FIDMarseille: ‘Cemetery’ Director Carlos Casas On Elephants, Myths And The Jungle

Spanish filmmaker and visual artist Carlos Casas joins us on Close-up Culture for a discussion about his latest feature film, Cemetery.

Q: ‘Cemetery’ interacts themes such as death, reincarnation, immortality, memory, colonialism, and many more besides. Did you have a clear vision for this film when you set out to make it or did some of these themes emerge along the way?

A: I believe one of the greatest things when you stumble upon a great theme is when it starts kaleidoscoping into a myriad of themes, subjects and layers. For some reason, I always start a project from intuition by following an image, a sensation that inhabits me. In this case, I had this image, this idea or myth, of the elephant graveyard that was persecuting me since my childhood, since watching Tarzan at young age.

While doing the research, I understood that – like regression therapy – you stumble again to that image that marked you, that shaped you. Of course, that fascination of a seven year old has reshaped and picked up loads of other images and meanings, and the film doesn’t mean the same today as it did 90 years ago. It has become weary but at the same time brought new meanings.

That is what is fascinating about myths and archetypes: they get remodelled, rewritten and reshaped nearly every generation. The construction of a myth is a very interesting journey.

Q: ‘Cemetery’ is composed of four parts. Can you talk about these different parts and what each brings to the overall film?

A: The first part: the elephant and the mahout, the second: the poachers, the third: the cemetery, and the fourth: the epilogue or beginning. Each part has a particular theme and style, as well as shooting technique and genre, etc…

Part I is supposed to introduce the elephant and the mahout, and in some ways it subverts the classic animal documentary – at the same time as the jungle or adventure film.

Part II is an adventure film. A sort of homage, and also a classic jungle film, in a way an adaptation and subvertion of the jungle adventure hunter.

Part III is the journey into the cemetery and beyond. It is more like a sonic interlude, a sort of bardo to prepare the spectator to change place, to reincarnate into the elephant/mahout.

Q: As I understand it, this is a sound oriented film guided by a monologue voiceover. What was your approach to sound and what role did you want it to take on in ‘Cemetery’?

A: Actually, I didn’t end up using the monologue because I felt like it didn’t allow the spectator to enter. But writing the monologue was a very long process and also an interesting one. In a way it helped to shape the scenes and the mood.

Sound is even more important to me than the visuals. The budget of the film was nearly the same for both parts. Of course, there is a version of the project, titled Sanctuary, that features ambisonics and spatialized infrasound that allows the public to discover sound in new ways and to communicate with the elephant, to be affected, and to travel to their inner ‘elephant graveyard’, to their nature’s hidden sanctuary. This notion of an audience sanctuary was very important, as to allow viewers to enter nature’s most secret auditory places, to have a sound narrative and journey.

In order for us to do so, we needed to expand auditory capacities and physical sound frontiers, which is why, together with Chris Watson and Tony Myatt, we developed the infrasound speaker and we created an infrasound narrative as close as we could to reality, trying to use new sonic affect techniques to trigger new responses from the audience. In order to develop new experiences you have to expand the ability to perceive them. For the theatrical release we had to find new ways of using 5.1 and stereo settings.

Q: Likewise, I hear the film has an original approach to the visuals and the way you frame the animals. Do you want the audience to see the animals – and nature – in a different way than we are used to on-screen?

A: It would be the most amazing gift – for me – if the audience can leave the film with the feeling of having established a new type of bond with an elephant, but that is not the only goal of the film. It is shaped to provide a different type of cinematic journey, based on and paying homage to the classic adventure film.

The grammar is important for me, and the film needed to break some of these structural and inherent stylistic and format rules. Again, I was trying to pack together the DNA of my imagination, with a crossover of diverse styles that confront my language and influences.

Q: How did you find the experience shooting in the jungle and getting close to the elephants?

A: The jungle is an important character of the film. It was important for me to find and go to the jungles that in certain way were at the origin of the myth. That is why I went to Sri Lanka to shoot and also why there is the constant reference to Adam’s Peak, which is where – in my opinion – the myth started to get spread in early literature (Sindbad) and later to the lost world movement (Burroughs, Kipling and beyond…). Those jungles are marvellous and the locations we had access to in Sri Lanka are some of the most beautiful and charged places I have ever been. 

The casting of the elephant was also one of the most fascinating parts of the project. We got to meet these superb creatures and at the same time face their fragile future, it was both exhilarating and sad. I have to say, I am privileged I had to live close to them, and so much has been learnt from that experience, too much to be able to convey in this interview… I’d love to tell you more if we had more time and space.

Q: How do you hope audiences interact with this film?

A: I just hope audiences can let themselves go and come along for the journey, and feel whatever they are willing to.

Q: ‘Cemetery’ will screen at FID Marseille. What does this film festival mean to you? 

A: I have visited the festival a lot of times as a filmmaker, as part of the jury, and as an avid spectator.

It is very important for me that this theatrical world premiere is at FID, which saw the beginning of the project and awarded the project at FIDlab. Now FID welcomes Cemetery to competition, a full circle that means a lot to me. I love the people that run it and I love Marseille!

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