Valentina Giraldo Sánchez: Audiovisual Herbarium

Making the Knowledge of the Image a  Knowledge of the Earth

Long ago I heard the story of a botanist who went to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta accompanied by a Mamo Kogui to make classifications of the different plants from there. In the indigenous communities of this place, the Mamos are the spiritual leaders who keep ancestral knowledge and wisdom. As they walked through the mountain, the botanist gave scientific data to the Mamo. After hearing each piece of information about the plants, the Mamo would squeeze a part of his body and repeat it in a low voice. The botanist asked why he did that, and he answered that knowledge is stored in the body. Every time he needs to remember something about a plant, he squeezes the part of his body that had the memory stored in it.

Films are like huge trees in a forest. Cinema is an ecosystem, and film criticism works like botany. When you get lost in a forest, time is lost in ellipsis and eventually the amount of trees and their bulkiness can be terrifying. Getting lost in a forest is like dedicating oneself, in detail, to the exercise of analysing a film. In the forest of images that motivate me to write this text, I hear the murmur of the spirits that cinema has left in my life: the memories.

 This herbarium, which is both a journey and a conversation, was born out of a quest to make the knowledge of the image, knowledge of the earth. To make films earth suitable for cultivating and to transform my words into seeds.

In the movie’s images, in María Sabina’s (a Mazatec healer and shaman from the state of Oaxaca in Mexico) agricultural knowledge, and in the corporal memory of Mamo, this herbarium is the description of different healing plants that will appear during the walk through the forest of Berlinale´s 2021 selection images.

Herbarium #1: The First 54 Years – an Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation

Plant: The First 54 Years – an Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation – Avi Mograbi /  Eyebright
Family: Forum Berlinale 2021.
Place of collection: France / Finland / Israel / Germany
Collector: Valentina Giraldo Sánchez.

Military uniforms are designed to blend in with environments. If you are in the jungle the color of the military uniform is green. If you are in the desert, the colour of the uniforms is usually beige. Human bodies become confused with nature. What is the difference between a big plant and a military uniform? Military uniforms shoot. Plants don’t throw hot lead through bodies, people do. In The First 54 Years – an Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation (2021) we walk through the fragmentary story of Palestine occupation. Mograbi’s film urges us to ask ourselves: what is the state? The state is then its images: Armed men. Shooting soldiers. Shooting cameras. A state is a uniformed military man who, with his bat, points at a woman; he tells her what is right or what is wrong, he points in which direction to walk. In Mograbi’s film the state is put on a screen and intervened: He brings the images closer and lengthens his sequences, he invites us to fix our gaze on the story. Mograbi interrupts the sequences to explain to us, from his images, how the state shapes its body.

An image: A collective punishment. People are forced to sunbathe for hours, they are beaten. They’re blindfolded. The eyes are irritated when they’ve been covered for a long time and then see the light. The color of the image is distorted by the passage of time, it is as if it were a pupil with a cataract. Mograbi reminds us that if we don’t recover our images, they will simply cloud over, they will disappear. The archival images selected by Mograbi, full of dampness, tears and mold, evoke the sensation of having an eye disease. As if seeing history meant seeing it full of holes and stains. As if watching history meant getting sick. Eyebright is a plant used for eye ailments.

A body’s part: the eyelids. The skin on my eyelids is thin and you can see the veins. Underneath the epithelium are the marks of having seen the film that Mograbi has created. My eyes are tired, and every time I want to remember the fallen leaves of the tree of history, I just need to close my eyes.

Eyebright grows in the northern hemisphere between May and September. War always leaves tired eyes. The gaze is a sense, a relational practice and a social process. Violence leaves a painful gaze. Fatigue, fear and sadness invite us to shut our eyes. Film is the light of revealing images, The First 54 Years – an Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation is the eyebright that heals the aching gaze.

I write this from Bogota, my eyes hurt too. Here, in the social strikes, the police throw firecrackers in the faces of the protesters, blinding them. Maybe the origin of eye ailments exceeds the maps.

Herbarium #2:  The Path is made by Walking

Plant: The Path is made by Walking – Paula Gaitán / Mimosa púdica
Family: Forum Expanded Berlinale 2021.
Place of collection: Brazil
Collector: Valentina Giraldo Sánchez.

My great-grandmother Serafina dedicated her life to walking. My mother tells me that Serafina would walk for several days to nearby towns. In the villages, she would if someone could adopt her children, since she wanted them to study medicine and they lived in the countryside and didn’t have access to university. No one ever accepted her children so they took up agriculture. The cinema, as an exercise of memory, reminded me of those steps that precede my own, The Path is made by Walking (2021) is an invitation to animality and return.

A body’s part: my right foot. The knowledge of this film is stored in my foot. The writing that comes from my body, from my feet, is a writing that walks.

An image: the walker is among a crop. The wayfarer is the way. The walker always returns to the path, for to walk is to write with the body and to tread the earth is to build an inventory of those steps taken and those still to be taken. The image I have chosen from Paula’s short film depicts the head of the walker in the middle of a crop. The camera turns and the walker appears at the beginning of the path: everything starts again. I always go back to Serafina’s footsteps, they are the footsteps I came from and they are the same ones I will go to. The path repeats itself, spreading out and closing like a Mimosa pudica.

The composition of Paula’s images merges the body with the landscape. The crops swallow the man who walks, the man becomes the crop and the crop becomes the man. The images play with this relation constantly, the man into the ground and the ground into the man. The Mimosa pudica has antiviral and sedative powers. Walking, repeating the path, is like a reverie and sedation. This plant is also called “dead-life”, because when it is alive, it pretends to be dead. Its fundamental characteristic is that when you touch it, its leaves close, as if it had died. It closes and opens. It repeats itself just like the path. Images and words walk through the same ground: memory. I put in dialogue a memory and a film, because both things are learned by walking the path. Memory is an eternal journey, an unfinished road, the feet plow the path and the path is made by walking.

Herbarium #3: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Plant: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird – Ana Vaz / Thunbergia alata
Family: Forum Expanded Berlinale 2021.
Place of collection: Portugal.
Collector: Valentina Giraldo Sánchez.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (2021) is the latest short film by Ana Vaz. A narrative that no longer divides land from time, it invites us to move between two worlds: the animal and the human.

An image: actually, two images that form one. What is it that we can see when we close our eyes? How do things look when you have the eyes of an animal? The image chosen for this herbarium is the inner look of the bird. The blurred edges of the images and the closed eyes, are looking for another kind of look. The Thunbergia alata is characterized because when it blooms, it is full of eyes: flowers with a center black dot. They look like the eyes of a bird in the night. Thunbergia alata infusions are used to wash wounds.

A body’s part: my hands. When I look closely at my hands, I feel that the lines of the palm resemble the feathers of a bird. Ana’s short film is the hand that reaches out and welcomes a black bird. The images, full of drawings and words, remind me of that revelation of cinema: light.

Ana’s images lead me to think of an experimental ethnography of cinema. How do we observe those images that come from a camera that can also observe us? This work abstracts the story into a fractal, as if we were putting our eye up to the center of the flower. Thunbergia alata is known as the “eye of Venus”, and it’s dark center is reminiscent of a hole, a nothingness, a cinema that swallows itself. Self-cannibalism, ouroboros, black hole and the center of the flower Thunbergia alata. Between drawings, conversations and phrases, this short film opens the pupil which receives the light of the healing care of cinema, of that ecology of the gaze that, in order to watch oneself carefully, one must close one’s eyes.

This film allows us to inhabit the world of images with different senses, without affirming anything, without annulling any path and filing our experience as spectators with questions. It’s about inventing new paths and making history out of loose ends. Healing possibilities of a future instituted outside of the hegemonic gaze.

Herbarium #4: A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces

Plant: A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces – Shengze Zhu / Euphorbia prostrata
Family: Forum Berlinale 2021.
Place of collection: USA.
Collector: Valentina Giraldo Sánchez.

An image: what does the death of the world look like? Like a city with closed cinemas and plants that break the asphalt. Ruderal plants are plants that have the ability to grow in hostile terrain intervened by humans. One such plant is Euphorbia prostrata, which is oftentimes used for problems such as watery eyes or eye clouding. This image, under a bridge full of Euphorbia prostrata plants, opens the fourth page of this herbarium.

A body’s part: the skin. The skin is a surface full of affection. My skin is full of marks. When I unintentionally hit a part of my body, the blood vessels burst and form a bruise. The river in Zhu’s film is like the blood that grows under the skin when something hits you.

A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces (2021) brings together material from Wuhan before and during the quarantine. The images are woven letters addressed to people who are no longer here. The city is full of Euphorbia prostrata plants. Plants bear witness to change. The world is in  pause, and the only thing alive on the street are the plants that surround the asphalt.

Plants that grow in hostile terrain are patient. The patience of the plants and the images reminded me of a story by Borges. The story is called “The Secret Miracle”. In it, a man doomed to death asks God to stop time, to give him a year to complete a novel. Shengze Zhu’s film is also a kind of secret miracle, whispering to us the uncertainty of a body that, like the plants, is photosensitive. The letters narrate this affective attempt to recover from the weight of the days. Like Euphorbia prostrata, words grow around stones and asphalt.

Zhu’s images are filled with a disturbing stillness. Its composition and assembly resembles memory. It interrupts, extends, closes and becomes like a body that throbs. Places only exist in memory. How can we cure the sight that reminds us of that house to which we cannot return? The film ends by showing a flooded territory, the river has risen. The city, crisscrossed by those ancient omens of plants that cure watery, cloudy eyes, reminds us that no matter what happens or how sunny the day, we swim in the thick slime of time.

Written for the Berlinale Talent Press of 2021