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“White on White”: a glance through the lens at the genocide of the indigenous population of Tierra del Fuego

No, we are not talking about the famous Kazimir Malevich’s painting “White on White” in the genre of Suprematism, but about the festival drama of the Chilean-Spanish director Théo Court “White on White” (“Blanco en blanco”).

The filmmaker was inspired to create this film about the genocide of the indigenous population of Tierra del Fuego by photographs depicting the extermination of the aborigines at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries by colonists who were developing the lands of Patagonia. After seeing photographs of tragic events, the filmmaker decided to highlight the theme of the internal barbarism of a “modern” society.

“When I first saw the photographs of a massacre of the Selk’nam people perpetrated by Julius Popper in Tierra del Fuego, I was filled with questions: Who took these photographs? Who took part, as an unseen voyeur, in these events? The land was the next thing that caught my attention: an area full of vast, infinite plains, a site marked by barbarism and survival in extreme conditions.”

Théo Court

A hunt was conducted for the Indians of Tierra del Fuego, de facto sanctioned by the authorities. Local cattlemen paid mercenaries generously for the ears, hands and heads of those killed, and the indigenous women cost higher than men. Children were exterminated along with adults, but sometimes they were exhibited for display in zoos.

Over the course of several decades, more than 90% of representatives of the Selk’nams, Yaghan, Alakalufs, historically inhabiting the southern territories of present-day Chile and Argentina, and other indigenous people of Patagonia were destroyed. Local tribes survived mainly by hunting and, with the arrival of immigrants, began to hunt agricultural livestock, which the cattlemen valued more than the life of the “savages”. Today in the region there are few descendants of these Indian ethnic groups, primarily from mixed marriages. They have forfeited the language and original culture of their ancestors.

The plot of the film “White on White” is built around the photographer Pedro, who came to the island of Tierra del Fuego to photograph the wedding of the powerful landowner Mr. Porter. Mr. Porter orders a photographer a portrait of his fourteen-year-old bride, Miss Sarah, whose beauty so bewitches Pedro that he, obsessed with the desire to capture the girl’s innocence in the picture, oversteps the existing boundaries, causing the wrath of his patron. Unable to escape from the island, Pedro becomes a witness and an unwitting accomplice of the genocide against the Indian tribe Selk’nam, which is carried out by representatives of a “civilized” society, led by Mr. Porter himself, against the backdrop of amazingly harsh and virgin beauty of local landscapes.

Shot from the film
Shot from the film “White on White”

The prototype for Mr. Porter was Julius Popper, who came to Argentina in 1885 during the gold rush. Gold on Tierra del Fuego attracted adventurers and gold prospectors of all stripes. Julius Popper led one of such groups and headed to the Isla Grande island of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. Popper declared the territory where he settled, the possession of Argentina and, having convinced the Argentine government and private investors to finance his venture, opened the “Southern Gold Mining Joint Stock Company.” Due to the resistance of the local tribes, the development of the lands of Patagonia was carried out through a policy of genocide. And Julius Popper became one of the conductors of this policy and even prepared an album about the undertaken expedition as a gift for Argentine President Miguel Angel Juárez Celman. The album of 1887 is on display at the End of the World Museum in Ushuaia, Argentina.

Julius Popper

Julius Popper, colonizer of Tierra del Fuego. Photo from Julius Popper’s Expedition Album. Source: https://www.flickr.com/

Théo Court, who received his first education in photography, skilfully uses his previous experience in his work on the film White on White. The static nature of the plans, the meditative narration, justified by the context, the stylization of frames to resemble photographs of the edge of the XIX–XX centuries — all this creates a unique audiovisual language of highly artistic cinematography, through which the director talks about racial, cultural and class contradictions, raises gender issues that have long been in focus of public attention. However, Théo Court deliberately leaves space for the spectator to give an ethical assessment himself of what is happening.

“I think there is more perversion in the eye of the beholder than in the action itself. This is where the tension really creates.”

Théo Court

According to the author, the scenes dedicated to the photographing of Miss Sarah contain references to the photographic experiments of Lewis Carroll, which strike with “the parallel between perversion and the desire to capture the last innocent beauty of a minor.” The staged footage of Mr. Porter’s young bride will almost certainly cause the spectator to feel agonizingly embarrassed. This feeling of inner discomfort only grows as events unhurriedly develop, again and again making the viewer wonder whether deliberate aestheticization can justify violence and exploitation.

Shot from the film
Shot from the film “White on White”

Another bold directorial trick is to use silence and light, turning them into the most important elements of the composition to create tension that does not subside until the very last frame. “White on white” is not just a metaphor, but an artistic device. In photography and cinematography, the choice of the white point determines the transformation of other colour stimuli. White is the lightest colour, fully reflecting and scattering all visible wavelengths of light, but the filmmakers managed to make it not only tangible, but dense, massive and crushing.

From the spectator’s point of view, one should also mention the camera work, which created magnificent shots of a blizzard and a night hunting accompanied by torchlight. It is also worth paying attention to the original film soundtrack, which heightens emotional engagement and fuels constant feelings of anxiety.

“White on White” was Théo Court’s second full-length film and won the Best Director award in the ‘Orizzonti (Horizons)’ at the 76th Venice Film Festival and the FIPRESCI Award in 2019. In 2010, the director made his debut with his first drama “Decline”.

theo court
Théo Court holds the Best Director award in the ‘Orizzonti (Horizons)’ at closing ceremony of the 76th Venice Film Festival, Italy.

In August 2020, the film “White on White” was presented at the First International Debut Film Festival in New Holland in St. Petersburg and received the Jury Prize of the main competition.

On September 10, the Moscow premiere of the film “White on White” in Spanish with Russian subtitles took place at Garage Screen.

The film is the result of a co-production between Spain, Chile, France and Germany.

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