Liquid Connections

On The Soldier’s Lagoon

Elizabeth Dexter

La laguna del soldado (The Soldier’s Lagoon)
Year 2024

The Soldier’s Lagoon, a body of water that forms part of a tightly interconnected ecosystem in the Colombian Páramo de Pisba, is named after the 200 revolutionary soldiers who died making their way perilously across the Andes in 1819. (200, or more. The British soldiers who encountered the watery grave describe losing count after that figure.) It lends this name to Pablo Álvarez-Mesa’s newest film, which takes the beautiful, wet, and moderately vicious expanse as a jumping-off point for reimagining the traces of colonial and environmental violence, past and present. The second part of a trilogy that travels slantwise through the legacies of Simón Bolívar, The Soldier’s Lagoon is told from the multivalent perspectives of conservationists, miners, pot-makers, and chiropterologists, all percolating into a portrait of place. The film expands the shape-shifting style seen in Álvarez-Mesa’s Bicentenario (2020), becoming more feverish as it pivots between deep history and dream.

The hazy quality of Álvarez-Mesa’s 16mm image is brought about in part by the fact of the camera’s mechanical limitation, imprecise and unable to produce a shot lasting more than 28 seconds. At times the image leaks bright red into the frame. Often it doubles, or is subsumed by another in clouds of seemingly ubiquitous and indifferent fog. Segueing transitions, as when the reflection of the sky on the surface of water is dissolved into a blanket of trees, build up like strata of earth. A feeling of accrual becomes palpable, not least of the many violent episodes in history that have amassed and inscribed themselves quietly onto the territory: the looting of Muisca cemeteries by the Spanish, Bolívar’s campaign of liberation, the more recent passage of armed groups. Every so often, the image becomes percussively vivid, released to the clamouring of musician Stefan Schneider’s drums.

Although images trickle in and out of vision, certain impressions persist through the brume. One such is the explanation given of the frailejón (“big monk”) plant, named thus by the mathematician and biologist José Celestino Mutis’ assertion that their bowed heads gave them the appearance of “friars in ruanas lost in the fog”. (Do they not also look like the man in the cagoule we saw earlier on?) Not only monks, the plants are also custodians, collecting what would otherwise evade collection. A family member of the sunflower, the high-altitude shrub has thick hairs that draw water from the air.  They are integral to maintaining water security for the páramo, transmuting mist into underground pools of water which go on to feed the Orinoco. The film tells us how they are under threat from military activity, and how rates of deforestation have increased up to twofold since the peace agreement in 2016. Álvarez-Mesa includes a shot where the plants angrily quiver upright, like the lick of flames, both theatre and opponent to this destruction.

The frailejónes take from the visible but insubstantial mist to maintain the region’s troubled past and uncertain future. It feels as if The Soldier’s Lagoon is operating in the same way when it returns us into the mist. The film approaches history through blurring, lateral fragments, rather than chronology or monument, creating its own subterranean basin where all coexists.  

Bolívar’s poem at the beginning of the film seems to speak as the páramo when it avers: ¿Pensáis que los instantes que llamáis siglos pueden servir de medida a mis arcanos? (Do you think that the instants you call centuries can measure my secrets?) Perhaps we can discover in Álvarez-Mesa’s fog the secrets necessary to encounter history, politics, and ecology at once, and a means through which to be in direct affiliation, to form and hold onto different images, even in states of half-awakeness. We begin and end up submerged in a turquoise frame, with fog crawling up a precipice. In fog, in lagoon, everything interfaces.

Elizabeth Dexter coordinates the Talks and Workshops programme and is a pre-selector for Open City Documentary Festival.

This text was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to accompany the screening of La laguna del soldado (The Soldier’s Lagoon) at Close-Up Cinema, 26 April 2024.