Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf
by Generoso Fierro
Initially inspired to locate the mythical rock that is the subject of the 1941 poem, “Piedra sola,” by legendary Argentinian folk singer and writer Atahualpa Yupanqui, first time feature director Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf journeyed to the Northern region of his native Argentina where by chance he met llama herder Ricardo Fidel Tolaba. After many conversations with Tolaba, Tarraf took a small crew to the remote village of El Condor, located between the bordering mountains of Northern Argentina and Bolivia, where he and his team lived with and filmed Tolaba and his family over the next year. As the crew immersed themselves in Tolaba’s community, they documented the native rites there and subsequently combined the footage that they shot with a fiction written by Tarraf and Lucas Distéfano that was inspired by the Andean Cosmovision to make Piedra Sola. This compelling 71-minute feature follows Ricardo after he and his family ritually sacrifice a llama and journey to a nearby village to sell the animal’s meat and pelt as a means of survival. Soon, when several more of Ricardo’s llamas are found dead, Ricardo goes on a physical and spiritual journey away from El Condor to locate the unseen puma that he believes is killing his herd. I thankfully caught up with Tarraf when his transcendent first feature screened as part of the New Auteurs section at this year’s American Film Institute’s Festival.
Q: Looking at your film and your blending of documentary and fiction cinema, my mind immediately went to Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela and the process that Costa utilized as he lived in the community of his actress for some time. I understand that you did this as well—you lived with Ricardo Fidel Tolaba and his family in making Piedra Sola. Costa knew Vitalina’s story before filming the recreation because she appeared in his prior feature, Horse Money, and so I wondered: how did you meet Ricardo, and how familiar were you with the rituals of the people of El Condor before you moved in with his family? Also, at what point in the process did you and Lucas Distéfano start to create the fictional elements of your script?
A: Well, I am from Buenos Aires, which is very far from the Puna region, about 2000 kilometers away actually. So, my first encounter with the region was via a poem from Atahualpa Yupanqui. Yupanqui is a very important poet and musician in that region, but I should also say that he is better known as a musician than as a writer. The first poem which I read of his was called, “Il Tempo Di Hombre (Man’s Time),” where he speaks of a universal man. Then, I read his first book of poems, Piedra sola: poemas del cerro, where he speaks about a rock that falls from a mountain and lands in the valley, and that rock becomes a refuge for the shepherds where they can contemplate. Originally, my romantic idea was to go and find the rock Yupanqui wrote about, and so, my wife and I went on a journey to find this place and in turn find out more about Atahualpa Yupanqui to make a documentary on him. That was the initial idea, but then on this journey, I met Ricardo and really was touched by him, and so, I put aside the documentary on Yupanqui, and thought to write my own script. But in the back of my mind, I was still thinking of Yupanqui and considered the way that he approached art, in that it is universal and without borders. I was with my wife when we met Ricardo, and after a half of an hour of conversation with him, I began to cry because I knew that I had found someone who had so much wisdom.
We became friends, and I stayed with him for a month that first time. Afterwards, I went back to Buenos Aires, and then back again to Ricardo. At first, the community was very closed off, as it is on the border between Bolivia and Argentina, and thus they needed time to open up and adjust to me being there. Also, I always said to myself that if I were to film there, then I needed to do it from the inside and not from the outside, and so to do that, I needed time. In that way, I feel my process was like that of Pedro Costa, as he insists on spending a good deal of time with the people in his films. I agree that you need to spend the time with these people to create a home environment and a family. So, I did a few more journeys with Lucas Distéfano and our cinematographer, Alberto Balazs, and I wrote a script which I presented to the Institute of Argentine Cinema to solicit funding for my first feature. But then, I went back to Ricardo in El Condor and wrote another script, which constantly evolved. When we began shooting, the film was a pure documentary at first that was done with Alberto (Balazs) and a very small crew of about four, which eventually expanded to about ten people as shooting continued. However, I would say that fifty percent of the filming was still done with just four people in the crew. In the beginning, we had all this documentary footage that I gathered together and watched, but it left me with a dilemma, as I then had the desire to add some fiction to what I had in order to organize what I felt was a bit of chaos with the documentary (laughs). I then used all of the stories Ricardo told me to create a very precise script.
Q: At that juncture, did you feel that the script aligned well with what you had filmed?
A: Yes, but I subsequently did take another journey back to El Condor with a sound designer to record only sound for two weeks. And with all of that material, I was able to make the film. But regarding the region, it is an amazing place, Generoso. It feels so remote and untouched in a way, and thus you feel like you are looking at a place that could very well be the origins of the planet. And it is for that reason at the start of the film that we show the storm to put the viewer in a mindset that they are indeed viewing the creation of the world and the place of first humans. It is a very mythological place, the Puna region, because if you have ever been to Buenos Aires, it is the exact opposite—it is a very cosmopolitan and modern place.
Q: When you speak of the first moments of your film, seeing and hearing the storm and this feeling of being put at the beginning of time, I also think of the image of the hobbled horse that you present. While watching Piedra Sola, I believed that Pachamama was simply a representation of mother nature, but now, as I understand from your director’s statement, it can also mean time and universe, as in the poem by Yupanqui. What then did you wish to suggest by showing the horse at that moment? Should we see it as a reflection on Argentina’s past by way of Spanish rule? If not, what does the horse suggest in terms of the time and history of the region?
A: The horse is very important in many ways. First, the ritual that you see involving the horse in the film is a real ritual in that region. When they go to the bonfire, the horse becomes a vehicle as a means of transportation to the other world. But for me, in the north, there is a synchronicity between the Americans and the Spanish because, as you know, the horse is a Spanish animal. When you see this lighting of a fire with this horse, it was also in a way a symbol of fusion between these two cultures. This was important to me as I feel that we need to integrate more in this way and not be separate because, when it is all said and done, we are all in the human race. What is funny is that the horse that you see is white, and it is called, “The Gringo,” which you know means, “the foreigner,” and so the idea was to show the horse in the beginning, so, at the end, you could see a transformation in a non-linear way as to give respect to the idea of time and the universe. As you see that in the end of the film, you are ascending, and you are not very clear as to the destination, like a Fata Morgana, and as you ascend, time becomes a bit more unclear, which was my goal as to keep the narrative non-linear. But the horse is indeed about this colonialism and our need to transcend this.
Q: In Apichitapong Weerasethukhul’s 2010 film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, as the titular character is dying, his past, present, and future all collapse into one plane of existence. As Ricardo lives in El Condor, which, in the Andean Cosmovision, is where the past is thought to be ahead and the future behind, what then does the ascent of Ricardo at the end of the film suggest to you about the boundaries between the physical and the spiritual?
A: You know many people believe that Ricardo has died at the end of my film, but I don’t see the ending that way. For me, the end of my film is a condensing of the past, the present, and the future. I feel that we are always thinking in a linear way, but the idea of the film is to bring in these planes of the present, past, and future, and we are eternity itself. And when Ricardo shows a shadow, it is because when we are eternal this shadow will integrate with ourselves, and we will become complete.
There is a phrase that we say in Spanish, and I don’t know if you also say it in English, but we say, “In a grain of sand, we can see the totality of the desert.” So for me, it was exactly the same thing, but with the stone.
Q: In Buddhist doctrine, when a food or drink sacrifice is offered to a spirit, it shouldn’t be eaten by people and must eventually be thrown away. As you have stated in a previous interview, there are three planes of existence for the people in the Puna Region: the level of the condor, which is the elevated level, the level of the puma, which is the current plane, and the level of the serpent, which is underneath. In Piedra Sola, when Ricardo goes into the village to sell the llama meat that he used for the ritual, people refuse to buy it, and a woman whom he offers it to even says, “Oh, it is from El Condor. I have heard that the meat from there is tough.” Is the custom in El Condor to sell the meat and pelt of the ritual animal, or in a sense, given the “meat is tough” statement, is the puma singling out Ricardo’s herd as some sort of punishment for treating the llama as a commodity?
A: I can say this: in the North of Argentina, life is very simple. So, the puma and the llama are part of the level of man, and thus, their relationship to each other is very sacred, but eating the llama is also the only way that the people can survive. In the ritual that you see in my film, the blood that is painted onto the house is the offering, and then the family will survive off of the meat because you must remember that this is a mountainous and very unfertile region to grow agriculture. Therefore, their relationship is very sacred, and that is why when Ricardo sacrifices the llama, he closes his eyes as to connect with the animal, so Ricardo really does understand what the sacrifice means in that this animal represents so much to him and his family. For that reason, the llama gives so much to these people and to the survival of their community, and because of this importance, the llama is sacred in human territory. But, at the same time, the people cannot do the same thing with a condor because that is on another level, the world of the gods, and so that is not a good thing, but the llama is part of this world.
Q: So then, when Ricardo’s son sells the llama pelt for cash, I wondered what needed to be purchased with money in what is seemingly a bartering community like El Condor? Money of course, isn’t necessarily modern, so I do not believe that it in conflict with Pachamama specifically in terms of time, but does it suggest a level of unnaturalness in El Condor, as money becomes an intermediary outside tool in a community where most of life’s necessities can be traded for?
A: Yes, I can understand this thought about the money that they make by selling the meat and the pelt, but with it they purchase vegetables to eat, and they buy the coca leaves that they use in rituals because you cannot find the coca leaves where they live, so they have to travel to Bolivia to get buy them. I’m sure that you understand this, but the coca leaves are key to the whole cosmology there, and for that reason, we closely filmed the veins in the leaves so you see the totality of it all.
Q: Are the coca leaves crucial for just that community, or did you find that they were essential to the entire Andean cosmology?
A: Yes, in Northern Argentina, but also in Bolivia, the north of Chile, and Peru, they are sacred. You know that we are so removed from the sacredness of the coca leaf because we only think of it in its refined state for drugs, but for them it is so sacred in the way that they can “see” with it. In the end of the film, when Ricardo sees the fire, you should know that in the actual community when they see and read the smoke from a fire, they can tell who is going to die. So, the fire was always prescient for me when I was filming. When people in the community gathered around a fire, I felt that it was part of the totality as well.
Q: There is a danger in ethnographic filmmaking, and that is of a sort-of exoticizing of the culture, which I feel your film never does because of the connection to the pain that exists in the life of Ricardo and the people in El Condor, but at the same time, there is a physical and spiritual ascension that goes beyond the human form. How concerned were you that the people whom you were filming would become too subject-like? To specify, as an outsider, were you ever concerned about the perception that we as the viewers might have that you are studying the people of El Condor as clinical subjects?
A: Here, I should say again that it was always crucial for me to film from the “inside” and to do that, apart from spending time with the people, I had to be like them, and they had to be like me, so we could have a kind of fusion. Like, if you film a storm, Generoso, you need to feel a storm—you have to be under that storm in order to show that you are there. Otherwise, it would feel like you were watching it from outside. Also, because I lived there, I had so much respect for the Cosmovision that I was trying to bring my camera to the level of the circumstance. It is a matter of being present, and because we are in the present, we can then have the ability to play with time. Lastly, I should say that I always felt that I had to have one foot on the earth and one foot in the sky at all times there because in order to reach the sacred I need to be on the earth too.
Q: In terms of the practical aspects of filming when you were in such a remote location, I am so curious as to your exact access to electricity when you were in El Condor.
A: Electricity wasn’t everywhere in El Condor when I was shooting, and there wasn’t access to the internet at all. This is quite funny, but in the scene when Ricardo and his son are coming back to El Condor on the bus, if you look at the newspaper, it mentions the internet, which was on its way there at the time. So now in 2020, there is the internet, and I can communicate with the people there, but for the year that I was there, it didn’t exist. So yes, there was some electricity there like in the school and in the small clinic that they operated for the community, but for our electricity needs like charging the camera’s batteries and the lights, we had to bring some gas generators with us.
Q: Given the way of life in El Condor, do you feel that your lack of access to modern conveniences, aided you and your crew in feeling more inside of their world?
A: Yes, it did, but to explain further, in El Condor, when we were filming there, the method that was used when someone needed to communicate with others involved going some distance to a place with a radio transmitter and communicating that way. They would also get the news like that, so it was a difficult situation. Now though, I do wonder how El Condor will develop as they have the internet there along with some other conveniences. In that way, I feel that Ricardo is between generations, and for that reason, I wanted to put those three faces in that house: this old person, Ricardo, and his son.
Q: At this point, do you have a desire to go back to El Condor to film how the modern world has changed the people and place?
A: No, for me it definitely is a curiosity as far as keeping track of these people, but it is not an artistic curiosity. No, for my next project, I am looking at another region of Argentina, in the northeast, because I think that it is very important in my country as a filmmaker to not always be in Buenos Aires, but to give a voice and good stories to other communities. You see, we have this idea to always show Buenos Aires as the European capital of South America and to avoid filming the native people, and so, I have no desire to feed into that tradition. That is also why I am very happy about my film being shown at AFI Fest because their festival supports this kind of cinema that I have created here with Piedra Sola.
Q: Lastly Alejandro, for your next project, do you want to continue working in a documentary fiction hybrid style?
A: No, I feel that in the next film I will move more into fiction, but I will continue working with local people from the region, non-professional actors, because I feel that to make a good fiction film, you need to do it like a documentary. And conversely, if you want to make a good documentary, you need to think in terms of fiction filmmaking. So, in a way, I am going to put my focus in the story, the fiction with this documentary approach, but this is a challenge for me because to make a good fiction, you need to be very real.
My thanks to Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf for this conversation and a special thanks goes to Johanna Calderón-Dakin, Senior Publicity Associate for AFI Fest, for introducing us.