Matt Turner on It Is Night in America
As part of our series of texts commissioned around new films in this year’s festival programme, Matt Turner writes about our Opening Night Film, É Noite na América (It is Night in America).
“The blue of the sky depends on the darkness of empty space behind it.”
― Maggie Nelson, Bluets
As with her 2015 film Occidente, Ana Vaz’s first feature It Is Night in America opens and closes with a blank canvas of deep midnight blue. The same sort of “towering wall of blue” that Maggie Nelson envisioned as the image of approaching death in her book Bluets, and that Derek Jarman used to a similar end in Blue, the single-image, single-tone film he made just prior to his passing, Vaz’s colour is a twilight hue: the blue of both dusk and dawn. Achieved using a ‘day for night’ method––a technique pioneered in cinema’s silent era that involves simulating nighttime through the careful underexposure and tinting of footage filmed during daylight––much of the film that follows is soaked in this same crepuscular blueness, its ethereal qualities heightened through the use of an expired 16mm film stock that outputs images with an extraterrestrial granularity and tone.
After a few moments of nothingness, Brasília’s skyline becomes discernible within this ultramarine wash, revealing itself as the film’s ostensible subject. Filmed in and around Brasilia’s city zoo, It Is Night in America is primarily a film about wildlife but also a city symphony of sorts; the juxtaposition of various opposing elements (the natural world and the built environment, the human and the non-human, the caged and the free) creates the primary drive in a film that flits about curiously and expansively. Otters and foxes prowl vacant streets, capybaras lie about leisurely, anteaters appear in places they shouldn’t, and owls blink incessantly at the camera, the animals gazing expressively at Vaz as she films them surveillance-style through a telephoto lens, scanning their furry or feathery bodies with an inquisitive, appreciative eye. In between, aerial views and images recorded from the roof of a moving vehicle show the spiralling contours of the city’s wide, concreted streets and its haphazardly clustered architectural protrusions.
“Are animals invading our cities, or are we occupying their habitats?” asks an off-screen speaker at one point, responding to a call for the capture of an escaped animal. “I often joke that our ward is full of refugees,” says another voice, a vet describing the increasing abundance of distemper-stricken stray animals they are being asked to care for. In Vaz’s film, people are mostly nowhere to be seen, appearing only rarely as ghostly, silhouetted figures attending to the displaced animals popping up across a city that has been engineered to be as hostile to its non-human inhabitants as it historically has been to the human ones who have been pushed or priced out of its continual urban sprawl. Something, it seems, has gone awry in the age of the anthropocene, and with Vaz’s assemblage of disparate images and the operatic accompanying soundtrack of animal squawks, shrill horns, and crashing drones comes a mounting aura of the apocalyptic: a sense that this failed-utopian city of perpetual twilight could be some strange hinterland illustrative of what is to come in a wider world on the brink of ecological collapse.
“We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it,” Nelson also wrote in Bluets, quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Vaz returns to the same shade of midnight blue for the film’s conclusion: a long take showing a waterfall endlessly crashing from the top to the bottom of the container of the frame. Like Goethe, Vaz seems to be drawn to blue for its contemplative qualities, so where the city’s shape slowly emerges from the sky in the opening sequence, this closing shot remains an empty void––a canvas as blank and open to interpretation as one of Yves Klein’s monochromatic blues. Just as Nelson and Jarman saw death’s spectre in blueness, Vaz’s murky use of the colour, in combination with the out-of-date film stock, has a mortal quality: there is an expiration date to both the contents of her images and to the material image itself. The academic Toni Hildebrandt uses the phrase “post-apocalyptic amazement” when referring to Vaz’s 2018 short film Atomic Garden, also shot using a ‘day for night’ technique, and this seems an apt descriptor for the “ambivalent experience of mourning” seen in It Is Night In America too. Steeped in an astral blue, as gloomy as Vaz’s prophetic nocturnal projection may be, it is wondrous too; the film is as much an ode to the beauty of the natural world as it is a lament for its destruction.
Matt Turner is a film, art, and culture writer, editor, and programmer born and based in London, UK. He currently writes a newsletter about underdistributed or overlooked non-fiction film called nonlinearities, and also organises screening events as LOST FUTURES.