Unsettled Land

Life in the aftermath

Michael Malay

Cinzas e Nuvens (Extended Presences)
Director MARGAUX DAUBY, Year 2023, Country BELGIUM

Há Ouro em Todo o Lado (There is Gold Everywhere)
Director RITA MORAIS, Year 2023, Country PORTUGAL

El Chinero, Un Cerro Fantasma (El Chinero, a Phantom Hill)
Director BANI KHOSHNOUDI, Year 2023, Country MEXICO

What Humans See as Blood, Jaguars See as Chicha

Director LUCIANA DECKER, Year 2023 , Country BOLIVIA

A few summers ago, I lived in a trailer in West Somerset and spent my days working on a farm: repairing fences, harvesting potatoes, mucking out the stall. In the evenings, I’d retire to the trailer with a book – except that, during those first days, reading was more or less impossible. The field beside me, filled with poppy and vetch and clover, pulsed with the songs of crickets: a high-pitched crystalline buzzing that penetrated the thin walls of the trailer and went straight into my skull. Sitting at the table, the unopened book beside me, I would listen to the wild frettings in the grass – listen until it seemed the crickets had entered the room, so loud were their voices.

Towards the end of that summer, the field was mown for hay – and the songs stopped. Stubble appeared in place of flowers, and a silence descended on the field. When I went to the trailer that night, I could still hear a buzzing in the grass, but this time it was a ghost music, the remembered sounds of yesterday’s field. The next day that remembered hum became less insistent, and the next day less insistent still.

I was reminded of that experience when watching the films of this programme, for they are all, in their different ways, situated in the aftermath of devastation. (The word aftermath is an agricultural term, and refers to the moment after mowing, when the grass has been cut.) In the opening scenes of El Chinero, A Phantom Hill, a camera pans across a desert landscape near Mexicali, before directing our gaze to particular objects: rocks, plants, the withered roots of a dead tree. Later, we learn that seventy men and women died here, mostly Chinese migrants who, in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, were attempting to cross the desert. They left no visible traces in the land, and no monuments have been erected in their memory. Nevertheless, the film searches for – and discovers – a kind of presence. It does this without grand gestures or sentimentality, but by altering our sense of what is there. Not that the landscape changes under the film’s scrutiny: the rock remains a rock, the hill a hill. Now, though, the silence carries a different inflection – a silence in which one can hear, or at least imagine oneself hearing, a faint echo of those unremembered lives.

In There is Gold Everywhere, the land also begins to yield a different set of meanings. Through its juxtaposition of two images – tunnels and rivers – the film reveals the ongoing tremors of the ancient past. What at first seem like natural formations (the tunnels) are in fact thoroughly historical: these hollows were made by ancient Roman miners, who harnessed the power of water to blast through the obduracy of rock. The men were searching for gold – a metal synonymous with purity – and their pursuit permanently disfigured the earth. Once we understand this, another image in the film – a child’s hand immersed in water – begins to make disturbing sense. To say that ‘there is gold everywhere’ is to disrupt the fantasy of the pastoral. The child by the river is not in Eden but on damaged land. 

What emerges in the aftermath of the pastoral? In Extended Presences the landscape is not the backdrop to a human drama, but a central event in itself, one in which humans are peripheral. We observe ‘fire watchers’ scanning the horizon, looking for signs of danger, but rather than yielding to the human gaze, the landscape seems to return it, enfolding the watchers in its vast and slow rhythms. Although fully visible, the landscape also keeps itself to itself, and this is why the silence of the film seems so alive. What the watchers experience is not the silence of inanimate land, but a place possessed of its own agency.

A sense of withheld meaning – but also, therefore, of inscrutable aliveness – is also at the heart of Luciana Decker’s film, What Humans See as Blood, Jaguars See as Chicha. In a startling sequence, images of rural Bolivia – cows at pasture, the wind moving through grass – give way to images of ancient artifacts and sacred objects: pots, bowls, plates, figurines. The figurines depict various beings, both human and nonhuman, and although some only survive as fragments – a ceramic foot separated from its body, the severed head of a god – they continue to exert a kind of power. “The past is never dead”, William Faulkner wrote, “it’s not even past” – and the film not only recognizes this, but is sustained by that recognition. The ancient figurines, some of which blur the distinction between human and nonhuman forms, are proof of an ancient kinship between humans and the natural world, a relationship that remains defiantly alive in many parts of rural Bolivia.

The day I left that farm in Somerset – a week after the grass had been cut for hay – I walked to the far corner of the field, where I came across a small bank of flowers that had escaped the mower’s blade. There, beneath a stand of knapweed, was a small bush-cricket, shaking its dark brown wings. It was singing a little song – just about audible – in the aftermath of devastation.

Michael Malay is a teacher and writer based in Bristol. He is the author of Late Night, a book about migration, belonging and extinction, and is also the author of The Figure of the Animal in Modern and Contemporary Poetry. He is now at work on a book about John Berger.

This text was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to accompany the programme Extended Presences at Close-Up Film Centre, 10 September 2023.