Driven by the desire to better understand the myth of the elephant graveyard that he saw frequently within the films that captivated him during his childhood, the filmmaker and visual artist Carlos Casas explores our relationship with nature, with other species and with death in his most recent film Cemetery (2019). A hybrid essay between the formal elements of the documentary, a narrative that pays homage to classic adventure cinema and the experimental daring to deconstruct the cinematographic experience. The feature film will be available from November 18 on the streaming service MUBI.
“The film follows the path that I have been able to do as a spectator, from that adventure cinema to a more complex experimental cinema,” said the Spanish director in an interview with Cinema PREMIERE. “How that spectator’s journey little by little becomes that kind of path towards language maturity [cinematográfico], going from that simplicity of observation to another questioning more relative to the one proposed in a more experimental cinema. For me, [Cemetery] It is a kind of meeting between Tarzan and La Région Centrale, by Michael Snow. What is in that road that separates these two films? “, He added.
Released within the framework of Marseille International Film Festival (FIDMarseille) in 2019, the feature film follows the journey of Nga, an old elephant, and Sanra, his mahout (the one in charge of the care of the pachyderm), who set out in search of the mythical elephant graveyard in the inhospitable jungles of Sri Lanka, while being chased by a group of poachers. The Franco-British co-production took almost a decade of efforts and aimed to harness the ability of the seventh art to influence viewers on a sensory level. He also enjoyed a successful tour of the Rotterdam, Seville, Milan, Viennale and FICUNAM festivals.
“The reason why it seemed important to me to tell this story is because we met, and continue to meet, perhaps more today than a few years ago when I started working on the project, at a kind of crossroads in our relationship with nature and, on everything, in the relationship we have with the other species ”, explained Casas.
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From museums to the big screen
The original idea arose shortly after Carlos Casas concluded his multi-award-winning documentary trilogy composed of the films Aral: Fishing in an Invisible Sea (2004), Soledad al fin del mundo (2006) and Hunters Since the Beginning of Time (2008). Although the director always had a film version in mind for Cemetery, the project had a first life in museums and other performance arts spaces, in which it was presented with an ambisonic sound system and an infrasound reproduction system. After exhausting those platforms, the director decided to formally work on an experience designed specifically for movie theaters.
“It is a film that owes a lot to Tarzan”, confessed the Catalan artist. “When I was reviewing some of these first films, which were great pillars to understand how that myth had been created and also how that adventure film was created between a cross between documentary and Hollywood fiction, such as Chang, Elephant Boy or The Book of the jungle, evidently, Tarzan was the origin. When I saw that movie around the age of 7 or 8, the visualization and understanding of that idea of the cemetery [de elefantes] He left that kind of reverie and fascination that somehow returned, resurfaced, more than 30 years later. That questioning and understanding of how cinema can deposit seeds that haunt you throughout your life. I wanted to decipher what was the grammar of that myth? How did it develop? And how is the narrative question understood? ”, he added.
Casas made several trips to countries such as India, Nepal and Sri Lanka in search of locations. As the investigation progressed, the director realized that the spaces and the rich oral tradition about the elephant cemetery on the Asian island would be a more suitable setting for the film. “When I arrived in Sri Lanka, I realized that I could almost, almost, film in those places where that myth, where those stories were forged, and where that first legend developed. There I understood that Sri Lanka and those jungles around Adam’s Peak, this sacred mountain, were going to be the perfect place to film ”. The filming took place in three parts: two months with the elephant, a few weeks with the mahout and a last part with the hunters.
Of course, the process of finding the elephant and the mahout that would serve as the protagonists of the narrative was one of the main challenges. “It was essential that the mahout and the elephant were fairly direct elements to reproduce that tradition that interested me”, Carlos said, “the elephant with which we work has an almost divine status in Sri Lanka, since many people or inhabitants of the island they consider almost like a God. This elephant was dedicated for many years to carry the Buddha Tooth relic to the main temple in Kandy. For me, it was important to find an elephant in this casting process that had another status, that was not an everyday elephant ”. This brought with it another challenge / benefit, as a pachyderm with that hierarchy required a team of at least a dozen people to make sure it was in optimal condition at all times.
Noah’s Ark of natural environments
Divided into four chapters, Cemetery gradually breaks with cinematic conventions to offer a highly stimulating visual and sound experience. The superb photography of the Chilean Benjamín Echazarreta (A Fantastic Woman; Luciérnagas), with detailed attention to textures, leads us with ease from a nature documentary to a road movie, to a chase thriller and, finally, when the end the road brings us closer to death, the images fade to give way to a game of shadows on the screen that allows us to focus our attention on the soundscape. The film collects recordings of natural environments from around the world, captured and mixed by Chris Watson, a veteran British wildlife sound engineer.
“When I started working on the project I was very clear that I wanted to work with Chris watson. He is possibly one of the most important sound engineers in the world. He has worked on the great BBC documentary series. He was the right person to question and work on this sound journey, ”Casas assured.
The filmmaker added that much of the sound was captured at an elephant sanctuary in Africa. The objective was to obtain all the possible types of sounds to represent part of that auditory experience at the level of the elephants’ own communication language.
“Once we had all that material, we concentrated on how to represent that cemetery and, with it, we arrived at a much more complex part: creating a kind of sound narration through various environments on the planet, including ocean currents and the encounter from different oceans in Iceland, in a cave in Burma or New Zealand. For me, it was very important that this sound journey was a kind of Noah’s ark of those natural environments that we are losing, those virgin or wild places in which there is still not such a strong human presence ”, said the director. The goal was that, amid all the darkness that prevails in the last chapter of the film, “the viewer somehow began to project his own film through those sounds.”
Cemetary also had the collaboration of the Mexican inventor and composer Ariel Guzik (H2Omx), who had the responsibility of opening and closing this sonic banquet. “With Ariel we developed a very important work for the music of the introduction and the end, in which a series of harmonics that came from earthly vibrations were used (…) that led us to the epilogue, which was filmed in [el desierto de] Atacama, where I used those sounds created by Ariel and it was key that they had that quality of sound created by the environment, from natural sounds to harmonics ”, he said about the work of our compatriot.
For this reason, the director considers that Cemetery puts on the table a questioning about the prevalence of sound within audiovisual language; an essay on how much this dichotomy between audio and image can extend in the cinema. In addition to the transitions between genres and formal elements throughout the footage, Casas also took into account the time of each of the segments to find the best possible balance. An exercise that had to be constantly rethought during the writing of the script, in the middle of filming and in the editing room, in order to get the viewer to leave their passive state and go ‘from the passenger seat to the pilot’s seat’.
“The most important thing was to leave as open as possible the possibility for the viewer to create their own journey and to have their own interpretation of what was happening, what they saw, what they heard. One of the most important things in the project was how to establish and how to question this dialogue between species and this connection with the natural environment. It was very important that it give the viewer that possibility to get out of himself, to change, to question the cinematographic language and that experience in a communal room ”, concluded the filmmaker.
Carlos Casas is already working on his next feature film. A new audiovisual essay that will have as its starting point the eruption of the Anak Krakatoa volcano in Indonesia in 1983. To carry out this work of fiction, the Barcelona director is developing a sound model that will recreate the atmosphere of one of the greatest natural disasters of which humanity has a record, while history will be constructed from the experiences of one of the survivors of the eruption of the same volcano in 2018. Casas intends to question our refusal to accept climate change and our own extinction with that movie.
Cemetery will be available for free on MUBI to all the public this November 18. Starting the day after, the movie can only be viewed with a subscription to the platform for the next 30 days.
Gustavo Pineda I write about film, television and anime at Cine PREMIERE