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The Still Life of Harley Prosper

The Still Life of Harley Prosper

[…] His speech is a mixture of altered state delirium and lucid consideration of his life; therefore, we are confronted with that which a «true dream» (Harley’s words) means: the imminence of death gives his personality a strength and vibrancy that tackles the dreamlike elements into which his alcoholism has sunk him.

[…] In this sense, the path of his life is evidence more of the difficult freedom of the spirit than indigenous identity. The strength of «The Still Life of Harley Prosper» is in its ability to make the historical, the social and the political coalesce into the existential – and thus eschewing any discourse but using the very force of the cinematic experience.

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There are many documentary films focusing on the history and the conditions of the indigenous people of North America and stressing the faults of Anglo-American colonialism, but Juan Manuel Sepúlveda is more interested in the perverse forms that the morally well-legitimated compensations take today, especially in Canada, a country that has built a profitable economy via the “generous” welfare that is issued to the indigenous communities. The well-known problem of alcoholism and drug addiction is currently being “solved” through the State-managed hospices where the addicts are concentrated (i.e. ghettoized), controlled and supplied with alcohol and drugs… The Still Life of Harley Prosper does not explicitly explain this complex and amoral situation, but simply shows us the extreme consequences of this “system” through the story of a young Cree – Harley Prosper – who has escaped his own reserve, as he could not bear to face his destiny of becoming a shaman. We could say that he has renounced his obligations of healing his community, only to find himself finally “healed-to-death” in a State hospice in Vancouver.

Throughout the film, this concept is expressed only through the experience that we have of Harley Prosper’s body and soul. Due to the clandestine conditions of shooting in Harley’s tiny room, Sepúlveda’s camera remains incredibly close to this suffering soul and the dying body it resides in. The doctors expect his death very soon, but we are witnesses to his strong resistance and desire to live. His speech is a mixture of altered state delirium and lucid consideration of his life; therefore, we are confronted with that which a «true dream» (Harley’s words) means: the imminence of death gives his personality a strength and vibrancy that tackles the dreamlike elements into which his alcoholism has sunk him.

The simplicity of Sepúlveda’s filmic dispositive has the effect of conveying moments of pure intensity. Through his vernacular, we access Harley’s burning will to live, such as when he sings Cree songs, lovingly fights against the camera that stares at him, or wears a kitschy plastic mask. Actually, the long shot with Harley wearing the mask appears to sum up his entire personality – clumsily hinting at his Cree identity, and expressing his redirected life through the disfiguration caused by the mask, but also highlighting his humorous and playful transfiguration. In this sense, the path of his life is evidence more of the difficult freedom of the spirit than indigenous identity. The strength of The Still Life of Harley Prosper is in its ability to make the historical, the social and the political coalesce into the existential – and thus eschewing any discourse but using the very force of the cinematic experience.

For this reason, we have to stress the formal virtues of this extraordinary documentary film. The open self-positing of the camera, which leads to a precise self-reflexivity of the filming gesture; the choice of an insistent closeness to the protagonist, which heavily emphasises the tumult of his “still” life; the intelligent and accurate sound design, which emerges as the leading temporal line responsible for the storytelling; the long shots, which are not meant to encourage contemplation but to explode the time into a metaphysical present. Through all of this, Sepúlveda’s cinema is nothing but the concretion of transcendence.

The film also provides also with a puzzling coup-de-scène: in the final part of The Still Life of Harley Prosper we find him again, after one year, alive and in even better health than when we last saw him – even if he has substituted the alcohol addiction with a drug addiction. The new room is cleaner and his speech shows the capacity of having a temporal perspective, a viewpoint from which he can evaluate his life – which is now shared with a wonderful cat. The introduction of an ordered and linear timeline – that we feel also through the portrayal of “presented” objects, such as the kitschy mask hanging on the wall – goes together with the wider angle of the camera: at the centre of the frame is a large window that opens onto an urban landscape. The death sentence seems to be averted, but we hesitate to feel this new situation has a happy ending. The problematic reality of Canada – at least for Harley – is still there, in fact it's even more present, and pressing, than before. In a sense, we come back from the existential layer to return to the social and political one. Would he be able to say again, with the same cynical superiority of the possessed that he had one year before, «Good morning Canada»? Yet, Harley Prosper still enjoys listening to the recordings of Cree ritual songs: it's probably this connection to his lost community that is the lifeline that keeps him bound to transcendence.

First published: April 22, 2018

The Still Life of Harley Prosper | Film | Juan Manuel Sepúlveda | MEX 2018 | 65’ | Visions du réel 2018

Sesterce d’or Canton de Vaud in the Competition “Burning Light” at Visions du réel 2018

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