Open City Documentary Festival

across London

In Focus: Alexandra Cuesta

Alexandra Cuesta is a filmmaker and photographer who lives and works between Ecuador and the United States. Her 16mm films and videos are portraits of public places and urban landscapes, and the people in them. Reminiscent of documentary practices such as street photography, Cuesta’s work is also rooted in the poetic and lyrical sensibility of the avant-garde. Early films such as Recordando el Ayer (literally translated as “remembering the yesterday”), Piensa en mí (“think of me”) and Despedida (Farewell), shot in the United States where Cuesta received her MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, depict migrant neighbourhoods and diasporic communities (particularly Hispanic) – and they do so with a poignant sense of longing and belonging. Fleeting moments, memories to be beheld, as passing and elusive as the light that is the filmmaker’s (and the photographer’s) primary medium. As Madison Brookshire writes, “there is an operative longing that animates her oeuvre, an intertwining of intense beauty and a sense of loss that is as inextricable from her images as the light itself.” In 2016, following her return to Ecuador Cuesta completed the feature-length TERRITORIO, a fragmented account of her native country from the ocean to the jungle. Recent works such as the autobiographical series Notes, Imprints (on Love) (2020-ongoing) and the Structural/Materialist Lungta (commissioned by FICUNAM in 2022) foreground the act of filmmaking itself. Cuesta’s work is democratic but never neutral – it doesn’t simply “speak nearby” (as Trinh T. Minh-ha might say) but from within, the result of a complicity and shared intimacy that is only possible for a filmmaker who is herself a migrant. Serge Daney observed that “every ‘form’ is a face looking at us,” and in Cuesta’s films, the reciprocity of the gaze is central.

Alexandra Cuesta’s films have been widely screened at venues and festivals such as Centre Pompidou, Viennale International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, Los Angeles Filmforum, Queens Museum of Art, and Punto de Vista, amongst others. In Focus: Alexandra Cuesta, is the first UK survey of her work and includes all her completed films as well as other films selected by Cuesta, with an emphasis on recent productions by Ecuadorian filmmakers and artists.

With the support of Instituto de Fomento a la Creatividad y la Innovación (Gobierno de la República de Ecuador.

In Focus: Alexandra Cuesta 1

Thursday 8 September, ICA, 6.15pm


In Focus: Alexandra Cuesta 2

Friday 9 September, ICA, 6.20pm


Masterclass: Alexandra Cuesta

Sunday 11 September, Festival Hub, 1.30pm


In Focus: Alexandra Cuesta 3

Monday 12 September, Bertha DocHouse, 8.30pm

Concrete Music: On The Films of Alexandra Cuesta

by Madison Brookshire


Cinema shatters. But this is not – or not necessarily – violent. It is a shattering without breaking, a breaking up that is generative. It fragments our world. A fragment has power, so much potential: it has the ability to go in many directions – is not fixed but fluid. A fragment as fragment retains this ability, its potentiality.

In most movies, it is as though this power is too much and must be brought to bear: editing involves assembly, putting things together so that they make “sense.” Fragments that have been assembled begin to resemble things: they choose a direction, become located, limit the possibilities. Instead of assembling shards, however, Cuesta makes them proliferate. Fragments form a composition, an image, over time. That is, the fragment remains a fragment, which allows it to form connections with others without collapsing or coalescing into a unary thing. It remains multiple and en route as opposed to singular and stationary. Simply put, it is open, not closed.

This is perhaps most evident in Notes, Imprints (On Love): Part I (2020), a personal film made from swatches of image, sound, and text […]. Here, even the landscape seems to fragment, with empty lots and abandoned buildings forming a loose series of anti-landmarks instantly recognizable as the deindustrial North. When a close-up appears – halfway through the film, a cut from brilliant fall foliage to a face: radiant, confident, in three-quarters profile – it is shocking. The portrait holds briefly before it flares and cuts to a wide shot of snow falling, accompanied by a sound like the clicks and pops of a well-worn record. This marks a turn in the movie toward the domestic and amid still lifes of house plants, hardwood, and snow-covered furniture are hints of the end of a relationship. The final intertitle suggests this when – in lowercase letters placed, almost provisionally, in the lower right-hand corner of the frame–it reads, (the end of love), interrupting and recasting all that has come before.

Here as elsewhere, Cuesta turns the fragment to her advantage. This is what brings her disparate work together. Cuesta’s fragment is not or not only the abstraction a close-up creates, it is more like glimpses, little flashes or pieces of things, not a “strategy,” so to speak, neither technique nor style. Rather, the images are fragments–and something happens within and between them: points evoking a field, evanescent flickers on the surface of a sea.

In Cuesta’s cinema, we never see a thing in its totality, only flashes, yet together these flashes evoke something tangible: a sense of a place or a person, or else a mood, an atmosphere. They are “Actualités” in the old sense – and in this way differ from most documentary films. Many of her works are “city films,” to be sure, but even here the logic is the opposite of a city symphony. Each film is a mosaic: fragments arranged into a composition. Even so, this composition is open, permeable, whereas one always senses in a city symphony its desire for completeness – a total representation or a representation of totality […]. Cuesta’s work undoes this. Composed of fragments, it is intentionally incomplete. It lets the world in.

This is true even in her long-duration shots, such as the opening to TERRITORIO (2016). A different sort of film would open with an establishing shot – expository and orienting – whereas here, the first shot dislocates, disorients, is never fixed, but fluid. The title card isolates it from the rest of the film, makes it a fragment: separate, apart. It is a prelude, not an introduction. Yet it also radiates out and touches the others. With no singular, concrete connection, it suggests many, not just one. It is in and of motion […].

I want to be clear: I do not wish to suggest that this image operates either symbolically or through metaphor. It simply does these things, it does not mean them. None of the images in Cuesta’s work signify, that is, they are not rhetorical and do not form arguments. The images do not “speak” – even when the person in them is speaking. Instead, each shot radiates. There is a special kind of light in her films that certainly contributes to this radiance, but that is not exclusively what I refer to here. Rather, each shot radiates out, making connections with the others (as well as with us, the viewers). The fragment glows, producing a warmth that touches the others around it. There is no contest of light and dark, as in Expressionist cinema; it is a cinema of all light, all relation, emanating out from each shot, forming connections.


This is a fragment of an essay by Madison Brookshire on Alexandra Cuesta’s work. The full essay can be read here.   

Madison Brookshire lives in Los Angeles, where he makes films, paintings, and performances. His work invites viewers to become aware of perceptual processes and the sensuous experience of time. He is currently a Lecturer at University of California Riverside in the Departments of Art and the History of Art.