by Alonso Aguilar
The works of sound artist and nonfiction filmmaker Félix Blume deal with the interpretative possibilities of aural narratives. From installation sound-pieces built around Thailand’s shoreline, to album releases focusing on Haiti’s funerary traditions, his artistic output always serves as an extension of a wider multimedia project built around sonic tradition.
In the unique sensory experiences Blume portrays, memory is explored through its reverberations. The natural soundscapes he registers are recontextualized as immersive evocations of a shared history of constant reinvention, approaching different concerns through the imaginative rendering of their frequencies. His latest, Luces del Desierto (2021), is an audiovisual testimony of the communal mythmaking process born out of the lightless nights of the Mexican desert.
In our conversation he shared his perspectives on the possibilities of sound within nonfiction, the challenges of capturing oral memory in an audiovisual medium, and the blurred lines of visual art categorization.
Alonso Aguilar: From installations and field recording projects to short films and albums, your body of work embraces the multidisciplinary. Is it a challenge traversing through these contrasting fields while maintaining a firm grasp on your artistic identity?
Félix Blume: I have a background as a sound engineer, in Latin America we use the term “sonidista” for the person in charge of sound recording on a film. I like this title as it refers to sound as a material that can be worked on as an engineer as a technician as a creator as an artist… I like it that way, because you can erase these borders that we sometimes put between what an artist would be.
I like this idea that there is no clear border between experimental film and documentary, for example. As a sound engineer I did most of my work within the documentary framework, so I didn’t have a preconceived notion about experimental cinema or how it was supposed to be. Curupira, Bicho do Mato (2018), my first film, began as a sound piece, which progressively introduced visuals, and eventually became cinema, but it wasn’t a world I really had any knowledge of. It’s still something that I’m discovering, since I’m more familiar with video art.
How do you decide which sonic exploration or idea fits which medium?
When I made Curupira I went out seeking sounds of the jungle, and I came across this little town. That’s when I began talking to people and they started telling me stories, which I recorded, and in the last few days I made these little video portraits of people listening. I started editing with the idea of making a sound piece, but I kept many moments in black, when no one was speaking, so I decided to put these portraits of people listening in the intermission. I thought of it more as an installation, initially, but seeing how it developed, I liked the experience within a single screen. It leaves more to the imagination.
Something similar happened with Luces del Desierto. I began working with sound, and later found visuals that could complement these soundscapes. I know it’s usually the opposite in cinema.
I guess the difference between mediums is not that important to me. I like the form that the projects take while I am working on them; this freedom that I can have to let the material decide for itself.
I wanted to follow-up on that idea about complementing sound with images. As a sound artist, the former is naturally your main focus, but how would you describe your approach toward visuals? Do you treat the material differently, like a supplementary element, or do you interweave it in the same manner as audio?
From the beginning I liked the relationship between these two layers. I don’t see how sometimes people think that sound is against the image or that you have to choose one of them. Like when people say “close your eyes so you can listen better”, that’s simply not how it works. I enjoy working with images, but am trying to change this power relationship that tends to permeate cinema, where everything is conceived around visuals, and then you work out sound afterwards.
I feel that images do have a big problem, that is they show too much at times, not letting imagination flow freely, dictating your experience in a way that sound simply doesn’t do. I do think there are many tricks to make more evocative images, where the out of field feels bigger than what’s framed. It was Orson Welles who said once that on the radio the screen is much bigger than cinema, and I like that idea, that when you’re in the dark or the screen is barely recognizable, you fill in the blanks with your own images.
I think that links directly with how you treat mythology in Luces del Desierto, like a collection of disjointed anecdotes and personal narratives that sometimes collide, and other times simply contradict themselves. How do you deal with translating these experiences from oral tradition into an audiovisual creation?
I’m very interested in myths and beliefs in general. I like to think about the conception of these beliefs, how they often emerge as a way to explain things that couldn’t be explained otherwise, or that contradict what we accept today in the contemporary world, which is always looking for scientific justifications. Sometimes it’s religion that comes to take this role, but I gravitate toward myths, these anecdotes, these stories, because they coexist with the contemporary. I like to ask myself how they find their reason for being. How do they find their place in these territories?
They work as a kind of polyphony of voices. Several individual stories that tell a more collective narrative, deeply linked to the relationship between the inhabitants, their territory, and their coexistence within this landscape. That was my approach for Luces del Desierto: Finding the balance between telling things, and letting the viewer make their own experience and fill in the blanks with their own narrative.
You’ve touched upon the conceptual basis for your approach in Luces del Desierto, and I also wanted to ask you about your relationship with the digital textures you use in the film, since their relationship with light and darkness is what struck me the most, visually.
I love the idea of information that isn’t filtered by Western societies’ preconceptions; information you can’t just Google or find in Wikipedia. What I’m trying to do with the digital is, on one hand, make it accessible for them to see their own stories; serve as an intermediary that records their memories so they won’t disappear entirely. But their stories aren’t simply testimonials, in a positivistic or scientific way, they’re something more vivential, almost palpable, and I thought digital resources let me explore these more directly, as a way to catch a glimpse of how these perspectives exist.
Something that caught my attention is that Luces del Desierto is described in its synopsis as a horror film. Do you consciously try to recontextualize some genre traditions? Or is it more a play on expectations?
Yes, I like tricking people (laughs). I do imagine my works as extensions of these possible genres, which might mislead someone, but at the same time will present a different kind of experience. I do incorporate some genre and narrative structures because I want my works to be easily accessible. I want people to see it and be able to relate with what’s being portrayed, since that’s how a work really comes to life. I don’t want my films to be locked behind a password in a corner of the internet, or to require an intellectual background [for people] to be able to enjoy them.
It’s a play with these words like horror or thriller as a way to invite people to an experience that perhaps isn’t what they imagined, but that might enthrall them in some way.
As you deal with local mythologies, and as you say, an audiovisual register of memory, do you feel any responsibility as a creative person that intervenes in these materials? How does that relationship with the sounds and images being captured evolve once a film like Luces del Desierto is in the editing room?
Sounds, in the end, are not mine. I just capture them, because I was there at a precise moment. Maybe I’m a pirate of sounds in some way. I just capture and then transmit what I find. For me, memory is very important, since it can be used and listened to. It establishes a relationship with a moment that happened, it’s like being part of a shared past.
I think about it mostly dealing with sound. The fact that we do not notice it most of the time, that we take its importance for granted, is also a strength because it fades into the background, and captures unfiltered experiences and forgotten textures. I think sound also has the advantage of being less categorized. It doesn’t have genre signifiers associated with it. It can be anything and anywhere. It fits as an experimental work at a film festival, but it also works as a soundscape.
I do notice a growing interest in sound from experimental filmmakers. More and more experimental musicians are getting involved in visual media, as well. So all the lines begin to blur, and I think that’s great. It means a freer medium. Something less defined that can capture other kinds of experiences.
Alonso Aguilar is a cultural journalist from Costa Rica. He does editorial labor in Krinégrafo: Cine y Crítica and his writings have featured in Mubi Notebook, Bandcamp Daily, Film International, photogénie and Cinema Tropical, among other outlets.