Since the early 1990s, a mysterious suicide epidemic has been spreading in rural communities throughout the Venezuelan Andes. Almost everyone in the region knows someone who has taken their own life, but no one is any closer to understanding why this is happening or what could be done to bring it do an end. Striking young and old, male and female alike, each death is its own unique tragedy, raising countless questions that nobody can ever fully answer.
Eliezer Arias, the filmmaker and anthropologist behind the poignant and desperately beautiful The Silence of the Flies, knows these communities as well as anyone. Having first visited the area around twenty years ago, he has studied their lifestyle in detail and witnessed first-hand the dramatic changes that have taken place in that period. ‘I was part of the landscape,’ he jokes, years before starting to make this film. ‘I was working there as an anthropologist for a long time. I was the researcher who came to ask questions.’
Since opting to tackle this subject, however, he has encountered few easy answers. Describing the phenomenon as ‘complex’ and ‘multifactorial’, he says there are ‘too many [things] that can explain why people commit suicide. You can of course look for some tendencies that could explain it in these rural areas,’ but there are always going to be numerous exceptions. The problem is not strictly a local one either, with suicide rates in rural communities across Latin America, as well as in countries like Japan, Switzerland and the UK, outstripping national averages, but the region’s unique culture may account for its scale.
Arias believes that the driving force behind the issues in this Venezuelan town is the rapid pace of change occurring within it and the introduction of ‘new values that come from globalisation’. ‘My hypothesis is that these communities [have changed] a lot in recent years,’ he says. ‘They still live with old traditions, a lot of machismo,’ but the ancient ‘institutions’ that sustained and justified that culture are crumbling. Farming used to be the region’s lifeblood, but with the economy in ‘a mess’, it is very difficult for people to be successful: ‘When you talk to the farmers, the poor farmers, they feel like they are failing.’ It is perhaps no coincidence that the most common way for men to take their lives is by drinking agricultural pesticides.
Young people are hit hardest by the changes, caught ‘in a trap’ between the old and the new. ‘It’s more difficult to be young in a rural community than in a big city,’ says Arias. ‘In a big city, you can be someone else. For example, if you have a tattoo, if you paint your hair blue or green, that’s normal. But in rural areas, you are stigmatised.’ Homosexuality is particularly difficult to deal with and coming out is rare: ‘You have to be willing to be oppressed by the community.’ But nobody seems safe from all forms of social alienation. In the interviews we hear with their friends and relatives, there is an overriding sense that the victims felt they did not belong and were ultimately not allowed to. People are unable to express themselves, to reveal their true personalities, particularly when they go radically against the prevailing culture.
Their inability to speak out is reflected in the way that Arias presents the testimonies that comprise the film’s soundtrack. Recorded entirely without cameras, they are given as voiceovers alongside shots of the speakers in different settings, looking silently and expressionlessly into the camera. This technique was a ‘risk’ and an ‘experiment’, but encourages multiple interpretations in this context. In part, it was simply a way for Arias to protect his subjects and avoid ‘exposing them to the camera’ in their most emotional moments, but it also enabled him to explore innovative ways to bring the dead into the film. In depicting the relatives in this way, he explains: ‘I wanted to show that there is an emptiness, an absence.’ They are both there and not there, and in many cases always will be.
The dead also occupy a physical space in the landscape, through belongings carefully placed in trees, streams and mountainsides. There is something uncanny about their presence here, in contrast with the spectacular and idyllic environment. Arias was interested in showing ‘something very terrible’ against this setting, which he describes as ‘bucolic’ and ‘very romantic’, adding that it is still a popular honeymoon destination for couples from the cities. But he finds ways to draw the tragedy into the story, his imagery suggesting connections between the natural environment and the pain and isolation the locals suffer. ‘The landscape is part of the movie,’ he says, ‘one of the characters.’
The film focuses on two mothers, Marcelina and Mercedes, who both lost their daughters in the same year at the same age. Their search for answers eventually takes them to the top of a mountain, which is ‘very arid, very grey’, almost a blank slate for them to start again on. Generally, there is an ‘attitude of stoicism’ about the suicides in the community, which Arias describes as ‘something like a defence. They are saying: I suffered this loss but I have to keep going with my life.’ Within the community, ‘they have a different way to understand suicide. Sometimes, they even say that the expression, suicide, is not something they understand at all. They see it as 'something that happened’ to them as opposed to something they did, which can be interpreted as deeply empathetic, as well as a kind of denial.
The film’s title, The Silence of the Flies, was inspired by this disticintive attitude, as well as one of the region’s most striking but less attractive features. ‘In this community, there are a lot of flies,’ says Arias. ‘It’s amazing. Twenty years ago, the first time I was there, I was impressed by the flies. But none of the people reacted to them…The flies are part of the community, part of the landscape. And suicide is the same.’
The people in the town have to a great extent ‘normalised the phenomenon’. But Arias cannot say whether that is a good or a bad thing: ‘It’s [simply] a different way for relatives to give meaning to the suicides.’ There is little stigma surrounding the issue, largely because it is so common, but that seems to be doing little to help alleviate the situation. ‘Suicide is a universal phenomenon,’ he says, ‘but has different meanings for different people.’ His film is a moving and valuable exploration of a community’s search for answers, and an examination of a culture that is finding it increasingly difficult to stay alive.
Written by Rob Dickie