The focus of a retrospective during the 2022 edition of the Open City Documentary Festival in London, Alexandra Cuesta’s films use established canons as departure points for more subjective and personal explorations. This includes experimentations with the city symphony, the diary film and structuralist filmmaking, regularly drawing upon her own embodiment within these locations as an Ecuadorian who has lived and worked in various Western cities, exploring the notion of belonging.

Shot on 16mm film, Recordando el Ayer (2007), Piensa en mí (2009) and Despedida (Farewell) (2013) explore locations in the United States home to Latin American populations – Jackson Heights in New York City, Downtown Los Angeles and Boyle Heights. Cuesta’s durational portraits feel determined in their selection of subjects, forming connections with the viewer just as much as the filmmaker. This methodology extends to Territorio (2016), a digitally shot feature that highlights the inability to be anonymous as a filmmaker in the smaller towns of Ecuador. Younger Ecuadorians regularly interact with the camera’s gaze; one opening a gate for the filmmaker as she films a school, another parking his bike in front of the lens and challenging the act of looking.

The ongoing Notes, Imprints (on Love) series are filmic love letters that simultaneously celebrate the act of regularly shooting on the Bolex camera. Whilst they intersect with personal relationships, they touch on something vividly universal. Towards the end of Notes, Imprints (on Love) Pt. I, the dissolution of a relationship comes into view, but perhaps that accumulated realisation might not have happened if not for the generous methodology Cuesta set herself with the project. Similar, Notes, Imprints (on Love) Pt. II, Carmela charts the relationship between Cuesta and her grandmother, whose music soundtracks the film. The films’ shots, diaristic notes and text extracts operate as snapshots from a personal trajectory.

Cuesta’s latest short Lungta (2021) – commissioned by FICUNAM – is a structuralist reclamation of an early roll of film that didn’t come out as intended. Footage that was once personally considered a mistake slowly forms in front of the viewer at various speeds, celebrating the light leaks and juddering movements that exist on the film’s surface because of an issue with the camera. The film evokes the cinematic legacy of Eadweard Muybridge as footage of a horse is slowly revealed amidst a dense score by Martín Baus.

Above all, Cuesta’s filmography celebrates the joy of creating. Throughout her retrospective, the filmmaker repeated the phrase “we learn by making,” a concept that acknowledges the way spontaneity and intersubjectivity can guide the creation of a film. This way of working acts just as much as an invitation as it does a trajectory for Cuesta’s projects, which often have a period of time between being shot and edited. The retrospective at the festival was an expanded experience that bought canonical experimental films and contemporary work from Ecuador into dialogue with Cuesta’s own1. This made for a more generous approach to experiencing a filmmaker’s work, a unique kind of alternative study group on filmmaking, celebrating the way cinema can impact our ways of thinking either directly or more subconsciously.

– A.N.

I wanted to begin by talking about the way your retrospective included your own works, canonical experimental film examples and contemporary work from Ecuador. Could you talk about the thought process behind it?

The idea came from María Palacios Cruz, who proposed this carte blanche to accompany my films, because there aren’t many and they wanted three programmes. What was nice about this was not to necessarily have to dialogue directly with the other films, but to open up to something that conveys the connections.

 It’s really about film practices and who is making them, especially in Ecuador where it is so rare. It was very liberating to breathe outside of these norms and just let my films exist in a different way. It was especially interesting to see the second programme, which has more films from Ecuador – just to see how my films feel in relation to them, and how I can think about them differently that way.

Maybe it’s because in film school we are always learning in reference to the past, which is great, but it also feels very Eurocentric to do that. In Ecuador people might be working in reference to other things because they maybe haven’t seen the canonical examples. But they’re still doing these practices and experiments. For me it opens up the geographical space and shows the Americanised vision – or colonial vision – that exists even in experimental films.

Throughout the screenings and in your masterclass, you used the phrase ‘learn by making.’ I really like that concept because it encourages a more open way of working…

It’s true. Sometimes I feel like when I hear people speak about their work it sounds so put together, almost like in a bow, like it’s perfectly explained. But I think that if we’re working with this medium and in this way, it is because we are trying to discover something, and you don’t have to have the answers. I’m talking about aesthetic, structural, even technical questions.


 And with your recent work Lungta you’re going back to an early piece of footage you shot, and approaching it in a different way, like a fragment. Could you talk about approaching that film and the story behind revisiting this piece of footage? It’s interesting that there’s such a distance…

For me, too. It really bought me back to one of my first experiences with the Bolex camera. I don’t even remember shooting it, but I remember the mistake that happened with the film and how crushed I was. I had spent all this money on the film, and I took the camera from school to Ecuador, and had such high expectations of the footage. And then there was a problem with how the camera was loaded.

And the light in Ecuador, in the mountains, it has so much contrast – it’s really strong and there’s not a lot of nice in-betweens. So, a lot of things didn’t come out, and I remember feeling so defeated. But I think this is the feeling that repeats itself when we are making. You do end up questioning so much, or at least I do. There’s this existential aspect of wondering why you are even doing it. But that moment with the film was hard at the time, and I just put the footage aside. Seeing it again and being able to completely recontextualise not just the subject but how you view the material was interesting to me. And I want to do that more, to go back to things. I think I was trained more like a purist, with the idea that if it’s not well made that’s it and it’s gone, but now I’m thinking differently.

And a few of your films were edited a couple of years after they were shot. Notes, Imprints (On Love) Part I is retrospectively about a break-up – perhaps that film is different because you created that distance of a few years before completing it?

Completely, I had never worked with autobiographical images before because it was so hard to confront them. It wasn’t really this conscious decision of wanting to wait, it just kind of naturally happened that way– it was too personal, you know? So that’s how that distance happened.

With Despedida, I shot it in 2011 and then didn’t edit it until 2013, and I noticed that that’s happened more since that film. The earlier ones were also made when I had the infrastructure available whilst studying, but with the rest of my work it’s almost like working when I can. I mean there’s all these things that get in the way. It used to really frustrate me, but now I appreciate it because of what you are saying – there is this changing of your own relationship to the image, so then I think you feel that in the edit.

You were talking in your masterclass about moving from street photography to filmmaking, and the appeal of being both the Director and the camera operator. To my mind that’s very indicative of how people find themselves using a Bolex, because that camera really becomes an extension of your body. Could you talk more about that transition?

Robert Fenz was my mentor and close friend, and he would always say that you can breathe with the camera. I never really understood him, but I do now, because there’s different movements to each person. Everyone approaches the Bolex differently, even if it’s on a tripod – there’s a rhythm that is happening with it, with how you are using it. And again, that can’t happen unless you’re filming, so this is what I mean about learning while you are making.

Going from still to moving image is just so difficult, because it’s a completely different way of thinking and constructing. So, Recordando el ayer is a film that is about the community there in Jackson Heights, and the city film, but it’s also a film about learning how to move with the camera. One of the first things I noticed there was how every 5 minutes everything would get dark, because the neighbourhood has the metro going over it. And there’s a shot where you see that, where you’re inside of the barber shop and it begins with darkness, but suddenly there’s light that reveals what’s inside. So, it’s things like that; how this could only be possible with moving image.

Recordando el Ayer

There’s also such a prominence of windows and fences in your work. In Notes, Imprints (on Love) Part I there’s the shot looking out of the diner, and it almost calls back to the earlier films; the bus windows in Piensa en Mí and the fences in Despedida (Farewell). What do you feel draws you to those vantage points?

That’s a decision of the moment. I notice it in the films of course, and I’ve noticed for quite a while. And in some instances – like in Despedida – it was very conscious with the fence. I was so interested in how you can see through the separation. In some spaces you can’t do that, but in Los Angeles you have these fences and it’s just so amazing. I know it sounds so simple, but it’s amazing to see something happening yet you’re still not part it. And I think that is reflected in the feeling of those films. How do we become part of a place or not?

Do you feel like it’s more Westernised to have those kinds of viewpoints? In Territorio there’s the shot looking into the school through the gate, and the little girl walks up to the gate and very pointedly opens the gate wider for you…

Well, you can’t generalise but that’s a super small community in Ecuador. So, there’s a completely different openness that people have there. The stranger is so visible. In the city as a stranger, you’re a ghost, but in that space you’re so visible, so it’s impossible not to have those images where you’re interacting like that. Because you’re also being dissected, looked at…

There’s something really memorable about your use of portraiture as well. The people you choose to film often feel very linked to your subjectivity as an immigrant in a different place. How consciously are you looking for these subjects?

The idea of where I’m shooting is very conscious, like specific neighbourhoods or places that, yes, have to do with immigrants being there, or places that build over time, because it’s not just about immigration but how a space changes too. Of course, you’re choosing when you film, but I really think that most of the people that are in my films are there because I found them. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular – it’s really about walking. You have to be in the place for some time to find these people. It’s really about responding to the place and how it feels to be there, and how you’re going to use the camera to be in that place. Maybe you don’t find people. I’ve been to places that are really empty and maybe you just shoot one thing…

Piensa en Mí

When talking about Los Angeles and Piensa en Mí, you were saying how the city itself is so empty, so you found yourself gravitated towards the buses…

Because that’s where people are! I was trying to find the centre. In other cities you can go to a specific place where you see a lot of people, but you don’t have that in LA. So, the centre maybe becomes the bus, but then you realise that centre is the people that are on the outside, the marginal. And so that led me to understand how the city is constructed. That’s how I ended up in Boyle Heights because the Latin American places are more crowded, they’re denser. People are more naturally out in the street, to interact.

If you go to affluent parts of the city, it’s really no one except the gardeners and the maids of the house waiting at the bus stop. There’s not much happening – everyone is in their cars or their houses. In Ecuador it’s the same, there’s huge areas of gated communities where the wealthier people live, and there isn’t even sidewalks. You go to a neighbourhood that’s not as affluent and there’s a sense of neighbourhood and community.

That comes across in Recordando el ayer too. The second time I was watching it I wasn’t just noticing the people but the way they have shaped the area – the Virgin Mary statues sitting in the windows for example. It boosts up the portraits, because you’re getting a sense of people’s sociological impact on that area…

It is of course to do with religion to some extent, but to me it was more about where people meet because they need to connect, because they need to feel like they’re part of something, because existence in a foreign country for an immigrant is so hard – where do you connect? I remember one time I was in Spain and there was a man in the subway, and I could just tell he was Ecuadorian, because there’s a lot of emigration to Spain. I talked to him, and I had this feeling he hadn’t spoken to anyone in a long time. And it’s that sense of being able to recognise yourself in another person, or to be seen. I guess that’s what it is and why people allow me to film them, because there is this need to be seen.

There’s a great moment in Territorio in that regard, where the kid on the bike rolls into frame and begins staring down the lens. You have this lovely moment of him almost challenging you through the camera. When do you know when to stop rolling the camera?

That’s one of my favourite moments because he really takes over the frame. The question of when to stop… thinking about it caused me anxiety with Territorio. On film it can just naturally end sometimes, the camera stops, or the film runs out, but there I could shoot for up to 10 minutes, because I was shooting on a DSLR. But there’s a risk of cutting and something incredible happening afterwards, or maintaining a shot after the moment has passed. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But you have to let go of the idea that everything has to be perfect.

You can feel that sense of risk in the shot with the girl spinning the two pens. There’s this lingering moment and then your hands come into frame to do the clap. You can almost see that decision happening in real time…

I was clapping because I was working with sync sound which I have never done, and then when I saw the images I thought “this is strange”. And I know why it started; because there was the Producer there and she was always saying don’t forget to clap. Sometimes I would forget and have to do it at the end. Sometimes I was so angry that I had to do it.. So then when I saw the footage, you could see that something was happening, and people were wondering why the clap was there. There was something interesting about that.

Notes, Imprints (on Love) Pt 2, Carmela

Looking to the future, I know there’s going to be six instalments of the Notes, Imprints films in total. Do you have much of an idea of how they’ll progress, or – going back to the idea of learning by making – are you finding it difficult to work with that goal in mind?

I am finding it difficult because the first two Notes have distribution now, and they want to distribute the six films together, but I’ve never been in that kind of position before. So, now it’s like a pressure. But I don’t know, I have to remember to think of them separately, because I don’t want to have a formula. Yes, they are part of the same thing and the same footage, but I don’t want them all to just reference part 1. In a way that was what was inspiring about seeing Robert Beaver’s programme here2, because you really did feel like it was one project in a sense. That was inspiring for the future of Notes – to try to have them be separate but somehow together.

The approach to those films of just filming regularly and enjoying operating the camera spoke to me a lot – I feel it’s quite a generous goal to set yourself in a world of instant gratification and fixed deadlines.

I just enjoy filming, it’s almost like I wish I didn’t have to figure out what happens later. This sounds cheesy, but this is the moment of connection for me. That’s when I connect, not just to the world but to myself – like I’m really present. I wouldn’t have filmed this way previously. For me it’s where I am within my very body, and I feel like there’s less and less moments like that in the world in general. It’s a moment of connecting. And I haven’t done that in a while because I’ve already finished shooting for Notes, Imprints.

It’s a very embodied way of working with the Bolex, it’s an unusual shape and you do pull it close to your body, it becomes an extension of you …

It’s like when you are reading something, and you’re in your own interior world, but with a connection with the outside. And then you have the time that passes when you have already shot, so who knows what it’ll end up being when it comes back – it’s almost like you didn’t make it anymore.

Notes, Imprints (on Love) Pt I

Yeah, like the lights almost a little bit different to what you saw. Especially when working with black and white. There’s something nice about having that gap of waiting…

And a lot of the things in Notes, Imprints Part I came from when I was teaching my students how to shoot black and white. A lot of the shots were just me teaching, but then I’d see the footage and be surprised. I had never really done fades within the camera before, and I was just showing them to my students, and then when I saw the footage, I just loved it. When I saw Peter Hutton’s New York Portrait, Chapter II again the other day, it felt refreshing because his rhythms are so particular. It’s not about his technique necessarily; it’s about how everyone has different rhythms. Robert Beavers too, he’s moving and doing fades and changing the exposure, but it’s his own rhythm, like breathing.

Do you think teaching has had much of an impact on your practice in general. Do you explore stuff for students and then feel like it can come back into your filmmaking?

Well, it forces you to think not just about your work but other peoples’. My favourite part of teaching is accompanying a project. You always need someone to bounce off of, I guess. That’s my favourite part, but I haven’t taught in a while. I love teaching, but not constantly because sometimes it’s hard to go back to your own work. I don’t know, it’s a hard balance.

It’s about having that gap again!

You need a gap! I guess that’s what it is. One of my fears is having stuff remain the same. Clearly that’s why I do things in this way, it’s almost like having different lives.


About The Author

Andrew Northrop is a London-based film journalist. His writing and interviews have appeared in MUBI Notebook, BOMB Magazine, Hyperallergic, Little White Lies, Kinoscope, Cineaste Magazine and more.

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