By James Teitelbaum.
The armed conflict in Columbia has now been claiming lives for fifty years. The Columbian government has been battling several paramilitary organizations plus a handful of further guerrilla groups over everything from land reform to cocaine production. With those same guerrilla groups allegedly working for mafia drug lords, they don’t always have much incentive to hurry the peacemaking process along. Roughly 80% of the quarter-million people who have died in the conflict are civilians. Many of those casualties have been members of a poor indigenous minorities who live in rural areas (as opposed to the generally wealthier descendants of Spanish settlers).
With this ongoing conflict providing the setup for director William Vega’s impressive debut feature, we meet 19-year-old Alicia (Joghis Seudin Arias) a refugee whose parents were killed when one of the fighting factions burned her village to the ground. Without the presence of mind to have glimpsed the combatants’ armbands, she has no idea who is responsible. Fleeing the ruins, she heads to lake La Cocha, three thousand meters up in the Andes of southwest Columbia. In the film’s atmospheric opening shots, Alicia stumbles through the foggy marshes surrounding the magnificent mountain lake, and eventually collapses into the mud in exhaustion. With the help of a local boy named Mirichis (David Fernando Guacas) who delivers goods (and guns) from village to village in his gondola, Alicia arrives at La Sirga, the ramshackle hostel run by her complacent uncle Oscar (Julio César Roble). The seasonal influx of tourists are due to arrive soon, if the fighting nearby doesn’t scare them off. Alicia is put to work helping a curt local woman named Flora (Floralba Achicanoy) get the place fixed up.
Working hard through cold rainy weather with the ever present fog rolling in over the mountains, Alicia and Flora manage to wrestle the rotting and rickety edifice into some sort of presentable condition as reclusive uncle Oscar works to get a trout farm going. Although the menace of war is ever-present in the minds of these characters, the story being told here is a simple character study of Alicia, living and working among a small cast of laconic characters as she tacitly contemplates how to best reassemble her shattered life. Orphaned and impoverished, her options are not great. “Life is hard here” says Oscar, after reluctantly taking his niece into La Sirga. Indeed, the old plank building, which seems to remain standing only through sheer luck, provides only the most rudimentary shelter in this land of reeds and mud surrounding the windy alpine lake. Mirichis wants Alicia to run away with him, while her cousin Freddy (Heraldo Romero) wants her to take Oscar away from the struggle of La Sirga, and move to Pasto, the nearest town. Flora doesn’t seem to care what Alicia does, and is skeptical that any tourists will arrive.
Alicia is also a sleepwalker, but metaphorically, this can be said of all of the characters. Their lives are empty, and none of them ever show us a moment of joy. They meander through their lives unsure of the future, and don’t seem to be able to enjoy the present. There’s a sense of hopelessness among these people, some subconscious realization that their lives have been reduced to waiting for either the tourists or the violence to arrive. Reluctant actress Arias had to be persuaded to take the role of Alicia; this is her debut screen performance. As an indigenous Quillasinga, and as someone who lost her father to Columbia’s violence, Arias has close ties with her character. She brings this to the screen subtly in a performance that ranges from fragile to determined, but never happy.
Despite the tone of resignation and the incredibly slow pace, the film is a compelling glimpse into life in a very remote and beautiful corner of the world. This is most effectively captured on the screen via the lyrical cinematography of Sofia Oggioni. Virtually every shot in La Siriga is a stunner, always carefully composed, and taking full advantage of natural light in the atmospheric weather. Vega likes to hold the bulk of these shots for quite a bit longer than necessary, and I never minded. The bulk of the film’s scenes exist as single uninterrupted takes, further contributing to the leisurely pace. The camera rarely moves during a shot, preferring to linger on Oggioni’s carefully framed compositions. The characters on screen have no where important to be, and neither should the viewer. Like a tourist visiting lake La Cocha (something that more than a few viewers of this film might be compelled to do), one should take their time appreciating the aesthetic beauty of La Sirga’s gently swaying reeds, waterlogged wood, forested mountains, and candle-lit interiors.
La Sirga won best first feature at the Havana Film Festival, best direction and best cinematography at RiverRun, and also screened at Cannes, Toronto, and San Sebastian. The DVD of La Sirga from Film Movement contains a 38-minute documentary, and a bonus short film by Vega. It will be interesting to see what William Vega does next, particularly if he continues to keep Sofia Oggioni on his team.
James Teitelbaum is a media arts professor in Chicago. He has been writing film reviews for about a decade, and is the author of four books, including Destination: Cocktails (2012), and Big Stone Head (2009).