The spirit of the jaguar welcomes you to her home; nestled in a lush surrounding of jungle and maize fields at the foot of a volcano. This pneuma appears as a small girl with a glowing mask, inspired by Mayan depictions of the jaguar gods. She tells you of her love for this land, of its hospitality and her tanta’s chuchitos. But she’s afraid for her land, the precarity of this idyllic scene beginning to turn as a darkening mist obscures the mountains and a crash causes the home to buckle and explode apart. Pieces of the roof, a table, bits of wall are suspended in air as the field catches fire. The volcano erupts in a column of revolving fire. “We must go,” the spirit says as she dissolves into a flock of sprites.
Alfredo Salazar-Caro premiered the first chapter of Dreams of the Jaguar’s Daughter at the Tribeca Film Festival this past spring. The 360° video presented the encounter between a dream and reality. Dreams brings the viewer into a chance encounter with the 2018 Migrant Caravan that moved through Central America last October while exploring the strength necessary to leave one’s home in search of a dream. I spoke with Salazar-Caro about the making of this chapter of the film, narrative power, if VR can actually be an empathy machine, and the dangers inherent in such a powerful tool.
Joel Kuennen (Rail): This spring you premiered Dreams of the Jaguar’s Daughter at the Tribeca Film Festival. Can you tell us about the short film and what you hope to convey to the festival audiences?
Alfredo Salazar-Caro: Dreams of the Jaguar’s Daughter is an experimental, surreal, VR documentary in three parts. It’s about the spirit of a young Mayan immigrant as she recounts the stories from her dreams and memories of her journey northwards. She starts out in Guatemala, in episode two she moves into central Mexico, and in episode three she comes to us through the Arizona desert, and each one of these spots is like a dreamscape. Everytime we appear in one of these dreamscapes she dives deeper into her stories. These parts of reality are meant to be interactive and people can immerse themselves, talk to, and teach each other while investing in a character. They are able to interact with her, learn about her story, and interact with the environment. Everything is composited from a 360° video that we took on location.
Rail: You’ve been working with VR as a curator with DiMoDA and as a maker of what I would call “digital sculpture” for quite a while now. But I believe this might be your first substantial narrative VR piece. What challenges did you face moving from digital sculpture to narrative work?
Salazar-Caro: It was the first time that I worked narratively at all, actually. I feel like I’ve worked mostly experientially and was never too interested in narratives. I wanted to take an experimental approach to this surreal documentary. There is a beginning and an end to it, but I wanted it to feel more like a poem than a linear story. I created this overarching set of events that I wanted to happen and worked with Genesis Macheren Abaj to construct the narrative. Including narrative in VR was actually really fun. I think I will be working in this space more, but I am more interested in semi-abstract narrative.
Rail: You mentioned that the film is composed of 3D scans, drawing, traditional footage, interviews, and 360° footage that you took during the 2018 caravan migration. What did you hope to accomplish by using such varied forms of documentation?
Salazar-Caro: My vision with this work was to bring a more human approach to documentary, but also to make a poem for migrants. Given the lineage of my work—portraiture, sculpture, and digital sculpture—I wanted to do the same for this piece except at a much larger scale, so instead of just a portrait of an individual, it is a portrait of a moment, of a place, and all the people that we met. 3D scanning was a way for me to not just document the people but integrate the environment and artifacts of the journey. We visited many sacred sites and were able to get large scale scans of pyramids that I was able to bring into the VR environment. Doing this, I could recreate at a higher fidelity what these places are like but also what the dreams of somebody that has been around these places all their life feel like. Combining all these mashed 3D objects with footage of the caravan and footage of people that we interviewed moves it from the hyper-surreal to the hyperreal.
Rail: Working with so many forms of documentation, did you run into issues? Happy accidents?
Salazar-Caro: The biggest “accident” was the caravan. Our intention was to travel to Central America and talk to people who had been deported, who were on their way to America, people who had left their families behind, or people whose relatives left them to go chase a better life in America. We traveled along the migratory route and went to shelters. Then, we ran into the migrant caravan as it was about to cross the Mexico-Guatemala border. We didn’t know that we were going to encounter something like this and it just became a driving force in the narrative and for the project overall.
Rail: How did that encounter change the narrative?
Salazar-Caro: It is one thing when you sit down with somebody and they tell you about how they got over to America and a whole other thing when you are in the middle of it happening, especially at such a massive scale. The majority of the people in the caravan were families, a lot of women and children, a lot of elderly people, it is almost impossible to not see your own family in that, how desperate they can be but also how close, the level of solidarity that existed in that moment was really incredible. The narrative became about these families and the unity that formed in the face of the harsh realities of the caravan. I wanted to honor them.
Rail: How long were you able to stay with the caravan?
Salazar-Caro: We spent two days with the caravan. Then we continued in front of them for another week or so and waited for them at the border of Guatemala and Mexico and crossed it with them. We spent most of our time with people that had already crossed and were in shelters.
Rail: During your trip, you shared on Instagram that you met these two girls on the side of the road and shared an augmented reality piece with them, which became the promotional image for the film. How did you come to meet them and how did that chance encounter affect the film?
Salazar-Caro: They became the inspiration for this central character in the film. One of the most impactful things about the caravan are the children. They have no choice. Children are incredibly joyful and pure, and just imagining that they have to go through this, that there’s no other possible solution other than this 2,000-mile journey to uncertainty, is so heart-wrenching, but at the same time they are incredibly brave and powerful. The Dream of the Jaguar’s Daughter comes from that strength. In Mesoamerican mythology, the jaguar is a very powerful figure especially in Mayan mythology and it represents an inner strength. The jaguar plays a central role in Mexica, Mayan, and Incan cultures, it is the manifestation of this personal power. Watching people move for their survival, even if it means abandoning everything they know, that’s a true manifestation of that jaguar energy. The jaguar’s daughter is us, the people who are moving forward. Achik’, the central character, really doesn’t represent one person but everybody who is going through and has gone through it.
Rail: What is the benefit of coming to VR with a background in digital sculpture as opposed to a film background? What do you think you can contribute to the form of VR that is different from cinema?
Salazar-Caro: I honestly think that the best thing about VR is being free from cinematic language because a lot of the folks that are coming straight from cinema into VR think this is the next place to make movies. They don't understand how to encompass somebody fully and have events happening in 360 degrees of space, and they tend to want to focus everything in the front.
Rail: Cinematic language comes from the theater, the idea of blocking someone center stage, and the action emerges from that focal point, but in VR it is dispersed, it becomes spherical, the action becomes around a person.
Salazar-Caro: Right, exactly.
Rail: So VR flattens value in a sense, it flattens the narrative value of what is going on around you. Anything and everything is important. How do relationships in this format form, shift, and change?
Salazar-Caro: In real life there is always something happening, anywhere, at any given point. I love thinking about how many different actions are happening at any given moment. There are millions of actions happening simultaneously around us. And we, in our daily experience, choose to focus on certain things. So my challenge as a VR creator and as somebody that is creating these figurative narratives in a VR space is twofold: first, how do I make something that feels natural when there are all these things happening simultaneously, and second, how do you focus somebody’s attention on specific actions? Achik’, the main character, became a very essential tool to guide the narrative. She would appear and call you and you would hear her voice and you would know where she is. She was this physical beacon that can move around this “stage”. She guided the attention of the viewer.
Rail: Having a center stage in cinema reinforces a kind of narcissism in that it asserts one perspective which predominates the narrative. But within a VR space you have the potential of multiple narratives existing all at once, which breaks the spell of the master narrative.
Salazar-Caro: It is a quality of video games, too, this question of the personality of the viewer and the choices they make. It is a really interesting way to drive things because you can then branch the narrative. What’s really exciting about creating narratives within a VR space is simulating reality within a certain set of expansive controls.