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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

An interview with filmmaker Mikey Watts

In his beautiful documentary film, Laguna Negra, Mikey explores how mining has affected a community in the Piura region in northern Peru. Here he tells me how the film came about, the inspiration behind it, and talks about his forthcoming projects...

Written by Zofia Walczak

Michael filming_01
Mikey filming in the beautiful Huancabamba Valley.  (All photos:  Mikey Watts)

Have you seen Laguna Negra yet?  This short film by Mikey Watts has already won two awards, and will be screened this evening (see listings), so if you’re around in East London come along.  The film explores the effect of a British mining company, Monterrico Metals, who illegally pushed forward a copper mine in Huancabamba (Piura, northern Peru) in 2003, despite strong opposition from the region’s farmers.  The mining company has now been linked to torture allegations following a protest at the mine site.  There’s some excellent background info in the Guardian.  Mikey Watts was there in 2004 and 2009, to speak to the people who lived there and film what he saw and heard. 

I caught up with him in Hootananny in Brixton, where he told me about where his film-making began, the ideas behind his work, and the inspiring plans he’s got lined up.

What happened in Huancabamba was pretty much ignored by the UK press.  How did you find out about it and start filming in the first place?

I studied Latin American studies at Liverpool, having done a year of working and volunteering in Peru when I was 18.  In the third year of my degree, I went to do research for my dissertation in Lima.  I started reading about the social conflict that mining was causing in the north of Peru and decided to focus my dissertation on that.  As luck would have it my best friend, [fellow filmmaker] David McNulty, came out to visit towards the end of my stay and brought a video camera with him – we then filmed all the research I was carrying out and a couple of years later when we were finally in the same place together we made our first film, Rio Blanco.  I guess I became interested in these issues as the struggles these rural and indigenous communities go through to safeguard their livelihoods and lands really sum up for me the way our world works – money talks and the powerful will do anything and everything to get their way.

Servando and Dorila

So after that visit in 2004, why did you decide to return to Piura in 2009? 

Well, after making Rio Blanco with David [McNulty] I started really thinking about film and documentary as something that I could do well and also through that help in some way to publicise the way mining affects rural and indigenous communities.  After I first left university I wasn’t too clear about what I want to do, but the filming experience in 2004, and then the process of trying to edit that all together over the next couple of years was something I really enjoyed doing.  I guess it allows me to marry my need to be creative and my political convictions. I really felt I needed to learn more about how to make films though before going back to make another one in Piura.  So that was why I decided to do the MA Documentary Film in the Royal Holloway University, to learn more about filmmaking and then put what I learned into practise.

Rio Blanco and Laguna Negra use very different styles and techniques.  Laguna Negra seems much more personal and visual.  Did you change your mind about how you wanted to portray these issues after studying for your MA?

Yes, my teachers really turned what I thought documentary was on its head – my perception of documentary before the course (when I made Rio Blanco) was of issue based films, factually told with a narrator or a presenter – a Channel 4 Dispatches kind of job.  The focus of the course however pushed us towards portraiture – this change of style really interested me because I feel that as an audience it is far more engaging not to be told something by an all-knowing voice, but to work the story and issues out through the people that live them and ultimately really know them.  So I definitely went into the filming of Laguna Negra with the desire to make a different film from Rio Blanco; I knew I didn’t want any narration, didn’t want to rely heavily on talking heads, but make a film that painted a portrait of the farming community around Huancabamba and the problems they face.  Above all I wanted to make a film that would stand on its own for its aesthetic beauty and its story; it was important for me for it to not just to be a campaign film that put the issues above the need to actually make a good film.

Huancabamba landscape_01

How do you see the role of the documentary filmmaker and what do you hope to achieve?

Yes, I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot.  Sometimes I wonder what good it does, whether it goes any way to actually changing the situation.  I guess it is a hard one to gauge but all you can do is try to document what is happening in a creative and original way.  I think film is a great medium to tell the story of what is happening in these communities as images often speak louder than words.  I would be very happy if the films I make help to inform Peru’s urban population of the abuses suffered by the rural population.  I guess documentaries are one part of the general campaign to make things better and fairer for these communities. 

I guess on the role of the filmmaker I think it is important to go into a project with an open mind, a good deal of background research and the humility to listen to and give people a platform to speak about the issues that affect them.  I also think it is important to make a film that stands on its own as a good story, and as a beautiful film.  Campaiging films sometimes lose sight of this need and just focus on the issues.  I think the danger here is that the films will only preach to the converted – a film that keeps the attention of someone who doesn’t know about the issues, or actively supports what the campaign is against, is what I think the goal should be.

Cleber _preferred choice_

What’s the most difficult part in your filmmaking so far?

Wow, many difficult things!  I have so much to learn as I’m a relative newcomer to it all – while making Laguna Negra I made so many technical mistakes – a good example is that I forgot to turn the radio microphone on in the final scene by the lake (meaning that you can’t hear much as it is so windy).  So on the technical side it has been quite difficult, but really I guess it is keeping my spirits up to keep that dedication to carry on making films when financially it is a pretty unsecure profession!  It’s also difficult to keep trying to get funding for stuff while getting a lot of knockbacks and refusals.  But there we go, I guess everything has its difficulties and benefits so it’s just a case of getting on with things at the end of the day. 

And what have been the greatest rewards?

Well, it’s nice to get recognition, like I’ve started getting with Laguna Negra.  However I think to make films just to get awards could lead you on the road of making films for your own ego and not because you care about the issues and people involved.  In fantasy land the best reward would be for the film to actually help affect change in government policy.  I guess this does and has happened, and of course would happen not just because of a film, but also the tireless campaigning and resistance from communities and organisations that look out for their rights.  Without setting too many lofty goals, I think that if my films can add to the public’s general understanding of the problems afflicting our world then I would be very happy.

Michael filming_03

You’ve done a few other short films too.  Are there any other subject matters you’d like to explore?  What else inspires you creatively?

I guess a general subject that interests me is that of tradition vs. modernity – for example I made a short film about a series of letters written to me by an old friend in India.  It got me thinking about the general shift from physical objects (such as letters) to the digital storing of data.  Everyone takes photos digitally now, and perhaps don’t often print them out.  What happens if this data is wiped?  And with digital data you can’t for example be looking through an old box of stuff and come across photos you had totally forgotten about.  There have been so many technological advancements, which often bring huge benefits, but also can mean the destruction of more ancient ways of doing things.  I guess this has always happened throughout our history, but now perhaps more than ever. 

You’re now planning a feature documentary on how different communities are affected by mining, focusing specifically on women, can you tell me a bit more about it? 

Yes, so David McNulty and I want to make a film that explores the way communities across Latin America are suffering the same abuses, revealing the trend across the region of governments supporting multinational mining interests to the detriment of the local populations living near the projects.  We are going to a conference called “WOMEN, MINING AND HUMAN RIGHTS: Beyond the Challenge” which takes place in Guatemala and El Salvador in March, and is being organised by LAMMP.  We want to document the conference, and also visit and talk to different communities affected by mines.

The traditional societies that are rising up against mining projects across Latin America are fighting for the principle that we are part of the environment, and depend on it for our survival.  I think capitalism, on the other hand, views the environment as a resource that exists for us to exploit.  I hope to make this connection through the feature documentary that is planned.

Looking at these issues through the experiences of women affected will, for one, give the film added poignancy, as the struggles women specifically face reflect in many ways the way rural populations are undermined and ignored by the urban populations.  I also think that these stories need to be told, that many times the female perspective in these areas is not given the voice that it needs.  

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