Who is the Virgen Negra?
Some years ago during a Mountaneering trip to this place, I entered the church of Guicán, one of the towns surrounding the Sierra Nevada. I saw a big painting hanging above the altar. There was the image of a brunette virgin covered in a white tunic and a brown ruana/poncho over it. She has a bright necklace made of shells, precious stones and a flower, a very interesting but strange image, since I hadn’t seen any virgin like that ever. I started researching and noticed the painting is earlier than the spanish misionaires’s arrival during the colonial times. I found its name: The Brunette Virgin of Guicán. The legend says it was an image adored by the indigenous people who lived there (they said it had been given to them by the woman in the painting herself, around 15 years before the spanish arrival), and that it had been stolen by the misionaries and brought to the church of the town of Guicán. It is said that the indigenous paninting’s guardians committed suicide after this along with lots of indigenous people more. They jumped over a cliff near the town because they lost their sacred image and therefore their honor. It’s been said that many years later the painting would be stolen by the people of Cocuy (the nearest town) and brought to a house where it was hidden. People from Guicán recovered the painting and placed it over 5 meters above the floor, in the top of the altar, and there is where it is now. I was looking to shoot a film at high altitude and there it became to appear, that painting is one of the main inspiration for this film. In our film, the Virgen Negra represents the stolen work of art, the beauty that can overwhelm a person to the obsessive point of wanting to have that beauty at all costs. She is also a kind of conciousness, as she knows what’s wrong around but she doesn’t speak; she is judging but also a silent forgiver.
Who was the inspiration for the healer? Can you tell us more about the ritual? Is it based on an existing one?
The healer was inspired by all the healers in our country. In Colombia, we have a lot of traditional knowledge, peasant and indigenous communities have their own ways but rituals usually resemble each other. Rituals have been modified as time goes by, and through that process, some “outlaw” healers have emerged. Some of them use a mix of the peasant and indigenous method to achieve their goals, some of them are just evil men who swindle innocent people. Our healer would be an outlaw one, a man with his own code. He also represents the spanish missionaries who stole the Brown Virgin’s Painting. As an idea, the healer would be what we consider wicked but it should be mischievous with spectator’s mind as we think if he is just a healer or maybe something else.
The ritual we use in our short film is based on the indigenous, that usually consist in using cleaner herbs or plants to release the illness or evil energy, that will be sucked and then blown away by the healer, who serves as some kind of filter. During the ritual, the healer can turn into an animal, usually a powerfull one. The herbs laying in the bed are real, taken from the mountain, and are some of the ones used during the real healing ritual. Our ritual is a mix of both indigenous and peasant.
Am I right in understanding that the actors are related? How did you choose them?
Yes, Belisario is Ana’s brother and the healer is their uncle. I first started working on this project with Belisario in 2014. We made some interviews and hikings as I researched for casting but people around the sierra are kind of shy. As the relationship with Belisario grew, I found a lot of affection and confidence in his family and started to meet new members, Ana included. When I saw her I thought of the Virgen Negra instantly, her eyes, her face and her whole image reflected the mix of the peasants with the indigenous people, perfect for representing the woman in the painting. Also, the love relationship betwen brothers was there, we just had to think of how to transform that into couple love. I always directed them exploring their life experiences, as if they were brothers in the movie, only at the end they realized they were acting as a couple. The healer was the most difficult character to choose, we were running out of time and I asked Belisario for someone in his family who knew the traditional medicine rituals around the area and he montioned Jaime, his uncle who lives in the top of the mountain, in an remote house (almost the last before civilization ends and the virgin mountain begins), he also had lived a few years ago in the very same house we used as a location. When I met Jaime, I found a confident rough man with kind of a dark past, experienced in the mountain and also aware of these rituals, wich he had experienced as a child when he got ill (the only medicine around back in those days was the traditional one). He also learned from the indigenous healers and the peasant healers the difference betwen the rituals so he was perfect for the role.
Can you tell us more about the shooting process in the mountains? What sorts of hurdles did you encounter?
First, I have to say this is the most difficult thing I’ve shot in my entire life, not only because of the isolation of the places we were shooting at, but because of the altitude, wich makes you behave different than you expect. Our main location was one hour from the nearest town and it was above 3200 meters above the sea level, we had to walk around half an hour everyday to get to the set. We did this during 4 days and then we went for the big hike: When we shot the Pulpito del Diablo’s scenes we had to walk – climb 15 hours carrying the camera on our shoulders, also the optics, camera batteries and audio gear. We climbed up to 5000 meters above the sea level and then everything became really caothic, half of the crew was getting mountain ill and hypothermic, so they had to descend and leave the set. At the end, it was just 7 of us in charge of everything, the weather got worse, we had snow, clouds and really fast and strong winds. The actor’s clothes were not appropriate for the conditions and his hands became to freeze, suddenly he was suffering a lot, so we stopped shooting when he said “I can’t do it anymore”. I was very frustrated because nothing happened as I had planned so far, I had always been seeking for rough weather (that’s why we chose summer season, it’s winter in the sierra), but I didn’t think it would be so hard. On the other hand, Cinematographer Mateo Guzmán was really happy and excited about everything we were doing, he turned on me and said “Don’t worry, we’re doing it really well, this is just beautiful”, then he encouraged me to go on and we went to shoot the missing scenes we had on schedule, those were at a lower altitude so it wasn’t that hard, we met the rest of the crew while descending and it all became easier and more enjoyable.
Shooting on the mountains is exhausting and altitude can play with you, since you don’t receive enough oxygen in your brain, I couldn’t think clear at the beginning and I thought it wasn’t working, it was rough and slow and messy, but when you experience al of this things together, you have to stop and realize you can find a lot of peace, contemplation and meditation during such a journey through the mountains, you can clear your mind, and you can push yourself to your physic and mental limit, it’s not easy, but the reward of the experience is not easy to describe.
What sorts of projects do you now have in the pipeline?
Right now, I’m developing a few projects. First, the short film La Cueva (The Cave), the story of a man who appears to have done something really bad as he is escaping through the jungle with his hands covered in blood, he finds a cave and uses it as hideout but he enters to live a metaphysical – guilt experience that will get him to the guts of the earth, it’s like him meeting his demons. This should work as the third part of a trilogy of short films where characters experience kind of mystic voyages. La Virgen Negra is the second part of the trilogy, The death and the goat, my first short film is the starter. I’m also working on a feature film script called Hermano (Brother) that tells the story of Antonio, a successful man who returns to his homeland to work on a huge mining project, only to discover that his brother is lost in the mountains for a month, at the same place the mining project is supposed to be developed.
What sort of freedoms would you say the short format allows?
I think short film is our main form of expression, we can be ourselves, we can talk for ourselves and we can be sincere and forceful. Short films are the almost real-time mirrors for us as filmmakers, as they are produced mostly faster and lighter than a feature film, we are not “surrounded by many eyes or touched by many hands”. It’s easier to have complete control of the story and production, but it also comes with the responsibility of making huge efforts to do it right and clear. You have to be perfectionist, methodical and at the same time open to receive the gifts of filmmaking that can change your script in the middle of a shot. The main freedom is to make a movie that may seem short and small, but could be charged of huge messages, images or ideas, that can last for long time in the spectator’s minds.
If you’ve already been to Clermont-Ferrand, could you share with us an anecdote or story from the festival? If not, what are your expectations for this year?
I have never been to France, it shoud be completely a new experience, the main idea is to enjoy the festival. I want to see as much short films from different territories as I can, to see what’s going on around the world. I also want to meet the ones who make them and the supporters, use the market to distribute my projects and hopefully find producers or coproductions for the incoming films.