Among the 142 films featured at the latest Montréal International Documentary Festival (Nov. 9 – 19), one of the most memorable was Cielo, the first feature film by Canadian director Alison McAlpine. Set in the Chilean Atacama Desert, Cielo is an exploration of the night sky’s hold over the people who live in the driest desert in the world.
Cielo is not a typical documentary. Slow-moving and poetic, it floats between gorgeous footage of the stars, conversations with subjects, and McAlpine’s own philosophical musings presented in voiceover narration. More of a meditation than a narrative, Cielo invites viewers to ask their own questions, without ever forcing a response.
The McGill Tribune sat down with McAlpine, who currently lives in Montreal, to discuss how the project was first conceived. McAlpine had been working on a different film project in Chile when, one night, she was caught in a power outage. The experience affected her in a way that was both emotional and intellectual.
“I was there, by chance, in this little village in the desert, and there was a blackout […] and there was no moon, of course no street lights, and I looked up, and I had never seen a sky so extraordinarily beautiful,” McAlpine said. “I was full of questions, and also astounded by the beauty.”
She quickly abandoned her old project.
“I went with this emotional urgency to explore my questions,” McAlpine said. “For me, filmmaking is an inquiry of questions, [questions] hopefully that are important and provocative and evocative and turn your head around.”
These scientific and metaphysical questions, posed in voiceover to the sky itself, propel the film.
“It felt like [the film] needed a voiceover, but I didn’t want a traditional ‘voice-of-God’ documentary,” McAlpine said. “It did merit various drafts, and some of them were quite clever, but they never felt authentic to me. So finally I stumbled upon [the idea of] a conversation with the sky.”
This loose structure—a conversation with the sky—allowed her to imbue her intellectual and philosophical investigation with human feeling and poetry.
“I wanted to risk being emotional, and simple,” McAlpine said.
Rather than hire a professional voice actor to perform the voiceover, she recorded it herself, often improvising in the recording studio.
“The most vulnerable part is when it’s your [own] voice,” McAlpine said. “I like the expression, ‘the voice is the muscle of the soul.’ And I think it’s very hard for most of us to listen to our own voices.”
Cielo features a wide cast of subjects, whom McAlpine affectionately refers to as her “characters:” Planet hunters working in observatories, a man who takes photographs of UFOs, folk story-tellers, and a miner who writes poetry about the stars. To find these characters, she had to follow her gut.
“It’s really a process of intuition, and chance,” McAlpine said.
Using the observatories as her “constellation,” she journeyed through the desert, hitchhiking to a community of chozas—shack-like houses—where she found a married couple, who later feature in the film arguing about the nature of gravity. The husband told her to go to a mine called Inca de Oro, where she found a miner who reads his poetry in the film.
“I took a bus there, and there I found the miner poet,” McAlpine said. “[…] It was a process of one person leading you to the next, just by chance.”
McAlpine returned to Chile four times. She only began the process of filming with a Chilean crew once she had stayed with her characters and established relationships with them.
“I had their trust, I really got to know these people,” McAlpine said. “I wanted an intimacy.”
Cielo indeed contains an intimacy, and one that is shared between many parties: The filmmaker, the characters, the viewer, and the sky. Covering one of the largest subjects imaginable, the night sky, she has created a touching film on a remarkably human scale.
“A story can be something very small,” McAlpine said. “A moment that feels to me authentic […] where we rediscover the world.”