Set Diary: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, pt. 3
Photo from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Twitter page
I was invited to follow the shoot of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria in order to collect material for an upcoming book to be published by Fireflies Press. This included writing a daily diary of the production, from which the following passages are excerpted exclusively in Film Comment, in serialized form with a new entry every afternoon for the next week. Read the previous entries here.
Day 18—Thursday, 12 September 2019
“It’s like working underwater!” says Apichatpong when we finally re-emerge into the open, an uncharacteristic note of exasperation in his voice. From the start of production, the crew has anticipated the two days scheduled here—inside a tunnel under construction through the Colombian Andes—with equal parts excitement and apprehension, expecting this to be most difficult part of the shoot. Judging from the collective exhaustion, and the number of shots on the call sheet left uncompleted, it seems the prediction was accurate. All day, it’s been mostly impossible for me to follow what’s going on. The deafening noise, the cold and unrelenting winds, the all-enveloping dust, the traffic of trucks and bulldozers, the limited visibility and room to move, the difficulty in communicating or even telling anyone apart, all of us wearing reflective vests, hard hats and respirator masks, absorbed by the grimy twilight.
The tunnel, stretching across 5.4 miles of the Cordillera Central section of the Andes, is the key structure of La Línea, a major highway project intended to expedite traffic between Bogotá and the Pacific Ocean. Originally conceived by the government in the early 20th century, it holds an almost mythical status in the national imaginary. Due to the mountainous geography, much of the country is connected only by steep, endlessly winding single-lane highways. Every person I talk to seems to have childhood memories of family vacations spent stuck in interminable traffic jams and their parents holding up La Línea’s eventual completion as a promise of deliverance. After gestating for many years, construction of the tunnel began in 2004 and has since been mired in a Kafkaesque succession of corruption scandals. As its projected completion keeps getting pushed back, it has grown into a symbol for the government’s repeated failings and betrayals. Offering a pointed comment on this reversal, one of today’s shots passes an old sign seemingly forgotten in the depths of the tunnel that reads, “LA LÍNEA, EL SUEÑO DE LOS COLOMBIANOS” [“La Línea, the dream of the Colombian people”].
Given the charged political context and the many rumors surrounding the delays, everyone on the crew is amazed that the production managed to get permission to film inside. Personally, I find the mere fact of allowing some 50 people without requisite training to run around an active construction site of this magnitude even more difficult to believe. At one point, the direction, camera and sound departments ventured into the densest part of the construction, dodging heavy machinery Frogger-style while carrying all their material, to go shoot an excavator the size of a building as it dug into the rock wall with a gigantic hydraulic hammer. The group of them, looking like ants amidst such tremendous chaos, with Sayombhu manning the camera just feet away from the excavator, Apichatpong checking the frame on the monitor held aloft by Santiago [Duran, the video assist and photography coordinator], and Camilo [Martinez, the boom operator] pointing his boom through the air, made for an image of beautiful, foolhardy absurdity.
Day 19—Friday, 13 September 2019
No one is looking forward to going back inside the tunnel, though today should be less arduous. The set of Agnès’s archaeological dig—in the story, her team is called in after human remains thousands of years old are unearthed by the drilling—is inside a small side gallery cut off from the wind and the construction, so it will be both warmer and quieter. That said, we might encounter ghosts there.
On the drive over, Angélica [Perea, the production designer] tells me that the bones used as props are genuine: eleven adults and two children. Apparently, human bones aren’t difficult to acquire in Colombia, and much cheaper than fake ones. It’s transporting and disposing of them that is risky, as they might have belonged to the armed conflict’s thousands of unreported victims. These were bought from an antiques dealer, who in turn had sourced them from a medical school, and Angélica suspects the school had obtained the corpses illegally to use for anatomy exercises. As if the affair weren’t sufficiently spooky, she says that, on his way over from Bogotá, the man who brought the bones by overnight bus—air travel not being an option—received an anonymous text on WhatsApp from 1983. To my cocked eyebrow, she takes out her phone and shows me the screenshot he sent her. Sure enough, a message dated 8 May 1983: “Voy a estar aquí” [“I will be here”].
Read more here.