Ethnographica Obscura: An Interview with Alexander L. Fattal
From the Series: Limbo
Limbo (2019) brings a unique audiovisual perspective to ethnographic filmmaking as it recounts one person’s lived experience. Alex, anthropologist and filmmaker, turns the payload of a truck into a camera obscura to interview Alex, former guerrilla fighter from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The result is a remarkable short that pushes the limits of documentary realism through a dreamlike texture. The film foregrounds the voice and agency of an individual who is part of a larger political history. Alex Fattal and I discuss how this film came about and delve into this complex work.
Emiko Stock: What brought you to make Limbo? On the one hand, there is this very peculiar DIY analog vibe to it (although it's all digital) and on the other hand, there is Alex, who completely opens up his life to you. How did the general idea come to take form as you developed the aesthetics?
Alex Fattal: There are a few different questions in there. First, I’ll talk about meeting Alex and then the peculiar aesthetics of the project.
I met Alex while doing long-term fieldwork for my first book Guerrilla Marketing: Counterinsurgency and Capitalism in Colombia in 2011–2013. I was talking to many former guerrillas, listening to their stories and life trajectories. Some had already been public about their experiences in the FARC, and I proposed this strange truck project to them. I didn’t know Alex’s story until we spent the day together in the truck camera (camión cámara). I had already done interviews in the truck camera with friends of his but wasn’t expecting to hear what he shared. That said, I had interviewed dozens of former guerrillas at that point and knew their dreams were spaces where their unsettled transition from insurgent to civilian played out. I created the oneiric apparatus of the truck with that floating around my own mind, trying to build a space that gestured toward a psychoanalytic dream world. For a long time, the working title was Dreams from the Concrete Mountain, which was meant to index the double dislocation of demobilization, in time and space. Many former guerrillas who live in cities refer to the city as a mountain or jungle of concrete, to signal a continuity of struggle. My Colombian co-producers—Clare Weiskopf and Nicolas van Hemelryck—convinced me that it was just too much of a mouthful. I’m happy with the title Limbo.
Initially, my plan was to interweave material from the eight former guerrillas who I interviewed in the truck camera. I struggled with the material in the editing room for a long time before I decided to focus the piece on Alex. His stories consistently illuminated the sense of limbo that I was writing about in my dissertation/book. I hope viewers will read Guerrilla Marketing because the two works are deeply complementary, they emerge out of the same set of questions and problems about representing war and living in its aftermath.
With regards to the DIY aesthetics, well, initially, I imagined this as a still photo project, driving the truck camera to a place of significance in the narrative of each former guerrilla and doing a somewhat traditional photo-essay: picture + story, insert introductory text at the beginning. But the truck took on a life of its own and became more than a camera on wheels. It was a really fun process actually, lots of trial and error. I convinced the mayor’s office to allow me to park the truck in the Plaza de Bolívar, Colombia’s main public square, and invited the public to take a picture with the iconic buildings hanging in the sky behind them.
A transformational moment came when I was sitting in the payload of the truck and I experienced the truck camera in motion for the first time. Dappled shadows of trees reached across the white cloth/screen as we turned a corner, bicyclists pedaled in the sky, and buildings jutted toward the ground. If one purpose of art is to defamiliarize everyday life and create a space of reflection, the truck camera did that for me in the first one hundred meters. I immediately thought that the stirring feeling it provoked might help get people to slow down and listen, perhaps even have an empathic reaction to this population that has so long been deemed unworthy of empathy. Guerrillas in Colombia have been constructed as an internal enemy to be hunted down for decades. After that first time riding inside the truck camera, I became determined to make the project into a film.
The trial and error cycle to hone the technique intensified. With a group of friends and creative collaborators, I created an amateur music video (the video is a bit kitsch but the lyrics are amazing) as a fun way of improving the truck camera. Another breakthrough moment was making the lens. Until then, the images on the screen were blurry. I was working with a group of students from Universidad de Los Andes and they suggested getting a formula for the lens made from the physics department based on the diameter of the hole (5 centimeters) and the width of the payload’s interior (2.5 meters). We then took the formula to the eyeglass district in Bogotá and had the lens made and taped it to the hole. Bam! The outside world projected into the truck was suddenly in focus.
ES: How did you get the idea of the camión cámara, of setting up a truck's payload into a camera obscura?
AF: I was inspired by the Cuban American photographer Abelardo Morell. He turns rooms into camera obscuras and is a master of the genre of pinhole photography. His recent work with tents and periscopes that layer images from outside onto the texture of the ground inside the tent is also amazing. I was trying to be a cheap copy of him and started doing some casa cámara photography. I felt really restricted by the location of the window and my imagination started churning on the idea of a mobile camera obscura.
I didn’t have much camera obscura photography experience, but I was thinking about pinhole photography at the time. I was curating an exhibit of a project, Shooting Cameras for Peace, I started many years earlier, teaching photography to young people, many of whom had been displaced by the armed conflict in Colombia. I went back to interview some of the participants in the project to see what influence it may have had on their lives. Shooting Cameras for Peace taught a wide range of photo exercises over its nearly ten-year-long existence. My personal favorite were these “self”-portraits students did by holding up a mirror. I put scare quotes around self because inevitably they were groups of four to six kids who got involved in the composition of the image. It was a great way to get the students thinking about how to portray themselves and think about their identities while also doing something that incited conversation about framing, finding frames within frames, and thinking about the relationship between foreground and background. But that was me.
When I posed the question—Which project did you enjoy the most?—everyone said the pinhole camera. The fact that students could recycle cans or jars and turn them into cameras was just the most magical thing and fitting for a context in which the informal economy of recycling was so prominent. Word spread across the hills about it and students taught other students how to do it. They would pose for thirty seconds or a minute or however long they thought was the right exposure based on the mix of sun and clouds and then run into the dark room to develop the images. Hearing how that experience echoed in their memories sent me back to read more about camera obscura photography, which is how I found Morell’s work.
ES: The feeling we get as we take in the landscape and soundscape is that Alex is locked in this truck as he is in his life: it's unfolding in front of him, he has no choice but to confront it. At the same time, he appears very much in control of his past, so we can imagine him jumping out of the truck at any point if he wanted to. Did you foresee the camión cámara and its enclosure as generative of particular topics and conversations?
AF: Alex is interesting. He is clearly caught up in larger forces, yet he has an expert ability to navigate them. The story in the film is only part of his story, of course. Other parts are also dramatic. He has a knack for knowing when it’s time to pivot and change things up. Since demobilizing he has turned to his family’s expertise in shamanism, training as an apprentice. I created the truck camera with dreams in mind, but perhaps it also elicited yagé visions for Alex—which is what ultimately freed him of his recurring nightmare.
ES: One can imagine more conventional approaches for an ethnographic film on Alex. For example, his voice-over could retell his experiences over images of his present life and environment interspaced with archival materials. Why did you feel committed to such a different approach, and what do you hope to bring with it to the field of visual anthropology and ethnographic filmmaking?
AF: I learned to be an ethnographic filmmaker in Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. I had a very ambivalent response to that formation. On the one hand, I deeply appreciated the opportunity. As someone new to the genre, it offered a clear set of stylistic (and I would argue ideological) preferences. But in the end, I didn’t eat the story (no me comí el cuento), as they say in Colombia. My sense was this was a reboot of observational cinema with a loose, under-articulated phenomenological substrate, couched in a language of sensory immersion and that used its location in anthropology to make a strategic connection with the “ethnographic turn” in the contemporary art world. I found some of the high-profile works the Lab produced to be revealing—films like Foreign Parts (2010), Kāle and Kāle (2007), and Leviathan (2012)—but other times the work just didn’t speak to me and felt like it was uncomfortably wed to a certain stylistic repertoire. I didn’t have the audiovisual skills or authorial vision to forge an alternative, but I enjoyed experimenting with what the Lab offered while critically engaging it and trying to find my own voice. I wanted to incorporate rather than reject the analytic side of academia (the short I made in Brazil was called Trees Tropiques) and was alternatively sympathetic to and skeptical of the SEL’s hostile airs toward discourse. On the sympathetic side, I agreed with the Lab’s general critique of more standard documentary and ethnographic forms, the Voice of God narration, the incessant talking heads, the illustrative usage of b-roll, and so on. As you can see, I had mixed feelings—which was generative.
I like to think of Limbo as part of an experimental ethnographic film tradition that goes back not only to Jean Rouch but also to city symphony films and ultimately Dziga Vertov. I think there’s something to be said for producing monographs and ethnographic films simultaneously, working through difficult, locally situated problems in both mediums. Yes, it’s at least double the work, but when I was back at the computer screen I felt—when things were clicking—that my filmmaking was making my writing more visual and my writing was making my filmmaking more cerebral. I don’t have any big blueprint for the field but am very excited about the infrastructural conditions that are developing to foster hybrid scholar-artists. New generations who work across mediums, academic writing included, have a lot to show us. Maybe this will be under the multimodal banner that’s flopping in the wind right now, maybe not, but I can’t wait to see where things go. As I advise more graduate students, I look forward to working with people who want to embrace a hybrid maker/scholar identity. We’re creating a space called the Democracy Lab in the Comm Department at UCSD, and I’m hopeful that it can help to support some of that work.
ES: There are some stunning shots and images in the film, they have a very soft focus, and they linger in the viewer's mind long after the screening. Was there a particular kind of image that you wanted to gather to create a specific texture?
AF: Many of the best shots are the handiwork of Julián Mejia Villa, the director of photography, co-passenger, and close collaborator in the many outings with the truck camera. I couldn’t have done this project without him. The main visual problem was that the truck images, while enchanting, grew somewhat monotonous. We turned our cameras on the truck camera itself, making the truck into another character in the film.
After we recorded the interviews with the former guerrillas in Bogotá and its surrounding rural areas, we took an eight-day road trip around the country—around 1,500 kilometers—in search of landscape shots. We got some great images even though we had no idea what we were looking for. It was an interesting adventure but not well-organized. As we passed through hotter regions, we nearly baked ourselves in the aluminum payload. Sometimes communicating between the cab and the payload via walkie-talkie was tricky. We got better at coordinating and getting the driver/truck owner to slow down as we went over a bridge or other location of interest. The driver became yet another camera person, in a way.
Then, two years later, I took the truck out again, this time in a particularly rural area, going slower and looking for more specific images to complement Alex’s story. The truck was a bit more beat up and we ended up putting a second hole and lens on it to be able to alternate the height of the shot or double expose. The last shot in the film, as we’re going around a roundabout in Bogotá, is the only double exposed shot that made its way into the film. All to say, the texture of the images changed through the very circuitous route in production before it started to circulate in the world.
ES: We only actually get close to Alex halfway through the movie, when he speaks of his encounter with the devil and we see him for the first time. What kind of choices did you make in terms of filming and editing to represent Alex to an audience who might be familiar with someone like him (a potential Colombian audience), and to an audience who might not know anything about him and the broader history he carries (non-Colombian audiences of ethnographic films)?
AF: This too took a lot of trial and a lot of error. Halfway through the process, I started working with an editor, David Rojas, who was instrumental in helping shape the narrative. The idea for the first half of the film was to emulate the feeling of overhearing a story as if you were sitting next to someone on a bus. We wanted to lull the viewer into the narrative before things got more intense and surreal, which is when we hear about the devilish dream and the world starts to flip upside down. The goal was to stabilize and then destabilize, shifting between Alex as a relatable human being, whose heart starts pounding as he nears his family home when he’s going back on a FARC-approved two-day family visit, and Alex who clearly is reckoning with the weight of what he’s done “with the pistol.” We intentionally counterposed representing him as a perpetrator and a victim of the structural violence of poverty in the countryside and the all-too-common dynamics of domestic humiliation if not abuse vis-à-vis his stepfather. The goal was to create a complex, contradictory portrait.
In terms of audience, it depends on who in Colombia we are talking about. There is a class of people who follows the politics of war and peace closely, as well as those in the working class who live in war-torn regions—rural and urban—and for them, stories like Alex’s will be somewhat familiar. But others have more limited knowledge and all sorts of preconceptions, often based on the osmosis of soft propaganda about internal enemies constructed over the long Cold War in Colombia. In thinking about “a Colombian audience,” I was thinking about doing something that might have the chance to disrupt reflex political reactions, that might lure people into listening to former guerrillas who are so often spoken for by experts (of which I’ve become one). For an audience that is unfamiliar with Colombia, I hope that the more humanist questions about how we understand violence, the people who perpetrate it, and the scars that it leaves, come to the fore. But to be honest, I haven’t had many opportunities to interact with audiences since many of the festivals that it has screened at have been conducted virtually.
ES: This brings me to a larger question of ethics: in the credits, Alex is named in full and we see his face. This break from more traditional ethnographic representations of hiding subjects’ identities in writing and in visuals. Alex is very recognizable and identifiable, while at the same time regularly going back to that fear of “getting caught” and becoming a “military target.” How did you manage that contradiction, and what kind of conversations did you two have to arrive at this result?
AF: Alex deserted from the FARC before the peace accord of 2016, quite a few years before. For years he lived with the fear that so many deserters did, that the FARC would hunt them down. The interview was recorded in 2013. That’s what he’s talking about when he says he’s a military target. As the peace negotiations were in the home stretch, the FARC stopped seeking retribution against those who deserted, and Alex learned that from a trusted source. So that fear subsided in 2015.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that there is no risk and the post-peace accord period has been dispiritingly violent, but Alex never expressed any concerns. He calculates his risks and is careful to speak in euphemisms on sensitive topics. He had also shared his story with a major news outlet, revealing his status as a former guerrilla. All of that made me feel that the marginal exposure of this project was low. When I was a graduate student, the IRB approved the project and then, years later, Alex and the other interviewees signed a subsequent consent form. I also showed Alex cuts at many stages throughout the years. He was always positive about it but never gave feedback.
ES: All along, we feel like it's just us (viewers) and you and Alex in this truck, but the credits acknowledge an extensive team of participants at different stages. Could you give us a sense of who was in that truck and how things worked before and after filming?
AF: We generally had two videographers in the truck, most frequently me and Julián, and someone doing sound, so four people in the payload at the most. If we were shooting landscape shots, only one or two videographers. There was generally someone riding in the cab with the driver.
ES: How did you approach the soundtrack? There is (notably) Alex's voice (but not the interviewer’s), the truck rolling which gives us a sense of lingering temporality, and a musical accompaniment that is discreet and yet very present and haunting. How did the audio shape Limbo?
AF: The truck made lots of noises, which was a challenge. In the end we benefited greatly from the expertise of Santiago Lozano who did the mix by building off of the creaks and groans of the truck. Santiago also included instrumental music in certain parts to help guide the narrative and manage difficult transitions. I was adamant that this not be too heavy-handed and Santiago totally got that. There was some discussion of including an instance of me posing a question but it just felt too jarring, too disruptive to the narrative.
ES: How has Limbo been received so far among ethnographers and filmmakers within Colombia and outside of it? Have the perspectives been drastically different (ethnographers vs. not / Colombia vs. not), and if so, in which ways?
AF: This is always hard to gauge. Film distribution is weird, especially for shorts. It’s been in festivals, it’s won awards, including in Bogotá, which is great. Colleagues and classes seem to like it. I had a great work-in-progress screening at the School for Visual Arts, which generated a lively discussion. It seems to be a film that gets people wondering—first of all, How was this filmed?!—and talking. It’s been a featured release on Cinema Guild’s page for some time. I don’t really have a strong sense of differences in reception. Paul Schroeder Rodríguez gave it a very favorable review in a broader review of films about the Colombian conflict released shortly after the peace accord of 2016 (Schroeder Rodríguez 2021).
ES: When were you working on Limbo, how did you manage this multimodal project in relation to other projects and commitments?
AF: This started during fieldwork for the PhD and extended into my third year as faculty. It’s an embarrassingly long production period but it was a lot of work when I was also busy with the juggle of academic life as a junior scholar. I wouldn’t have been able to complete it if I didn’t bring Casatarántula (Clare and Nicolás), the Colombian film production company, on to co-produce. My previous experience was a more individualistic approach and that made sense to me intuitively, but Clare and Nicolás are steeped in the film world in Colombia (which has really flourished in the last ten to fifteen years—thanks to a government funding mechanism that’s now on the chopping block) and helped to raise a little more money (in this space I want to shout out to the Wenner-Gren’s Fejos Fellowship, which was also instrumental), and give the process more structure. They called on their network in Colombia to help get me across the finish line. I’ve always looked at this approach of raising money and hiring specialized labor as unnecessarily complex, but with everything else I had going on, it was necessary. I’ll be smarter the next time around. I’m not sure I could make it through such an unwieldy process again.
ES: Are any of your future projects inscribed in one way or another in continuity with Limbo or departing from it?
AF: I still want to do an installation with material that I shot for Limbo (would love to screen the truck camera material in the truck camera itself, but transformed again as a mini-theater) and I’m also working on an academic multi-modal article that reflects on the process and theory behind Limbo. So I’m not quite done with this project.
At the same time, I am in the reading stage of writing and filmmaking for totally new projects and really enjoying it. One project I have on deck is a book about the surge in really interesting creative photojournalism since the 2016 peace accord in Colombia. This photographic renaissance blends the objective ethos of journalism with different traditions of lo maravilloso. I am reading Juliana Martinez’s (2020) Haunting without Ghosts: Spectral Realism in Colombian Literature, Film, and Art, and she’s done a great job articulating what I’ve been thinking about with “spectral realism.” I imagine building upon her work and my own thinking about the ethnographic surreal that goes back to my experimentation in the production of Limbo and previous discussions of the term in anthropology.
I am also eyeing an ethno-fiction film about the phenomenon of “whitefish” or “white lobster” in Latin America. That’s when fishermen who live along drug smuggling routes catch cocaine that drug traffickers throw overboard when they’re about to get caught. The pandemic has slowed this one down but I’m not in a rush. One thing I definitely enjoyed about Limbo was working with a team; it was a great antidote to the isolation of writing a dissertation/book and I’m hopeful that the right team will come together.
Castaing-Taylor, Lucien, and Véréna Paravel, dirs. 2012. Leviathan. 87 min. New York: Cinema Guild.
Fattal, Alexander L., dir. 2010. Trees Tropiques. 30 min. Berkeley: Berkeley Medial.
———. 2018. Guerrilla Marketing: Counterinsurgency and Capitalism in Colombia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
———. 2020. Shooting Cameras for Peace / Disparando Cámaras para la Paz: Youth, Photography, and the Colombian Armed Conflict / Juventud, Fotografía y el Conflicto Armado Colombiano. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Martínez, Juliana. 2020. Without Ghosts: Spectral Realism in Colombian Literature, Film, and Art. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Paravel, Véréna and JP Sniadecki. 2010. Foreign Parts. 81 min. Modulus Studios, Boston, MA.
Schroeder Rodríguez, Paul A. (2021). “Perdonar sin olvidar: El difícil proceso de paz en Colombia a través del documental.” Latin American Research Review 56, no. 1: 233–41.
Spray, Stephanie, dir. 2007. Kāle and Kāle. 51 min. New York: Cinema Guild.