, and which celebrated its tenth anniversary this year.
Muñoz’s conference wasn’t a didactic lecture. The screening room at the local arts center had one 16mm projector standing at a distance from the screen, and a 16mm viewer—a piece of equipment used for previewing and editing film—placed on a desk much closer. Muñoz moved between these two with a notebook, in which she had jotted observations about her work. She read her lines aloud, while showing us the selected images. She controlled the speed of projection manually, the light of the projector so dim it required utmost concentration.
The images that Muñoz captures vary, but most bear some connection to nature. In our conversation after the presentation, Muñoz mentioned that she is always capturing manmade deterioration of the natural world. The most recent version of her 16mm film, Puchuncavi (2015—), conceived as fragments of a longer, open-ended film, played at S(8), at Filmoteca Galega, in a slate of experimental films by various filmmakers. Muñoz shot her film partly in a Chilean spa town with natural baths, where nature has been so cruelly exploited that the waters are contaminated, despite visitors still using them—a message of our own entrapment, which, though not always explicitly, underlies all of Muñoz’s work. In Puchuncavi’s fragments, the heavy chemical industry is clearly present, the horizon marked by tall towers and vast electrical lines, and surfers enter the ocean under watchful eyes of tankers. But even here Muñoz finds instants of play: A stray mutt frolics in the sand, and then effectively, eerily, freezes, as if faking he’s dead.
The “message” of Muñoz’s film—if it can be said to have one—is complicated, or expanded, by her passionate attachment to the tactile world, and quietly rapturous approach to imagery. In Puchuncavi, she immerses us in tiny bits of reality: Another dog urgently scratches itself; a fisherman’s galoshes are buffeted by waves, in diffused light. The camera skips, returning obsessively to the same image in a different frame, peeked at through a slab of concrete and wooden logs. With each instant, Muñoz arrests the moment, encouraging us to look more closely. As the filmmaker and writer Stephen Broomer notes in his essay in the monograph dedicated to Muñoz that Revista Lumière published last year, what’s important about Muñoz’s shots is their extended duration—in this sense, Muñoz’s “is not a searching eye of the lyric tradition, but a probing and insistent gaze.”
Muñoz’s Envío 8 (“envio” suggesting a correspondence, a film addressed to a specific person and bearing an intimate message), from 2008, also betrays a double complexity: In a park, a meerkat stands up on its hind legs and stares ahead, possibly at the camera. Soon another meerkat joins in, and they both freeze, observant. In Muñoz’s delicate filmmaking, this encounter seems like a deep communication between man and nature. Yet Muñoz explained in our interview that she also had another, less obvious reading in mind: The animal is in fact a captive. It gazes at us, mute and acquiescent, confined.
Envío 3 (2005), on the other hand, is closer in spirit to the early cinema of the Lumière brothers, particularly their short, Feeding the Baby (1895), in which a family sits at lunch—an ordinary scene, but what fascinated early viewers was the sight of the trees stirring behind them. In Muñoz’s short fragment, a small child, still wobbly on its legs, and a bespectacled man in a suit are in a park. They appear at first to be examining a tree, the child transfixed by its trunk. Since the fragment is silent, like many of Muñoz’s films, we don’t know if they speak. The child looks up when the man (the child’s father, or uncle?) touches a tree branch. There is something immediately tactile in this scene, and again when the two squat for the child to play in the dirt. But the composition is also a play of light and shadow and pure movement—the leaves quiver delicately, as they did in the Lumières’ film. In another frame, as the man stands alone, his silhouette a lean dark line parallel to the trunk, the two shapes mirror and complement each other, a geometric but also metaphysical alliteration, which echoes Muñoz’s remark at the conference that she uses film as a philosophical tool.
In one of her more complex fragments, Envío 24 (2010), Muñoz overlays two layers of images, which are a result of a double exposure: On one hand the images of tourists that Muñoz shot in the street of London; on the other, the portrait of three Chilean indigenous women that, as Muñoz explained in her email to me, came from a postcard commonly found in Santiago’s tourist shops, and which reproduces one of the many photographs taken by Martin Gusinde, a German missionary who lived with the original people of Tierra del Fuego, at the beginning of the twentieth century. In this filigree, we watch the underlying images of the indigenous women through the surface pattern, while the entire composition sways up and down (as if one were sitting on a boat). At other times, the top image obscures the underlying faces of the indigenous women almost completely. As more tourists crowd the street—the location is actually where, Muñoz told me, “the organizers of human exhibitions or human zoos walked indigenous people brought illegally from Tierra del Fuego, to promote an exhibition,” a kind of human zoological show—the image becomes denser. In one still, Asian women’s faces fill the frame alongside the indigenous ones—a collapse of spatial, temporal frame.
It is tempting to reduce the singular instances of Muñoz’s fragments to a theme—there’s more than a suggestion of ethnic oppression in Envío 24, whose reference to colonialism and zoology ties it with Envío 8. There’s also a deeply felt environmental concern. But while Muñoz is vested in history, biology, and anthropology, it is more accurate to say that her approach is like a vivid daydream—it proceeds with a lucid persistency, but retains elements of reverie.