Ferns: Plants do not move, they transform
Chilean film director Paz Ramírez recently premiered the short film “Helechos” (“Ferns”, in English), set to music made with plant vibrations. It was filmed during the Chilean social and health crises, and was shot in two locations: Santiago and Bosque Pehuén. The work tells the story of a woman who, in the midst of a period of confinement with her son, discovers a way to live her own intimacy with plants.
Ferns, which premiered recently at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, is Paz Ramírez’s first short film. In this interview, we talk about the musicalization of plant vibrations and the process of adapting the written language to the audiovisual format, among other topics. The short film, based on the homonymous narration by the writer Catalina Infante, tells the story of a family confined in the dystopian reality of a world which is going through its seventh year of quarantine due to a pandemic. With an immersive and at times suffocating aesthetic, the focus is on Ana – a woman who oscillates between the restrictive harshness of confinement and the immensity of a hidden world that she finds in plants.
Fundación Mar Adentro: What does Ferns represent, what qualities does the story have, and why did you choose it?
Paz Ramírez: I read Ferns (Catalina Infante) during the pandemic and I visualized it vividly; I imagined the scenes very clearly. The theme resonated with me because I was also very much in the crisis, due to quarantine, and had also formed a very special relationship with the plants in my house.
At the time, I was confined to the 18th floor of the San Borja Towers in the center of Santiago, where we were in strict quarantine for about five months and never went outside. So the contact I had with the earth was only through the potted plants; sometimes weeks would go by and I would only go down to the ground floor to receive a delivery. Then I got in touch with Catalina –the author– with the idea of buying the rights to her story to adapt it into a film script.
You mention a need to make contact with the earth…
Yes. I remember that at that time I would buy a new pot and change the 14 plants in pots, without having a balcony or anything. I had this need to have all the earth on the parquet floors, of getting a little dirty and get out of that very sterile place created by the health crisis. There is a very primitive need to connect with nature that maybe was the only unpredictable part of such a routine-heavy moment. The human being was in a slump and nature outside was at its best. So I wanted to connect with that energy that was vibrating positively, deep down.
How was the creative process of developing the short film within the context of the local and global social crisis?
For me, the creative process was a salvation. As an audiovisual professional, there is a requirement for in-person work, and that way of working was on hold for various months. In that way, the need to make space for introspective creation, to read, write and put energy into it, was enough.
The process of writing and applying for a grant, on the other hand, was related to something more personal. Due to the circumstances, it was a bit mandatory, but I’m also thankful for it because it required another, more solitary and focused state of mind, which I achieved at the time.
In the film, the protagonist says that “plants do not move, they transform.” How do you see nature’s transformations and how they communicate with the human?
That part of the script is based on the theories of Stefano Mancuso, a biologist who speaks of the intelligence of trees and plants. The theory says that plants are the most sensitive beings on the planet because they can’t flee or move. Therefore, the only thing they can do is change their survival mechanism, which is different from animals or reptiles. Plants must transform themselves biologically in order to face the adversities of nature.
We all had to learn this lesson during the pandemic. We couldn’t escape, we were all in the same situation and had to face being with ourselves, reflect and question, become creative in finding ways to make money or not. We had to follow the example of plants, because we couldn’t transform our surroundings; I had to transform myself in order to adapt to this ‘new normal’. As human beings, we have the impulse to always change; and maybe, what we have to change is our habits, our relationship with nature, rather than evade it or seek an antidote. Plants have that quality.
Would this be a change of perspective then, and not of our environment?
At the time, we made a point of looking at what was important, and I feel like that reflection kind of froze. We still have this feeling of not wanting to talk about it, we are still in this sort of collective post-traumatic syndrome where we pretend not to care; but I think it is relevant, as a society, to talk about it. We need to do the exercise, to look back in order to heal and reflect on it from another perspective, with a bit more distance. This is also proposed in the film. The cultural products that came from that time were a very visceral and instant response to what was happening. I imagine that, soon, more reflective cultural products will begin to appear.
Going back to the film, some of the images were filmed in Bosque Pehuén. How did you feel about that immersion in the forest when filming?
In the very first stages, I always thought of Bosque Pehuén as the location. It was what I had imagined very early on, as it is an area of conservation and a place that allows, in logistical terms, to have this nature without interventions. We began with a small crew, just with the actress, filming scenes in the forest. The experience was magical, in the sense that there is this feeling in the forest that I wanted to transmit in the film; this liberation with nature, but which also becomes slightly intimidating at times. It’s also a feeling of smallness in the face of this abundant and wild nature.
The film’s music was made with plants; can you tell us a bit more about it?
The music in the film is made by Iván Díaz Mathe, an Argentine musician based in New York who has been experimenting with plant music for a long time. It consists of placing small electrodes on the plant’s leaves and, using a device, transforming the plant’s biomagnetic energy into a wave, a frequency. Then, it goes through a synthesizer and produces the sound.
These waves can’t be manipulated because they depend on the humidity or the lighting conditions. It was very intuitive and free work, where the musician showed me how different plant species sounded. We chose certain moods to create a melody that was either more positive or darker. Then, we projected a group of plants from the film. The sound of the plants is also very cinematic; it isn’t harmonic, but it produces a certain strangeness that fits with the film.
The plants are like a fourth character, in a certain way. They are the antagonistic character of the protagonist’s husband in the film, they have a presence. Therefore, it was important for them to have a certain sonority, for them to not only be in the visual layer, because there is an almost mute interaction between the protagonist and the plants, such as when she transplants the fern and the root is shown, and there is a sound there…
Paz Ramírez was born in Santiago de Chile and studied in Valparaíso and Buenos Aires. Since 2010 she has worked as an Assistant Director in films, TV series and commercials. In 2013, Paz immigrated to Toronto, Canada and in 2016 she founded the production company Porch where she directs and produces video clips and digital content. Her deep interest in art and storytelling has materialized in audiovisual pieces that question the limits between fiction and documentary. Currently, she is working on advertising projects and writing her first feature film.