As I’m shuffling down a country lane on a chill October afternoon, I can truly feel the distance from the Mexican setting of Carlos Reygadas’s Stellet Licht (Silent Light). However, as I walk into the maize field where I’ve been told I can find him, I suppose I can see some similarities.
The opening sequence for the film is an incredible time lapse shot of a rural landscape which stands in stark contrast to the slower pace which continues throughout the film. This six minute transition from pitch black to full day gives way to a long, silent prayer scene with a Mennonite family. Mennonites are the religious pre-cursors to the Amish community by the way. Anyway, I manage to find Carlos in among the ears of corn; the bearded director is sitting at a glass coffee table. I introduce myself and we have a chat about his new film.
Why the Mennonite community?
It’s a very unique community where there are few hierarchical distractions such as one person being very successful in their job, or very beautiful. Nobody is a geek or a cool guy.
So nothing really to do with the religious aspects?
No, it’s just a very good setting to tell a story about human conflict without distractions. It allows us to focus on inner qualities.
Do you think that the relative lack of technology in such a rural setting makes the story somewhat timeless?
I think so, and hopefully it’s also extra-territorial.
Although set in Mexico, the characters all speak Plautdietsch, which is not local to the country. Does this create a kind of isolation within Mexico?
Not really. They don’t feel any isolation amongst themselves. Each little community becomes a world itself. I don’t think their setting reflects in their characters in that way. They could be exactly the same if the story was set in London.
I hear that you don’t usually go for rehearsals and often prefer to use your first take. Without rehearsal, how do you get the actors into character?
No no, I don’t want them to get into character. That’s exactly what I try not to do. I don’t want them to think they are anyone else. I’m more interested in the human being himself. When the casting is done correctly, the energy of the individual is the same energy as the character. You can see their true thoughts and feelings.
In that case it’s clearly very important who the actors are, and perhaps how they look. How do you go about casting?
Yes, that’s what matters. Well, I just walk around, see people in the fields, or in the garages… wherever. This way I have a much broader spectrum to cast from. It’s not that I’m against actors. Maybe one day I will choose an actor, but only one out of every ten thousand people is an actor, so it would be quite a coincidence.
It doesn’t cause a problem then having someone who is their own character, but reading someone else’s words?
Not at all. I follow the principle of the Kulikov effect. He photographed a guy looking at a wall. Having taken this, he double-exposed against different backgrounds. One of them was a child playing with toys, another was a dead woman and another was a piece of meat. In each photo you take meaning from the context – how sad he is; how hungry he is. But the man never changes. For me that is the essence of cinema. The characters are not constructed by the actors, but by the language of cinema itself. That’s why I don’t want them to get into character at all.
There are a lot of still shots, which characters cross.
I don’t use movement (of the camera) to describe anything. Rather than creating a world in a frame, the frame is just a window on a world. The world exists outside of it and you are merely viewing a part of it through the peephole.
So would you say you are somewhat in the reportage style?
Yes, the camera is an unobtrusive observer and behaves in the most neutral way possible. My films are fully in the cinema form, but it is natural for the video camera to document, especially when you don’t have actors and when you don’t have constructed sets. I love to see films about real people and places I don’t know about, so that is what I try and do.
Silent Light is currently showing at selected cinemas. Find out more, and watch the trailer on the website www.silent-light.co.uk