Sebastián Díaz Morales, Miles Marchan (Thousands March), 2021. Installation view De Pont, Tilburg, The Netherlands, Photo: René van der Hulst
‘I want to portray the body of the march in as many moods as possible’ – in conversation with Sebastián Díaz Morales
The camera of Sebastián Díaz Morales squeezes through political marches held all around the world to depict the collective power of protests. Anna Bitkina talks to Díaz Morales about Thousands March (currently on view in De Pont) and Smashing Monuments (featured at IFFR 2023). Partaking in those protests, the camera becomes an entity in itself, a kind of eye that moves along the surface of the asphalt and films protesters’ feet from just a few inches away.
Central to your new video installation Thousands March, currently on view at De Pont in Tilburg, are the protests that have taken place in Buenos Aires from 2016 to 2018. You undertook numerous trips to Argentina in order to film these protests. How do these protests reflect the current political climate in Argentina? And what does it mean for you to film them?
[answer Sebastián Díaz Morales] ‘Social movements and protests have a long-standing tradition in Argentina. From the demonstrations of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo who fought for human rights to the protests against neo-liberal reforms in the 90s and from the crisis of 2001 to the different feminist movements, protests have always functioned as thermometers of societal issues. From 2016 till 2018, I filmed the manifestations that occurred on both the 8th and the 24th March, respectively on the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice and on International Women’s Day. History confirms that a change of paradigm or direction is possible through collective protest; several documentaries and films reflect this: Social Genocide (2004) and The Hour of the Furnaces (1968) by Pino Solanas for example, or Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) by Tomás Gutierrez Alea and Battleship Potemkin (1925) by Sergei Eisenstein. While these films take a more documentary approach, I myself am interested in generating a more emotional portrait of the protests. For Thousands March I wanted to present this big social collective as one entity, which is why I decided not to show any individual faces or banners. While we are used to seeing images of protests in the media, these images rarely reflect the intensity of what it means to understand oneself as part of a protest. This work is born from the urge to give back to the protest, to the mass, that power of collective mobilization that the media neutralizes.’
Can you please elaborate on your filming technique and the significance of the different camera angles you use in your work?
[answer Sebastián Díaz Morales] ‘In Thousands March, the camera becomes an entity in itself, a kind of eye that moves along the surface of the asphalt. Filmmakers from Sergei Eisenstein to Béla Tarr have used such close up shots of marching feet in order to represent demonstrations. To achieve this effect as well, I needed to interfere as little as possible in the march. Most of the time nobody really noticed that a camera was filming their feet from just a few inches away. For Smashing Monuments, which I presented at documenta 15, I filmed the feet of different members of the ruangrupa-collective as they walked at their own pace through the streets of Jakarta. I am presenting these members as anonymous characters in order to show how the collective nullifies individuality. From street level, the city of Jakarta looks threatening and intriguing.
By shooting from these specific perspectives, I allow the spectator to only slowly get familiar with the urban contexts that I film. As the characters move from one place to the other, the spectator is mobilized as well. “Where does this lead us to?”, one may wonder while watching these marching feet. “What does it mean to see thousands of individuals marching in contexts that are diametrically opposed and at the same time share so many historical similarities?”’
‘Filmmakers from Sergei Eisenstein to Béla Tarr have used such shots of marching feet in order to represent demonstrations. To achieve such an effect, one needs to interfere as little as possible in the march’
In Thousands March, the camera becomes an investigator of the crowd it squeezes through. At the same time, it becomes part of that collective political body. I wonder: where does the camera begin and your body end? What would you say is the demarcation-line between the camera and your body here? And where does your body meet the body of protestors?
[answer Sebastián Díaz Morales] ‘The cri de coeur of the Cinema Novo movement was to have “a camera in hand and an idea in mind” – as if the camera was merely an extension of an idea already figured out in one’s mind. Here, however, the camera really becomes the eye of the idea itself; its lens moves through the masses like some kind of curious animal. It furrows the demonstrations, merges with the emotions and the clamor of the protestors and doing so recreates parts of that mass’s body. I recorded as many marches as possible; at night, during the day and while raining. I filmed at different times of the year, featuring different actors, different conflicts and different moments: from the start of a march to the arrival at its final destination, and from listening to speeches to the dispersion of the protestors. I wanted to portray the body of the march in as many moods as possible. Therefore, the camera had to move “naturally”, as if it was part of that temporary ecosystem. It had to partake discretely and to be understood as part of the march, rather than as some kind of alien eye or spy. In that sense, I would say that there was no line separating the body of the collective from that of the camera.’
Thousands March is very much a psychologically charged film, featuring many forms of nonverbal communication. Your meticulous editing plays an important role in this. Could you please elaborate on the editing process and the different body languages present in the film?
[answer Sebastián Díaz Morales] ‘The film was edited in such a way that it seems to have been filmed in one long shot. At least that is the mental image that the film tries to generate. I think this obsessive one-hour long gaze was necessary; it is only in the course of the film that viewers start to decode the “gestural” language of the marching feet and begin to get a sense of the very contexts in which the protests take place. It’s like peeking through a kaleidoscope: at first you only see an abstract image, but after some time you start to be able to recognize more and more shapes. As the film unfolds, different mental images transform into one another. At one moment you for instance suddenly realize that all of the filmed feet are women’s feet, and at another moment you recognize a celebrative choreography in the crowd. I hope that viewers will gradually decipher the visual language of the film as well as the political bodies that it portrays.’
‘It’s like peeking through a kaleidoscope: at first you only see an abstract image, but after some time you start to be able to recognize more and more shapes’
The amazing soundtrack by the South African composer and artist Philip Miller adds extra suspense to Thousands March. Different protest sounds have been incorporated into the film’s audio track, such as car horns, drumming, trumpets, chanting, and even the breathing of dogs. Can you tell me a bit more about your collaboration with Philip Miller?
[answer Sebastián Díaz Morales] ‘I contacted Philip Miller when on a visual level the work was already edited. I knew I needed to work with someone who recognized the sounds and voices of a march; someone who knew and lived such protests and conflicts from the inside. South Africa, just like Argentina, has a history marked by conflicts and social struggles. So the idea of the film did not need much explaining; it was just a question of finding common grounds. We had already worked together a long time ago, in 2001, on a video with Jo Ractliffe called One Year Later. So we knew that we understood each other’s visual and sonic languages. This time, however, the editing process took place during a pandemic, making it impossible for us to sit at the same table. It was a continuous back and forth for six months. Our main idea was that Philip’s audio track would “complete” those bodies that were visually cut off; the sounds would help the viewer to get a sense of all the things happening outside of the camera frame. One hears the clamor of people, the noise of generators, the breathing of a furtive animal, the sounds of something that could be a religious procession, the crashing of trees, the current of a river, the whirling of a helicopter, explosions, percussions… and at times one “hears” only silence: the sound of those who are not or could not be present. Philip worked with sounds recorded directly during the marches, distorting and alienating it. Any too “literal” recording would have broken the magic, would have turned the work into a mere documentary recording of the march, reducing it to that recognizable image we already know so well from the media. At the same, the narrative had to be able to capture the viewer’s attention for the duration of the hour. That is why Philip worked on a narrative that could be divided into sequences, making sure that the film has a nice flow to it.’
In both Smashing Monuments and Thousands March, public space is presented in a performative and somewhat fictional way. In the first, the urban space of Jakarta is marked by historical and ideologically charged monuments of Sukarno and Suharto. In Thousands March, in contrast, the space of the streets is overtaken not by statues but by thousands of living bodies. You show them not only as they are marching, but also as they are resting, playing and dancing. I was struck by the fact that you chose to not show any of the many clashes we know to have occurred between the police and the protestors, although, from the news we know there were some acts of violence during those marches. It made me wonder: what do you perceive to be the role of art in presenting the possibility of public space as a forum of democracy and multivocality? How can art create tools that help empower alternative political negotiations?
[answer Sebastián Díaz Morales] ‘Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the more alternative visions of a political or historical reality the better. I think it is important not only to be able to make a profound reading of reality, but also to be able to translate it into a concept or narrative that presents alternatives to a hegemonic language. It is necessary to generate different discourses and to present narratives that have been hidden, that have remained unspoken or are simply difficult to be found. In my works, different elements belonging to these narratives come to the surface, such as monuments, streets, demonstrations, urban contexts and the city’s social body as a whole. How to identify them, how to use the inertia of a demonstration to reach other places as well? How to mobilize, how to generate a discussion around something? Art has the possibility of speaking with another voice, but what happens at the moment is that this voice also tends to become standardized, monotonous, thereby losing its power of diversity.’
‘Any too “literal” recording of the protests would have broken the magic, would have turned the work into a mere documentary recording, reducing it to that recognizable image we already know so well from the media’
History repeats itself; this seems, to me, to be the message of both Smashing Monuments and Thousands March. The current state of affairs makes them serve as memorials for dictatorships of the past and as critical lenses through which we can look at dictatorships of today. Of course here I am thinking of, amongst others, the war Russia is waging against Ukraine. In what way do you think that Thousands March and Smashing Monuments can contribute to the process of civil empowerment and historical restitution?
[answer Sebastián Díaz Morales] ‘I hope that the work can contribute to an honest image of our contemporary era. That would be enough for me; to also want to generate a critical and historical reading of our times would be asking too much. But yes, Thousands March centralizes all kinds of histories that should not be repeated. It works with The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo protest, for example; a march organized by grandmothers and mothers whose children disappeared during the military-led dictatorship in Argentina in 1976-1983. Of course, marching has become a dominant tool for all kinds of women’s movements around the world, a way of raising awareness and demanding equality. In the same way, Smashing Monuments works with the history of a country occupied for 350 years by the Netherlands. It speaks of individuals who grew up with the idea of a “new republic” and found themselves faced with truncated illusions, historical traumas and very little tools to help cope with these. It speaks of the artistic group of ruangrupa, who continue to form their own language and to seek collective alternatives to this historical reality. Important for me is that, while none of my works speak of these historical realities directly, they do use the inertia of a given situation in order to divert it into another direction. Without intervening too much in the protests at hand, I try to recycle our contemporary reality of protests. I believe that part of the answer lies in such creative retakes of reality. Already in its title, Thousands March gives a twist to the everyday way in which we hear about protests. The media often have “Hundreds March”, “Thousands March” or “Millions March” as their headlines. While most of such media recordings show the mass mobilizations from a bird view, my film takes a different turn. It immerses itself into the crowd, becomes trapped inside the body of that media image we all know so well.’
Thousands March is on view in De Pont, Tilburg until February 5, 2023
Smashing Monuments is screened at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2023, between January 25 and February 5
is a curator of contemporary art, performative projects and educational programs, she is a co-founder of a nomadic curatorial collective TOK