At the core of Cocote, Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias’ debut feature, is a story of a man returning home for the funeral of his father. This experience of coming back – and the conflicts, self-reflection, and revelations that come with it – isn’t an unfamiliar one. From the opening scenes, though, it’s clear that Santos Arias’ approach to telling such a story is far from any realm of familiarity. The director’s work is a conceptually dense, visually-driven portrait of Santo Domingo. It captures the sense of conflict between the city and broader country – alongside the lingering effects of colonialism on spirituality and identity. We caught up with Santos Arias’ at Locarno Film Festival to talk about his visually-oriented film, the elements of filmmaking he rejected to make it, and the broader structures that influenced the work.
In terms of what I’ve seen so far, Cocote is definitely among my favourites at the festival. I was watching it in this state of awe, as such a genuinely unique work, so committed to operating in this constantly shifting visual style. It looked so crisp throughout.
What is this word that you say, “crisp”?
What does that mean, “crisp”?
I guess, the film having a certain freshness – on a visual level. I’ve seen it associated a lot with movies shot with film, 35mm, 16mm or what not.
I’m not sure if you’ve seen any of Eduardo Williams’ films?
There were some scenes that reminded me of his film here last year, The Human Surge. Just in terms of the way it looked. I was interested in how you came to this idea and the process of turning it into such a visually-focused work?
Well, the thing is I’ve been working, I’ve been doing films for a bit, a little bit, you know? I mean it seems that because it’s the first [feature] film, it’s not that it went to a lot of places but I guess none of my films have been in a film festival so big. So no one knows me. So, that aesthetic, it doesn’t belong to the film itself, it belongs to the way I work, that I’ve been developing for a long time.
Cocote was a film that I actually didn’t want to do. Because I was in Buenos Aires and I went to kind of a classical film school. Very colonised by French cinema, which I have my problems with. And actually when I went to the UK, I went to – first as an exchange student and then I stayed in their school – in the Edinburgh College of Art. So I went to that school and I studied film in an arts school, which is a different orientation of cinema. I went to this school where I learned that you can make films by yourself. And there’s not different departments like the script writers, the art directors, the editors.
So this is when I actually started doing what people call experimental films but for me, they’re just films. Since I was kid, I always had problems with authority and sometimes like even, when you ask me like, “So, did you like the films that you’ve seen?” And you say, there’s a kind of authority of what films should be, you know. So, I guess it’s my nature, I mean I challenged my parents, I was a difficult kid. A difficult student. I was difficult in every… you know? So basically, if you see an anthology of my work, it’s always put in a crisis, the authority or the idea of what cinema should be, you know? And just try to be free. Sometimes, when you see filmmakers from the third world, they are so, so worried because they’re being impressed by this idea of what art is, or what cinema is.
So they want to be sold by the book. And you see makers from Europe or United States, so free in their forms and I say, “Fuck it, man. No one is going to tell me how to make films.” The first thing that I’m going to defend, as a maker, is my freedom. And I will do whatever I feel I want. So that’s why I just, you know… you got that stock and it’s expired? Come, give it to me, let’s do, let’s do some shit.
I feel the films I’ve enjoyed the most at this festival, and last year which was the first year I came here, are often the ones that are kind of really committed to genuinely challenging how a film should play out. I think one of the most captivating parts of the film watching how it evaded structure and convention, constantly, jumping between these different perspectives.
Where’s it going to go?
Yeah. How you’d have a close up and then you’d have a five minute long take, shot from really far away. Those two scenes that I remember the most.
The police one, the police station.
Yeah, and at the river. There’s so much attention to detail, where even the subtitle moves out of the way for the characters.
The river. Oh man, yes.
So how did you come to meet or did you know some of the cast?
This community is Villa Mella, which is on the periphery of Santo Domingo. I’ve known this community for a long time. Since when I was a teenager, when I was 13, 12. My first girlfriend was the daughter of someone that is going to become a really good friend of mine and then her mom’s going to become kind of a godmother of art. And she was a very important person, she’s a musician – and someone who studies folk in music.
So she worked with all this community. Villa Mella, Monte Plata – this part that is in the centre of the island and is where the concentration of the oldest tradition that you saw in the film. When I saw that, for the first time I felt like… I’m from this. This is my country. It was the first time I felt the idea of being Dominican.
The professional actors, I didn’t know them. I just cast them, basically. I don’t want to sound disrespectful of their work because actually I’m very proud of each performance, but it was not my main concern. It was not my main concern but when I decided to make this film, I said “Okay people, let’s work a little bit with some actors because I’ve never worked before with actors, with professional actors.” So I had the opportunity. There was some money, there was not a lot of money, but there was some money to pay someone. But let’s find out. I brought the professional actors in and made them try to feel this idea of identity that I felt too through this community. That was the interesting part.
It’s interesting to see a film where there’s that familiarity. So many festival films set in lots of non-Western countries are done by, or historically have been done by Western directors, and it’s off-putting. But this kind of had this, I’m no authority on it, but it felt like it had this very powerful authenticity to it.
I agree with you, completely. I agree with you. And this is what, that’s what I was telling you before. This freedom of, just the freedom even to have a very nice place where you can just go, whenever you want and make a film there. So you say, “No way. They’re not going to come and make that film here.” So, but it’s cool. It’s strange, it’s how the world is, I guess.
There was this placement in the way in which you sandwiched the film with the most trivial wealthy families. Right at the end of the film where she’s recalling a love story.
She’s singing this song and it just feels like so tacky and trivialised and everything you’re saying. But it’s like, I found it was really effective commentary, a stark jab that didn’t need to be a 90-minute take down, and managed to delegitimize and trivialise this whole part of society so effectively in these two brief scenes.
I thought it was really effective.
That’s amazing. It’s a very popular, it’s a sign of the high class, the old whatever but it’s empty for me now, because I heard it so many times. But you were reading.
Yeah, I was.
Now I want to hear the lyrics, maybe you’re right. But yeah, it was not my intention. No.
That’s just what I took from the placement of those two scenes and how he goes into such a complex emotional place and then goes back and they’re just like having this pool party kind of thing. It was very well assembled. On structure, where did the idea of chapters come from? Was there a practical way in which you thought about each of them distinctly? Is it five or six?
Five. So, I think working with morality… okay. Basically, one of the most important characteristics of montage, with the editing, is that it’s how we construct meaning. In terms of sentences, like actually linguistically speaking. People who do not speak Spanish, they won’t know how bizarre our Spanish is, how we cut words and we invent words and there’s a very tight way to construct sentences, but sometimes there’s not a huge vocabulary, so there’s going to be a lot of onomatopoeia.
So basically we use Spanish in this chaotic way, and it’s very far from the idea what the good Spanish should be. It happened with English in Jamaica. It happens in the Creole with the French. I think the Caribbean is the resistance. They have broken the colonial languages to create very crazy orality. Some of them, the Dutch Islands, they create a Creole – Papiamento. The Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, which are the Spanish Caribbean, these people, man we speak very crazy. Like literally fucking insane, you know. Maybe you can have the same when you hear a Jamaican, maybe I don’t know because I don’t know English that well, in terms of the structure. English maybe has different rules, whatever. Maybe Spanish is more flexible in the way that you can… I know English is very specific.
Those are elements of what orality is constituted by. The oralities are constituted by accumulation, repetition and circularity. So the first thing: the film starts in Santo Domingo. This big house is in Santo Domingo, which is the capital, right? We go further, the second chapter is the El Quinto Antegiano, the story of the Antelias which is going to go directly to this idea of orality. And then the rest of the chapters are the elements, what constitute orality, linguistically speaking. Which is repetition, accumulation and yes, circularity. So yeah, it’s not literal but now that you know this, perhaps you can see the film again and say “Okay, I understand what it’s doing here.”
I’m curious about how you would want this work to be perceived. Because to me, it was so overwhelmingly and aesthetic, emotionally very soulful kind of a film. It feels inappropriate, almost, to think about the film entirely from an academic angle.
It feels like a film that rebels against that kind of stale analysis in a sense.
I agree. I get that people, when they see experimental films or films that are questioning representation, they just go to that direction. And for me, it was not about that. It’s very visceral. I know, of course, I am questioning cinema and the moment you are questioning cinema, you are questioning the theory of cinema through a new theory maybe. So it is intellectual, but at the same time, I do a work that is very much with the people. So I’m working with people that are not necessarily interested in intellectual conversation, you know?
I think out of everything I’ve seen, it’s definitely one of the most, it’s quite, it’s so dense –
It’s very dense. Dominican Republic is very dense.
It think that it really comes together, and is definitely one of the works I’m most excited to revisit. Thank you so much for the interview.