Sunday, January 05, 2014

157. Chilean director Sebastián Sepúlveda’s debut film “Las niñas Quispe” (The Quispe Girls/Sisters Quispe) (2013): Distant drums of politics affecting lives of the isolated denizens

Debut films very often offer interesting cinema as every new director distills his/her individual vision of cinema to a global audience. Sebastián Sepúlveda’s debut film The Quispe Girls is one such example of a director presenting a complex tale with very little dialog, relying more on capturing emotions of faces and body movements set against a breathtaking natural backdrop rarely viewed.

The Quispe Girls is a beautiful film that offers a mix of emotions that film-goers will recall in three distinctly different films, each one a classic of world cinema: the Greek director Mihalis Kakogiannis’ (popularly referred to as Michael Cacoyannis’) The Trojan Women (1971); the Bulgarian classic The Goat Horn (1972) directed by Metodi Andonov; and the little known Iranian classic Water, Wind, Dust (1989) directed by the talented Amir Naderi in Iran before he left to work in USA. The Quispe Girls adopts the tragic political flavor of the Greek film, the atmospherics of the hard lives of goat herds worldwide captured in the Bulgarian film, and the effect of desolate inhospitable terrains on human lives captured by the Iranian film. Therefore, viewing The Quispe Girls is as rich an experience as viewing all the three movies cited above.

The Quispe sisters Lucia. Justa (played by Digna Quispe, a close relative
of the real characters) and Luciana

The importance of The Quispe Girls stems from Sebastián Sepúlveda’s ability to capture the harsh and yet beautiful environment of Chilean Andean ‘altiplano’, the world’s second highest mountain plateau after Tibet, and transpose the conditions as a factor that could have a bearing on the tragic end of three middle aged unmarried women goatherds. The politics of the day (General Pinochet’s dictatorship) also need to be savored as the backdrop to their actions and worldly and existential worries through snatches of conversations between three sisters. It appears that the dictator, partially out of fear of political opponents, partially to conserve the national ecology, and partially to modernize goat husbandry decreed that goats grazing on the altiplano had to be killed as the sparse vegetation was being gradually destroyed. The decree made it impossible for the goatherds to survive in the fringe Chiliean territories while it also reduced the chances of harboring Pinochet’s opponents on the run from hiding in these otherwise remote inhospitable places and make explosives in the guise of mining rocks.

The title of the movie The Quispe Girls relates to three indigenous Chilean women in their thirties who existed and died mysteriously and made headlines in Chile’s print media. There were four Quispe sisters originally and one had already died when the movie begins leaving the viewers of film to merely study the lives of three remaining Quispe sisters Justa, Lucia, and Luciana to make up the narrative of the film. Adding to the mystery of their existence is the fact there are no Quispe men or boys in the tale and no mention is made of their deaths/lives. Where are they? How did they die or disappear?  There are no clues provided.

Possibly to counter this unusual scenario, director Sepúlveda is able to bring additional authenticity to the film by getting a close relative (Digna Quispe) of the real Quispe trio and the last human being to see them alive, to play one of the sisters, Justa, in the film. And just as in Euripides’ play The Trojan Women (written in 415 BC) which was the basis of the Cacoyannis’ film, which discusses Cassandra who had had been raped and subsequently becomes insane. In The Quispe Girls, Justa the eldest of the three Quispe sisters too had been raped at age of 17 and consequently the effect of that distant incident leave the three sisters wary of men even though the youngest sister Luciana yearns for men’s company and wears attractive clothes to attract suitors, real or imaginary. The eldest sister, Justa, chides Luciana by asking her after noticing her wearing an off-white dress “Why are you dressing like that when you are going to make charcoal?” Just as the Cacoyannis’ film was based on the Euripides’ play, Sepulveda’s film The Quispe Girls is the director’s own screenplay adaptation of a Chilean play Las Brutas by Juan Radrigan. As in any play, the spoken words are loaded with meaning and insinuations.

Chile's Andean altiplano in light and shade as captured by the
camera of Inti Briones

Unlike the tale of the Trojan women, the Quispe girls live in a desolate area where they come across men only on rare occasions. In the film there are only two men who interact with the three middle-aged women. One man of the two men is a peddler of clothes and bare essential s and  is identified as Don Javier—who is attracted to Luciana, the youngest sister.  Justa, the eldest sister, notices this and warns the man to stay away from her sister—her rape has made her intensely distrustful of men. The only other interaction in the film of the sister is with another man, a stranger (possibly a Pinochet opponent) named Fernando who is seeking food and directions to flee the country to neighboring Argentina by crossing the altiplano. The sisters help him but tie a quixotic rope with bells close to their makeshift beds to provide an alarm if the man tries to rape or seduce any of them while they sleep.

The remoteness of the location is accentuated by a sister’s statement in the film “There is no one anywhere. They have all gone.” Apparently the only connection with humans was other goat herders, who have apparently left as a consequence of the new “progressive” edict by Pinochet. However, in the film, when Luciana, is found near a rocky spring lying on the ground, apparently sick, the camera captures a group of animals/people leaving in a single file disappearing in the distance. If the people “had all gone” what can one make of a group of people/animals moving in a single file. Do animals move in a single file on their own? The consequent sequence of sickness of Luciana leave a lot of questions unanswered of what really transpired that makes one recall yet another classic film—the Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) directed by Peter Weir, based on a novel written by novelist Lady Joan Lindsay, who enigmatically never confirmed or denied that her story was based on or inspired by real events. In The Quispe Girls,  too, it is for the viewer to guess what actually happened and what Sepulveda wishes us to believe happened to the three women at various crucial stages in the tale.

Luciana Quispe (Francisca Gavilán) and the unexplained single file of moving
humans/animals(in the center of the picture) in the distance,
if there is "no one here anyway"

The film is thus an instance of a male director giving us the perspective of lives of three women who seem to survive in a world where men are not to be trusted.  The press kit provided a at the Venice film festival mentions the term “feminist austerity” captured by the film—terms that possibly come close to the mood of the film. From the conversation of the three Quispe girls, we learn that the youngest and the most attractive sister Luciana was ridiculed by townsfolk for her lack of sophistication where they had gone to get their identity cards (shown briefly by the director towards the end of the film). Evidently, they cannot integrate with the more sophisticated townsfolk and there is impending gloom of Pinochet’s forces culling their precious goats leaving them with few options to survive. So far the goat herds survived by selling sheep and goat cheese and living in stone “rucas” or huts the goat herders lived in. The filmmakers state that the ruca shown in the film was the very ‘ruca’ the Quispe sisters lived in towards the end of their lives.

The real ruca (stone hut) in which the Quispe sisters lived is used in the film

Sepúlveda’s film goes a step further to make the film viewing richer.  With the help of two professional actresses playing Lucia and Luciana, as the film progresses the three sisters do begin to look and act alike. The cinematographer Inti Briones and the director uses the dust kicked up by the herd help in this unusual amalgamation of the three characters reminiscent of how Cacoyannis managed to merge the performances of Katherine Hepburn, Irene Papas, Genevieve Bujold and Irene Papas (four distinguished actors from four different countries) to seem like one single woman’s anguished universal cry in the The Trojan Women. The visuals of The Quispe Girls, reminiscent of the sound and visuals of Naderi’s Water, Wind, Dust accentuate the role that hostile nature plays in the actions of human beings. The magical world of goat herders captured in color in The Quispe Girls is as lovely as the lovely black and white images captured in the Bulgarian classic film The Goat Horn.

A strange man named Fernando arrives seeking food, shelter and directions
to the Argentine border

While we enjoy the film’s use of sound and enigmatic visuals of Chile’s altiplano, The Quispe Girls throws a lot of inconvenient questions at the viewers, social, political, and environmental. These questions are not peculiar to Chile in 1974. These questions are globally valid today. It is a very well made film that makes the viewer appreciate the direction, the cinematography, the sound editing, and the acting. Young Sepúlveda has arrived on the center stage of world cinema with a remarkable debut film.

The cinema of Chile has made an impact on the map of world cinema in 2013 with two notable works: The Quispe Girls and Gloria.

P.S. The Quispe Girls is the second best film of 2013 for the author on his list of his top 10 movies of 2013. The film won the Fedora award for best cinematography at the 2013 Venice film festival's critics week. Amir Naderi's film Water, Wind, Dust (1989) has been reviewed earlier on this blog.

1 comment :

Murtaza Ali said...

Another impressive film analysis... though it would be a difficult one to locate I still hope I can savor it sooner rather than later.