Pablo Álvarez Mesa

The Soldier’s Lagoon Review: The History of Landscapes

Hot Docs/DOXA 2024

6 mins read

The Soldier’s Lagoon
(Canada/Colombia, 76 min.)
Dir. Pablo Álvarez Mesa
Programme: Canadian Spectrum (World Premiere)


Fans of formally daring and boundary-pushing cinema simply must see The Soldier’s Lagoon (La Laguna del Soldado). This shape-shifting poetic film from director Pablo Álvarez Mesa deftly considers the history of the land and the stories that permeate its every being. The Soldier’s Lagoon takes its name from a haunted body of water in the Andean mountains. It’s a site that marks the impact of Simón Bolívar’s 1819 liberation campaign where the bodies of 200 soldiers remain, having died while making the perilous trek. The Soldier’s Lagoon looks at the lateral consequences of this campaign by “the great Liberator” and offers a unique essay about the connectedness of environmentalism and confronting the colonial past.

“They were dumped here,” someone says in voiceover. “There is a lot of pain in these mountains.”

Álvarez Mesa traverses the landscape that surrounds the lagoon with his 16mm camera. The vivid images, shot with a Bolex, observe the lush verdant Colombian mountainside. Observing the high altitude grasslands, known as páramos, the film explores the history embedded within the landscape of the Andes.

Shots of plants, frailejones, lend colour and texture to the greenery. The camera moves in close to the frailejones, and Álvarez Mesa lets audiences observe their unique composition. Moreover, the close-up shots capture lichen-like coverings, a spider-webby canopy that dresses the plant. Combined with the mist that rolls throughout the region, the landscape looks forever haunted as the plants feed off the water and, in turn, the soldiers’ remains.

Voices of members of the Muisca Indigenous confederation comment as displaced narrators. As the camera offers pensive shots of the land, they discuss their traditional territory and the practices that their people continue. But they also look to changes to the land and their daily life that have been enforced by settlers past and present, with the absence of their physical presence while speaking further adding to the multigenerational tale.

Comments about a ban on mining beyond 2700 metres notes efforts to preserve the landscape from hands eager to bring home a chunk of Colombian gold. But the speakers also note a repercussion caused by “the environmentalists”: farming, too, is part of the ban at that height. For a sustainable community, that’s a direct hit on their livelihood.

The film explores the layers of the land further with double exposure that evokes the ghosts of the past and the way that history informs the present. Álvarez Mesa plays with colour and clarity with the 16mm images flickering in negative while the edges fade, evoking the (im)permanence of a landscape. Seasons change and people come and go, but lagoons and hillsides remain, unless human activity threatens them.

The Soldier’s Lagoon, which marks the second instalment of a trilogy by Álvarez Mesa following Bicentenario (2021), engages with the flora and fauna to understand the history of Colombia’s ecosystems. One striking sequence sees the sonar readings of bat chirps mapped out with images superimposed atop the jungle. A technician explains how the noises let one hear the bats with the speed of their communication dialed down to one percent. As the sharp wavelengths note the bats’ chirps both visually and sonically, the film evokes the hidden lives, stories, and songs that comprise the area’s dense ecosystem. There are incalculable sounds not registered to the human ear.

Aesthetically, The Soldier’s Lagoon offers a fine companion to recent non-fiction Canadian films like Geographies of Solitude and Feet in Water, Head on Fire with its poetic and essayistic consideration of the land and its history. The film bears a similar tactility to those works, particularly Geographies of Solitude, while the story unfolds with Feet’s cadence for the many voices that give a landscape its rich terroir.

It’s no surprise, either to see the names of the directors of both of those films, Jacquelyn Mills and Terra Jean Long, listed in the film’s credits. The Soldier’s Lagoon adds to a growing body of Canadian non-fiction that expands the potential for what documentary can be. It’s a remarkably poetic work that engages all the senses and lingers like an afterimage, or ghost, long after the mist clears and the final image cuts to black.

The Soldier’s Lagoon premiered at Hot Docs and DOXA 2024.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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