Pointed View: Mark Peranson’s “Waiting for Sancho”

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The title of this column is “Pointed View,” and I realize that, as a regular Cinema Scope contributor, my personal P.O.V. may be in question when appraising a film directed by its editor. But the fact is that Mark Peranson’s Waiting for Sancho absolutely belongs in the pages of a Canadian magazine attuned to documentary and independent cinema and its absence from this year’s Hot Docs lineup is worth noting, especially in light of its previous festival dates in Vienna, Buenos Aires and Los Angeles at the AFI Fest. I’m not sure where—or if—to place Mark along the continuum of critics-turned-filmmakers—and am hesitant to invoke the famous French names for fear of unbalancing the discussion, but I think I can see his debut’s virtues clearly enough.

The trailer for Waiting for Sancho, viewable on the film’s website, waitingforsancho.com [editor’s note: now defunct], consists, in its entirety, of a forty-nine second shot of a portly, robed man splayed out in the sun. Call it truth in advertising; Sancho chronicles the making of a film in which exhaustion was not only a physical fact but an organizing artistic principle—Albert Serra’s exquisitely minimalist Three-Wise-Men-and-a-Baby narrative Birdsong (2008). In an article published last year in Cinema Scope, Peranson recalled Serra’s sage remark to a local television station. “We shot [this scene] up at the mountain,” explained the director, “because it is always better if the actors are tired.”

After interviewing Serra about his stripped-down Cervantes adaptation Honor of the Knights (Quixotic) (2005), Peranson fell into the chatty Catalan auteur’s famously sprung orbit and was asked to appear in his new film. Correctly guessing that the experience would be a memorable one, he brought his video camera along for the trip. This fateful series of decisions—plus plenty of downtime—spawned a documentary that comes billed as “a kind of making of” and that is, amusingly, just a little bit longer than Birdsong itself. Another, more substantive paradox: Waiting for Sancho’s fascination as a movie about moviemaking stems from its emphasis on just how boring moviemaking can be—even when said moviemakers are working so far off the grid.

Birdsong’s breathtaking landscapes were shot in the Canary Islands (more specifically in the sun-blasted expanses of Fuerteventura) by a tiny but hardy crew and, in addition to Peranson’s stoic Joseph, the cast included Serra’s stalwart producer Montse Triola (as Mary) and a heroic trio of non-professional actors—all named Lluis—as the wise men. Lluis Serraut, who played Sancho Panza in Honor of the Knights, is the performer most frequently caught lagging and napping by Peranson’s DV lens, and his inveterate slothfulness sets Waiting for Sancho’s pace, a waddling comic rhythm that’s in step with Birdsong’s stately aimlessness. Serra’s film is, among other things, a pre-Christian parable: its three kingly protagonists are striving—in their own sweet time—to find Jesus Christ before that name actually means anything to anybody. And so their journey and its various detours and impasses is provocatively framed as a matter of faith that actually precedes said faith’s ex istence.

Waiting for Sancho is similarly about states of becoming. Hovering unobtrusively on the edges of the shoot (so much as a free-for-all in Fuerteventura can be said to have edges) Peranson reveals the unruly ethos behind Birdsong’s immaculate black-and-white aesthetics. A sequence in which the cast and crew gamely attempt to maneuver precisely through a drifting fog may be the perfect metaphor for Serra’s curious (Quixotic?) métier — especially considering that this scene got left on the cutting room floor. That Peranson would gravitate towards a filmmaker like Serra is unsurprising given Cinema Scope’s mandate of “expanding the frame on international cinema.” That this appreciation would eventually mutate in the direction of collaboration was slightly less predictable, but the result is a film that says as much about Peranson’s commitment to a particular kind of spiritual/materialist filmmaking as it does Serra’s. This “kind of making of” is so sincerely of a piece with its subject matter as to stand apart from virtually everything else.

Adam Nayman is a critic and teacher in Toronto. He writes for Cinema Scope, The Ringer, and other publications.

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