Chaos Theories

By Mar Diestro-Dopido

chaotic-ana-julio-medem.jpgChaotic, 2007

Julio Médem’s complex vision of a dynamic and insurgent femininity reaches across history in his new film

Spanish film-maker Julio Médem’s highly charged, now instantly recognisable cinematic universe began taking shape back in 1992. That year saw the release of his debut feature film, the historical epic Vacas (Cows) which, although thematically rooted deep in Basque ancestral identity, more importantly constituted an unforgettable initiation into Médem’s romantically and philosophically inclined symbolist aesthetic. From here on, his creative journey, obsessively reconfiguring recurrent metaphors and themes, has taken him from his birthplace in the Basque Country to other parts of Spain, to the Arctic Circle and most recently to the USA.

Médem’s striking debut was followed by La Ardilla Roja (The Red Squirrel) in 1993. Here, Lisa the protagonist, having temporarily lost her memory, assumes the identity that her male counterpart constructs for her, announcing themes which Médem continues to explore, particularly the juxtaposition of woman and man, and woman and nature. Three years later, his distinctive lyricism spoke through Angel – half human, half angel – and his feminine equivalent Ángela in Tierra, a film structured around the doubling of femininity into its opposite extremes: Ángela, rational, earthy and responsible on the one hand, and Mari, wild, impulsive and sexually aggressive on the other. Médem pursues another dichotomy in Los Amantes del Círculo Polar (The Lovers of the Arctic Circle, 1998), where the protagonists Ana and Otto constitute two parts of a single entity paradoxically destined to always be apart.

The experimental deconstruction of familiar narrative strategies and patterns, a constant in Médem’s cinema, was further developed in Sex and Lucía (2001), in which a writer character develops his own recipe for storytelling: when you get to the end of a story, you can simply jump into a hole, go back to the middle and change the outcome. In 2003, Médem’s own trajectory took a 180-degree-turn; what followed was the still enormously controversial documentary about the political situation in the Basque Country, La Pelota Basca. La Piel Contra la Piedra (The Basque Ball. Skin Against Stone), which provoked extreme responses and even death threats. That situation, together with the death of his sister Ana in a car accident the previous year, plunged Médem into depression and a creative silence that lasted for four years.

That silence has finally been broken with his latest feature film, Caótica Ana (Chaotic Ana), a return to the mysterious and uniquely symbolic universe of this by now highly regarded European auteur. In Chaotic Ana, Médem divides the film into 10 chapters, which mirror the hypnotic countdown that puts Ana into a trance, connecting her with the other historical women that populate her subconscious, young women who have died at the hands of what Médem calls the ‘man of war’ i.e. those men who have exercised power in a violent way throughout history; so Médem’s customary dialectical interplay of doubling identities is multiplied exponentially.

In the following interview, conducted when Médem presented Chaotic Ana at the 2007 edition of the BFI London Film Festival, the director discussed all this and more – islands, holes, woman, nature, digital technology and of course reality – not the everyday version which constantly appears before us, but the one (or more?) which lurks in the fissures that separate the ‘real’ world from the ‘fantastic’, and which in Médem’s hands becomes unique and always magical.

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Mar Diestro-Dópido: There is a long tradition of magic realism in Spain to which you have clearly contributed; through a certain way of making films in which the fantastic is introduced into the ‘real’ in order to propose different realities. Where do you think this tendency for magic realism comes from in Spanish filmmaking? And why do you yourself employ such a filmic style?

Julio Médem: In my case, I think that what has particularly influenced me a lot is for example having read Gabriel García Márquez’s fascinating novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) when I was a teenager. Almost everyone is familiar with this novel in which the question of the human is very present. And I’ve always wanted to say many times that reality, or what we perceive as reality, is different. It is all very well with all those films that deal with reality and tell very ‘real’ stories, which, insofar as they are real, make you feel very close to them. That’s very straightforward. But deep inside we are not exactly ‘real’. Let me explain.

We all have a filter. It’s almost as if our reality starts about a centimetre above our skin. Because what we really are is different to what lies inside ourselves. Inside we are like a constantly moving magma that is always changing. A flux made up of the emotion that makes us feel alive, the fear of death, and the perception of the new experiences that we encounter everyday. In a way, I work with the subjective – how we filter that reality and how it emerges again, this time transformed. This reality is projected in our acts, which constantly transform it. This then is when that magic appears, and it is only that magic in particular that interests me. All this is more typical of Latin-based cultures, where emotion is probably closer to the surface, and in which the rational is not always the dominant.

MDD: What is ‘chaos’ for you?

JM: There are many theories about chaos but there’s one that I particularly like. It’s the one that says that in truth, everything in life is order and a tendency to order and that includes the cosmos, the universe. This order is created by the constant repetition of the same patterns until they become rules. Because the governing of things, ideas and emotions is based on this repetition, which exists in order to obtain a certain security in these patterns and a security of the same thing happening again. So we use these patterns, these ‘norms’, as our own protection. And the same happens in nature, which is the reason why there’s life, because these patterns have been repeated indefinitely in nature. Almost.

But in all cyclic repetition there’s always an instant of rupture. Minimally, but one which alters the next repetition and so it is never exactly the same. So the next repetition is evolution, as it constitutes a step forward. At the end of my new film for example, the protagonist Ana, whose life has always been the cyclic repetition of the lives of all the dead young women that constitute her self, suddenly breaks when the ‘man of war’ snaps her necklace and all the pieces scatter over the floor. For me, this is the moment of ‘chaos’ because, in a sense, she has broken the chain of events and therefore she can set herself free. This is how I perceive chaos and how it may happen, and this is the way I make it happen in the film. And so I place the chaos in Ana’s time travel, in her past, which is made of a shapeless matter that I have dedicated to the concept of the ‘feminine’. Ultimately, I wanted to make an ode to the feminine instinct of creation.

on-set-of-chaotic-ana-julio-medem.jpgJulio Médem on the set of Chaotic

MDD: You mention the concept of woman in relation to the myth of creation, and in your films the presence of women is very significant. Why is that?

JM: Well, I think that on one hand I feel very ashamed of being a man, in the sense that the power of woman has never been comparable to that of man historically or anthropologically, and is far from being equal even now. There’s still an enormous and very important and serious lack of equilibrium. Woman is still not allowed to be fully active, to express herself in every aspect, to voice and develop her potential to the full at say the uppermost level of governmental power, i.e. the invasion of Iraq for instance, even if this is not a typically feminine decision but more typically masculine. On the other hand, woman has certain values regarding life, education and preservation that I find absolutely fascinating. So I placed myself at the extremes and I have confronted these extremes. Hence, in Chaotic Ana, this feminine instinct of creation punishes the ‘man of war’, but this is a lyrical punishment. This is not a physically violent punishment but its force is psychological.

MDD: In Sex and Lucía, Lucía falls through a hole like Alice in Wonderland and comes up into a magic world, this time an island, in which she tries to orient herself. In Chaotic Ana, Ana leaves the island in order to find herself. Can you talk a little about the symbolism of islands and holes in your films?

JM: I guess I would need to put this question to a psychoanalyst so it could be interpreted. It is a mental construction that I’ve come up with, and that is why it repeatedly comes back in every film. Obviously, a very determining characteristic of an island is that it is limited by water and you can clearly identify its limits, which gives you a sense of withdrawal. This acquires a yet more important perspective as, in theory, you can find yourself as an individual more easily within a confined space. This stands in opposition to the city, the urban space, where the individual merges into its plurality.

MDD: Chaotic Ana is structured like a hypnotic session, which is the way Ana gets in contact with her past lives. Why hypnotism? Do you think that in order to access the ‘real’ we must disconnect altogether from our own limited version of reality?

JM: Let’s say that the psychological / scientific base of hypnosis is, of course, relaxing as much as possible the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain that provides control, which is supposedly more rational. The right hemisphere is supposedly the more perceptive, emotional, intuitive and deep. In Western societies in general, the left hemisphere is more developed than the oppressed right hemisphere, the ‘rational’ being so strong that it doesn’t allow much space for the development or expression of the emotional, which slowly atrophies. Many things can come out of the uncovering of this dynamic, and I have used it as a representation.

chaotic-ana-julio-medem-3.jpgChaotic, 2007

I’m not myself sure to what extent I believe in reincarnation, but I knew I wanted to create something with this concept. An idea. The idea that there is something beyond our reality that is constituted by the confrontation of the rational and the irrational, and is created in their own terms. These terms have to be, of necessity, those of mankind. Once the doors open for Ana, even if she doesn’t know exactly what to do, she still stands as a prolongation of the life of all those women that constitute herself, of all their chaos, as she finally accepts to become one of them.

MDD: In Chaotic Ana, you use paintings as the background against which Ana’s subconscious is defined. Is art yet another way of controlling or modifying reality?

JM: The paintings are by my sister Ana, who was a painter and died in a car accident on her way to one of her exhibitions in 2002. The animated paintings are those recreated by my sister Sofía, who tried to keep as close as possible to Ana’s own personal style. The paintings are the things you’ve mentioned and at the same time a representation of reality, which Ana also endows not only with a semantic and expressive intention, but also with a humanity that disturbs and distresses her. Hence in art, the subconscious operates from within, bringing the intimate to the fore. Events are the way they are, and it is we who give them a certain meaning. And this is where art emerges, I think.

MDD: Your experimentation with digital technology is not new. Having previously used DV in Sex and Lucía, you then employed a Sony HDC-F950 high definition digital camera in Chaotic Ana – the latest in digital technology and a first in European cinema – which gives the film a very distinctive visual texture that translates as, paradoxically, both distant and intimate. So, what for you is the advantage of digital?

JM: As a director, when I’m filming on digital I feel like I’ve developed extra hands. I rehearse a lot with the actors before the filming takes place, and when I do so, I always have a digital camera with me, so I can go through what we’ve done afterwards and I can also start editing. It is also really good for the actors, as they can improve their acting as well as the whole scene. Also, if they are quite amateur, they are normally more tense at first than those with more experience, so I film and re-film a scene when we are rehearsing, repeating the scene over and over again as I intervene and direct them into acting in a certain way. I also move the camera constantly as I test new angles, but never stop filming.

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So I create the feeling that there’s a continuation and the scene is not interrupted by any ‘cut’ or ‘action’ orders. It also keeps the rest of the team concentrated for longer, which is very interesting. And of course, I wished we were already in that utopian reality in which there was no need to make copies of the film, which is how the major American studios make good money. Each of the 35mm copies is around £1500/2000, depending on the film’s length, which makes it really hard to recover the costs if you want to make, let’s say, 150 copies. But a time will come – although it should already have come five or six years ago – when all the exhibition venues have updated to digital and when there is no need for useless copies that end up piled up in countless rows in warehouses, themselves inadequately fitted to accommodate them.

MDD: The Basque Country, Madrid, the Mediterranean, New York… like Ana you have travelled with your films, a trajectory that started with a very specific Basque location and theme in Vacas and which now arrives at Chaotic Ana, which constitutes your most international project, both in casting and location, and which together with The Basque Ball seems to break a certain continuity?

JM: Yes, it does. Maybe the biggest break came with The Basque Ball. If I hadn’t done The Basque Ball I would have had a more homogeneous and clear trajectory, and I made it because I wanted to feel good about myself by expressing my very own opinion on the matter. And it’s true that thematically I broke with everything I had done up until then. Although I always think there is a break every time I start a new film, even if the break is not as deep or as drastic, because at the end of the day, I do follow a certain subject-matter, but I am always applying new perspectives. But it is true that Chaotic Ana is the feature film that most veers from this continuity.

MDD: Finally, what happened with your film Aitor? And what is your next project?

JM: Aitor is finished, but it’s been put aside until the situation in the Basque Country becomes less fraught, even though it looks like that is going to take longer than expected. As for my next project, I am currently writing a lot. In fact, I have a few scripts on the go, so we’ll see. But I am planning to start filming as soon as I can, if possible by summer 2008.

Chaotic Ana is released in the UK in the Spring by Tartan, who release Medem’s films on dvd.

Mar Diestro-Dopido is a writer and critic currently living in London. Thanks to Sarah Bemand.