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“Altiplano” Co-Director Jessica Hope Woodworth: “We Believe in Humanist Cinema”

"Altiplano" Co-Director Jessica Hope Woodworth: "We Believe in Humanist Cinema"

After playing at the 2009 Cannes Critics’ Week, “Altiplano,” a collaboration between Jessica Hope Woodworth and Peter Brosens, is currently in limited release. The film, shot in Peru, has been getting high marks for its cinematography. In the film, “[w]ar photographer Grace, devastated by a violent incident in Iraq, renounces her profession. Her Belgian husband, Max, is a cataract surgeon working at an eye clinic in the high Andes of Peru. Nearby, the villagers of Turubamba succumb to illnesses caused by a mercury spill from a local mine. Saturnina, a young woman in Turubamba, loses her fiancé to the contamination. The villagers turn their rage on the foreign doctors, and in the ensuing riot Max is killed. Saturnina takes drastic measures to protest against the endless violations towards her people and their land. Grace sets out on a journey of mourning to the place of Max’s death. ‘Altiplano’ is a lyrical and probing film about our divided but inextricably linked world.” [Synopsis courtesy of First Run Features]

Woodworth spoke to indieWIRE about the film and it’s road to distribution.


Peter Brosens and I arrived at fiction filmmaking via documentary. We co-write and co-direct. Our first two fiction films, “Khadak” and “Altiplano,” are an extension of our fieldwork as documentarians. But we have ultimately found greater freedom in fiction. He is Belgian. I am American. Both fiction films are Belgian-German-Dutch co-productions. However, as some critics mistakenly presume, the films are not intended solely for a European audience.

On coming to the story behind “Altiplano”…

We believe in a poetic treatment of a complex reality. “Altiplano” offers the viewer the possibility to reflect on injustice, accountability, faith and redemption. Our point of departure in the writing process was reality. For example, the devastating mercury spill in the Peruvian village of Choropampa in 2000 inspired several of the concepts of “Altiplano.” As storytellers, we are drawn to upheavals that strike the cords of global public debates on ethics and responsibility. In the case of our first feature, “Khadak,” we looked at the ravages of greed on a nomadic culture. At “Altiplano”‘s heart is an ongoing invisible conflict in the Andes. We say ‘invisible’ because many individuals who take up arms against the industrial giants operating in the mineral-rich Andes disappear. We say ‘invisible’ because there is so little profound coverage of these conflicts in our media. But our intention is not to illustrate injustices. “Altiplano” should evoke an inner dialogue and, ideally, leave an indelible mark etched on the soul of the viewer.

On the team’s style…

We believe in humanist cinema. We have made films in Peru, Mongolia, Ecuador and Morocco, but we firmly reject exoticism, which focuses on the differences between people and their cultures and which thrives on clichés and prejudices. We believe in a respectful dialogue between cultures, which is linked to an introspective dialogue with our respective pasts. “Alitplano” offers the possibility of rediscovering values and attitudes towards life that were buried long ago in European spiritual patrimony. The film is built upon moments of trauma and loss but is, fundamentally, an expression of our faith in the possibility of mutual understanding between people. Grace is a war photographer who has lost her soul in Iraq. She suffers further grief at the loss of her husband. In Peru, the young Saturnina sacrifices her body in protest against corrupt outsiders. Saturnina’s spirit and Grace’s body eventually touch, thus infusing one another with purpose and power. This symbiosis reflects our conviction that we, mankind, share a common destiny and, therefore, could potentially share a common sense of responsibility.

We listen to people. We read their histories, study their beliefs and learn their languages. Most importantly, we spend time in the places we film. Only after having proven the integrity of your intentions do people and places offer you the most wonderful raw material that allows you to build a unique film that is deeply informed by reality. Saturnina’s death, for example, is based upon a peculiar form of suicide which is common in certain parts of Latin America – the protest suicide – which Peter studied in the early 90s during his years spent living between Ecuador and Peru. In fact, Peter’s first documentaries feature an Andean community that is plagued by alcohol, suicide and destructive foreign aid strategies. “Altiplano” is not a film about Peru but a film created with Peru. It is not the appropriation of exotic imagery packaged for consumption by another.


Altitude. And distribution.

Taking the film to audiences…

The film can be unsettling because it goes so resolutely against the grain. A viewer ideally has an open mind at the outset. That is the only way in which he/she can appreciate and experience the film beyond the narrative level. Film in general has become so formulaic and story-driven that audiences are rarely confronted with experiments in aesthetics. This is cinema. It should be constantly reinvented, as is music and dance, for example. Why should the medium of film stagnate? Why should a viewer be so concerned with deciphering the story or identifying its message? Our intent is not to make message films. We are not concerned with what you learn but rather with what you feel. If you want to learn about industrial crimes in Peru then go surf the web where you will find a wealth of information. Or track down documentaries (we can recommend ‘Choropamapa: The Price of Gold’).

The potential force of the film resides not in the lines of dialogue but between them and not in the actions but in the stillness and in the flow of time that runs through images. One arrogant distributor suggested we cut shorter all the lingering images in order to ‘get to the point’. He obviously had completely missed the point. Needless to say, he doesn’t distribute the film. In fact, the industry is quite conservative these days so distribution has become the greatest challenge of all. We are enormously appreciative of First Run’s commitment to ‘Altiplano’ and of the other small but brave distributors handling the film in Belgium, Holland, Germany and Taiwan.

On resistance and audacity…

It’s all about resistance. Resistance on a thematic level but also on an aesthetic one. But this has involved struggle from the very beginning. On every level. Luckily there are critics and audiences around the world who recognize this and greatly appreciate it.  

Audacity should be celebrated. And critics should be held accountable when their integrity lapses. Critics these days can get away with lazy writing. It appears that a few are much more concerned with exhibiting their wit than with crafting thoughtful, intelligent and well-researched reflection. Case in point: newsblaze claiming that our film is ‘smothered in European artistic and religious elements’ reflects a serious poverty of understanding about the history of Peru and the history of cinema. And reducing the film to a ‘Babel-meets-Benetton ad’ as does the Village Voice reflects the cynicism of the critic more than revealing anything truthful about the film. The Peruvian art department working on the film would find this laughable (insulting, perhaps) since every stitch of clothing in the image is authentic, time-filled and local. The Peruvian anthropologists, actors and technicians with whom we worked from day one of research would also raise an eyebrow at the published assumption that we made this film for Europeans only. Don’t get me wrong. We heartily welcome criticism (honestly) and are clearly not in the business of pleasing everyone. But we feel it absolutely just to point out the occasional poverty of film criticism.  

On the team’s future…

We are transposing our ideas to the near future in Belgium.

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