Arami Ullón | Apenas el sol
[…] Ullón keeps her authorial voice to a minimum, sticking to a largely observational register. Just as in Pasolini’s prose, under the matter-of-fact surface of the film syntax simmers a controlled indignation, which only manifests itself openly in a couple of montage sequences
[…] Ullón’s film manages to weave together empathy and document, to craft a film that moves from elegy to historical indictment without ever losing sight of its human core.
On the one hand, Apenas el sol is a document. Specifically, and somewhat meta-textually, it documents the act of someone creating a document. Mateo Sobode Chiqueno lives in a community, on a patch of arid land, in the region of the Great Chaco in Paraguay where he is an oral historian. On a portable cassette-recorder, he interviews those who, like him, were born in the forest, and makes tapes of their recollections, their feelings towards the past, the songs and traditions they can still remember. Mateo himself is a member of the indigenous Ayoreo people, one of roughly six thousand. Since the 1950s, various waves of missionaries have made it their task to draw them out of their land and extinguish their way of life. Today, only a few continue to live in the ancestral territories, “uncontacted”, threatened by fires and deforestation. (NGOs refers to them as Indigenous People Living in Voluntary Isolation, a phrase which begs the question of who exactly is being isolated from whom) . For those who did leave, Catholicism and a state-issued ID card are the accoutrements of a new, “civilized” life while now being forced to work a barren land while cattle ranchers and speculators profit from their territories. Mateo has been making his tapes for thirty years now; once the chains of transmission are severed, oral cultures die fast. His efforts to assemble a document here are not merely an ethnographic exercise, but a last-ditch attempt to survive and prevent a cultural genocide.
On the other hand, then, Apenas el sol is a film about loss. Mateo and his generation live in a de-facto exile. Without quite saying so explicitly, it is clear that Mateo longs to return to the forest. When asked about such a prospect, a few of his fellow Ayoreo bring up colourful Christian rhetoric, and seek refuge behind the notion that their life with the “whites” is the “true life”. Others, more candidly, point at the fact that their children and grandchildren have gotten used to living a sedentary life, and that they could not now leave them behind.
Their resignation, subtly resonating through the prism of Mateo’s historical awareness, is heart-rending. I can’t help but think of Pasolini – of those few, staccato sentences in his 1975 fireflies article: «In the early 1960s, due to the pollution of the air, and, mostly, in the countryside, due to the pollution of the waters (the blue rivers and the clear becks) the fireflies have begun to disappear. The phenomenon has been fierce and lightening quick. A few years, and the fireflies were no longer there. (They are now a memory, a quietly devastating one, of the past: any old man who carries within himself such memory cannot recognise himself as a young man in those who are young now, so he can no longer have the regrets he used to). » 
Ullón keeps her authorial voice to a minimum, sticking to a largely observational register. Just as in Pasolini’s prose, under the matter-of-fact surface of the film syntax simmers a controlled indignation, which only manifests itself openly in a couple of montage sequences (of carcasses, scattered against the scorched land, and of fences, barring access to the forest that was once a shared home).
A home: a territory, a structure of belonging. The loss of the forest comes with the loss of an entire cosmos: a sense of the world, of its mechanics, its rituals and meanings. Mateo’s peers struggle to articulate regret because regrets imply alternatives, agency, historical possibility. The exiled Ayoreo have been stripped of all of that: stranded, as it were, in a no man’s land, with only their language and living memories keeping the past alive. At times, the overlapping of personal, generational and historical layers is vertiginous. Ullón follows Mateo as he interviews a man who served as a scout for the missionaries, helped them to track down other uncontacted Ayoreo, and went on to write a book about his role in the “discovery”. As the man recounts, rather apologetically, the role he was forced to play, Mateo browses the photographs in the book, pointing at images of his relatives and acquaintances, some of them would die shortly after leaving the forest, killed by Western pathogens. An echo of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida haunts the scene. To me, and to those I assume are the intended readers of that book, those images are the manifestation of an all-too-ordinary colonial narrative, perhaps discredited, but still seductively transparent. To Mateo, those photographs are fragments from a broken genealogy, the imprint of a severed lineage that only he can retrace.
What remains in the background is the cinematic tradition of ethnographic filmmaking. The subgenre looms over Ullón’s work, with its distinctive mixture of inquiry and engagement. The filmmaker herself is a Paraguayan expat living in Basel, and it wouldn’t be too much of stretch to imagine that some form of mirrored sense of displacement might be at work in the project. Maybe. What counts, however, is that Ullón’s film manages to weave together empathy and document, to craft a film that moves from elegy to historical indictment without ever losing sight of its human core.
 Antenor Vaz, Trinational Report: Fires and deforestation in territories with a documented presence of indigenous peoples in isolation, PIA – Bolívia-Brazil-Paraguay. Brasília-DF (Brazil), GTI PIACI, 2020. https://www.iniciativa-amotocodie.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/informe-incendios-ENG.pdf
 Pier Paolo Pasolini, “La scomparsa delle lucciole”, Corriere della sera, 1.2.1975 (my translation).
Apenas el sol | Film | Arami Ullón | PAR-CH 2020 | 75’ | Locarno Film Festival 2021, Filmar en América latina 2021
First published: August 26, 2021