2019, HD video, sound, 37’49”
A Zapotec man from the future tells the story of how in the 21st century a new invasion of “foreigners” afflicted his village. While people in Europe were suffering a crisis that made them lose memory and a sense of their culture, his village in Oaxaca, a group of young people were trying to document their own culture by making a film during Carnival rituals.
Athina Rachel Tsangari: Oaxacan Carnival, Bergman, post-apocalyptic lizards…How did BENIZIT come into being?
Bani Khoshnoudi: The film started as a commission, or an invitation let’s say, to collaborate with a Swedish artist in making a film on a small budget. Although we had an interesting creative dialogue from the beginning, once the artist visited Mexico and it became time to move on to the more practical side of things, the relationship fell apart. Many issues arose, not only cultural, but also ethical. The main problem was the fact that the budget, which was to be shared equally and consensually, had to be managed by the European collaborator, which meant a relationship from the outset of inequality, and in my eyes, of domination, that set us up for complete failure. Once this collaboration fell apart, I couldn’t help but think of Carnival as an anti-colonial concept and ritual, of Ingmar Bergman and his “ethnography” of tense relationships between pairs in Sweden, and well, a certain imaginary of Mexico as being a magical place and subsequently the pillage of its nature and culture… Somehow I brought all these elements together into my refusal to call it quits, and went ahead and made a film from what I managed to get my hands on out of that original budget.
ART: How did you go about doing fieldwork in Oaxaca and engage with the town’s inhabitants? Why the village of Teotitlán del Valle?
BK: When I decided to continue with the project and make a film, I decided to do it as a collaborative project anyway. It would only make sense to subvert the failed collaboration and repair it with a horizontal and liberating one. Let’s call it catharsis, in the Carnival sense of the word. I immediately thought of Teotitlán because of a dear friend who is from there, the artist Beto Ruíz, who modernizes and subverts tapestry, which is the main local craft of the village. Back then, Beto also ran a very free and improvised workshop, Taller8, where he would not only make his own art, but where he also invited artists from outside the community to visit and interchange ideas and their practice with local youth. There was even a film club at one point, organized by a few of these young locals. When I spoke to Beto about the idea of making a film, he thought it could be a great way to get some of the talented young people who live there to have a concrete experience of making cinema. So we did it. Once I was there to develop the story, based on my original idea and through workshops with these young people, I also met so many other people in the village, who were amused by the exercise and began to help out and collaborate in different ways as well. It became a moment, an event, for us all; ephemeral and improvised, all the while very ludic, but also enriching for everyone. In December 2018, when I finally managed to finish the film, I went back to Teotitlán and showed it in an outdoor screening. People laughed a lot and seemed to enjoy it. They even asked me to go back to make my next film.
ART: Did your own practice as a nomadic filmmaker (across Iran, USA, France, Mexico) inform the story and its preoccupation with dislocation and pastiche?
BK: The element of pastiche, mixing specific references from cinema and conflating issues of local culture and history with my own critique of eurocentrism, was really important because although there are serious issues at stake, it is important for me that we be able to joke as well, since these days the story of colonization and exploitation of cultural signs is repetitive and banal to the point of absurdity. It is hard to understand how artists continue to think they can go elsewhere so easily and extract information and “inspiration” and then call the creation their own. In the film, there are a number of “outsider” characters, not only the Swedish woman, but the director that is invited to come from another city of Oaxaca (more specifically from Júchitan further south, where they also speak a different dialect of Zapotec), and an actress who is also going from one place to another. Even myself, an Iranian who has lived in different parts of the world, and who has been living in Mexico for the past 10 years, believe I belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and this of course gives me the impulse to critique ideas of “authenticity” and purity that are thrown around sometimes. I wanted to use this fragmentation to also talk about the process of making art and films in particular.
ART: The memory loss allegory, the voice over, the stark black and white photography is reminiscent of La Jetée...
BK: Maybe. That is an interesting point. Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) is one of the first films I ever felt deeply moved by as an adult when I was a film student, so it is surely in my deep subconscious and probably emerges without me even noticing it. Now that you mention it, maybe it did in this case, but that’s the first time I think about it in terms of Benizit.
ART: As an “outlander filmmaker” in Mexico, are you the director, the scientist, or the translator?
BK: The translator, for sure.
ART: Both the director and the scientist are cranky and condescending toward the “natives”....
BK: They sure are.
ART: In the film’s intro in particular, you built a very interesting soundscape. Can you talk about the sound design, and the music by Carlos Alvarado?
BK: I wanted to mix the natural sounds of Teotitlán, the agave fields and the animals and the pieces of rocks and thrush and the rest of that striking landscape with Mexican electronic music that also conjures a certain concept of indigenous sci-fi. My idea was to make it seem like the future is actually now, or very close by, and that the sounds of nature will inevitably change as time advances but will surely survive many of our human ideas and gestures, especially the destructive ones. It is this little bit of optimism that I wanted to bring into the sound work as well. The slowness of a future that has survived technology and extraction and whose discontents are embodied by natural sounds of the environment and by a dreamy, melodic music that has also survived. Carlos Alvarado, whose solo work as well as with his group Vía Láctea is really important in the Mexican electronic and progressive rock scene, has been active since the 1970s but is at the same time little known. His work has been pioneering due to his early use of synthesizer. The two pieces that I use, La Alondra y la Virgen and Meditación Post Atómica provided the exact mood I wanted to establish in the film, so I brought these sounds in to somehow announce the flash-forward and then flashback at the beginning and to accompany us throughout the film.
Directed by: Bani Khoshnoudi
Script: Bani Khoshnoudi in collaboration with the youth of Taller8
Produced by : Bani Khoshnoudi, Elena Pardo, Beto RuízDirector of Photography : Dariela Ludlow
Editing: Bani Khoshnoudi
Art direction: Berenice Guraeib
Sound: Alicia Segovia
Music: Carlos Alvarado
Cast: Alberto Ruíz, Michael Matus, Javier Lazo Gútierrez, Jessica Santiago Gúzman, Carlos López, Donají Marcial, Ana Sosa, Juan Montaño, Berenice Guraeib, Isabelle Manhes, Antonio Ruíz, Don Porfirio, Fausto Lazo Hernández, Walter SchmidtProduced by Pensée Sauvage Films, CPH:LAB
With the support of the Swedish Film Institute, FONCA Mexico (Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y los Artes)
Contact: Pensée Sauvage Films