"The moon came to the forge with her bustle of tuberose"

About some films by Malena Szlam and Patricia Dauder

One of the reasons why both Malena Szlam and Patricia Dauder started to make films was the medium's potential to be disrupted by the natural elements; i.e. the capacity of the physical environment to leave its trace on the light-sensitive surface of the film. This indexicality of the world, latent in the filmic image, enabled both filmmakers to weave different elemental stories of the Earth that challenge our understanding of the natural world and its temporalities. Consequently, their films don't give rise to a stable representation of the world but rather an image that reveals its changing materiality, both in a geological and filmic sense.

Jean Epstein was one of the first filmmakers to refer explicitly to the forces of nature as an analogy for cinema. In his book Le Cinématographe vu de l'Etna (1926), which he wrote in the face of the volcano's tremors in Sicily, where he'd gone to shoot La montagne infidèle (1923), the French filmmaker noted that one of the greatest powers of cinema is its animism; there's no still life on the screen, stating that "nature is never inanimate. Objects take on airs. Trees gesticulate. Mountains, just like Etna, convey meanings".[i] He also comments on cinema's capacity to cut up what it films and endow each fraction with expression, rhythm and movement, creating symmetries and fractal correspondences between the microscopic movements of a "sprouting wheat kernel" and the immensity of a volcanic eruption. Such analogies between the smallest and the largest also run through Szlam and Dauder's works in the session entitled "Seismographies". Their images and sounds allude as much to geological structures in locations affected by volcanic and seismic topographies as to cosmic and astral figurations. These films also relate the movements of such terrains to those of the silver halide crystals bubbling within the emulsion.

Lunar Almanac (2013), Malena Szlam's first film in this session, records the lunar cycle in 16 mm through different layers and points of view, creating visual reverberations by means of layering and long exposures. The moon, an evocative element for the cinematographer, also appears in her films Altiplano (2018) and Merapi (2021), impregnated with time and geology. In Merapi, a fragmented study of the landscape around a volcano in Indonesia, it appears only once and fleetingly, behind the clouds,[ii] whilst in Altiplano this astral body is superimposed onto a large number of shots of Andean landscapes, adding different temporal layers to the images, merging earth with sky and day with night.

The moon may be a recurring motif in Szlam's films but it's only represented approximately in Dauder's work. For example, in the form of an unidentified luminous phenomenon in the skies over the Canary Islands in March 5th 1979 (2011) and through a moon-like topography[iii] in Insulana (2021), a work inspired by the volcanic eruption that affected the Azores archipelago between 1957 and 1958 and left the island of Faial completely covered in ash. But even when such works contain astral forms, we don't find ourselves in the dry, glassy terrain of optics but rather submerged in the cosmic and seismic depths.

In a series of 28 pencil drawings, Dauder sketches a kind of lunar calendar for the time she spent in the Azores. But while Lunar Almanac brings together all the visible faces of the moon, Sojourn (2017) expresses the impossibility of representing it because of the clouds that permanently cover the archipelago's sky. These drawings belong to a body of work in which we can discern the artist's interest in observing the physical environment of these "unknown islands".[iv] They also demonstrate some common features in how she works: the physical and artisanal relationship with the materials she uses (paper, graphite, cardboard, fabric, plaster, wood, earth, film), the links between her creations and the difficulty of determining where they begin and end, revealing a complex process of contamination and resonance. This is the case, for instance, of Insulana. Its beginning occurs on this journey, in which Sojourn establishes a kind of memorandum, precisely when Dauder is walking over a terrain where two or more geological layers coexist: the ash ejected by the volcano and a series of marks from an earlier settlement. This experience echoes a previous work by Daudier, Groundworks (2015), in which the artist buried a number of works at an empty plot in L'Hospitalet de Llobregat so they would be eroded by the soil. In addition to giving rise to the film, this series of overlapping spaces and times comprised a visual strategy that enabled the artist to represent the instability of the landscape of these islands through the constant use of layered images, an approach similar to that adopted by Szlam in Altiplano and Merapi, with which she creates a palimpsest of worlds.

On the other hand, Sojourn also allows us to allude to Insulana's relationship with a series of images and drawings that refer to the geography of these islands, the volcanic structures, the organic forms and the tradition of whale fishing, making up a visual map of this work. It should be noted that Dauder began filming in order to perceive the different phases in the process of creating a drawing,[v] like a geologist studying the composition of the soil to perceive the different layers and elements that influence its surface. But this tension between still and moving image, present in other films by the artist such as March 5th 1979 as well as in one of Malena Szlam's early works, Chronogram of Inexistant Time (2008), is surpassed in Insulana. By using a number of techniques such as superimposition and lithography, this series of images and drawings, present both on the wall of Dauder's studio and within the film, are endowed with depth and she explores them as if they were an archaeological site, creating analogies between their forms and those of the environment.

Although Dauder began by filming the process of creating a drawing, film played an important role in her leaving her studio and introducing traces of the physical environment into her work. We can perceive this transit between the studio wall and the outside world in Insulana and Península (2018), where the images reveal a constant ambivalence between two times, one intimate and the other geological.[vi] It's not the same case in Malena Szlam's films but we can feel the presence of her body in the movement and rhythm of her images. In Altiplano this is fused with the soils traversed by indigenous cosmogonies linked to the Atacama, Aymara and Calchaquí-Diaguita territories in northern Chile and northwestern Argentina, where her mother's family comes from, a geological universe of ancestral salt flats, volcanic deserts and lakes saturated with colours, as well as, in Merapi, with the "Mountain of Fire" on the island of Java. In this way, the Chilean filmmaker develops a radically intimate relationship with the natural environment, like the one developed by Empedocles on the edge of Etna, a place where you can hear the roar of the world, even its most inaudible frequencies.[vii]

Celeste Araújo


* The article title comes from Romancero Gitano (Gypsy ballads), by Federico García Lorca.

[i] Epstein, Jean, "El cinematógrafo visto desde el Etna", in Archivos de la Filmoteca de Valencia, no. 63, Valencia, 2009, pp. 117-123. Original title: "Le cinématographe vu de l'Etna".

[ii] In this study of the landscape around Merapi, a volcano located in Indonesia, the Chilean filmmaker closely observes certain common phenomena such as the movement of clouds, sunrise and sunset, and their variations in light.

[iii] The new lands created by the Capelinhos volcano were described as a lunar landscape: "Notre noveau monde: la lune; sa topographie et ses mystères", as reported in Paris-Match, 26 October 1957.

[iv] An expression used in Insulana that alludes to As Ilhas Desconhecidas: notas e paisagens, by Raul Brandão, a book in which the Portuguese writer compiles a collection of notes and impressions from a trip he made to the Azores in 1924. In it, he describes the island landscapes, its people, their relationship with the sea and whale fishing, themes that also resonate in this film.

[v] Abstract Film #1 (2004) presents the different phases that a group of 15 drawings go through, while Abstract Film #2 (2005) focuses on a single drawing.

[vi] This juxtaposition of interior and exterior spaces can also be found in In & Out (2016), a work that brings together a series of photographs from a personal album of the artist that show the domestic world, the interiors of different studios, outdoor locations (beaches, houses, abandoned buildings) and images recording the methodology of some of her works.

[vii] The vibrant landscape of Altiplano is accompanied by a soundtrack created from the infrasounds of volcanoes, geysers and blue whales, for which Szlam collaborated with oceanographer Susannah Buchanan and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer.