Experimental Reviews

Poem Reply to Sofía (2021) – 4.5 stars

Director: Sofía del Pedregal

Writer: Catherine Niu

Running time: 2mins

Dark tourism – involving travel to places historically associated with death or tragedy – is by no means a modern phenomenon. Pompeii, for example, has been a popular tourist destination for more than 250 years for example, and was even part of ‘The Grand Tour’ – an 18th century rite of passage for young European aristocrats who would head to Italy to finish off their classical education.

Since then, the increasing ease of travel and a shift to a wider consumption-based economy has seen locales around the world similarly tap into this strange appetite for historical desolation. The post-apocalypse is no longer the preserve of a wealthy minority – 2.5 million tourists visit Pompeii every year now, while the sites of more recent catastrophes are also seeing hordes of consumers converge on their remains. Nearly 200,000 visited Chernobyl in 2019, and earlier this year Ukraine’s Culture Minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, hinted that Unesco World Heritage Status could boost visitor numbers to more than one million people every year.

What exactly it is that draws so many people to the emaciated remains of these long-abandoned citadels is hard to pin down – but it surely must relate on some level to the impending collapse our own society currently faces. Sites like Chernobyl speak to the vanity of humanity, its belief that it could harness and mutilate nature’s power without consequence, before being swallowed whole by the forces it thought it had tamed. The rewilded ruins now stand testament, not only to what befalls our species when it fails to recognise its limits, but to the fact that life will go on without us, in whatever ruined world we bequeath.

Similarly, Argentina’s Ruins of Epecuén speak to the fate that more and more seems to await our civilisation at large. The Lago Epecuen is a salt lake, around 600 kilometres from Buenos Aires, and in the 1920s, people began cashing in on the healing properties of its highly salted water by building a bustling resort on its shore. The community thrived, with hotels, restaurants and locals enjoying prosperity driven by the 25,000 tourists that visited each summer. That is, until the early 1980s, when torrential rainfall in the surrounding hills saw Lago Epecuen swell, and burst a dam built to tame the waters, flooding the entire resort for almost a quarter of a century.

Since 2009, the weather that saw Villa Epecuén submerged for decades began to subside, and slowly it re-emerged from the brine. What resurfaced was very different from the town people had known decades before, however, with the skeletal remains of the resort having been bleached white by the water’s salt. Dilapidated buildings, ghostly dead trees and rusted vehicles now poke through beds of dried sediment. The town now stands as yet another warning of what may be in store for the dark tourists who are inexplicably drawn to it; in spite of our perceived safe ‘normality,’ our arrogant assumption that we can ignore the might of nature, can still be so easily washed away. Then, the only thing left will be the alien, fragmented echoes of our own vanity, a cautionary epitaph for whichever ‘dark tourists’ come next.

It is in this strange and mesmerising environment that the epistolary short film Poem Reply to Sofía takes place. If you think I have taken the long-way round in getting to that fact, it is for good reason.

The film’s light-touch, experimental approach means there are no mechanisms in the piece itself to explain what the crumbling concrete structures we are shown are, or help us to construct them into our own systems of meaning. In many ways this is entirely appropriate – after all, to the elements there is no more objective ‘meaning’ to be found in these fragments of rock than in any of the infinity of dust and rubble eroded by the world’s winds or oceans. However, we are still approaching this environment through a human lens. The film is based on the interplay between an art installation by Sofía del Pedregal, placing sheets of semi-transparent fabric over the ruins, and a poetic letter written by Catherine Niu.

Niu’s disjointed and fractured prose stops and starts, overlaps and contradicts itself, providing a refracted dimension of visions of a lost past it is now impossible to know. It is the perfect accompaniment to footage a haggard ghost-town, abandoned to the ravages of time – it is the disjointed echo of voices long past, which cannot be reassembled to a coherent message we understand, any more than the work of the lake can be undone, or the buildings and businesses of the ruin be resurrected.

Arguably, Niu’s poem outflanks Del Pedregal’s images in this regard, providing more food for thought than the footage really manages. While the translucent cloth draped about the ruins does also give us the idea something of its essence has been lost, or obscured by history, it makes limited use of the site. A quick search for the Ruins of Epecuén reveal a wealth of crooked, ghoulish imagery, suggesting that Del Pedregal’s camera might have been more creative in seeking out parts of the tomb to highlight.

In the end, it is probably a little pernickety of me to pick at the cinematography of a film which is two-minutes in length, especially when whatever I thought of it, it clearly inspired such a fantastically otherworldly poem. It arguably is also a sign of restraint that would be absent in many other films looking to simply use the ruin as a post-apocalyptic commodity. By refusing to cater to the post-apocalyptic titillation so many of us crave, it instead prompts us to look at the decaying town more introspectively, weighing up what lessons we might draw from it in our own doomed moment.  

As is always the case with experimental films on Indy Film Library, what I have said here needs to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. I have tried to provide helpful contextual information which may help viewers engage with this film, in spite of its refusal to provide such detail itself, however, my interpretations are by no means definitive. The filmmakers might have hoped to convey something else, or nothing at all; that is the difficulty and the beauty of reviewing this kind of cinema. Whatever this film was ultimately intended to be, it provides a cavernous space for introspection, for honing viewers’ interpretive skills, and perhaps for prompting critical thought on the world around us – and that is always gift worth celebrating.

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