Fogo – Yulene Olaizola (2012)

Have I ever mentioned that I love my “job”? It makes me really happy to discover all those talented, yet unknown directors from all over the world, whose films are a pleasure to watch. Yulene Olaizola’s Fogo (2012) is one of those films. Unfortunately, it is one of so many slow films that have not yet received adequate distribution, especially in Europe. So I’m very much in her debt for granting me access to a screener.

Olaizola is a Mexican director. After Nicolas Pereda, Pedro Gonzales-Rubio, and Francisco Vargas, she is the fourth stunning slow-film director from Mexico. There appears to be a real pool of slow talent over there, and I hope to see more in future. Fogo is, however, not set in Mexico, but in Canada, on the Fogo Island. Uncommon for Slow Cinema, the film starts with music over black screen, and then a cut positions us behind a man, wrapped up in thick clothes, who is slowly walking along a path while the camera, following him, slowly moves from eye level to a high angle shot. It’s a smooth transition, and it’s beautiful. This isn’t the only beautiful shot in the film. In fact, the entire film contains superb compositions. It once more reinforces my idea that slow-film directors really have a photographic eye, if trained or not.

Fogo 1

The music stops, the screen goes black again. A smooth dissolve starts the actual narrative. With the man we saw earlier walking in the background as a tiny dot in the landscape, our eyes are fixed on the ruins of houses we’re shown. There is one particularly tilted house, possibly a result of landslides. The man knocks on the door of that house, saying “Last ferry leaves day after tomorrow.” What is going on?

There is this remarkable shot which I can’t get out of my head. It’s indoors, dark, with a bit of backlight coming through the window, which illuminates the window itself like a holy relic. A man sits on the right hand side of the frame. Waiting. In silence. He’s the man in the titled house. Through a conversation between him and another man, we learn that the part of the island the films is set in is to be evacuated. People can no longer live there. More shots of the island throughout the film make the reason behind the evacuation obvious: it’s an utterly desolate landscape. It’s a landscape of emptiness (as is so often the case in slow films) that cannot provide for the people anymore. The island stands for death.

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While most people leave the island, two men stay behind. Even though they’re alone there, I see it as a solitary confinement. Truth is, the last ferry is gone. They have decided to die (slowly) on this island, so in effect they are trapped. Trapped alone, but together. In this way, Fogo is Slow Cinema par excellence. The entire narrative is structured around absence and emptiness. Death is hinted at. It is about loneliness and hopelessness. There are lengthy scenes of two men walking across the island to seek a better place, where they can stay until the end. There is this feeling of imminent death. One scene that reminds me of it, which conveys this brilliantly, shows one of the men chopping wood. Now, the frame is rather empty, and it contains only one tree, which is positioned a bit off-centre. Nowhere, not even in the farthest background is there any other tree visible. It looks as if the man chops down the last tree of the island to get some fire wood. The last resources are being used.

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Throughout the film, the light is low. It’s a rather dark scenery, but it is important to note that with growing hopelessness, the frames become darker. Indeed, we could move towards night. Yet the very fact that light is diminishing conveys a reliable sense of “the end”, both in terms of the film itself, but also that of the people on this island.

What I’m not entirely sure about is just how much fiction and fact is in it. Again, this appears to be a common trope within Slow Cinema. I remember Nicolas Pereda, who always moves between fiction and documentary. Lav Diaz did the same in Death in the Land of Encantos. And Michela Occhipinti approached Letters from the Desert in a very similar way. I assume that Fogo is also one of those films that are a bit of both. I wonder if it would make sense to re-define the term docu-fiction in relation to Slow Cinema. I think it would be useful, certainly for those films.

Anyway, if Fogo appears at a festival near you, do please go see it. If you want to see a superb slow film, then this is a very good choice, in particular because it is only an hour long. Good for all those people, who have little patience for slowness!

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