Directors/Screenwriters/Producers: Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth. Belg-Ger-The Netherlands. 2009. 109 mins
Largely set amongst the majestic beauty of the high Andes in Peru, Altiplano is an ambitious, visually striking second feature from the filmmaking duo of Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth following their award-winning fiction debut Khadak (2006).
It is also extremely slow moving and demanding in a way that invites comparisons with Carlos Reygadas’s Japon (2002) or the testing religious fables of more recent Ermmano Olmi works like Centochiodi (One Hundred Nails) (2007), but enterprising arthouse distributors may be able to nurture it towards a very select small audience.
Altiplano works on the basis that all actions have consequences.
In Iraq, war photographer Grace (Jasmin Tabatabai) is forced at gunpoint to capture an image of her guide’s execution. Her Belgian husband Max (Olivier Gourmet) is a cataract surgeon working at an eye clinic in the high Andes. They communicate with each other through video diaries.
The story of how Grace struggles to cope with loss and further tragedy is contrasted with the life of Saturnina (Magaly Solier), a young woman in the village of Turbamba. Spillages of mercury from a local mining project have caused baffling illness and death among the native population and Saturnina is to suffer the unbearable burden of her own loss.
Altiplano bears all the signs of Brosens and Woodworth’s background in documentaries. The mercury spill in the Peruvian village of Choropampa in 2000 provides the guiding inspiration for some of the events depicted in their film. Brosens studied the impact of protest suicides whilst living in Peru and Ecuador. The photograph that Grace takes is strongly reminiscent of Eddie Adams’ defining shot of the Vietnam conflict capturing a Saigon police chief shooting a Vietcong guerrilla at point blank range. Altiplano is a production with an impeccable sense of documentary reality allied to a more meditative style of filmmaking.
Cinematographer Francisco Gozon captures breathtaking images of piercing blue waters, snow-covered mountains and some of the religious rituals that are part of daily life in an area where spiritual values and community have a stronger grasp than the material urges of western cultures. The film does not lack narrative but Brosens and Woodworth seem more drawn towards contemplation than explanation.
Ultimately Altiplano is thought-provoking but has the air of part of a larger, multi-media project and might just find its biggest audience in exhibition, gallery or museum spaces where it can breath alongside still images, debates and wider appreciation of the film and the issues it raises.
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