Diary-like, first-person footage made with a point-and-shoot camera chronicles a day in Beirut. Everyday occurrences—listening to music in a car, walking down the street—are thrown into sharp relief by a single cut. The explosion itself is not photographed, only its aftermath: a running crowd, billowing smoke, broken glass and, later, a television informing us that, in fact, this is the explosion that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The film ends with a truly simple image that, in context, is breathtaking: looking out the window of a small plane as it ascends, we see Beirut from a distance. The very ordinariness of the shot—its simple, even banal beauty—feels extraordinary in contrast to the events that precede it. It is literally transcendent.
This is Alexandra Cuesta’s second film, Beirut 2.14.05 (2008). Although it is in some ways the hardest of her three films to grasp, it is also the clearest illustration of a principle that runs through all her work. Cuesta cuts declarative images and concrete sounds together in such a way that they evoke an emotional response. Though her films are strictly observational, they construct a poetic reality that, while present in the camerawork itself, is largely accomplished in the editing.
In her first film, Recordando el Ayer (2007), the images break cleanly from one composition to the next by way of hard cuts. Moving freely in and out of buildings, from shots of individuals to near-abstract depictions of light, with no overt motive besides the logic of feeling, a portrait of a neighborhood and its inhabitants comes slowly into focus. One senses that in this work, accuracy regarding a sense of place is paramount to any other documentary concerns.
The sound, in contrast to the image, flows in a nearly unbroken wave from the beginning to the end of the film. As a listener, you begin to drift the way you might while listening to the freeway or the sea. Cuesta told me she wanted to make silence out of sound, something even quieter than silent film. In so doing, she reveals to us the beauty of things we thought we knew, things we ceased to notice because they are so common. It is the din of our everyday experience, foregrounded.
The imagery in her films is equally attentive to what might otherwise go unnoticed: the play of light through the perforated steel of a bus pavilion or reflections falling from an elevated train. Likewise, she chooses to photograph in spaces that are underrepresented or otherwise overlooked: an Ecuadorian neighborhood in Queens, New York and a corridor of east/west space defined by public transportation in Los Angeles. Both films—Recordando el Ayer and Piensa En Mi (2009), respectively—illuminate and dignify their underprivileged subjects. Cuesta’s camera is respectful, at times even reverential; her portraits of individuals are intimate yet also reserved. There is an agreement, it seems, between subject and photographer—an unspoken bond whose presence is powerfully felt.
Although these portraits are important, Cuesta’s cinema is not unique for its images of the underprivileged but for its evocation of the world in which they live, a world that is defined by a different sense of time. Failed systems and their attendant agony run parallel to the time that the affluent take for granted. Like the presence of the third-world within the first, interminable waiting and dysfunctional services coexist with the comparative instantaneity of the automobile, the internet and the iPhone. Cuesta’s strategy for her third film, Piensa En Mi, makes this clear. The “space” she chooses to photograph is not a neighborhood, but a bus line running east to west and back again. The bus moves through the upper-class neighborhoods of western Los Angeles, but remains separate: two spaces coexisting without commingling.
Space, or our experience of it, is defined by our relationship to time. The pedestrian and the bus-rider alike live in another reality defined by waiting. If you find yourself in the flats of Los Angeles—standing in the road, waiting for the bus’ silhouette to crest the horizon, able to see for more than a mile—you are in time, not moving through it. Cuesta’s films conjure the dream-like reality of just such a moment that stretches into the distance, where time and space are one. Her films are portraits of places where you can feel time. And so, for all of its documentary qualities, Cuesta’s work is eerily elusive—the effect of the films closer to reverie than reportage. Watching Piensa En Mi is like daydreaming while looking out the bus window—at once, near and far, objective and abstract.
Cuesta uses a cinematic form free from the strictures of description, where the cuts produce feeling in lieu of continuity. Mark Rothko once remarked that “feelings have different weights”; in Cuesta’s editing, the relative weight of one shot collides with the lightness of the next to produce not an idea, but an emotion. Cutting from a close-up to a wide open space, from a detail of light to a long shot, the contrast creates an opening—and in the interstice, a feeling can form.
The differential between the two shots is generative: two realities, distant and true, coalescing in an image. Therein lies the strength, emotional power and poetic reality of these films.