Documenting Colombia with Carlos Bernal

Article excerpt

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Carlos Bernal is a documentary film maker born in La Ceja, Colombia, and the fifth of ten children in a large Catholic family typical of the department of Antioqula. His first memory of a documentary film was Man on the Moon, which he saw when he was eight or nine years old on the first color television in La Ceja, brought to the town by his father, a local merchant. Curiously, the film stayed in his mind throughout his whole life and may have influenced him in the editing of his own images years later.

Son de barro (1983) was Bernal's first documentary, and the novelty of the esthetics and imagery made it a success. Bernal stresses that one of the most important elements in the success of any film maker is to create something new, something that has not been done before. As a professor at the University of Santa Marta, Bernal makes it a point not to show his film students his own works. "I don't want them to use my formula for success; because it's already been done.... I want them to find their own formula, something new."

Bernal captures sequences of disparate images to encourage introspection. What does an image of a farmer harvesting vegetables in the misty mornings of the cloud forests have to do with elderly women chatting in a sewing group in downtown Medellin? What does a man from Tumaco playing a marimba have in common with a widow who speaks of her independence? In Bernal's work, a sequence of images, words, and music fit together to sculpt a faithful reconstruction of a culture that marks a sharp contrast to the many novels and films that only discuss the violence in Colombia.

Bernal's films are a refreshing change in that they show Colombia through the eyes of a rather objective camera. He speaks in strings of abstractions and he films with his heart, but he is able to make his abstract world accessible to his audience. Bernal finds meaning in words or in a still image, like the image of fish caught in a net shown in Africa, tierra madre [Africa: Mother Earth]. His words are not always linked in full sentences; they are more like a series of images put together.

When Bernal describes why he thinks that Peruvian dancers so captured the attention of the Colombians at the Latin American Folklore festival in Cartagena in 2000, he talks about it with the enthusiasm of someone who has just watched the Peruvian dance for the first time, and not nine years prior:

[In Colombia], we don't have much
    information about either Bolivian or
   Peruvian culture, even though they
   are right next door. They are very
   colorful, and there is such a great
   influence of Asian culture/You are
   struck by the fact that ... the singing
   is like Mandarin; it's very strange,
   like a distant millennial culture from
   Asia, so different from ours.... You
   learn about spirituality. It's kind of
   like it is giving off a dazzling light....
   what a pity that we know more about
   French or Spanish culture than
   Peruvian culture ... we never knew
   that kind of music existed! 

Bernal's creative mind is evident when he describes what he calls a "rough idea" for a new documentary on his current hometown of Santa Marta. Simon Bolivar died in Santa Marta so this historic event offers a rich context for the opening of the film. Bernal outlines several shots that he has set up in his mind and the time of day each shot will be taken. He has even planned which sounds should mark the transitions between the takes. Sound is the basis of Bernal's works, and music and voice take precedence over literal expression. This focus is especially interesting considering that Bernal has a fascination for "Afro" culture, known for its rich use of percussion and of voice as an instrument.

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Bernal's predilection for depicting Afro-Colombia and cultural events led him to meet his wife, Ayda Mena, a professional folkloric dancer and elementary school teacher. …