Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: Suspension, The Granularity of the Concrete

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Penny Harvey investigates the various contexts that come into play in Simón Uribe’s Suspension. Suspension is available in Block 1 (Wed 9th Sept midday – Sat 12th Sept midnight BST). Tickets for Suspension are on sale now.

Simón Uribe is fascinated by the role of the frontier in processes of nation building. The Putumayo region of Colombia has been imagined as a frontier zone since colonial times, defined by the “wild nature” of the Amazonian lowlands, a place beyond the reach and control of the state, beyond the limits of the “civilised” world. Uribe has already written about this topic at length; in his historical ethnography Frontier Road: Power, History and the Everyday State in the Colombian Amazon, he describes how these contrasting moral geographies are nevertheless integral to the national project. The frontier exists in a dynamic of inclusive-exclusion. The history of the road that connects the frontier to centres of power is a tangible expression of the ways in which social inequalities and vulnerabilities are justified and reinforced by material infrastructures that simultaneously include and exclude. 

Suspension, Uribe’s film on the same subject, tells a story of a road that is withheld, temporarily removed, rendered impassable, deferred, and ultimately left hanging. It began as a bridle path, built thanks to the determination of a Capuchín monk in the 1920s. At the time, the state showed little interest in creating a viable connection between the lowlands of the Putumayo and Colombia’s centres of power in the Andean region. It took the missionaries nine years to build the first road. For six of those years work was suspended as governments wavered in their commitment to build and maintain a viable connection to the Putumayo region. 

In 1932 the road was upgraded. Colombia was at war with Peru for control of resource-rich territories to which they still had no vehicular access. An improved road was needed for the speedy movement of troops, and to encourage colonisation and settlement of the region. A decision was taken to re-route a critical segment of the Capuchin trail. This segment—subsequently known as the Trampoline of Death—turned out to be incredibly perilous. In Suspension, the camera lingers on the vertiginous drops, the devastating effects of landslides, the implausibly narrow spaces for passing vehicles approaching from the other direction.

Local rumours abound as to why this route was chosen. It was an emergency measure and not well designed, or perhaps it was deliberately suspended in a perpetual state of decay to prevent the passage of hostile Peruvians. There is even the possibility that it was built by an engineer who had been held as a political prisoner in the region, and subsequently took his revenge on the Putumayo by building the road on unsuitable terrain. There was growing pressure for a two-lane, modern highway. The designs were drawn, the end result depicted in a computer-generated future, and 100 million US dollars were secured and spent on the construction of a sweeping arc of asphalt concrete, spanning a series of deep ravines then coming to an abrupt halt at a rock-face where a tunnel is yet to appear. 

Suspension does not set out to explain why the road was built. These histories are offered here to explain Uribe’s fascination. The camera dwells instead on the human and environmental consequences of this violent mode of inclusion. The images are intimate and affective. The granularity of the concrete is explored in detail, as are the facial expressions and bodily gestures of those who are building, traveling, or simply visiting the new suspended structure, the largest white elephant of Amazonia. 

Penny Harvey is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester. She has worked extensively on the human and material consequences of large scale infrastructure projects, with a particular interest in ethnographies of roads. 

Tickets for Suspension are on sale now.