Lois Patino
Credit: Berlin International Film Festival
by Ryan Akler-Bishop Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

A Synthesis of Different Ideas: — An Interview with Lois Patiño

February 22, 2023

Lois Patiño began his career making landscape films—a cycle of shorts that reframe the relationship between geographic space and spectatorship. Over the past decade, his focus has grown more expansive, covering more physical terrains, a broader range of subjects, and launching increasingly ambitious theoretical inquiries. Patiño’s sophomore feature, Red Moon Tide, is an ambient horror film about a coastal Galician village frozen in time. With the town’s population immobilized in tableaux, the camera wanders through their world as the voiceover describes memories and dread. With its scarlet images, the film is a formally singular and spellbinding reckoning with Galician mythology and its embedded monsters. Yet, somehow, its ambition and originality are exceeded by Samsara — Patiño’s third feature.

Samsara is a Buddhist triptych. It opens in Laos, where a boy regularly reads the Tibetan Book of the Dead to a dying old woman; after death, the woman’s soul moves through the afterlife. Patiño captures this passage through the Bardo in a transcendent sequence where the audience is asked to close their eyes and surrender to a soundscape accompanied by, more or less, a flicker film: bursts of color still visible through closed eyelids. Afterwards, the woman reincarnates as a goat in Zanzibar and lives among a community of seaweed-farmers. I spoke with Patiño about visualizing the invisible, shooting in Laos and Zanzibar, reincarnation, the specificity of big-screen exhibition, and his own relationship to Buddhism. 

In [Samsara], the transit of a reincarnated soul links Laos to Zanzibar. What compelled you to focus on those two geographic spaces?

The main idea for the film comes from its middle part, which reflects on the invisible and how to work with the invisible in cinema. I came up with this idea of making a film to be seen with eyes closed. And then I discovered The Tibetan Book of the Dead: a description of what we are going to see, from the Buddhist perspective, after life. I thought it was a perfect match for how I understand cinema as a meditative or contemplative experience; it’s a spectral place. So, after settling on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, I needed two places for two bodies. For the first one, I needed a Buddhist country, so they could speak about The Tibetan Book of the Dead and express the Buddhist conception of the afterlife. And then, I wanted to reincarnate in a place with a big contrast to both Laos and my own country and culture. I wanted to show the diversity of ways of living, the cultural-religious frames we live in, and also to make a political statement by showing cultures rarely shown on screen nowadays. I tried to work against the homogeneity that images from media reflect onto our screens.

How did you cast the movie?

I went to Laos and traveled. I saw these teenagers and monks living in the temples. I didn’t know during this first trip that there was a temple as huge as the one I ended up shooting. I just saw ten kids in each temple. Maybe five or eight. But I wanted to make a portrait of that community in Laos. In Zanzibar, I found this community of women working the seaweed farms. I thought it would be a nice contrast. Also, I wanted the part in Zanzibar to be more feminine than the part in Laos, since the strict [gendered] rules of the temple had to be maintained. As for casting, I did it naturally. I’d been staying with the monks for some days to understand their lives and speak to them. Some of them spoke English, so I could talk with them about their desires, their dreams, their fears. In this process of staying with them, I was secretly casting. I had a script, but it was constantly being modified. I was changing it as I was meeting new people.

There’s a moment where we have an intimate encounter with an elephant. Was that a pre-planned shot or something you just captured in the moment?

I wanted to start focusing a bit on the animals to break up the anthropomorphism and see life from the perspective of an animal, as we do in the Zanzibar section with the goat. Laos was known once as the “Land of a Million Elephants.” Nowadays, there are far fewer. When we were traveling to the waterfalls, along the way we were seeing elephants. Not wild ones — they’re not wild in the jungle. I don’t know if they were just there for the tourists. Sometimes you see them walking with a guide. And I thought it could be a nice encounter. An elephant appears in the film’s superimposition images. It becomes an introduction to what will happen in the country.

Samsara - Lois Patino

Credit: Señor y Señorita

How rigorously do you pre-plan the shoots? Is there a lot of spontaneity when you’re filming?

I used to have a preconception of the language that I was going to use, which I’d follow. Here, as I’m working with two DOPs [Mauro Herce and Jessica Sarah Rinland], it’s different. Each of them has their own sensibilities. The film is about reincarnation. I also wanted to reincarnate the movie into another look and another way of looking at the world. I wanted the part in Zanzibar to be much more tactile, with more textures, and more connection with the matter because we’re coming from this part that’s very ethereal and not tangible at all. I wanted to come back to a very sensitive aspect of reality. Something very sensorial. The language of the film changes from something more classic in terms of composition into the second part, which is about close-ups and touching.

The first shot in the Zanzibar section is even a close-up of a sleeping hand.

Yes, yes, it is a hand. I knew that would be the first shot since the beginning. The film is very connected to a somnific aspect. People are often sleeping; there are three or four or five moments where someone is asleep. The Bardo — the Buddhist conception of the afterlife — also refers to other states of mind like dream or meditation. I wanted to focus on that. I wanted the Zanzibar part to start with the girl sleeping because it suggests the eyes-closed section as part of the girl’s dream, making it more polysemous. We know it’s the woman’s trip [through the Bardo]. But it’s also the meditation of the kid with the old lady. And it can also be the dream of the girl we see wake up.

That middle portion in the Bardo is such a moving experience in the theater because the screen is so bright and expansive. And it’s so dark everywhere else that, even with your eyes closed, you see the light through your eyelids. Have you watched the movie on small screens and do you consider that big screen projection integral to the film itself?

The first time that I saw it on a bigger screen was yesterday. [laughs] I have to say that it depends a lot on how big the screen is and how far you are from it. It can be much brighter just in a [domestic] room because the cinema is light reflected, but the [home] screen is direct light into your eyes. I think the experience will change a lot but both can be powerful. The powerful thing about the cinema is, I think, the collective experience that you know there are people around you. Yesterday in the cinema, there were maybe seven-hundred people doing a collective, meditative experience. The cinema transforms into something different when working with very essential elements: just sound and light. But the intimacy of a house, and switching off the lights in the room, can also be really powerful.

Could you talk about your own relationship to Buddhism?

I’m interested in different perspectives of how different religions relate to death, its mystery, spirituality, how they create beliefs, myths, legends, and stories. The Bardo Thodol [The Tibetan Book of the Dead] is a very rich and complex story that tries to bring calmness while drawing a possible scenario of what can happen [between death and rebirth]. I’m very interested in that aspect of religion. I think I’m a spiritual person and a mystic too. I don’t connect strictly with any religion. Also, I do something similar to the character of the old lady in Laos. She’s Buddhist and wants to be reincarnated as an animal. That’s something that movies think is a punishment. But she has her own beliefs, and I’m more aligned with her. I try to catch different ideas and find my own beliefs. I believe in a synthesis of different ideas.