Solar System

04/10/2017

Germany & Argentina / 2011 / Kolla

Directed by Thomas Heise

Still from 'Solar System'Stillness is a form of motion. Even when things aren’t moving, they are moving – that’s one of the dullest platitudes and most amazing paradoxes of our being on a planetary orbit. Let’s look at another paradox, along the same lines: digital cinematography presents us with absolute stillness as film cannot replicate; its illusion of stillness is matchless. Aside from the occasional torrents of grain silting up in low light, inertia is a perennial condition of digital recording. It gets carte blanche in contemporary cinema. It clings to everything, reminds us of the confining frame, and specifies the behavior of objects on screen to a degree that it cannot in the real world, where the subjectivity of our eyes darting about, pulling focus and examining things wins out. However, against this stillness the subtler movements – like the slow drifting of clouds – take on a revitalized vividness. Digital oppresses the dynamism of light, but examines movement to its smallest iterations.

Both of the aforementioned paradoxes, the great and the small,  find their ways into Thomas Heise’s film about ingenious Kolla people of northwestern Argentina,  Solar System.

To wit, a murky, ruddy sky opens up. Gyrating in air, wispy clouds move through as though issuing from an off-screen cigar. We peer down at an intensely metallic-looking mountain range, and gradually, at a heavy pace, successive, unconnected shots bring us into a valley, equally forbidding. A small brick hut comes into view, windows and doors bricked up, and eventually we are at the door. Not a soul around.

There is a farmhouse and some partial walls, encroached upon by hesitant scrub. It seems only the driest plants survive here, out of evolutionary habit. There is what appears to be a granary and a church, and, in the distance, a collection of pebbles that turns out to be a graveyard. We are meant to be paying attention to the vastness of this space and, while we’re at it, of space itself. Quietly as the light had broached in red, a shadow returns to the sky and once again darkens the valley.

Still from 'Solar System'It’s hard to know the connection between these initial images and the densely-forested place we find ourselves in next. But, beginning with what looks like a ghost-town, director Heise initiates a strategy that will continue, of following attributes of something (in this case, the vestiges of a civilization) to the thing itself, its living manifestation, sometimes reaching quite backwards for it. Desertion leads us to population, leather leads us to cattle. In Solar System, Heise documents a community from vantages that are both impersonal and highly detailed. He captures the layers of reality that people live in, unmistified by words and expressions.

In the deep forest, tree stumps are the only suggestions of the Kolla’s work in the timber industry. Out in the open farmland, a man in a wide-brimmed hat moves dirt around to make mud while another carts it away in a wheelbarrow. A third forms it into big bricks, which sit drying in neat rows, like a city planned in miniature. In the gothic darkness of a little church, clusters of candle light show fake flowers hanging from the Jesus pictures. Amid the folk interpretations of that which exists in the heavens, we wonder if their way of seeing Christianity is fundamentally unlike all others.

We see an old man (at least his hands are old), treating a large piece of leather that may become part of a saddle. After it has dried, he works with a compass and an awl, scoring patterns around the edge: crop-circles or planetary trails that begin to bloom flowers from within. The designs he fills in freehand, the circular twisting of his gnarled wrist describing parabolas into the hardened hide. Circles crossing circles – on a classroom wall we see one child’s drawing of the solar system, simple lines that look like a ripple in a puddle. The sunlight itself moves across the picture as the children crowd around a television to watch a dinosaur movie – the real and the perceived interact constantly.

Motion always has an answer in stillness; a line of people in a religious procession gives way, in the deep fog, to a line of crosses demarcating the churchyard. Likewise chaos always has its destiny in convergence, and vice versa. Powder is gathered into a structure (as bricks), and grains are pulverized by a boy’s handheld millstone. The energy of work has its solid testaments all around. It’s something that never gets totally abstracted. In spite of moving through different systems and atmospheres, we’re always faced with the physical reality of work. And all of the systems are finally connected in the macro.

Solar System at times resembles – and in a sense, is – a nature documentary, but not always in the obvious sense. In an attempt to create a holistic, as opposed to exhaustive, perspective on the environment, microscopic events such as moths gathering on a house at night or water dropping off of a rock, are in fact facets of the largest views, just seen a lot closer.

Still from 'Solar System'Heise gravitates toward the discreet pools of cellular motion. Far below us in the distance, we see a fenced-off corral, inside of which movement teems, outside of which stretches a mostly bare plane. Even discarded stones gather together in a similar way, since even chaos has its reasons. Aerial views of the spread-out settlements give the stone walls and lines of trees an organic, stolon-like continuity. The sense of activity as a coming-together is contrasted with individual work. In one scene, the whole community seems to be involved in pulling a broken-down tractor with ropes and chains. In another, a carpenter works intensely planing wood to be fitted into furniture.

The cows are with the Kolla, from birth to dismemberment. Heise watches, in detail, the gelding of young bulls (not a clean chop, but a drawn-out process) who are also branded (or possibly cauterized) and then, in a later scene, skinned and taken apart for food while dogs circle. In a country that produces and consumes enormous amounts of beef, the tribe’s use of everything ends up being reassuring.

Heise divides the film up seasonally. In a summer scene, pack horses skirting a huge mountain disappear into mist. We could be seeing the same valley as we did at the beginning of the film, but it’s fully green, no longer ashen. We follow the sound of a generator, again through a series of stationary shots, toward a satellite dish, and along the wires that connect it to the house. He does a lot of that – telling us about something by starting with its source.

Like in many of Michael Pilz’s documentaries, we don’t settle with one person or situation for very long, and so we don’t form attachments. Maintaining this lack of focus, this sense of motion without compromising an overall tone requires considerable finesse. Pilz calls his films “diaries”, and are more studied and systematic, less assorted than Jonas Mekas’ work with the same designation. He captures a chapter, an encompassing experience, with ingredients such as language, weather, one-off meetings, and just filming nothing as if it were a thing.

Still from 'Solar System'The parallels between Solar System and Pilz’s films perhaps end with their stillness and their inclusiveness. The overall product, in this case, sets it apart. It is not subjective in the ways that a journal or a travelogue must be, but seems to be trying to achieve a cosmology, a replica portrait of a way of seeing the world. It’s like the folk-art Virgin Mary in the church, colored threads beaming from above her like light. In Heise’s lens, its surface is rippled, ruptured, and intimately beautiful in ways that the crude painting doesn’t, from a distance, even hint at.

This isn’t about particular people. They aren’t addressing the audience, nor acknowledging it. But beyond the bourgeois ideal of the fly-on-the-wall documentary, Heise’s film achieves something richer, crustier, more organic. The lure of filming rural communities has some basic, concrete reasons, aside from being research into disappearing ways of life, or being a vicarious connecting with ancient and “real” work. Far from the city it is more possible to focus on a topic or activity and not be interrupted. For documentary filmmakers in the field, it is like having a studio, albeit one with myriad complications and privations of its own.

The rains come, and flat parts of the valley become flooded. The poor, little church doesn’t stand a chance, and its floor becomes an ankle-deep, black mirror. People have to wade through a gorged river with large sacks over their shoulders on their way to the city.

Images recall earlier-seen ones, not always being consciously paralleled. Tracking along a lichened fence, we follow a line of ants as they go, each carrying a large leaf. Later, at the film’s conclusion, we move sideways again, but this time it is facing a much larger view; from a bus we see the fringe emergence of kilometer after kilometer of slums outside of a big city, spaces opening up like concrete canyons, seemingly not a single building having all of its four walls.

While Heise doesn’t shy away from anything, he doesn’t stay too fixed to anything, either. At first this seems like a shortcoming, until the overall stability of it becomes apparent. Like any good artwork, its effect goes beyond its intent. Heise and his cinematographers are always on the move, not searching but, rather, posting up and waiting. The implication is that things are all only temporary, that customs and physical culture are both getting dissolved, visibly dissolved. However the film doesn’t put too fine a point on it. Like Denis Côté’s documentaries, it is primarily interested in relationships – between animals and people, environment and weather, the Earth and the sun. Us and them; them and us.

Still from 'Solar System'The film is sensing and paraphrasing more than it us uncovering these connections, as they aren’t always assess-able or even visible in the physical interactions. Behind the lives of these devoutly christian people, there are larger systems that predate the arrival of missionaries, and everyone is part of those systems’ cycles. Pre-christianity isn’t hard to tease out; but it exists in more places than the Kolla’s masks or animal figurines, their festivals or holdover customs. In their work, their soil, the inundations and growth, is the universe they know. To them, it’s all squared with religion, which can be applied to everything, great and small.

But then look at how the church’s utility has fallen away – it is deserted every time we see it, aside from a few older women murmuring to each other. Like a band realizing it’s time to go their separate ways, it seems the Kolla are packing up and leaving village life. Heise is suggesting that a world-view derives from something more profound that they carry, something carved into them like the circles in leather, regardless of what is imposed onto it. It is a wisdom that is perpetuated in people and, in some ways, despite their changeability. Most likely these things couldn’t be explored visually after the people have moved to the city, where cultures go to get subsumed and supplanted for good.

Where are we headed? These snap-shots describe an ultimately bleak direction to the flow of life, and our trajectory with the Kolla effectively ends at the slums seen from the bus. But, we must remember, the direction in question is, ultimately, not one but many, intersecting, colliding, and vanishing into different horizons.

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