HADEN GUEST: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Harvard Film Archive. My name is Haden Guest. I'm the archives director, and I'm thrilled to see such a great crowd for tonight's screaming-- screening. It's not screaming-- [LAUGHS] --of Herbaria by Leandro Listorti, who we were so honored to have with us tonight.
We're going to be screening Listorti's most recent film, which is a meditation on cinematic and plant forms, and on the ways in which each capture and give unique expression to history. But I would say it's history understood perhaps from a different perspective than as we typically think about history. Herbaria in this way is, I think, a special kind of essay film-- one that uses minimal means to shape its bold ideas. And it does so by embracing a lyric and open form that asks the viewer, all of you, to make the revelatory connections between the different threads that it interweaves.
Listorti's film also gives the viewer of the space to wander, if you will, through its beautiful, strange, poignant images, many gathered from archival film collections. There's a long, rich, and yet in this country all too little appreciated, tradition of experimental and avant garde cinema in Argentina. And it's a tradition into which Herbaria clearly falls and pays tribute to, especially in the inclusion of two extraordinary pioneering avant garde filmmakers within the film-- Claudio Caldini and Narcisa Hirsch.
It's especially meaningful to us to welcome Leandro Listorti to the HFA because he comes from the world of the film archive. He's a member of the wonderful team now gathered at the Museo del Cine, Pablo Ducros Hicken, a name you will learn more about in just a few minutes, which located in Buenos Aires. Mr Listorti works not only as an independent filmmaker, but also as a film archivist, a curator, and a conservator. The Museo del cine is one of the most important film archives and collections in Latin America, and it's been responsible for rescuing and preserving countless essential films.
We have a program called Rebeladas, which is a focus on Latin American women filmmakers. And it includes a number of films that came from the Museo del Cine, including a focus I should say on Narcisa Hirsch. Pick up our calendar and take a look at that program. I'm very happy to acknowledge and welcome another colleague who is here tonight from the Museo del Cine, and that's its a long-time director Paola Felix-Didier. And let's give her a round of applause.
As you'll see, Herbaria is partially a history of the Museo del Cine. And together, with the film and the conversation that we will have afterwards with Leandro, it offers a great opportunity for us to learn more about their collection and the important work that they do. I'd like to ask everybody please turn off any cell phones, any electronic devices that you have. Please refrain from using them. Join us for a conversation afterwards with Leandro Listorti, who I now ask you to welcome to the podium.
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Well, thank you, everyone for coming tonight. And thanks, Haden, for the invitation and for the words-- really beautiful. I wouldn't say anything because you put it perfectly in words. And I don't enjoy much talking, as you may see.
The film is the result of two passions, like plants and gardening and film preservation. So it was really a beautiful process during the film. So I hope you enjoy it also, and we'll see you after the film to talk. Have a good screening. Thanks.
HADEN GUEST: Please join me in welcoming back Leandro Listorti.
Great. Thank you so much for this wonderful film.
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Thank you.
HADEN GUEST: And I'm really looking forward to discussing it with you, and also to taking questions from our attentive audience. Herbaria offers a kind of catalog of different ways to record and archive plant life.
We see those amazing models. We see the herbaria of themselves. We see these drawings with this description-- this sort of neutral perspective.
And then you include also these fragments of films. And it seems to me, those have a very special place and power in the film. These are the moments where I feel like we've become most intimate with the plants. I'm thinking of under the underwater sequence, or the plants and their movements.
But they're also charged with the kind of mystery and beauty that seems of a different kind than anywhere else in the film. I'm thinking of the one where the hands pull apart the flower. And that's a gesture that we often think of as he or she loves me, she loves me not. But then we realize it's also a scientific exercise. So I was wondering if you could talk about the fragments, these sort of plant films that are in the films, and how you came upon them, but also how you decided to place them and to give them so much power in the film itself.
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Well, originally there was not supposed to be as much archive footage. But I started looking for films that might contain flowers in different ways. I realized doing the film that this footage of flowers was also a way of keeping the flowers.
Many of the flowers and plants that we see no longer exist. So the only record of the plants and flowers are through film. So I realized how restoring or working with the film meant also keeping alive those flowers. So I like that idea of doing, like, a double game or a double task of recovering nature through film.
And there was also a very strong connection, I think, between the materiality of the film that I feel that, like something alive or that could die. So it could be alive if something dies, and the plants and the flowers. So basically, I started to feel ways that I could connect both worlds that I imagined or felt that it would be nice that would be connected, and see the ways I could do that, and see how that results.
And it also has to do with-- you spoke of the hand picking up the flower. And I think that also has to do with the idea of destruction. How to make things alive, we also kill them, because the process of the flowers in the herbarium, it meant to kill the plants and dry them to be alive forever. So I found that very interesting, and like a contrast to a way of achieving eternal life through death. So I look for that in the footage.
HADEN GUEST: Well, there are a few things I want to pull out from there. I mean, at one point in the film, there's this discussion of the monster. And the monster is that which refuses this search for essences, the categorization, and actually creates something else. And it seems to me that there's something monstrous in a way that these film fragments that refuse to be what we often think a film should be-- to tell a story, to be complete, to offer answers. Instead, that incompleteness gives it something else.
At the same time, though, you pointed to something else-- this idea that these films also offer a way of understanding-- this discussion of the fungus and things like this, that they actually contain a kind of plant life themselves that actually threatens to destroy them and become something is an object of study as well. But I was wondering if you could talk about-- I mean, you've made a wonderful film called The Infinite Film, which is a film made from fragments of unfinished films. But I was wondering if you could talk about the magic, the mystery, the power of the fragment, which is so charged with meaning and mystery, and yet often so difficult to use, to place.
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Yes. Doing that film a couple of years ago, after a long research looking for the materials, we worked only with film material-- 60 millimeter and 35. And there I realized this tendency we have as an audience to look for narration and to put things together, even when they are given to us in a very messy way. And I found it fascinating in that film because there were only fragments put together with some ideas, but mainly to replay and reconstruct the mind of the audience.
And people create their own stories with those pieces and those fragments. So I found that a very fertile way to work and to bring the spectator to be part of the film also. And then with this film, I tried to do something very similar-- to put together pieces from two worlds that at the beginning, one could think they're different, and to make the audience realize how many connections there are.
And this idea that everything is connected is one of also the main ideas that I have making the film, not only in these two worlds, but also in the world of, I don't know, film preservation. There are a lot of people work in different places of the world doing the same job, and with plant conservation also. And many times, they don't know each other, but they're working towards the same goal. And I like that idea of community like the roots of the trees connected without knowing each other.
HADEN GUEST: I mean, something else that you make, a really poignant and important point, that the archive is defined as much as what is not there as what is there, and in a way similar with our understanding of history, be it cinematic or planned history. And I feel like the fragments also essentialize that in a way, that incompleteness. I wanted to ask about the placement of Narcisa Hirsch and Claudio these two experimental filmmakers. Claudio Caldini's one of the more important super-8 filmmakers. Narcisa Hirsch is a still active, amazing figure-- actually bridged the US and Argentina.
But it seems you present them both as being closer to nature-- like close to nature in a special way. And I was wondering if you could speak to their place in this film, and to this sort of argument and exploration that you're making about the connections between plant life and cinematic life. They both, of course, work photochemical cinema. But I'd love to hear more about that.
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Well, both Narcisa and Claudio are people that I from a long time, and I really love them. So it in part was an excuse to be with them and to be part of the film. But I know also their close relationship to nature, and to plants and flowers. So in a sense, it seemed like a natural thing to include in the film.
And I also wanted to show them maybe to the few people-- thinking in a big audience, probably not many people know who they are. But to the people that know who they are, I wanted to present them in a different way, in a different face, and to see them as people that really like plants and flowers. And probably people that don't know their work just see them as people really connected.
And, well, they speak about their job and their work, and how they deal with film in their lives. But I wanted to use them also as a way of crossing these two words that I feel very much connected. And they were examples of that connection also.
HADEN GUEST: Now you had said earlier, you spoke about the creation of the herbarias. Paradoxically, you have to kill the thing in order to save it, to preserve it. And in the film, you speak about how there was an artisanal scanning process used to capture this extraordinary footage, this fragment that we see.
But it resulted in the destruction of the object itself. I was wondering if you could just speak a bit more about. Was that because the film was so fragile in terms of the state of the gelatin, or how was that?
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Yeah, it was a very short fragment that one day, one guy came to the museum and told us we have this kind of film. We don't know what it is. They couldn't open it, so they didn't know what was inside.
And we opened it up, see what was inside, and it was nitrate film-- like, a short nitrate film. And we start trying to see what was inside of it. And that's this footage of apparently this neighborhood club that was about to be 100 years in the coming months. So the guy was really hopeful to find some images of the founders of the club and everything.
So we say, well, we'll do our best to try to take some images out of it. So with two friends who used to work at the museum, we said every Friday after lunch, we scan each frame of the piece of film, that it was like a charity thing. It was really unwatchable.
So we scanned it with a flat scan. And the film, after it hit the scan, it was straight to the trashcan. And then we burned it, because since it was nitrate, it was dangerous to have. So it was then scanned and trashed, scanned and trash.
And that thing is now what is left. And we could send him a few seconds of the film, and they showed it at this big party they had at the club. And it was really nice. We were there as part of the celebration. It was really nice.
HADEN GUEST: And when you say it was artisanal process, that's because you couldn't just feed it into a machine. You had to literally--
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Yeah, we had to move. And it was a very experimental and homemade process, because it was the first time we did it. So we have to mark where we move, because sometimes, there were no images. So it was not easy to see what have you just scanned or not.
So we were moving one frame-by-frame and put a glass on it, and then on top of that. And it was very messy also because it was the [INAUDIBLE]. We have to clean after a few scans and use gloves, because it was really an unhealthy practice.
HADEN GUEST: Man, I love the way you placed that fragment really close to the beginning of the film. It becomes almost, like, the subliminal message. Did we actually see that? Because we don't come back to it until towards the end. And so that's something I--
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Yeah, and we realized after also that there were all men there, and the footage of the men decaying, and mostly women trying to make survive all these images and working for it was also a nice idea. I think that happened when we put together the film, because mostly women work really good at this task of working with film and being gentle with it. So I found it [INAUDIBLE].
HADEN GUEST: Well, in truth, I mean, in the early film industry, women, many in the silent era were given the task of editing, because it was assumed that women understood sewing. So they would understand how to--
LEANDRO LISTORTI: And they were cheap, probably.
HADEN GUEST: Well, and right. But that was there was that assumption made, which is really interesting. But when you return to the fragment, what's interesting is that you don't have that incredible footage of the shotput at the beginning. And I was wondering why that was.
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Which what?
HADEN GUEST: The men throwing the--
LEANDRO LISTORTI: It was lost. We put everything that we had.
HADEN GUEST: I see.
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Yeah, but apparently, we then found out that part of that footage was shot in this club, the Basque Club. But the footage from these men doing these exercises was also in a 9.5 millimeter print we watch that Fernando Pena once showed. And it was the same footage, so probably they used that footage to use it-- I don't know the idea behind this footage of almost naked men doing exercises, and all men eating and playing basketball.
HADEN GUEST: Right, the jai alai.
LEANDRO LISTORTI: We put everything that we could make it survive on the film, so there's nothing else.
HADEN GUEST: OK, just to comment before taking some questions from the audience. But no, I mean one of the things I appreciate about the film as well is the attention that you give to-- it's about the ways in which things in the archive take on a life of their own. You talked about the latent power that some plants have, that they can store some energy and then release it later.
And it seems to me that one of the things you're saying is that motion picture film-- and here we're talking about photochemical film, as opposed to digital cinema, even in a state of decay has a kind of latency, has a kind of power, and a power that expresses itself through beauty, like that the wonderful footage you have at the end of the herbaria being made in the black and white footage with the crazed-- the cracking, and things like that. And so I think this film makes a very powerful argument for that.
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Yeah, that footage is really creepy because we found it at the end of the process of making the film. And it was in such a bad condition that we couldn't see it before. We knew-- which was about, but we couldn't see it. And basically everything that I shot before, it's there, because there are a few shots there that are the same that are being shoed in.
And it has to do with that thing in the film. It's a world that has changed over 200 years. So probably if in 200 more years, they shot something similar, it's going to be the same people doing the same thing of putting plants in an oven, and then putting paper shades on it.
And I found that also very attractive to be something so-- I wouldn't say amateur, but really basic to aim for something so big as to save film and plants, because what we do in the museum is also very basic in terms of we clean the films and we try to keep them the best way we can. But we don't have big technology or money or anything. So that's also one of the connections of the people working with plants and we ourselves working with film.
HADEN GUEST: Oh, exactly. I mean, the use of the newspaper for instance-- these really humble materials in order to do this really important work similar to some of the tools that we use in the archive. Just so you know, Leandro will be visiting the Glass Flowers in the Natural History Museum later on. I'm sure many of you were going to make that recommendation to him.
But now we're ready to take questions from the audience. And we have microphones on either side. So if you just raise your hand for a microphone, that would be great. And this gentleman here, and then the gentleman in front.
AUDIENCE: Hi. Thank you for this film. You depict two processes that are the preservation of plants and the preservation of films that are intensely physical. And I'm curious how you see the future.
I mean, film is going is changing. Maybe more so than plants. But I'm just curious, like, digital and where that fits. And do you see that as destroying these physical processes, or do you see it as adding to it or neither?
LEANDRO LISTORTI: No, we see it more than a complement of the photochemical processes. But we think that it's very important not to lose the photochemical film and the processes, because we still can rely on them. And in the digital, you can't rely at all. So that's why I tried to include some ways of the cell phone where you see these pictures, because I didn't want to be a film, like, out of time that didn't have any relationship to ourselves and to today. And I think that that's a tool that we can use, but we should always add things.
And the things that work for us, they should be added to the things we do, but shouldn't replace other things. And usually, we tend to replace processes or objects. And I found it sad, because usually, some of the old stuff still works and it's useful.
And with film, you can say that it's still best to rely on film to make new prints and to make digital versions, and not in the digital world. And even with the flowers, these flowers that are made very basically with papier mache, and still, after taking care of them, they're still being shown and still working. So I would really like to think in the modern world not taking over the older, but living together.
HADEN GUEST: And just to add, just briefly also, one of the experts says film, if stored properly, could last up to 500 years. I mean, that's one of the most important arguments, I think, for using film, as opposed to a digital file which you're lucky if it can last for--
LEANDRO LISTORTI: 500 hours.
HADEN GUEST: 500 hours. So yeah, please.
AUDIENCE: Hi. Thank you for such a beautiful and meditative work that gives such dignity to the labors of love of archivists and to the medium itself. We've heard some about the task of joining together fragments, and almost the editing side of things. But I want to hear something about the poetry of what you might call the organic portions of this film that you've shot.
Some of them, like that shot through the wooden shelving, is like Tarkovsky or something. And it's not quite what I expected in the middle of a film that's about an archival work. And so maybe you could speak some to the portions which you shot and added to this assemblage, almost like the ligaments that join it together.
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Thanks.
HADEN GUEST: I mean that was a quote from Toute la memoire du monde, the Alain Resnais film, the shelves, right?
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Yeah, well, we shot on 60-millimeter film. So when you shoot on film, you have to be very thoughtful of what you're going to shoot. And at the same time, you have to be open to whatever happens around you, because you might lose something that's useful or part of the film.
And I think that feeling, like a love relationship, I would say, with what I shot-- with film, with flowers, we planned with the people working there, helps you to address them in that way at the end. Because with photochemical processes, you never are sure what you're doing, because you shoot-- especially in Argentina, we don't have labs. So you shoot. And a few months later, you realize what you have done. So you're never sure.
We had, like, a small monitor when we shot. But usually, you don't see much because there's too much light and you're running out of time. So I think that what you're saying that appears in the film is just out of this love to the films shot.
And the process of editing is really fun. It was the first time that I edited. Usually, I am against film directors editing their own films, because that usually comes out very wrong. But the first part of the film was edited with an editor friend. But then, I had all the footage during lockdown, so I thought it was a good opportunity to try to look for some things and see what happens if you put this next to the other and see how much we have to shoot.
And by the end of the process, I already edited the whole film. And it was really fun to see how this way of working with fragments at the beginning is really frightening, because these films could have been edited in many, many, many ways. You don't have a straight story that you follow.
So that term is really scary at the beginning. But once you start playing and putting things together, you start to realize that there is a way, there's a best way, that [INAUDIBLE]. And I really enjoy the process. And it was really fun because something happened when some people saw it, and they couldn't realize exactly which were the archive films and which were the shots that we shot. And I found it that very nice.
HADEN GUEST: Other questions or comments? Let's do the gentlemen in the very back. And then we'll do you, and then you.
AUDIENCE: Hi. First of all, I wanted to say I really enjoyed your movie. It's one of the best things I've seen in a long time.
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Thanks.
AUDIENCE: When I was watching your movie, I couldn't help but think about how it was about our pursuit of immortality and about how there's no such thing as unconditional immortality. There's always a catch to it. Like you said, in order to preserve something's soul, you have to extract it in a way. And I think that film is analogous to that, but also very different, because film allows you to preserve something.
So without physically destroying it, you can capture a moment, but then still allow that thing to continue to survive. And I guess my question was about the dichotomy between those two. And do you think film attracts you as a medium that allows you to cheat death in a way, if you know what I'm saying?
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Yeah, yeah, I think we should help film do that. That's why we work in a film archive, and we try to keep the footage to live the longest life possible, because film has done her job, his job. And now we have to do ours, keeping those materials alive. Thank you.
HADEN GUEST: Well said. And the gentleman with the sweatshirt. If you want to pass the mic to Amanda. Thank you.
AUDIENCE: A beautiful film. Thank you very much.
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Thanks.
AUDIENCE: I was a huge fan of the ambient sound pieces scattered throughout the film. I was curious, when working with film and working on a new project or products in the past, how important to you, or how much are you thinking about the sounds and the scores that are going to accompany the visuals that you're working on.
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Thanks. Roberta Ainstein is a sound designer. She's a great musician and sound designer. I really love working with her.
And also, working with film usually puts you in the place where you have to think about the sound, because you're not recording it while you're shooting. Even if you record direct sound while you're shooting, probably you won't end up using it because it's not that good. So I think that's one of the less discussed things when talking about shooting film. It gives you the opportunity to create from scratch all the sounds that you're going to hear.
I found that working on my previous film, which was basically all silent footage. I don't know why, but all the footage surviving was silent. So we had to build the soundtrack from zero. So we almost did the same with this film.
And for the first time, I dared to use something similar to music. But it's very difficult to me to know when and how to use music, and I think I made a step forward with this film and I really like the way they combined. But usually, all the music we hear through the film is not music in terms of melodic music up until the end, where there's this pop song.
But I really enjoyed it. I would love to know more about sound and music, but I'm really terrible. So I try all the time to try it.
HADEN GUEST: There was a question here? Yeah, Alex is the next question is coming from the other side here.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. At some point in the film, this really big and provocative question or thought gets posed. And that's the fact that who decides what to preserve and what to retain for eternity, or for however long, is of utmost importance. And it's posed, and I'm not sure that we necessarily see some of those deciders or any of those deciders in the film. And so I was wondering if that's something you explored during the making of the film, or if you encountered stories related to that question.
LEANDRO LISTORTI: Yes, because that's a big question when you're working on film preservation, because usually, the people that have the power to decide what to keep or to give you the money-- as a film archivist would like to keep everything. And soon, you realize that's impossible. So you have to choose what to keep. Almost, when you're a filmmaker, you can keep everything that you shot. So you have to decide what to leave out.
With film preservation, it's a more serious thing, because what you leave outside probably dies. So we are always in that position because we have to decide what to keep and what not to keep. And I found that one of the most difficult situations in which we found ourselves.
And it's never easy. It's like knowing when you work on this that you won't be able to save all the films that exist and that deserve to be safe. But even so, we try.
So I don't know why. So I don't have an answer. And it has also to do with the people above us that could do also some things with decisions and with money. And, well, we know very well in Argentina, for example, there is not many people in that position wanting to do something.
HADEN GUEST: Well, perhaps on that sobering note, we will say good night, and thank you all for coming. Thank you very much. Thanks to Leandro Listorti.