Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 14, 2022 9:37 am 
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A surreal Peruvian prison without bars, forgotten by the rest of the world, in a lost film from the mid-1980s

An article on The Film Stage explains what this is and its significance. It is a 1986 "Herzogian" documentary about an experimental open air penal colony in Peru which was shown once only on Swiss TV and then stored away in Italy for years. Now revived by Dekanalog’s George Schmalz and Lysa Le, it is being distributed In US theaters in a 4K restoration made in Bologna.

Narrated by Saxer and essayist and novelist Mario Vargas Llosa this film is a study of the spcifics of a place that is probably very different from its original intention, and reveals itself to be the surreal result of a unique mixture of good intentions and poor administraton. The film is absorbing because in it the inmates speak about themselves and we see them and their life. In principle Sepa is a progressive concept. Everyone says all the city prisons of Peru are hell holes. Here, the majority of the prisoners are given a piece of land to cultivate and given time off on their sentences for doing so, with the possibility of being granted land to be their own on their completion of sentence. But in fact, the system is hopelessly incompetent, slow and corrupt. Inmates wait years for their papers to go through. Forty-five of them, who have been waiting a long time for their release, are the only prisoners locked into barracks at night, presumably because it is known that their motivation to escape is high. But, locked in, they end the day with a dance-rhythm version of the national anthem: they are cheerful.

We aren't seeing much farming. We see a bunch of men playing cards with well-worn decks, for money. We see a bakery where amateur bakers make bread they sell to the inmates. The good-natured warden says they raise beans, rice,cassas and bananas "inabundance" but suggests real farmers should be sent here and only inmates with 4 or 5. year sentences who will be "really motivated" wo work in the fields, but, he laments, they send instead "these thugs who are good for nothing," the hardened criminals.

Indeed, they look like a rough lot, as we see in a series of individual intros (name, sentence, and charge, plus "chapa," nickname, or the lack of it, looking into the camaera, shirtless, tattoos and all). But walking around shirtless in shorts, and free of drugs, they are going through a peaceful, cleaned-up phases of their lives that may do them good.

A few of the inmates are apparently native English speakers, including a married couple who got married in an city prison, with great difficulty, inn order to be sent here together, and they are unique, unique also in that the wife says she is the only woman at Sepa. In fact prisoners are invited to bring their families, and the warden, known as Don Elias, visits a man with wife and children. He says the environment is like where he grew up, in the mountains, and that he is happy. But here again the administration has failed because the kids are not in school. They're growing up without education.

A church service - with dogs wandering around by the altar and among the worshipers - includes a sermon in which the visiting priest for this new year's service castigates the administration for its incompetency and laziness. Years have passed, he says, with many committees and petitions, but the colony has only continued to decline, all promises of improvement have turned out to be false. He says he has heard that 70 inmates have finished their sentence and are waiting and not being released. It's a scandal. And the system is so lax that he can be so critical, and he gets away with it. What a paradoxical place this is.

The film ends with a celebration where people are given large quantities of barbicued meat, and. then sit in a large hall with jolly master of ceremonies, singing and dancing - Don Elias comes up to do a turn, and some performances. A man performs a fire-eating act, and the emcee brings up a little boy nd girl to dance. The way the crowd huddles attentive, you realize this is a society that has no movies, no TV, nothing. It's back to basics.

Walter Saxer is a Swiss film producer whose career began in the late 1960's when he met the young Werner Herzog in Lanzarote and at 20, helped him on Even Dwarfs Started Small. He went on to work with Herzog on some of his other important films. He learned about the Peruvian penal colony while working on Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. Since the mid-1990's, Saxer has lived in the Peruvian Amazon. long lived in Peru and Today he lives in the city of Iquitos where he manages a small hotel called La Casa Fitzcarraldo.

Sepa: El Nuestro Señor de los Milagros, 77 mins., was shown briefly in Germany and Switzerland in 1986. Long lost, it was recently rediscovered and restored by the Cinémathèque suisse and Cineteca di Bologna in collaboration with the Ministerio de Cultura del Peru at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, from the 16mm original negative camera and sound held at Yacumama Films. Debuting in several festivals including the Viennale in Oct. 20221, it was shown Feb. 2022 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. US theatrical release of the restored version begins Oct. 14, 2022 at Metrograph, New York and Metrograph At Home will host the series Whole Lotta Herzog with select screenings introduced by Saxer.


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