PRINT March 2019


COMPRISING NEARLY seven hundred miles of sand and felsic lava trapped in the twin rain shadows of the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range, the Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on earth. It is also one of the most surreal. Within the larger geography of the Andean Altiplano—a massive plateau that reaches elevations of thirteen thousand feet—volcanic craters, salt flats, and lakes the color of blood stretch as far as the eye can see. It is no wonder that cinematographers and NASA scientists alike have used the region as a proxy for Mars.

In her 2018 film ALTIPLANO, the Chilean-born, Montreal-based filmmaker Malena Szlam reframes this alien topography as a palimpsest of terrestrial bodies, ruptured and wounded in the Anthropocene. Shot on lands historically inhabited by the Atacameño, Aymara, and Calchaquí-Diaguita tribes in northern Chile and northwest Argentina, through which Szlam traces part of her own ancestry, ALTIPLANO explores a terrain made increasingly precarious by extensive saltpeter and nitrate mining, as well as by tourism and geothermic exploitation.

Superimposing shots of sky, mountain vistas, and strange rock formations and accompanied by a sound-track composed of geologic and animal noises usually inaudible to humans, Szlam’s film is a poignant meditation on the vulnerability of this unique ecosystem. By working in the nearly outmoded medium of analog film, Szlam intertwines an acute awareness of cinema’s nearing obsolescence with a more profound recognition of our own imminent extinction.

“In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness,” Samuel Beckett is said to have written. This would make an interesting epigraph for Szlam’s method: Shot over several weeks at different times of day, ALTIPLANO records the elusive metamorphoses of color, light, and temperature that transform this otherworldly domain. Often using a “blind” editing process, in which she stopped, started, and rewound her camera after every frame, Szlam didn’t see the effects of her multiple exposures until postproduction. In the end she used twelve rolls of 16-mm film—nearly three minutes each at twenty-four frames per second—which she arduously edited into a fifteen-minute reel, finalized and added sound to in digital post-production, and then transferred to the more magisterial 35-mm format.

The results of Szlam’s laborious manipulations are sublime. A cerulean sky yields to an ever-shifting spectrum of orange, pink, yellow, lavender, magenta, and cobalt vistas whose horizon lines flicker up and down the frame. The golden silhouette of a mountain burnished by late-afternoon sun shimmers beside the image of a nearby range dipped in indigo. Mist charges like infantry riding onto a battlefield, while iridescent clouds gather the dancing crescent of an early moon and the neon flares of high noon into their celestial drift. In a shot layered over the yawning firmament, the mineral deposits of the salt flats sparkle like a spattering of stars. Whether locating astronomical mystery in a bed of parched soil or capturing the stages of the moon plummeting in free fall, ALTIPLANO stamps all with the ineffable, increasingly anachronistic glow of celluloid.

The results of Szlam’s laborious manipulations are sublime.

Although postwar experimental filmmakers like Marie Menken, Jonas Mekas, and Stan Brakhage embraced the partial invisibility of the filmmaking process, contemporary moving-image artists are more likely to submit to the all-seeing eye of the machine. Rather than exerting control via contemporary digital editing tools, Szlam relishes the improvisational ethos of that earlier generation of artists, using an intuitive, hands-on process and antiquated Bolex camera to compress time and space and perforate the landscape with light. When we glimpse a bloodred sea or a chartreuse sky in ALTIPLANO, we can be assured that this natural, impossible palette is unembellished by color filters or digital aftereffects. This is not to say that Szlam shuns more recent technology entirely; the final stages of her process involved limited use of editing software, and, while looking for a particularly vermilion lake to shoot in Chile, the artist consulted Google Earth—and then asked locals for help along the way.

Szlam shows us that despite our ever-advancing machine-assisted capabilities, we can come closest to Beckett’s godliness by acclimating to nature’s own rhythms. Her form of filmmaking demands intense focus and bodily coordination; she embeds traces of human-scale labor within these exalted landscapes, while also linking the subtlety of her practice to that of the earth’s own modes of communication. This is most evident in the film’s soundtrack. The moans of blue whales communicating in different “dialects” during their ritual migrations symphonize with the geologic rumblings captured by University of Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer. ALTIPLANO tunes our bodily frequencies to the orchestra of the universe. Yet as human progress interferes with the earth’s ecosystems, we cannot help but hear notes of despair tingeing these ancient songs. As Kandinsky theorized the synesthetic relation between music and color, so Szlam brings together visions and melodies of a changing earth. Emerging from faraway stretches of land and sea, these voices electrify the film’s optical splendor and remind us that, despite our ability to scientifically translate the world’s harmonies, we have chosen not to heed their warnings.

Eight and a half minutes in, a full moon ringed in red ascends into the ink-black frame. Through the magic of multiple exposures, it is soon joined by another moon before being gradually eclipsed by a ruby shadow. In a film that eschews metaphor, this radiant, restless orb nonetheless seems an apt symbol for the geography of the earth as it is obliterated by humankind. Made too late to serve as a warning, ALTIPLANO shows Szlam using the techniques of a dying medium to instead compose an exquisite elegy to what has been lost—and what might remain.

Ara Osterweil is a painter and writer and an associate professor of cultural studies at McGill University in Montreal.