Blanco en Blanco, a portrait of the Selk’nam Genocide

SANTIAGO – Director Théo Court tackles the complicated history of the Patagonia in a slow, reflective film. Set in the early 1900s, the movie follows a photographer hired to capture what life is like in a homestead in the south, including Selk’nam hunts. The movie’s focus on photography and ambiance results in a film that is not for everyone.

Théo Court’s film, Blanco en Blanco, doesn’t directly portray the genocide of the Selk’nam, instead it focuses on Pedro, played by Alfredo Castro, a photographer who’s hired to take pictures of the wedding of a Mr. Porter, a wealthy landowner in the Patagonia. While there, Pedro is asked to document life in the homestead, including excursions to exterminate the Selk’nam.

The film focuses more on ambiance and photography than narrative, with long establishing shots and minimal dialogue, leaving the settings and actions to carry the story. The effect is an uneasiness that helps cement its theme regarding the Selk’nam genocide. In the end, the film portrays its message in an artistically beautiful way, but one that will not please everyone.

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An observer of the genocide

The first frame of the movie is a wide shot of a snow-covered town, while a man with a briefcase walks towards a big wooden house. Inside, he presents himself as Pedro, the photographer. He’s then directed to a small dark room where he meets Sarah, the underage bride.

The two barely say a word to each other as Pedro poses her and takes her picture. The only real interruptions are the creaking floor inside and the howling wind outside. Once the picture is taken, Pedro asks to see the groom and owner of the land, Mr. Porter, but is told that he is a “busy man.”

Mr. Porter is never seen, but his presence hangs in the air as Pedro interacts with the other residents of the small town, most of whom are men looking to get rich any way they can. One of the few women seen is Aurora, something of a chargé d’affaires for Mr. Porter. The others are all relatively anonymous indigenous women, forced to dress in the style of the day and serve the men drinks.

When Pedro is asked to document life in the town, he accepts, not knowing that the historical work that he has been hired to photograph is the extermination of the area’s indigenous Selk’nam community.

The story is a slow burn that never actually explodes, but in this way it only makes the uncomfortable circumstances all the more so. For example, the aforementioned opening scene of Pedro taking Sarah’s picture is basically one long shot in real time, which allows no escape from the silent horror of a 13-year-old facing marriage with a much older man.

The slow pace, however, works against the main character, because it consigns him to a passive role. That is in keeping with the theme of an indifferent observer who is merely photographing the genocide, but it means that not even Alfredo Castro’s thoughtful and subtle portrayal of Pedro can rescue him from being a dull character.

A realistic approach

The movie’s minimalist approach to narrative and dialogue makes the cinematography, acting, and sound design do most of the work. This is where the film excels. Castro’s acting also helps push the story forward, albeit slowly.

The cinematography takes advantage of the Patagonia’s natural light, with a deep focus so one can see the entire landscape, which dwarfs the characters. The nighttime scenes, with only a flickering fire, also swallow the characters in their vastness.

The sound design creates an anxious atmosphere by drawing from the surroundings. In most scenes, there is only a howling Patagonia wind, a wooden house’s constant creaking, a crackling fire, or an occasional gunshot. The sparse musical score’s violins are also discomforting.

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The film showcases the brutality and mundanity of the genocide of the Selk’nam: the killing was just something settlers did in the Patagonia. Even though the movie’s brooding and slow pace might be unappealing to some, its cinematography and reflective nature strike the right note for this very dark chapter in history. In fact, Selk’nam corporation has praised the film and held an online screening in Dec. of 2020.

Buzz about the film has suffered as a result of its bumpy rollout. It first premiered on Sept. 2, 2019, at the Venice Film Festival, where it won for Best Director. Afterwards, it played on the festival circuit for most of 2020. It wasn’t widely released, however, until May 29, 2021, and only then via streaming. The movie will be available on demand until Aug. 31.

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