by Kate Vinen

At 6am meditation, outside, in the middle of a waking jungle, Apichatpong tells us it’s best to rid ourselves of expectations. I had expected if I ever made my dream of visiting the Amazon Jungle come true that it would be as a tourist — and most likely in Brazil.

I would never have imagined it would be in Peru, attending an immersive 12-day Director’s Lab mentored by Palme d’Or winning director (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Memoria), Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Perhaps Api (as he invites us to call him) is right – expectations are the source of suffering, and we are here to play, experiment and have fun! At that moment I decided to throw my expectations in the river for the duration of the lab … Only to find that they float back to me within an hour or two.

In that moment, I realised that it was going to be a truly wild adventure — and in a different way than I had anticipated (of course).

There are some filmmakers, who when you encounter their work, make you feel like the world makes complete sense, and for me that filmmaker is Apichatpong.

His is a mystical cinema where life feels even more real on the screen than it does in reality, and the living, dreaming, sleeping, waking, spirit-world all blur into one lusciously liminal experience.

I’d heard of Playlab Films’ workshops, with their unique methodology created by Master Abbas Kiarostami and adapted by Werner Herzog, where for ten days, fifty creative directors of various nationalities and contexts create fifty short films. When I saw the call out for applicants for ‘Apichatpong Weerasethakul Lab: filming in the Amazon’ I almost fell off my chair.

Around a month (and 3 long plane trips) after receiving the email informing me that I had been selected to participate in the lab, I woke in the small but bustling town of Puerto Maldonado, in the southern jungle. There was a sloth with a baby clinging to it right outside the hotel window. I made my way to the local port to catch the motorised canoe to the base of the workshop at Inkaterra Guides Field Station, a flora and fauna research laboratory located within the Tambopata-Candamo National Reserve, one of the last easily accessible virgin tropical rain forests in the world.

photo by Anne Thieme

I kept a diary during my time. Here are some excerpts:

Day 1

This is overwhelming! I am in the AMAZON JUNGLE with fifty other filmmakers from all around the world and it’s a cacophony of nature sounds and people talking. Apichatpong starts every day with an hour of meditation. He doesn’t identify as a Director. It seems that he’s a monk that makes films. I am out of my comfort zone on so many levels. I have moments where I remember that I am going to develop, shoot and edit my own film, and have a heart attack. Api keeps saying to “trust the process”. We nod and laugh, reminding each other that we are all control freaks. Perhaps the best thing that we will learn here is how not to be?

Day 2

OH MY GOD THE NIGHT-TIME SKY! The most spectacular stars I have ever seen. Between meditation, not having any phone reception, being in nature, and being so connected to the group, I feel incredibly present. Yet the more present I am, the more it feels like I am dreaming. I feel really close to an embodied understanding of consciousness – it’s more fictional than my logical brain would have me believe. Pretty sure Apichatpong is onto something. We talk of dreams a lot. And spirits. Last night we had a bonfire and a local Shaman came to welcome us, and tell the forest why we were here, and to protect us. We couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but we could understand – the beauty of being beyond language.


Day 3

We spent the last few days on canoes, traveling up and down the river, visiting potential locations. Everything is moving fast. I’m finding it hard to find an access point for a project, having spent so little time here, and having little to no downtime. Api says it can help to think of who the film is ‘for’ – a lover, a parent, a sibling, an ex. He iterated that it’s not about making a masterpiece, to keep it simple and that we are here to play and experiment and learn. He has a way of making that sound easy (like geniuses do). I keep thinking about the local farm that we visited today and the farmer who has lived there alone for the past 17 years. It felt like the furthest place from where I live in the entire world, yet hauntingly familiar. When I close my eyes, the room rocks back and forth from being on the river so much.

Day 5

I filmed for the first time in my life today! Repeat to self: I am here to learn. It’s so hard to let go of perfectionism and wanting to be the best. I know what’s happening is important – going back to basics, and core learning, which will change my creative practice long term. I need to be courageous and take risks. I had a magical moment alone today when filming – I heard the loud flap of wings and fruit dropping, and moving closer, spotted a pair of toucans from close distance. I am living inside a David Attenborough documentary but instead of David’s calming voice, it’s Api’s.

Day 8

Someone made a comment today that this isn’t a filmmaking lab but a spiritual retreat. They are right.

Day 10

One of my best friends gave me a crash course on editing before I left, and today I edited for the first time. I showed Api a rough cut and he said that he liked the film and gave me incredibly intuitive feedback. I ended up sourcing a book of local stories collected by a Professor in town, translating them into English, finding part of a story that resonated with me and then recording two non-actors reading it in Spanish. I learnt how difficult it is to direct a performance when you don’t know the language. The story is about a man who has a nightmare that he is kidnapped while hunting and fed to crocodiles by a group of enraged spider monkeys. After waking, he decides that he will never hunt again and will start a farm instead. Really, it’s about a woman who doesn’t want to live according to her husband’s dreams.

Day 12

We just finished watching 50 (!!) rough cuts in a screening room in the middle of the jungle powered by a generator. Returning to the Field Camp at dark, we found a huge outdoor party had been set up for our final evening, with a traditional Peruvian BBQ serving steamed fish in banana leaves, tamales, and pisco sours by the bucket load. We feel like one big family now. ‘Jungle family’. A deep sadness is setting in that I will be saying goodbye and leaving my new friends and this forest so bursting with life. I keep telling myself that it’s inside me forever now. I am infused with the magic of the Amazon, Apichatpong, my fellow creatives, and that nighttime sky. Why do all the good things feel like they’re starting just as they’re ending? I wonder if that’s what death will feel like. A beginning.

– – – – – – – – – –

Suddenly, as if waking up from a dream, my time at the lab ends. I thank and say goodbye to Apichatpong and head back down the river to the port where I started the adventure. But this time, along with my 15kg of luggage, I have fifty new friends, a short film called Mitayero (which translates to ‘Hunter’ in the local Amazonian dialect) and — I feel different. I start to think about how these spiritual and practical lessons will influence my work and practice moving forward, and remember Api’s consistent reminder to have no expectations, and to just be alive to the moment. I know that I want what I produce, and the way I produce, to be … wilder.

Watching the hypnotic water rush past the canoe, I was reminded of something Api said to us, which I pray stays with me as I head forward in my life and creative practice; “Everything is in transformation. The movie is just a part of the river, it’s not the only important thing.”

Wise words from a wise human being, who refused to be our mentor, and insisted he was our friend.


Leave a Reply