Note: This interview with Sebastián Sepúlveda was originally conducted as unpublished research for a Moving Image Source piece on The Quispe Girls before the film’s U.S. premiere this past January. It has since been expanded for publication in honor of the recent additions of Herzog films to Fandor’s viewing library.
The Quispe Girls (2013) takes place in the mountainous, cavernous northern Chilean region called the Altiplano. Sebastián Sepúlveda’s great debut feature focuses closely on three rural adult sisters, who have fled there with their animals shortly after the Pinochet dictatorship’s 1973 rise to power. The eldest member of the group, Maria, has died before the film’s opening and left behind aging and stubborn Justa (played by Digna Quispe), middle-aged and apprehensive Lucia (Catalina Saavedra) and the youngest and most unsettled sister, Luciana (Francisca Gavilán), who fears losing the rest of her youth.
Over the course of the film—which Sepúlveda adapted from Juan Radrigán’s play Las Brutas (1980), itself based upon a true story—the three women debate whether they would be better off staying where they are or leaving, especially once they learn that police intend to slaughter their goats as part of a nationwide grazing ban. The Quispe sisters’ words and movements echo within a vast and desolate space. No human lives seem present to be anywhere in the space beyond those they have brought to it, lives that they might end if their loneliness grows too great.
“Nature, as something ferocious, gains an independent life [from people],” Werner Herzog has said of Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), a key influence on Sepúlveda. Though the forty-two-year-old Chilean filmmaker has frequently cited Pier Paolo Pasolini’s impact upon his work, Herzog’s willingness to play out scripted fiction narratives within unshakable natural locations has also inspired him. In Aguirre, like in The Quispe Girls, Nature inspires awe and commands attention by being more fearsome than lovely. Its silences promise not peace but isolation, upon which death encroaches.
The main characters of Herzog’s films are punished by Nature for their efforts to rule it. The mad Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre (played by Klaus Kinski) ends up on a raft as the lone human survivor of his Peruvian Amazon expedition, his companions all dead save for a pack of small monkeys; the titular bandit (also played by Kinski) in Cobra Verde (1987) leaves his native Brazil on behalf of Portuguese colonists to police the West African kingdom of Dahomey, where he succeeds in siring a legion of children while gradually wasting away. In both cases, the foreign invaders’ rise and fall contrasts with the presence of an indigenous population at home within its surroundings. These fiction films offer savage attacks upon a mindset of domination along with documentary images of native people outlasting it.
The Quispe Girls’s emphasis upon people who have been oppressed by their greater society—both as poor farmers and as women—helps Sepúlveda’s film fall more towards intimate tragedy than towards the epic dark comedy of much of Herzog’s work. Like Herzog, however, Sepúlveda (whose previous films include 2008’s The Sandpit, a documentary record of a Brazilian Amazon community called Guajará that is populated by slave descendants) makes poetry from the relationships between humans and their surroundings. Sunlight falls hard upon Klaus Kinski’s demagogues, practically waging war with them; in The Quispe Girls, the three women are seen throughout beneath naturally cast, inviting shadows that they come to resist less and less. Sepúlveda’s film suggests that, living or dead, the girls belong to this place, and it follows them as they make their peace with it.
Aaron Cutler: How did you come to filmmaking?
Sebastián Sepúlveda: I came to it out of need. I remember seeing Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde when I was twenty-two years old and being left in a state of reverie for two or three days by the final images of Kinski trying to make a boat go and getting swallowed up by the sea. I told myself that filmmaking wouldn’t be easy, and that things would often be unstable, but that it had to be my vocation, and that if it weren’t then I could never lead a happy life.
I don’t believe that I discarded other art forms by pursuing cinema, and in fact what helped excite me so much about the pursuit was that I could also work with photography, music, and the literary aspects of storytelling. During editing my fixation lies precisely in creating different balances between these elements and discovering how the results can become distinct from each other. Nobody taught me how to do this in a school, and I think that for the entirety of my working life in cinema I have proceeded exactly through struggling to discover and understand the best possible juxtapositions of filmic elements.
The work done in realizing my documentary The Sandpit was quite basic: I found myself alone in a Brazilian Amazon community and did everything by myself with a small camera and a microphone. On The Quispe Girls I had the pleasure of working with a talented cast and crew. But from a thematic perspective, the two films have much in common. They both show traditional rural communities besieged by a modernization process that denies the residents their cultural values and ancestral ways of life.
In The Sandpit, residents of the community of Guajará tell us that urban workers are extracting sand for sale to trucking companies in order to build a bridge that connects this town to a larger city; they also tell us that the sand is enchanted by spirits struggling against Mother Nature’s assailants. In The Quispe Girls trauma comes with the dictatorship’s grazing ban, which affects the core of these Chilean farming peoples’ lives. My films show clashes between urban and rural cultures that do not know of a way to communicate with each other, and how peripheral people are consequently overwhelmed by urban economic and political climates that disavow their existence. What interests me most in the two films is how everything is told from the point of view of members of the small communities—from their unique ways of observing the world—while the invaders are almost invisible.
Cutler: What intrigued you about Juan Radrigán’s play Las Brutas as a source text for The Quispe Girls?
Sepúlveda: I initially learned about its story through the impact that the play had in the Chilean national media. The brothers Juan de Dios Larraín and Pablo Larraín, who would eventually produce my film, told me about the play. What impressed me when I read Las Brutas was a scene of conversation between the sisters Luciana and Lucia at the moment of taking their final decision, out of which emerges only one path through the anguished crossroads at which they’ve found themselves. I am not very close to theater, and I think that that was a good thing in this case precisely because I never thought about the film as an adaptation, but rather as a path through which I had to travel while selecting elements: From the play, obviously, but also from historical fact, from physical space, and from various tales that had emerged within the region about the Quispe sisters. The play is seventy pages of dialogue. The film, by contrast, is very quiet. The language of cinema passes to the opposite side of theatrical language, I think, even with part of the brilliant original text marking the film’s general structure.
Cutler: What struck you about the ways in which your film’s actresses played off of each other?
Sepúlveda: I very much believe in the methods of Pasolini, who would mix trained and untrained actors and bring to his work a poetic space with its own reality. My idea was to have the trained actors contribute their technical skills to the film’s dramatic interpretation and to have the untrained actors bring the work’s tone, its sense of a documentation of a lifestyle. In some way I always thought of the process as a grafting whose internal fusions could result in a personal telling of this tale. Catalina Saavedra and Francisca Gavilán are two tremendous and well-known actresses of Chilean cinema who adapted themselves to the rough conditions of our shooting locations, as well as to working with animals in activities like herding. They spent a month living with the area’s people while learning the Chilean peasant dialect in which Juan Radrigán wrote Las Brutas. It was a privilege to work with them.
To play the character of the eldest Quispe sister, Justa, I chose Digna Quispe, who I first met while scouting locations. Digna is a niece of the Quispe sisters and was the last person to see them alive. But I chose her, more so than for any other reason, because of a screen test that I had made of her in the mountains during a little break that she took from chores with her animals. I liked what I saw of her in that test. Afterwards, during the filming, she surprised us all with her tremendous talent and ability. Many times we speak of what non-actors can bring, but what is certain is that Digna Quispe’s face was a quasi-immobile, highly expressive map.
When one of John Ford’s assistants once asked him during the filming of a Western what they would do if the sun had already set, Ford responded that they would film the most beautiful landscape: The human face. We had some beautiful mountains, and a true labyrinth of colors, but without a doubt there was something fundamental in documenting the face of a Quispe, something that would go a bit further—to leave marked, with her features, an identity that would give testament to a near-extinct way of life.
Cutler: How do you believe that sound and image should work together in films, and how did you want them to work together in The Quispe Girls?
Sepúlveda: I don’t have a fixed idea for how sound and image should work together. The beauty and danger of this vocation is that each film’s operating logic must be unique to it. A film is a game whose rules and pieces must be put into doubt, and we reason until reaching certainty of them with a new and precise logic organic to the work’s central conceit.
With The Quispe Girls we worked on creating the perspective of the fourth sister, Maria, who being dead would observe the other three. We aimed to establish a gaze neither too close to the action (this ghost could not impose) nor too far away, unless she stepped back for reasons of modesty. We further tried to create a soundscape in which the four elements of wind, water, fire, and earth would always be present. The sound was designed such that one would hear the wind slightly less each time it blew, and the bleating of the goats slightly dimmer, all to give the sensation of this space that contains the life of the Quispe sisters emptying, and becoming a void within which they must finally confront their solitude.
Cutler: You lived with a coya family in the Chilean Altiplano while preparing the film. What stayed with you from this experience, and what do you believe you brought from it to the film?
Sepúlveda: I had it clear in my mind that I wanted to make a fiction film and not a pure documentary. Yet the film is based on fact, so I wanted to spend two months in the mountains with one of the last coya families that live today in the 26,000-acre community that belonged to the Quispe girls. I did this primarily in order to listen to the peoples’ stories and to understand the imaginative quality of the place a bit better while seeking a truth that would strike me. What impressed me most was the feeling that came from being alone there; the fear that could suddenly arise within me while I was taking pictures in the middle of mountains, looking from side to side without seeing anyone, and understanding the panic that comes from knowing how if you encounter someone with ill intentions then there will be nothing that you can do. You are in a place of such solitude that no one would ever know if something bad were to happen to you.
I lived there in order to understand the fragility of three lonely women within that infinite space. I think that the experience helped me to better understand their points of view.
Cutler: Your parents were exiled from Chile because of the military dictatorship’s takeover. Why was this?
Sepúlveda: My parents were Leftists, and when the coup d’etat came in 1973 we had to leave the country immediately. We moved to France. I was one year old at the time. I then spent my entire childhood and adolescence listening to words about Chile and its dictatorship, and I developed some antibodies against the subject. I grew a bit sick of the exiles, of their nostalgic cries for a place that did not attract me. However, I feel that as the years pass one comes to assume the details of one’s life story more calmly (while remaining coherent with one’s phobias). What interests me most about The Quispe Girls is that it relates a peripheral side story, not a huge epic or an unveiling of generations. To show these three sisters’ fear of unseen entities was something that I found compelling—how the echo of a distant world descends upon them, and how everything finally transforms into a story of ghosts debating each other in abstract space.
At the same time, though, this space is very concrete. The rural Chilean world was impacted quite forcefully by the dictatorship. On one hand this impact was good, I must say, as modernization of production methods sacked forms of exploiting the peasants that had been typical since the Middle Ages. But there also came to pass, in a very abrupt way, a savage kind of capitalism that destroyed all previously existing forms of rural social life. When I was young and the dictatorship let us visit my family members in Chile, I came to know all the rural harvest festivals and common rituals. But with Pinochet there came large businesses that practiced economic exploitation on a grand scale, obliterating small farmland and, in the process, the peasantry and its way of life. Today it is almost impossible to survive in the Chilean countryside as a small cattle farmer or coal merchant, or as anyone else involved in activities that are not part of the larger financial scheme.
Cutler: You have previously discussed Pasolini and Herzog. Why else are they important references for you?
Sepúlveda: Pasolini is a great reference for me simply because when I think about him I remember a primal image of faces speaking in foreground as though suspended from time and space. This is what I see in films like Accatone (1961), The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964), and The Canterbury Tales (1972). These near-abstract images of characters (often played by a mix of amateur thespians found in the countryside and professional actors) possess the force of a truth reached without concessions. He achieves a musicality of the air that feels rooted in the earth. Whenever I first saw one of his films I would leave without knowing whether I had liked it, but with time I understood that I had actually never left the films—they remain within me today. Pasolini takes up a practice of pictorial art exercised by Renaissance masters that is simultaneously strong and light, which is to say that the narratives never break apart no matter how he composes them. The dreams that his films create do not end with time, but rather grow in their intensity.
Pasolini is also a constant reference for me because he works with what I consider to be essential stories. These are the kinds of tales that one finds in the folklore of small villages and that have been developing and distilling thanks to myriad anonymous authors and audiences. I am referring to tales such as those told in Pasolini’s films of The Decameron (1971) and of Arabian Nights (1974), for example, which present the fruit of refinement in the popular art of storytelling. Pasolini gives these stories his own tone and timing as he reinterprets them, making them unique while still showing how they pertain to us all.
As for Herzog, I watch Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) twice a month as a kind of mantra. The film employs a somewhat theatrical staging that appeals to me. Even with the Spanish characters speaking in German (a fact that has never bothered me), there is no other film that I have seen that represents in a truer way the beauty of the jungle, nor the greed and sick minds of men incapable of seeing that an indigenous person has a soul. The film powerfully represents the small hallucinations with which this group of men ventures into the magnificent and terrible wilderness, and it brings to inexorable tragedy a hypnotic sense of time.
Herzog has something that goes further than refined technique, which is the gaze of a human being observing for the first time, in an initial form, men, animals and Nature. I remember that in my first short film I had intended to begin with a shot of the natural world, as some of Herzog’s films do. Without a doubt, though, my film didn’t have that “thing,” by which I mean the soul to make Nature seem as though it were inhabited by spirits. The French documentarian Yann Le Masson (who co-directed the excellent Kashima Paradise  with Bénie Deswarte) told me that it was wrong to begin a film with a neutral image, and that the entire film needed to be present in its first shot. This is what Herzog does—he encounters a unique form through which to film something as complex as Nature. He manages to find its soul and to represent its face. In his films Nature is alive, not simply beautiful.
The same holds true with Herzog’s animals: How can one forget the sight of the bandit Cobra Verde entering a village whose terrorized people are fleeing and have left behind only copulating pigs, beasts totally free from the human horror that has arrived like a plague? Or the horse on the Amazon shores in Aguirre? This masked horse, which tries to hide from the camera throughout a slow traveling shot, helps create one of the most beautiful moments that I have ever witnessed in a film. The viewer is left telling tales inside his head years after having seen it. This is the kind of work that only the masters can do—filling their audiences all the way up with all of their fantasies and nightmares.
Aaron Cutler keeps a film criticism website, The Moviegoer.