The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2023

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MARCH 2023 Issue

Micaela Saxer and Sepa, Nuestro Señor de Los Milagros

Sepa’s restoration process began alongside a renewed effort towards prison abolition in the US.

Courtesy Micaela Saxer.
Courtesy Micaela Saxer.

Directed by Walter Saxer, Restored by Micaela Saxer

In the opening scene of Walter Saxer’s documentary Sepa, Nuestro Señor de los Milagros (1986), we meet an interviewee who has a sweet, open face and gentle demeanor. He’s smirking, waiting for the questioning to begin. Drawn onto the wall above his head is an inscription that reads, “Lazaro de N.M. del H. Pol, 1-3-85, SEPA.” The interviewee and his accompanying inscription welcome viewers to Saxer’s film. “He has no name,” the German narrator tells us, “no number. Why is he here? Is he the victim of a mistake or corrupt bureaucracy?”

Sepa, or Colonia Penal Agrícola del Sepa, was an open-air penal colony created in 1951 by the Peruvian government as part of the national effort to colonize the Amazon territories. In the jungle of the Rio Sepa, the colony was designed to be a dumping ground for people convicted of the most serious felonies. Walter Saxer, a Swiss-German producer, came across the long-obscured prison while working on the five-year production of Fitzcarraldo (1982). In the one film he directs himself, Saxer explores inmate life (and the contradictions within) that he witnesses at Sepa: survivors of the Lurigancho prison massacre, the headhunter, the guards who openly commune with the prisoners, and former inmates who permanently resettled on Sepa’s land with their families. The prison has since closed, and Saxer’s film has been “lost” and unseen for nearly thirty years. 

I first saw Sepa in a series at MoMA’s To Save and Project: The 18th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation in February 2022. Micaela Saxer, Walter’s daughter, has taken up the work of restoring and screening her father’s film. I was struck by how Micaela fielded questions for her father, often translating and adding to his responses for the audience. More recently, Micaela worked with Metrograph to screen Sepa together with her father’s most famous work as a producer, Fitzcarraldo, as well as Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1973)—both directed by Werner Herzog. Walter Saxer was the production manager, and often producer, of many of the films that Werner Herzog directed—beginning with Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970). Their longtime collaboration and friendship took a break in 1991. Fitzcarraldo recapitulates much of what Herzog and Saxer worked on in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which tells the story of a 16th century conquistador’s titanic struggle against the jungle of the New World.

There is something bold about Micaela putting together the series. Taken together, Fitzcarraldo, Aguierre, and Sepa screen like a familial cinematic collection, their thematic subjects and production processes intertwined in an ongoing colonial history. Speaking to Micaela about her restoration process, she shared the familial context, lineage, and visual world that shaped her private and political life. Micaela is in a unique position to do this work: “I was born during the making of Fitzcarraldo … He [Walter Saxer], Swiss-German, met my mother, an Amazonian woman born in a canoe, one afternoon in the port of the city of Iquitos.” Fitzcarraldo is the origin point of Sepa—and the origin point for Micaela’s own life.

Micaela Saxer in her apartment in Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Sofia Due Rosenzweig.
Micaela Saxer in her apartment in Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Sofia Due Rosenzweig.

In Fitzcarraldo, a 19th century colonist leads indigenous workers up the river, to death and disease, in order to achieve his dream of building an opera house in the jungle. The crew brings chauvinistic actor, Klaus Kinski, into the Amazon to play the role of a “hero” seeking to establish his opera house. The film tells the story of colonial settlement in the Amazon yet relies on the labor of hundreds of indigenous people to complete. The spectacle and use of Amazonian labor in Fitzcarraldo is striking. “Fitzcarraldo is probably the most difficult and epic film shoot in the history of cinema,” Micaela says.

While a three hundred ton steamboat was pulled over the slippery slope of a mountain at a forty-degree angle, a whole community of six hundred Asháninka natives was also relocated for the shoot. They, the Asháninka, had never known about the existence of cinema yet agreed to act in a film … My mother … always saw the film as an insult to her culture, her people, and her land.

Micaela’s restoration process has allowed the films to address the difficult aspects of her own life—both as Walter Saxer’s daughter born out of these film’s productions and as a restorationist.

Sepa’s restoration process began alongside a renewed effort towards prison abolition in the US. Having grown up mostly in Italy and with her family in Iquitos, Peru, Micaela now lives in Brooklyn and plans to continue screening Sepa in both New York and Lima, posing questions around prisons in an international context. Micaela frames Sepa’s prison project as one that repeats themes of settlement and taming of the Amazon. She tells us that it was during her father's time in the jungle producing Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo that he first heard of Sepa, coming to learn the land enough to navigate the prison’s various checkpoints. Central to Micaela’s restoration work is the fact that she confronts the uncomfortable process of how her father’s films were produced—that he went into the Amazon with a German filmmaking crew to create these epic films. Her project—one of translation and restoration—is a reminder that so much of women’s creative tradition and insurgent work is a dance between creativity and recuperative care.

There is a long tradition of women remembering and retelling stories, particularly around captivity—a labor that often escapes notice. Sadie Barnette similarly investigated her lineage, taking up her father’s FBI files. Barnette added pink annotations and bold glitter to the authoritative documents that were used to track her father’s participation in the Black Panther movement. In Imperial Intimacies, Hazel Carby pulled together scraps from her father’s life to tell a personal story of the British empire. Jackie Wang’s research on the carceral system is an intervention rooted in the story of her brother’s incarceration. By offering us this film, Micaela tends to omissions in the archive: both the film archive and the prison archive. The re-assemblage of her father’s work brings forth a new order of questions around her own family’s entanglement with colonial violence. 

It was Micaela who saw Sepa, decades after its production, and identified it as a beautiful film, one worth bringing to life. In Sepa, there’s a deliberate aesthetic portrayal of the prison, reflecting a weighted joy. The film moves quickly from scenes of dancing to discussions about sentencing. The images generate intimacy between the viewer and those who are incarcerated. The guard and headhunter, too, feel like comrades. This poetic narrative of the prisoners’ daily lives is simple, yet profound. Saxer delivers scenes of interior life in prison: folding and hanging clothes, grilling a cow for a New Year’s celebration, trimming each other’s beards, playing seemingly endless games of cards and dice, and dancing constantly to a cumbia song that plays throughout the film (se va el caimán, se va el caimán…). 

Sepa demonstrates knowledge-making by incarcerated populations and shows what it means for families to navigate the ongoing separation brought on by the carceral system. The film features families who relocate to the colony to live with their loved ones, avoiding what would otherwise be constant waiting. Often omitted from images and histories of captivity are the lives of those who keep vigil, or who bear the burden of remembering loved ones who are incarcerated. In the context of Fitzcarraldo, Saxer’s meandering frames witnessing carceral life contrast the hero-driven narrative—where characters are inserted into the Amazon to repeat a grandiose tale of extraction.

Daily interactions between inmates are a guiding presence—a conduit to fugitive knowledge. They discuss their notions of justice, comparing conditions of life at Sepa to the other major prisons—like el Sexto (Lima, Peru)—and the dizzying, bureaucratic journey to be transported to Sepa. Saxer’s interviews with the incarcerated people become almost repetitive, yet they set the pace and, thus, demand attention. “My chapa [nickname] is The Frenchman,” one says. “I’m here for armed robbery.” Others say drug trafficking, assault, sex crimes. Saxer films many of them speaking against the same wall, or in the midst of their everyday lives. In a way, through repetition, Saxer renders redundant the crime involved in the condition of their lives. I would also be remiss not to draw attention to the fact that many of the interviewees are Afro-descendant or Indigenous men. In Peru, in the 1980s, Black Peruvians supposedly only made up about two percent of the country’s population. The country did not include race as a category on the census until 2017.

Courtesy Micaela Saxer.
Courtesy Micaela Saxer.

Sepa still works to present a story of tamed life on the Amazon that cannot be delinked from the colonial undertones that drive Fitzcarraldo. It was seeing Sepa through Micaela’s voice that I found myself able to engage with the complicated aspects of the film more closely. While many of the incarcerated folks discuss being “forgotten” by the state—and by the outside world—some interviews seem to frame Sepa as a solution to the problem of Peru’s carceral system. It presents a possibility of “true” rehabilitation. In his interview, “Bistek” reflects on his stay over the years: “To tell you the truth, I’ve never tried to escape or have been punished here, never. I feel I’m useful to society now. I like living in the jungle. Now, I don’t want to have anything to do with drugs or violence.”

The act of restoring Sepa, an analog film, required a laborious collaboration between Micaela and her father. Micaela was seven years old when she first remembered the crew editing reels of Sepa. It was ultimately a difficult caretaking project, in which Micaela needed to meticulously take out the German subtitles and add English ones; add Spanish narration in her own voice (from a text her father asked Mario Vargas Llosa to write many years ago); reach out to representatives of film archives and production studios in Italy, New York, and Lima; and write grant applications and negotiate funding. There were the phone calls to her mother, who recalled the existence of a second copy of the film—the reel somewhere labeled in their stable in Italy. The image of Micaela going through her father’s film over and over, cannot avoid connotations of care work and repair.

Underlying the project is Micaela’s relationship with her father, which took many modes throughout her life: “We hadn’t been speaking for years when I first decided to restore the film. Eventually, he gave me the legal authority over it. I knew, then, that he really trusted me. In return, I was showing him my care and respect for him.”

Micaela’s restoration of Sepa gestures towards what is involved in filling the omission of Fitzcarraldo’s narrative, thus offering us to take on Sepa in this dimension.

My journey between Fitzcarraldo and Sepa is that I was in a position of having to speak about Peru, about the Amazon—and I realized I knew nothing. I grew up in Europe. And I’m beginning to see, through these films and our sharing of the stories anew, that my mother comes from a people that’s been forced to take on the colonizer’s structure of governance. It struck me, too, that my mother’s side of history hadn’t really meant anything to me. I felt I only meant something because of my father.

Micaela makes the intervention: she herself draws the disquieting link between Sepa and Fitzcarraldo—and the extractive nature of the films—for the viewers to deal with, too. Thus, her project underscores that the objects of care work—in this case, the reels of Sepa, and the legacy that comes along with the frames—are often resistive and obstinate.


Lucy Sternbach

Lucy Sternbach is a contributor living and working in Brooklyn, NY.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2023

All Issues