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Oskar Alegría • Director of Zumiriki

“It was important to me to hold on to what is left of our natural heritage”


- With his second film, Zumiriki, unveiled at Venice, Spanish filmmaker Oskar Alegría has been hopping from festival to festival; we caught up with him before his touchdown in Seville

Oskar Alegría  • Director of Zumiriki
(© Lolo Vasco/Festival de Sevilla)

Oskar Alegría (Pamplona, 1973) spent four years as artistic director of the Punto de Vista International Documentary Film Festival (read more here); now, he’s on tour with his second full-length feature. Zumiriki [+see also:
film review
interview: Oskar Alegría
film profile
was written, directed, edited and filmed by Alegría himself — we found out more in a conversation at the Seville European Film Festival, where this hypnotic labour of love has been selected for the New Waves - Non Fiction section.

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madrid film office feb 2024 elena central

Cineuropa: Do you have a general release date for your new film?
Oskar Alegría:
I’ve never given much thought to the commercial prospects of my work, not with my first film nor with this one. At the moment, Zumiriki has a programme of screenings at festivals, and that’s the first and basically the only circuit I have in mind. Later, it will be shown at various arts and cultural centres. That was the path I went down with my previous film, The Search for Emak Bakia, and I’m quite happy to do it again. I don’t think that the story I have to tell has much appeal for the commercial market.

So, how is this festival pilgrimage that you’re on working out, and what has been the response to the film from audiences in different parts of the world, who might bring very different perspectives to it?
My first film had more obvious universal appeal, because it was about the photographer Man Ray, who is very well known. This time, I drew on a very personal story and — I say this half tongue-in-cheek — on certain films made by my father, Jesús Alegría. What I’m finding surprising is the fact that the film has been selected for the Venice film festival and for festivals in China, where I’m travelling next month. They wrote to me from China about the poetics they saw in the film — I myself wonder what kind of poetics it has. Thanks to Zumiriki, I now have the chance to visit places I’ve never been before, and it’s all the more surprising because the story is so idiosyncratic and localised — but that’s a mark of our prejudice. We think we’re telling a very particular and personal story, but ultimately everything is connected. If you throw a bottle in the river that passes by your house, that bottle could end up in a lagoon in Venice or on a Chinese island.

The house you lived in while filming Zumiriki, in the middle of the woods, is almost like the tree house everyone wishes they had when they were a child — somewhere to dream and go off on imaginary adventures.
That’s right. The film is a homage to that first act of disobedience that we all remember: climbing a tree. It’s our first taste of freedom, leaving the earth behind and looking out on the world like a bird does. It’s such a beautiful thing. Cinema can create that magic of taking us back in time to our happiest moment; that’s why it’s such an incredibly powerful weapon, allowing us to live parallel lives.

There’s a lot of your father in this film — you seem to be seeking that same clear gaze that he had...
At the heart of the film is a journey to a purer way of seeing. My father had it, and it’s a rare gift, but we can’t get there, because we’re too tainted by the world at this stage. I could see that there was something very primitive about the way he filmed; he hadn’t seen the films that I’ve seen.

The film also seems to be trying to hold back time and salvage a memory, something that cinema is particularly suited to.
I think it’s a film about experience, about what it’s like to live all alone in the forest for four whole months. I felt like I was the only person around for miles, and that’s very powerful, because out there time is bound up with space and you are aware of every change, every movement, every branch, just like animals are. Time is always just a beginning. In the film, I tried to relive the last night of our last summer all over again, so that everything would be a new start.

As well as being a visually beautiful film, Zumiriki is a hymn to nature, with its rituals and legends.
It might have been asphalted over a generation ago, but we are fortunate to have a rural past. It was important to me to try to hold on to what is left of our natural heritage. As a child, I spent a lot of time in the area where we filmed, and my father never looked at his watch. He kept track of the time from the sun, the wind and the vegetation. A lot of that ritual and mythology is there in the film.

You also talk about the words that have been lost as generations have disappeared...
Our parents and grandparents are walking dictionaries. It’s such a shame to lose these words, because I think that when a word vanishes, the thing it represented vanishes too. It’s important to retain at least one of these words.

I was surprised by the humour that comes through in Zumiriki
When you are shipwrecked, you have to sing and not just wail and be all serious. When I was in the forest, I found myself making jokes among the trees, like Robinson Crusoe, because it’s a way of getting yourself through the pain of a transition, of letting go of your childhood. It’s also a way of connecting with the child I once was, like saying, come on, let’s go and play in that place where we used to play so long ago.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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