Multiculture, Our People

Alison Murray: “The important thing in life is community, not money”

The Canadian film director, who lives in Buenos Aires, has shown her most recent documentary “Caprichosos de San Telmo” at the Argentine Film Festival, London.


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Text: Miriam Valero

Photos: Peter Barbe


A few years ago, Alison Murray was walking in the San Telmo neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina, when she suddenly heard an intriguing noise. She carried on further and, in a nearby square, she found the musicians and dancers of the street band Caprichosos de San Telmo.

There, the members of the group opened up to her the world of typical Argentine dance, African in origin, and the fascinated director turned them into the cast of her latest documentary.

Murray’s filmography is characterised by a representation of as many different human identities as possible and reflections on them in the most intimate form. On this occasion, she focusses on the difficult daily life of the murgueros and how dancing is their liberation from life, their true calling.

The members of the band (such as Pichi or Eva Maria, among many others) paint a picture in the documentary of the working class in Buenos Aires, which, despite having low material wealth, enjoys a rich human experience, thanks to the friendship and help of the community.

With the documentary showing as part of the first Argentine Film Festival, London, The Prisma took the opportunity to chat to Murray for a few minutes.

Why did you make a film about a street band in Buenos Aires? How did the idea come about?

I live in the San Telmo neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, which is where I recorded the documentary. A few years ago I was walking with my husband and our baby, who wouldn’t stop crying. Then we heard some drums. As we got closer to the music, the baby went to sleep. We carried on in search of the sound and ended up meeting the band rehearsing in the square.

We stayed to watch them and they surprised me. I was fascinated by the dancing and wanted to know more about them.

At the beginning, the documentary was going to investigate the African roots of the dance, but then I began to get to know the band members and their stories, so the focus of the documentary changed to tell the story of the Caprichosos de San Telmo, rather than just the band and their dancing.

What was the purpose of contrasting their economic difficulties and the freedom the band felt as members?

The idea was to show that money is not what is important in life because, as the documentary shows, if you are part of a strong community then you can feel happy, without work or much money. Another thing is that in life, it’s fundamental to belong to something, to be part of cultural expression, music; these are the things that are worth the effort.

One of the messages of the film is that the Caprichosos de San Telmo may be a poor community materially, but really they are very rich.

How was it working so closely with the members of the band and filming them?

It touched my heart how they opened up their souls to me and the trust they gave me. It was a joyful experience. They liked the opportunity to talk and that someone was giving them a voice, that something would focus on their lives. They feel a bit excluded from society. The presence of a camera gave them a sense of importance. Also, they were very surprised when I came back time and again to film them.

Your documentaries and films are always very personal and with very particular significance. What are your main influences?

My style of filming is something that developed naturally. The way I film came about because for the first documentary I made in 2000, “Train on the brain”, I had to film on cargo trains and I couldn’t use a team, I had to do everything on my own.  I discovered that this gave me a sense of intimacy, which I liked, and I carried on down that path of doing things alone because it seems that when you don’t have big microphones, or any lights, the subjects are more comfortable. That’s something very important for me.

Above all, I want to reflect the lives of people who live a little outside mainstream society. In “Caprichosos de San Telmo”, 97% of the film is made by me, save for a few scenes that had help from more people.

Your films also focus on alternative ways of living and subcultures. What’s your opinion on multiculturalism and mixing identities?

Unfortunately, there is a part of society that doesn’t accept multiculturalism. I’d like my films to make a change to that part of society and contribute something to the cause, because a mix of diverse cultural identities is a marvellous thing.

As well as being a director, you’re also a dancer and tango teacher, a characteristic that’s in common with your film.

Yes. I’ve ended up following a complicated path because first, I studied dancing professionally. Then I studied cinema, worked in the film industry, and now I’m returning to dance. I’m sticking with tango and street dance, the two forms from Buenos Aires.

Alison Murray has directed previous documentaries, including “Carny”, “Train on the brain”, and the film “Mouth to Mouth”, which won the Grand Chameleon Award in 2005 at the Brooklyn International Film Festival.

(Translated by Daniela Fetta)

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