Embracing ambiguity

Christopher Murray on uncertainty, the potential of cinema, and Sorcery

by Paul Risker

Valentina Véliz Caileo in Sorcery
Valentina Véliz Caileo in Sorcery

Chilean director Christopher Murray's folk horror, Sorcery, set on the remote Chilean island of Chiloé in the late 19th century, subverts genre clichés by positioning sorcery as a means of resistance and empowerment against foreign settlers. The story is told from the point of view of Rosa (Valentina Véliz Caileo), a young indigenous girl whose father is murdered by Stefan (Sebastian Hülk), a German settler. Seeking help from Mateo (Daniel Antivilo) and a powerful organisation of sorcerers, Rosa is forced to confront the hideous imbalance of power that makes justice a privilege.

Murray's filmography is complemented by the documentaries Propaganda, Dios (God) and Oasis, and the narrative features Manuel De Ribera and The Blind Christ (El Cristo Ciego). He imposes the sensibility of documentary and drama on his third narrative film, Sorcery. He creates space in the fantastical and supernatural to ground the idea of sorcery in the experiences of the indigenous population which has foreign world views imposed upon it.

In conversation with Eye For Film, Murray discussed challenging Westernised points of view, and why cinema is the practice of sorcery.

Paul Risker: Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression?

Christopher Murray: In school, I was interested in different forms of artistic expression: music, photography, and writing. I was also interested in social science, and I wanted to study anthropology. There was a moment when I realised filmmaking was a complex way to express yourself. Film is layered in its capacity to explore not only artistic and story elements, but also how it engages with topics to create an experience that connects you with places. I found there were a lot of elements and different practices that work together. There's a richness in the filmmaking experience that allows you to delve inside of topics, to sincerely express those ideas you want to research.

PR: Cinema is often defined as a narrative medium, and films like Sorcery, with its strong visual aesthetic, challenge the domination of narrative over art.

CM: I agree with this idea that narrative and storytelling can be powerful and have a monopoly on the cinematic experience. You can tell a story as a chain of events in an attractive and interesting way, but the cinematic experience goes beyond that. It's about the more surreal aspects, and sometimes even the more mysterious aspects, that are important.

There's a lot of mystery in the art of cinema, in terms of how to capture the image, what provokes you and immerses you in these worlds. And that's something that you not only understand by following the story, it's also about the complexity of the image and how images connect with you and transport you to other places. When I think about a film, I think about a story I love, but of course, there are other elements that are part of these mysterious aspects. I'm sure that's part of the reason why cinema is an art that interests me.

PR: What compelled you to believe in this film and decide to tell this story at this particular point in time?

CM: When deciding which film to make, you have to feel a connection because of the time and energy you put in. When I discovered this particular real life historical case in Chile, I realised that there were different topics and layers, with political and historical aspects.

Coming across this type of story, I realised it was something I could spend a couple of years trying to grasp. Why? Because this is a historical case where the Chilean state decided to prosecute a different kind of power - an organisation of sorcerers on the island.

There was a collision of world views and power in the way to understand the world and existence. This is important because ideas about colonialism and other political aspects are still going on in Chile right now. It was also a mystery because of the island's tradition of sorcery and the historical facts beyond that. I decided to go and spend some time on the island to try to connect with this idea of sorcery. I realised it was more about a political discourse that, when we think about the practice, is mixed with mystery and those supernatural elements. So that's why I decided to make a film about it.

PR: Beneath these fantastical and supernatural elements, Sorcery is a scathing indictment of the imbalance of power.

CM: The wounds of colonialism are still there. In Chile, we are still having a constitutional debate about how to deal with this cultural difference and how to deal with the issue of recognition for the First Nations. When you make a film about this, it's important to understand how this conflict resonates in the contemporary world. What can we learn or understand about how to approach it?

This film is about the negotiation and the imposing of power. People are living in a system in which other people are imposing on them different world views. We can see there are different approaches to existence that are not being communicated.

The desire for power and the ideas of control are part of the crisis of the modern world, which was built on a colonialist approach, and has consequences. That's why it was important to deal with it. If you go to the island right now, there are still people that will talk about sorcery. They're not related to the Spanish or the Chileans, but because of mining companies that are now on the island, there's always this resistance and the idea of confronting an imposing power that is the practice of either capitalism or colonialism. It changes, but it's about how to confront the imposition of power in this place.

PR; Unlike the settlers who see sorcery as something evil, the point of view of the natives contextualises it as identity, heritage and empowerment. The conversation about whether sorcery is good or evil needs to consider the motivations and intentions of who is using it. Genre cinema has been guilty of stereotyping sorcery as a dark practice.

CM: Sorcery is a tricky and complex word that's difficult to define. It depends on your point of view of the word and its practice. Historically, the idea of sorcery is from the western point of view, and, of course, it's used as a way to demonise certain practices. It has usually been used like that, but of course, that depends on the film's point of view.

When we were deciding how to tell this story, one possibility was to tell it from the point of view of the Chilean character, Acevedo. If you see the story from his point of view, sorcery is something exotic, dark and mysterious. It's confronting; you feel scared, and you feel the horror. Of course, that would be the classical way of building a horror film - the idea of a stranger in a place that doesn't understand what is happening, and the audience experiences this horror. That was a possibility, but there was a political problem in that point of view. If you attach horror to sorcery, you are replicating and repeating what the western culture has done with it. When you look from the point of view of the people using sorcery, it's completely different, because the horror comes from the state, which is interesting. It's an inverse way of understanding horror and that's why I decided to tell this story from the point of view of Rosa. I wanted sorcery to be something you don't have to be scared of. Instead, it's something you can use as a political weapon of resistance for empowerment and confrontation.

It was interesting to try to understand sorcery from this different point of view. There are a lot of different ways of relating sorcery to a world that has different agents. Natural and animal agents are part of this ecosystem and sorcery is an interesting way of understanding the relationships between these agents.

PR: People are natural storytellers and across our history we've blurred the line between fact and fiction with our myth-building. There's an early scene in the film where a story is told about a magic duel - how one duelist manipulates the water. Sorcery taps into this idea of myth and legend building, creating layers of ambiguity.

CM; There's something about trying to blur the lines to make it ambiguous or confusing, to get into the mystery of it. Why? Because that's the organic reality of the island. To define what's happening or isn't happening, what has happened or hasn't happened is blurry, and that's part of the richness of being in a place like this.

When I was there, I was never sure what stories were true. When they tell you stories, it's a game of parallels. I'm a white man in that place, so when you hear the stories, you understand that they're also playing with you.

When you start trying to make this separation between what happened or didn't happen, you quit the game of trying to understand the place. The game is about being there and playing with fear is part of what sorcery is about. When you understand the ambiguity that makes everything confusing, then you start to understand the complexity and interesting aspects of the island. The whole atmosphere and mise-en-scène is about this ambiguous, grey atmosphere. It's about creating a world that, like sorcery, is a bit confusing and does not try to define everything so clearly. That was important in the way we decided to tell the story, to sincerely construct the cinematic experience.

PR: People are taught to pursue certainty and not embrace ambiguity, which has influenced storytelling traditions. We should also remember that the feelings a film provokes or the themes we perceive, are often only what we've projected onto the film in our individual experience.

CM: While making Sorcery, I was also making a film on anthropology at the University of Manchester. I wrote an academic paper that was related to the film with a more anthropological approach, called The Cinematic Spell In The Island Of Our Uncertainty.

This idea of a cinematic spell in this island of uncertainty was like the place where I ended up making Sorcery. When you're in a place of total uncertainty, you realise it resonates with the whole cinematic experience. It's a spell you're involved in, but you don't understand - it's like a possession.

Part of the richness of a work of art is the possibility of sharing uncertainty, and of course, the opportunity to get involved in a more complex way with that experience. You have to embrace uncertainty to live the experience of cinema, and for me, life.

As I said before, sorcery has a lot to do with creating uncertainty, in terms of is this character human or animal? Is this happening or not happening? Is it something that makes you afraid? Is it true or not? Are they playing with you or not? That's uncertainty and I love the idea that can resonate with the whole cinematic experience. They're really connected in that way, so cinema is also the practice of sorcery.

Sorcery plays select UK theatres from 14th June 2024.

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