Ana vaz
Still from Look Closely at the Mountains (2018). Photo: Kate Timney

Look Closely at the Mountains, a film by Ana Vaz, knots together two disparate sites: Miras Gerais in Brazil and Nord-Pas-de-Calais in Northern France, both marked by their respective three hundred years of mining. The film’s title is a quote from Brazilian artist Manfredo de Souzanetto, seen on bumper stickers in Miras Gerais during 1980s protests against mines that eroded and hollowed the mountainous landscape that is so much a part of regional identity. In France, the flat landscape is punctuated by spoil heaps and scarred in ‘dark relief’.

I watch the film on my laptop as my train passes through dark countryside, the sun not quite cresting the horizon, soft blue-grey only just picking out the tops of trees and hills.

At Miras Gerais, mining is ongoing, expanding into new areas following the devastating collapse of earth in 2015, during which the mud created by destabilised ground tore up houses. In the film, a woman recounts the disaster unfolding in suspended reality, ‘…we all just stayed in the dark. Could I be dreaming…’ .

I notice that my screen has doubled and flipped in reflection on the train’s black window. The landscape of Brazil is imposed over dawn in West Cumbria.

In response to the tragic slip, extraction companies moved north into indigenous mountain territories where a fragile culture laments lost ties to ancestry and faces an uncertain future. The camera pans across ancient paintings in caves and recesses and a man’s voice tells us that their meaning has been lost to time. ‘Maybe only scientists can tell us what they mean.’

In France, Vaz’s film records a landscape in recovery following the cessation of industrial activity in the 1980s. The sound of researchers steadily breaking twigs and dry grasses as they step through low light crunches in rhythm with the sounds that animals make at night. We see them in the gloaming, gently untangling bats and small birds from nets that, lit by head torch from behind, look like shiny spiders’ webs. They unfold their wings, turn them over carefully in their hands and call out data steadily, measurement by measurement.

A faltering reflection is at play between these places, pulled close enough to touch via soft cuts in the 16mm film, back and forth—only the language and changing accents of birds tell you where you are. Human interventions collapse a mountain structure in Brazil, flattening it, while in France a once-flat landscape becomes featured, gaining new recesses and hills. I imagine the two regions fitted together like a jigsaw or joint, the eroded mountains matching holes made in earth, spoil heaps slotting into seams of damage. An environment in the northern hemisphere heals while in the global south the damage spreads. Here, these two landscapes appear simultaneous.

Suspended in the darkness before dawn, the first flickerings of daylight seep into the train, which is travelling up the Cumbrian coast to Carlisle. We pass Flimby, looking out across the Solway Firth, over pitch-black beaches: black in daytime too, sitting above collapsed Victorian undersea mines. Grains of beige-brown sand mingle with pieces of sea-worn coal that children call smush. You can collect it and draw with it, or use it to start fires. My uncles used to fill huge bags with it for fuel.

In Brazil a man is speaking about his ancestors: ‘Our history is made of the stories of our grandmothers and our great great grandmothers.’ He recalls the ‘she’ who digs burrows, tunnelling not with machines but using only her hands and a stick. The singular she folds the great, great, greats into one essential matriarch, close to nature, who is nature, who crawls into a shallow shelter in the earth and pulls soil over her body to sleep, ‘making her mantle in the earth’. In Look Closely at the Mountains, men extract or they measure and women are in the dark as the flood of earth starts to slow, or they are digging shallow shelters, merging with the soil. This is well-trodden ground.

The train surfs the metal of the track. I make this journey all the time, between work, home and my parent’s house. When passing the sea, and later a certain valley, it doesn’t matter what I am reading or watching, I will always stop to look up and out of the window. I think this is because suddenly there is nothing close to the train, nothing rushing past, and a space opens up in my peripheral vision. The train seems to slow, as though awestruck by the far-sight that’s all of a sudden possible.

In the film-poem on my screen, a French researcher records the song of the pipistrelle. He notes the frequency, then says, ‘now we can transform the recording into time expansion mode’. Vaz films at this pace of awe. A tropical flower grows from the nutrient rich spoil heap in northern France, and we linger with the detail of that. She builds new relativities between places, people, animals and things. Large hands untangle fragile wings, the bird nipped gently at its neck, held between huge knuckles. Knuckles again, their creases filling with fine, pale sand as a man works to fill a glass bottle with layers of dusty earth. These details hold an enormity and multiple perspectives and scales, condensed and closely packed, all playing out simultaneously.

Just as colour enters into my morning, stripes of white, bright yellow, ochre and brown sand fill right up the neck of the bottle, right to the top.


Kate Timney is an artist and writer, based in Glasgow.


Look Closely at the Mountains is screening on DEMO Moving Image Experimental Politics until 27.11.22: