Award-winning short film, Loa’s Promise, envisions what the Atacama Desert might look like in the near-future. A project that raises pressing questions about the consequences of unregulated resource extraction by pairing stark futuristic visuals with an affecting personification of Loa river.
Los Angeles-based speculative designer Joshua Dawson joins us on Close-up Culture to tell us more about Loa’s Promise and his concerns for the future.
Q: Was Felipe Correa’s book ‘Beyond the City: Resource Extraction Urbanism in South America’ your starting point for this film?
A: While pursuing my Masters in Advanced Architectural Studies degree at USC, I learned that Chile is the only country where 100% of the water rights are owned by a private entity. Going down the rabbit hole led me to a New York Times article on the town of Quillagua, where mining companies were over-extracting the Loa River to the point where it was becoming completely depopulated.
I won a traveling fellowship to Chile to explore the larger implications that resource extraction has had on the area, and thus Loa’s Promise was born. Setting out with my camera and drone, I came back with a ton of footage and had to figure out a compelling way to tell the story.
Many of the books, articles, and research projects on these places were in Spanish and were also a little dated. Finding translations was hard. But then I stumbled upon Felipe Correa’s book. He was the director of the Urban Design program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design at the time and I was aware of his cartography and mapping images that beautifully visualized extremely dense data through sparse linework.
The book was the first full resource that I found. Chapter Two talked about these mining towns in a holistic way, depicted through diagrams that were simple and extremely well-documented. It was a comprehensive research compendium for me to use to learn more about those towns that I had just visited.
Q: The film presents a hypothetical future to warn about the consequences of deregulated resource extraction in free market economies like Chile. What do you feel is the value of presenting this hypothetical future?
A: The sensory nature of film as a medium can be used to engage, activate and raise awareness. Fiction and narrative can help distill large sets of research and disseminate complex information in a digestible format. So, I think the building of alternative hypothetical worlds for the purpose of looking at our own current reality through a specific lens is a valuable method to shed light on issues that matter.
Loa’s Promise makes visible a region-specific crisis that scales globally. In Flint, Michigan, 5 years after excess lead in the water supply caused an outbreak of Legionnaires Disease, clean water is still unavailable.
Meanwhile, sources report, “Nestlé’s 2018 agreement with the state of Michigan allows the multinational conglomerate to pump 570,000 gallons per day– two-and-a-half times what it would take to provide water for every person in Flint, Michigan.” At some point, you listen to news like this and go: “Like… what the fuck?”
Q: You personify the River Loa with a voiceover. How did you approach writing this voice?
A: Once the research was complete, I had the sequence of the shots laid out so it was all assembled visually. I also had the sound designer build the rough soundscape for the film even though the picture wasn’t locked yet. I knew the exact time markers and beats that I wanted to shift and change the method of narration and tempo, so I had resolved the overall story arc in my head. The big question was, what would the archetype be?
My last project used existing sound bytes from news sources reporting on the issue, which is a great way to add a layer of information to the visuals being presented. But I didn’t think that would work here. So I wrote a letter from the perspective of the river to a former inhabitant who was forced to move away from the town.
The letter had certain specific beats that were meant to juxtapose what once existed there with the visuals of what does now. So at moments, the sound design attempted to weave the future and the past together, existing in simultaneity.
Q: What do you feel Maureen Jones’ voice lend to the river?
A: I knew the exact feeling that the voiceover had to evoke, but I couldn’t really put it into words. I hadn’t found any precedent for it until I stumbled upon Theo Anthony’s Rat Film one day and realized I found my narrator in Maureen Jones.
I first sampled her voice against the wind and machines of the desert to see how it mixed with what my sound designer was working with. I tracked her down — after many hours on google, I finally found her contact information through a third-party voiceover agency and reached out to her.
She worked remotely from a recording studio in Canada where she was based, and what you hear in the film resulted from an hour-long Skype session we had.
She has an incredible range, and the performance I got from her was exactly on point.
I’ve been trying to find references to explain it… like a female HAL 9000 or a wise grandmother or Gaia. But these seem like forced comparisons and don’t do her performance justice because what she delivered was unique to my film — and I’m very grateful for that.
Q: Can you tell us more about the architecture in the film? What is your process in designing them?
A: All of the visual design of the film emerged from a world-building process that began with looking at each town and how it would thread into the other towns with technology that requires the least amount of human intervention.
I had collected hundreds of images of data centers and large-scale cryptocurrency rigs that exist all over the world during my research. I had also figured out ways that the tech would consume energy in the desert. Harnessing the sun and wind to power these machines was the obvious idea. So if one town collected energy and supplied it to the others through the existing defunct railway infrastructure, these intermodal networks could find new life.
I really wanted to subvert the idealistic utopian image we associate with clean and renewable forms of energy like wind turbines and solar panels and strip it of all ethical association. It’s been interesting to see how people respond to that.
But my favorite design is the central data converger hub that retrofits the turntable at Baquedano Station. It took me a while to get that one right, and I’m glad I did. It really conveys what the entire film is about through that image.
Q: What was it like combining your passion for architecture with film for this project?
A: There are often days when I shuttle between working at a construction site in the morning and a film set at night. So this boundary between the two disciplines is beginning to blur in my head because I unconsciously end up applying techniques I learn from one to the other. It’s allowing me to see the world in new ways.
The relationship between architecture and film has been romanticized forever. Rem Koolhaas often compares the act of designing a building to screenwriting, and that could not be more accurate. The world is becoming increasingly post-disciplinary, and I’m pushing back when people expect me to choose between one or the other. I like the territory that exists between the two.
I also firmly believe that architecture is the crystallization of the narrative. I’ve learned that if the process of design is intrinsically a problem-solving exercise, then storytelling is about problem-finding. I’ve always been interested in the potential of speculative design to illuminate real issues. By illustrating possible futures, I hope to galvanize the public now, challenging assumptions that are too often taken for granted.
So to summarize this thought… becoming a better filmmaker only makes me a better architect and vice versa.
Q: You trained under Pritzker Prize-winning architect Balkrishna Doshi and Hollywood production designer Alex McDowell. Can you talk about these two and any other key influences in your work?
A: Balkrishna Doshi is an inherent storyteller himself, and each of his buildings are intricately-carved storyscapes. He takes myriad perspectives and points of view into account during a building’s conception, where every representational line drawn during the design process has a narrative connotation that extends directly into our lives.
Alex McDowell has essentially the same approach to designing worlds for a film. He lays out an entire ecosystem around each character through the process of mapping “a day in the life of …” and all the visual components of the design, from the sets to the props, then organically stem from it. The more accurate and the more fleshed out each system is, the richer the worlds get. This is fundamentally different from what many production designers do, which is simply build sets in service of the director.
So I’ve always begun all of my design work with a strong narrative framework and gone forward from there.
Aside from that… filmmakers that loved the cinematic framing of architecture like Antonioni, Tarkovsky and Jacques Tati have been a huge influence on me. I’m also inspired by the Chris Marker method of discovering micro-conflicts through documentation, where the simple act of taking a camera through unknown places reveals kinks within a large system that are worth narrating.
Q: What do you hope people take away from this film?
A: All of this for me is purely activist practice. I hope people become more aware of the issues at hand. I hope that projects like this can raise awareness with the intent of leaving the audience with unsettling questions about what tomorrow will look like — and whether we are willing to bear the cost of that future — and I hope the film helps illustrate the crises already facing humanity.
And the people who watch this film can do something about these issues, too — starting with acknowledging what’s at stake. It’s either that or wait for the world to change catastrophically, which is already taking place.
Q: What is next for you?
A: I am currently working on a couple of projects simultaneously. One of them is a new film called Denervation; that project involves designing a world based on the environmental impacts of pharmaceutical counterfeiting.
It is a piece of speculative fiction I’m writing that is inspired by a Scientific American article from a few years ago. It’s very quirky and sort of visually surreal but I hope the story I’m trying to tell with that delivers the message. I will be working with actors in live action for it, which is a nice change. We should be ready to go into production in the summer with that one.
The other film is a slightly smaller project called Drawbridge Restitch, which deals with gentrification in the Boyle Heights neighborhood in East Los Angeles.