From 30 below to 4,000 above
The French media were not kind to Altiplano at its premiere in Cannes last May. Aside from the slate of bad reviews, the film’s directors were grilled by reporters during their press conference. Set in a small village in the Peruvian Andes, the film follows the story of local alpaca farmers who are, one-by-one, poisoned by mercury from nearby mining activities.
Filmmaking couple goes to the high Andes for their new film Altiplano
They were very suspicious,” says Peter Brosens, half of the husband-and-wife directorial team. “An American and a Belgian, they thought, doing hocus pocus shamanism in Peru. Quite a few of them just considered us as this arrogant fantasy of Westerners playing around in the mountains with ponchos, llamas and pan flutes.”
It is a great understatement to say that nothing could be further from the truth. Born in Leuven, Brosens’ first degree from the city’s university was in geography. For his thesis, he spent six months in Lima studying the integration of invasion settlements into the texture of the city. “Very fascinating,” he tells me. His Master’s degree was in social and cultural anthropology. For a project between the University of Guayaquil in Ecuador and the Catholic University of Leuven, the institutions needed someone who spoke Spanish and was versed in both urban geography and urban anthropology. “There weren’t many candidates,” smiles Brosens. “That’s how I ended up in Ecuador for two years.”
Then he decided he wanted to make films. Why not? Going to film school with teenagers did not really appeal to him, so he went to Manchester to do another MA, this time in visual anthropology. Then it was back to Ecuador to do an in-depth study “on a very peculiar form of suicide in a small region in the Ecuadorian highlands called revenge suicide, or protest suicide.”
Those were the building blocks that led to Altiplano. In the film, shot on location at 4,000 metres, villagers are at first intrigued by shining silvery puddles springing from the earth, then outraged when they begin bleeding from their noses and going blind. When the young Saturnina’s fiancé dies, she turns her anger toward Western doctors working in an area clinic, including the Belgian Max (played by Olivier Gourmet).
Brosens also visited mining territory in his first film Khadak, which finds rural Mongolian herders being displaced by mining corporations. After his third (and final) degree, the director got a call from a friend who wanted to begin a documentary project in Mongolia. Would Brosens go and do some research for him? “I said ‘are you out of your mind?’. I didn’t know anything about Mongolia.”
But curiosity drove him to travel to a country that was in the middle of historical upheaval following the Democratic Revolution. The Russians had left overnight, and Mongolia was in a state of economic and social confusion. But it was still beautiful. “I was blown away,” he says.
He met the American Jessica Woodworth “in a bar in Ulan Bator”. She had been working as a news stringer in China and decided to explore next-door Mongolia. Soon after their stay in Mongolia, she made her first documentary, The Virgin Diaries – about one Muslim woman’s attempt to get answers to questions about sex and Islam. The couple got married and lived in Germany before eventually settling in the small town of Falaën in Wallonia.
Taken in by the lonely beauty of snow-covered horizons that never end and by stories that never get told, Brosens made three documentaries about Mongolia, and the two returned together to make Khadak (2006), which finds a young herder shunted by the government from his yurt on the plain to a mining village, where his whole family must now learn to survive – by working for the mine. His calling to be a shaman leads the film into surreal, David Lynch territory, where the psychology of destroyed indigenous tradition is told through a series of dreamlike images.
For both Khadak and Altiplano, the couple engaged themselves in mountains of research: books and articles, certainly, but also living in the area with the locals, consulting the authorities, discussing the projects with anthropologists. For Altiplano (which is based on one of a number of mining protests in Peru) aside from Brosens’ already extensive background, they consulted visual archives, watched “every Peruvian film” and made friends with Claudia Llosa, the Peruvian filmmaker whose The Milk of Sorrow won the Golden Bear award in Berlin this year and who has also made the only film set in the Andes in the last 30 years.
Take that, Cannes.
“We are not Mongolian, and we are not Peruvian, and we cannot afford to make silly mistakes,” states Brosens. “When you are an anthropologist, you do not fool around with these things.” This was especially true because both films show in the countries in which they were made. Cultural pillaging is something that Brosens and Woodworth would never allow themselves to be guilty of.
With both films, the duo is also known as much for their style as for their subject. Although Altiplano (the title means “high plateau”) is slightly more straightforward with its narrative than their first film, it slips into near-documentary imagery at times, Bergmanesque meta-reality at other times. They use photographic archives to set up some of their shots, whereas other shots are more reflective of paintings. It’s a film where imagery takes centre stage, both with landscapes and with specific reference to the power of images. A sub-narrative in the film finds a war photographer named Grace (the wife of the doctor Max) losing her faith in the meaning of imagery after a violent incident. Her experience becomes entwined with the dying Peruvian
“What is happening in South America is in effect an invisible war,” says Woodworth. “Earlier on in the trend of war photography, one image could become famous and have a tremendous impact. But we’re so saturated with imagery now that we don’t take the time to absorb them. We’re a little alarmed by the way people consume images today in a kind of nonchalant way. Images are sacred; they really are.”