Berlin Forum Player ‘Ancient Soul’ – a Portrait of One of the World’s Deadliest Workplaces & Misguided Progress

Emilio Mayorga
·4-min read

Breathing in its deadly gases, Yono works for a few dollars a day at an East Java sulfur mine. When unexpectedly abandoned by his wife, he turns to animism, Islamism and finally capitalism­­ to try to find an answer to life. To no avail.

Barcelona-born Alvaro Gurrea is a singular figure in Spanish cinema, an economist and art curator who, as becomes a student at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra U., attempts to portray in his feature debut, “Ancient Soul” not only the mores of a community, but its dominant mindsets which explain how its conceives capital ideas such as progress.

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Living between Indonesia and Catalonia, the scenario he chooses, however, is unexpected, an East Java sulfur mine so dangerous that it has become a tourist trap, where Yono slaves extracting sulfur blocks from the lap of volcano.

Melding naturalistic scenes and spiritualism in what calls an “ethno-fictional” mix, Gurrea employs austere fixed shots, capturing the lush Java landscape, to deliver a quietly searing take on suffering in a still neocolonial scenario.

“Ancient Soul” is produced by Rocío Mesa at Spain’s My Deer Films, selected by Variety in 2017 as one of 10 women cineaste talents to track.

Variety chatted to Gurrea during last week’s Berlin Film Festival.

How do you perceive South Seas communities reacted to a foreigner who tries to portray their customs and beliefs?

The most interesting is how this distance has evolved during the five years we have been shooting. The inevitable early prejudices have changed radically in both directions along the way and the film itself has evolved in a similar form.

I guess your goal was to end up having a high degree of complicity with non-professional actors,

It required a level of empathy and understanding that took time to build. I also learnt Indonesian, so it was not the film of a tourist or a traveler. anymore. I built this relationship through the concept of alterity as understood in anthropology and metaphysics. The film begins relatively close to what an anthropological picture could be but evolves to a point where the other might be reflected in the self, particularly in the final shot, as I understand it. In the end, when you go to a faraway land, as the idealized South Seas, you try to see yourself with a certain distance.

How does your reflection on these people’s lives fit with your visual approach –mainly based on fixed frame sequence shots?

That might have been, above all, a moral decision. The relation of power between the characters, the director, and cinema itself was particularly sensitive as they were not actors nor had been through a casting process. With the fixed sequence, the power given to the camera, the gaze of the director and the editing had very clear boundaries. In the same manner the characters had more space to create the picture on their own. It’s also interesting how through this methodology chance plays a role in the film. I believe it’s coherent with its ideas.

What do you feel are your artistic references?

When I started this film, I hadn’t studied cinema, nor participated in any other project, but I watched carefully the work of other filmmakers. From Jean Rouch I learnt to create a game with the characters, from Maya Deren to play with time, to create a structure of time only possible in cinema, and from Apichatpong Weerasethakul to combine multiple layers of reality and illusion. Lav Diaz and his work with single static shots has also been quite a strong reference.

Another influential figure has been the Colombian artist Ivan Argote. I’m interested in his ideas around the notion of otherness and the manner he combines history and power with sensitivity and tenderness.

Could you talk about your next project?

There’s a character that appears briefly in “Ancient Soul,” a deaf-mute that rides a huge motorcycle and trades in crypto currencies. He’s also a miner at Kawa Ijen and due to his condition and his boldness he gets a lot of money selling sulfur souvenirs to the tourists. I consider him an artist too, every time we shoot, he indicates to me where to place the camera and what he would do.

So he’s also a cineaste.

Yes, he easily gets into the dimension of fiction and likes to project his own character into it. Sumito, as he’s called, will create his own film, as well as his own images and I’ll do my own, which will include what he does. I think it’s an interesting project to explore with sound as well.

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