Diogenes: photography as the driving force of cinema
Diógenes tells a story of isolation and death in the Andes. It is also a sophisticated visual artifact in which photography – by Mateo Guzmán and Musuk Nolte – plays a leading role. Chosen as the Best Ibero-American Film in the Zonazine section of the Malaga Festival 2023, Leonardo Barbuy’s debut feature will be released in Peru in August. In this interview, the director reflects on the role of photography as a narrative engine in cinema and comments on his work in Sarhua. In this Andean community, the film is set.
By Alonso Almenara
“It all started with a dream,” recalls Leonardo Barbuy. “In the dream comes back one of the images I remember best from my childhood, when I used to go to my grandmother’s house in the central highlands of Peru. There I saw isolated shepherd’s houses. And in the dream, I see one of those little houses. I approach it and see that inside, there is a dead man—a man I don’t recognize.
Upon waking up, the Peruvian filmmaker associated those vivid images with his bond with his children. “There was born the question of what would happen if this man had died while caring for two children in a circumstance of isolation.” From this idea was born the film Diógenes, set in the village of Sarhua in the southern highlands of Peru.
Shot entirely in Quechua, it is a co-production between Peru (Mosaico), France (Dublin Films), and Colombia (La Selva Cine). It tells the story of two brothers raised in a remote part of the Ayacucho highlands by their father, a local artisan. They discover their origins and the reason for their isolation after living for three days with their father’s corpse, longing for him to wake up.
For five years, the production team led by Illari Orccottoma traveled to Sarhua to build relationships of trust with the population. After consultation with local authorities, the filming took place in 2021, with natural actors from the community. The leading roles are played by Jorge Pomacanchari, Sarhua‘s master board painter, and children Gisela Yupa and Cleiner Yupa, aged eleven and six, respectively, during the filming.
Barbuy was in charge of writing, directing, and scoring the film. He is 37 years old, was born in Lima, and studied musical composition. He is currently dedicated to research in pedagogy. Diógenes is his debut film. “I always wanted to make films, but I didn’t know I could. And it was by making this film that I realized that I can”. At the Malaga Festival, he won the award for Best Ibero-American Film in the Zonazine section and the Silver Biznaga for Best Director. His film will be shown in Peruvian theaters in August as part of the Lima Film Festival. At the same time, Barbuy plans to offer it in Sarhua: “We want to screen it during the holidays in August. It’s nice because we filmed Diogenes during the holidays and because, during the holidays, many Sarhuinos come from other parts of the country to visit their relatives. It is a precious moment that will allow us to have a diverse audience at the screening”.
The director hopes that the success of the Malaga Festival will help him secure international distribution for the film by the end of the year. Diógenes could be one of the essential releases in Peruvian cinema this season: it has received state support through competitive funds and comes on the heels of the success of other Peruvian films exploring the challenges of life in the Andes: among them, Oscar Catacora’s Wiñaypacha and Alvaro Delgado-Aparicio’s Retablo. Like the former, it explores the harshness of life in isolation. Like the second, it is connected to popular art: the Ayacucho retablo in Delgado-Aparicio’s film, and the Sarhua boards in Barbuy’s film.
But Diogenes differs from its predecessors in its quirky character: more than a film in a traditional sense, it is a visual poem reminiscent of Soviet cinema or the metaphysical style of Béla Tarr. A reflective film in which the action takes a back seat, and the narrative moves thanks to a sophisticated work of sound and photography. The latter was in the hands of a creative tandem: Colombian cinematographer Mateo Guzmán and Peruvian-Mexican photographer Musuk Nolte, part of the VIST team.
Two weeks ago, we talked to Leonardo Barbuy via Zoom: at the time, he was in Toulouse, presenting his work at the Cinélatino festival. The conversation was about the shooting experience, the role of photography in the film’s conception, and the relationship between his two passions: music and cinema.
How did you go from the dream you told me to shoot the film in Sarhua?
I spoke with a dear anthropologist friend, Sandra Rodriguez, who accompanied me in developing the film. We began to investigate cases of isolation in the highlands. Although we could not gather much information, we found that isolation usually occurs alone. So, to sustain this isolation, there must be some exchange, for example, making handicrafts that can be exchanged in the village for food. That also occurs in the company of dogs since the peasant patrols generally do not protect the people who isolate themselves because they no longer contribute to the village, etc. And so the plot of the film was configured.
On the other hand, Musuk Nolte’s influence was decisive. Musuk has been a friend of mine for a long time, and we always talk about the projects we are working on. In this case, I asked him for photos while writing the script. And in the middle of this process, I was able to meet in Lima with Elizabeth Canchari, the director of the Nuestra Señora de Asunción school in the Sarhua district, through contact from anthropologist Josefa Nolte, who has a link with this town as a result of a study she did there. Together with Illari Orccottoma, the producer, we asked Elizabeth if it seemed pertinent to develop the film in her town. Obviously, we were familiar with the Sarhua tablets, and we think they are incredible, mainly because of their link to the memory record. They also have a connection, perhaps not directly, with cinema but with the work of framing.
“During the writing process, I was accompanied by Musuk’s photos. He has portrayed the Andean highlands in black and white. And I wrote the film taking his photos as a reference. Photography became, in fact, a central aspect of the narrative and the mise-en-scene: specifically, the handling of contrasts and the construction of light inside the house. There was intense work with fire, night, and deep darkness.”
When I told Elizabeth the story, she agreed to help us immediately. She took us to Sarhua, introduced us to the authorities and from the very first moment we felt that those people were happy to have the film take place there. It was a five-year process of going back and forth, working directly with the people, and writing in the bond. It is a film made very much hand in hand with the people of Sarhua.
One of the most exciting aspects is the photography. How did you work on it?
During the writing process, I was accompanied by Musuk’s photos. He has portrayed the Andean highlands in black and white. And I wrote the film taking his photos as a reference. Photography became, in fact, a central aspect of the narrative and the mise-en-scene: specifically, the handling of contrasts and the construction of light inside the house. There was intense work with fire, night, and deep darkness.
It was very nice because we worked on that proposal with Musuk, and then Mateo Guzmán, an excellent Colombian cinematographer, joined the team. They both agreed to work together, which is tremendous. It was a brutal collaboration.
The sound is another very elaborate aspect of the film. For example, there is a lot of use of whispered voices, and the music has a discreet but effective presence.
I was in charge of the music: I’m a trained composer. But I have yet to be much of a composer. I decided to stay away from that academic circle. But with this work, I feel I have re-friended that world a little.
The idea was to think of the whole film as a soundtrack and not just look for which parts needed incidental music. I was interested in abandoning the notions of diegetic and extra-diegetic: to merge the two as much as possible so that you don’t know if the musicians are playing there or to suggest that the music could come from the memories of the characters. The only clearly diegetic music is that of the funeral song scene: it had to be that way because working with that group of women was very powerful; what they sang extensively impacted us.
As for the music I composed for the film, there was a previous research work in which I collected Sarhua music made with instruments such as the chilili, the chirisuya, the waqrapuku, or the sweet flutes used in the huayno. There were also some harawis and the singing of the San Gregorio. The original music is based precisely on the San Gregorio, and includes nods to the tune of a celebration known as ‘la herranza.’ I find this relationship interesting because ‘la herranza’ is about beginnings; it is a music of hope, of searching for new futures, while the San Gregorio is a funeral chant. The film includes these two aspects: a look to the future, but also the presence of death.
Let’s talk about the remarkable performances. How did you achieve this result with non-professional actors?
Jorge Poma Canchari, the actor who plays Diogenes, is a master board painter from Sarhua. He was one of the first people we met during the research, and from the first moment, we were very impressed by his sensitivity. The first photo we took of him with Musuk ended up becoming the penultimate frame of the film: it is a shot of him approaching Jorge, who is looking directly at the camera, with some dogs barking behind him. That first photo marked the significance of the visuality of the faces in Diogenes.
“I am interested in post-violence: what happens to those born after the conflict. And how they perceive violence from indirect signs. There is a process of the signification of violence not lived, but present in the processes of upbringing, in the fears, in the stories, in the things they don’t let you see, in the silences.”
A few months earlier, we met Gisela and Cleiner in some acting workshops we did with casting director Beto Benitez. From the first moment, it was clear it would be with them. And when we did the casting, it was brutal: that night, we looked at each other and said: how incredible Gisela is. I felt in her gaze and in her gestures in front of the camera a depth that seemed unnoticed even by her. And she had no hesitation in front of the camera. She was forthright.
Cleiner is like that, too: he doesn’t give a damn about the camera. His character is self-absorbed in his universe, he’d rather sleep than be awake, like Cleiner himself, who fell asleep on set all the time, and we decided to take advantage of that. Cleiner had no problem with that.
In the film, violence is shown obliquely. It is almost not seen. The reference to the period of the internal armed conflict is important, but you present it only through Sarhua’s boards. Why were you interested in developing this kind of treatment?
I am interested in post-violence: what happens to those born after the conflict. And how they perceive violence from indirect signs. There is a process of the signification of violence not lived but present in the methods of upbringing, the fears, the stories, the things they don’t let you see, and the silences. I am interested in the place of those raised by those who have lived violent processes. And that is reflected in the film.
Have you been influenced by other recent Peruvian films in the Andes, such as Retablo or Wiñaypacha?
I saw Retablo at some point and realized I was going down a different path. On an aesthetic level, Retablo explores the chromatic range and framing of the altarpiece and suggests that we are all like the figures in the altarpiece. It’s something I could have done with the Sarhua boards: framing the film in its visuality. But I was interested in something else. Wiñaypacha had a more significant influence and impact. Some aspects greatly inspired me: the portrayal of life in an isolated house and the relationship with the landscape. But I felt that I could never make a film like that and was making a film from another place.
There is another kind of cinema that has influenced me more: for example, Semih Kaplanoglu’s film Honey, from the Yusuf trilogy. It is a compelling trilogy in which each film is better than the previous one. I should also mention The Turin Horse by Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky. It is not one of my favorite films, but Diogenes has some relation to that universe. Soviet cinema is another influence, particularly the cinema of Klimov. I also like Tarkovski a lot, and when I was young, I was a big fan of Robles Godoy. There are many influences, not necessarily direct. Maybe some things will remain.
Why did you decide to switch to cinema?
I feel that there is a robust continuity between music and film: the script of Diógenes is very resonant. Besides, the film allowed me to explore different ways of working, not only from the conventional routes of cinematographic narrative. Aspects such as counterpoint, juxtaposition of material, or treatments of time come from music. If we think, for example, of the shot of the dead dog that appears at the beginning and then the death of the father, to whom the children apply the same ritual, it’s like what happens in a piece of music when you take the material of the introduction and reveal it more deeply. There are several things I’ve thought about from my experience as a composer.
What was the audience’s response at the Malaga Festival?
There has been a lot of interest, and many people moved to Malaga, especially to Toulouse, a very cinephile place close to Latin American cinema. One comment that was repeated a lot is that, although it is a challenging film, it invites the viewer to inhabit it. I have been told that giving oneself over to settling the film has been very pleasant.