Hot Docs Interview – NOTHING BUT THE SUN director Arami Ullón

“NOTHING BUT THE SUN is about the loss of home by force, and the impossibility of getting it back. The story is told through the experience of the indigenous Ayoreo people of Paraguay, who used to live their original way of living, free, nomadic and without any contact with white civilization, until religious missionaries forced them to abandon their ancestral territory, their means of subsistence, their beliefs, their home.” Filmmaker Arami Ullón on NOTHING BUT THE SUN, now streaming at HotDocs. 

Welcome to HotDocs! Is this your first HotDocs experience and what are you looking forward to the most?

I am interested about what members of the First Nations think about it and how the film is perceived outside of Europe. By now it was shown in about 6 different countries, all European countries, since its release last November, as the opening film of IDFA. So, I am looking forward to hearing from the Canadian audience.

How did you get your start in the business and what have you worked on in the past?

I started working when I was 16 years old. I used to work as a production assistant first and then, little by little, I started directing my first very experimental shorts back in the 90s, in Paraguay. We were coming out of a dictatorship that lasted 36 years and filmmaking was very underdeveloped in the country. Experimenting with any tool was relevant. That is the way I have learned my job, without any academic education. And even though I am very happy with what I have achieved so far, I would have loved to have a proper education. During the last nine years I devoted myself completely to direct my first two documentaries CLOUDY TIMES (2014) and NOTHING BUT THE SUN, and to start writing my third project.

How did NOTHING BUT THE SUN come together?

It was a long journey. I lived in Switzerland for about nine years and one day, back in 2013, I found news in the Swiss press about indigenous people living in complete isolation in the Paraguayan forest of the Chaco region. I was very surprised, because I didn’t know that this was still happening inside my own country. At first, I was fascinated about the possibility of that other way of living, radically different, an alternative to the system we are in. But very soon, I realized how fragile that way of life was. The indigenous living in voluntary isolation are at constant risk of being contacted, of getting infected by “white” diseases, or simply of being taken out by force. And, that is when I found the subject of the film: how is it to be forced to leave home? To be sedentarized, to be converted to Christianity?  How is it to lose fundamental parts of your culture? And the means of subsistence that you used to have access to constantly when you were one with nature?  How are the Ayoreo people surviving all this? 

To tell this story, I decided to follow Mateo Sobode Chiqueno, an Ayoreo, historian and documentarian in his own right,  who has been recording stories of his people since the 70s. Through fragments of his work, and the interviews he conducts with other elderly who also used to live in the forest, the film constructs a bigger image, letting us enter the very complex Ayoreo situation, that remains to us again about many other indigenous struggles around the world, facing the still-in-force violence of colonialism.

What keeps you going while making a project? What drives you?

I can only go through it if I find something that connects to me deeply. Something that I need to understand for myself, something that would have an impact on me, and that would – in some way or another –  transform me, even if it is just a tiny bit. Only then, I can walk through the wonderful but long, complex and often painful process of documentary filmmaking.

What was your biggest challenge with creating this doc, and what was the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

Finding the exact position from where I was going to look at this. Finding the right POV. Living for the most part in Switzerland helped me to realize that there are some European groups who look at indigenous peoples from an idealized, romanticized and “exotic” perspective. This outlook is different from that held by most groups within Paraguay, who discriminate against them, and deny their cultural heritage, and even continue to deny their existence as inhabitants of that country. My constant exercise was trying not to fall into either side. 

Let’s get technical! Tell me about the cameras-slash-equipment you used and the post-production process.

One very important technical aspect in this film is that we decided to shoot with anamorphic lenses. This was going to give us a very cinematographic look, but also it was going to blur backgrounds extremely. Having the background constantly out of focus helped us to keep the image from ever wallowing in the observation of the poverty in which the Ayoreo are mired. It was almost a political decision.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your work at HotDocs?

Of course this is an unpredictable time having this show virtually. How do you feel about movies being shown in this format & do you feel this is right, or do you wish to have a more traditional theatrical release?

Virtual projections are fine in this context. They make it possible for films to reach their audiences despite the pandemic, but they cannot replace the theater experience. Theaters provide an environment designed to immerse the viewer in the film, they also govern a space and time when the viewer chooses to focus entirely on that experience. On the other hand, filmmakers can read the room, sense the room. This is the most honest opinion of a film you can get as a filmmaker: the silences, the tears, the laughter, people leaving the room, even! All those things are not happening much at the moment and, call me old fashion, but I believe we have to go back to the cinema.

What is the one thing that you would say to someone wishing to get into filmmaking, either short or long format, especially now as things are changing at such a fast rate?

They need to find a deep personal reason why they are doing documentaries, and that one can’t be getting successful. That is a very variable and subjective idea, and it is determined by many external aspects completely out of our control. 

NOTHING BUT THE SUN is now streaming at HotDocs! 

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