The ostensible coherence of Eduardo “Teddy” Williams' cinema poses a challenge to the critic. How is it possible for a young filmmaker who is just over thirty years old, in a time of transformations as swift as ours, to have made a number of films that look more like variations on the same motif, or sequences of a single infinite film? Although shot in places as different as Argentina, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, Mozambique and the Philippines, Williams’ films are an eternal return on the same figurative obsessions, which surreptitiously spread across each other. At the same time, with each new work, these obsessions gain new and unsuspected forms, revealing at once the unmistakable vision of a singular artist and a true devotion to the endless variety of the world.
Actions, phrases, dramatic situations, character types, cinematography or editing styles, everything is subject to deferred repetition in Teddy Williams' films. Obsession for the movement: the roaming of characters begins in Tan Atentos (2009), continues in all the other short films – Alguien los Vio (2010), Could See a Puma (Pude ver un puma, 2011), The Sound of the Stars Dazes Me (El ruido de las estrellas me aturde, 2012), That I’m Falling? (Que je tombe tout le temps?,2013), I Forgot! (J'ai oublié!, 2014) – and does not end until the end of the three parts of the director's first feature film, The Human Surge (El Auge del Humano,2016). Much of the action in Williams' films could be summed up to this: an endless walk through semi-rural or semi-urban spaces, alone or in the company of a small group of friends. Obsession by a certain composition of the bodies in the frame: when they are not walking, the bodies attract each other, accumulating in small, dimly lit spaces that create a zone of uncertainty between one body and another. Obsession with youth, especially in what this phase of life offers of attraction for idleness and gregarious impulse: when they do not wander solitary around the world obsessed by something – almost always a mysterious plant or Internet connection – the characters gather to talk randomly, play games, spend time together.
Williams’ characters gather, above all, to dream together. A scene that is repeated incessantly is when a character tells the other a dream he had the night before. Sometimes it is the same dream, like the one in which the sky was taken over by advertising, present both in Argentina (Could See a Puma) and in Mozambique (The Human Surge). His films feed on a never-ending repertoire of anecdotes – fantastic tales, fake news, bizarre stories from the neighborhood, strange dreams, recent scientific discoveries – and make it reverberate in the conversations between friends, which can jump from banality to metaphysics from one second to the other. The animals seen or dreamt – the hare in Alguien los Vio, the puma in Could See a Puma, the cockroaches in The Sound of the Stars Dazes Me, the spider in the third part of The Human Surge – populate the dialogues and contaminate the films with its fictional power.
More than giving inspiration to the text, however, the fantastic element infiltrates each image. Teddy Williams has a lasting relation with the uncanny. From knowing mystery so much, he can not only walk beside it but recognize it in the face of things. In every shot of his films, from the most prosaic to the most extravagant, there is a thrust towards the fantastic. The most mundane meeting between friends, a day of work, a disinterested walk on the street, everything becomes an opportunity for an encounter with a strangeness that transfigures the coordinates of the shot – always maintaining, nevertheless, a deep sense of reality. This is what makes a group of young people walk in a city torn by a sort of hurricane (Could See a Puma) as strange – and as paradoxically familiar – as a walk through a quiet neighborhood of Buenos Aires (The Sound of the Stars Dazes Me) or Maputo (The Human Surge).
The ideal terrain for strangeness materializes in an obsession with figurative indeterminacy. Not coincidentally, the timing of the day privileged by Teddy Williams' camera is precisely the twilight, this moment of luminous transition in which the contours become unstable, the drawings uncertain, the human figures dissolve in the landscape. Not the "magic hour" of predictable aesthetes, but this precious moment when the day did not end and the night has not yet begun, or vice versa. Likewise, the obsession with wetlands – the wet asphalt in I Forgot!, the rainforests, and the cities flooded in so many films – concerns this intermediate state between land and water, between liquid and solid, this uncertain state of matter in which the fluidity of dreams and the anchoring in reality can coexist. And if there is not enough moist, let it be manufactured: urinating on an anthill (The Sound of the Stars Dazes Me, The Human Surge) is the best gateway to visual delirium and contact with mysterious worlds.
The passion for figurative uncertainty also materializes in the photographic treatment. The wild effects caused by the contact of the twilight with the digital camera in Alguien los Vio, the intense granulation of 16mm celluloid in Tan Atentos, Could See a Puma, The Sound of the Stars Dazes Me and That I’m Falling? or the use of a wide-angle camera throughout I Forgot!, everything converges to make the contours falter, shake the certainties, indeterminate the figures. The editing also expresses an aversion to totality: from the faux raccords of Tan Atentos to the beginning in the middle of a sentence in Could See a Puma, from the abrupt cuts that interrupt all the actions before their conclusion to the structural division of The Human Surge. Unlike the modernist obsession with interruption and fragmentation, however, Williams’ editing is strangely continuous and perfectly rhythmic: in the intercontinental continuity of That I’m Falling? or in the infinite parkour of the final sequence of I Forgot!, what strikes us, paradoxically, is the extreme fluidity of the ensemble.
Rather than conducting a thorough autopsy of the films, we must listen to their heartbeat. What strikes us across Teddy Williams' cinema is a familiar strangeness, or a strange familiarity. In the middle of a tropical forest with huge trees, the protagonist of That I’m Falling? meets a friend, and she tells him she's on her way to school. Walking through the rocks amidst the rising tide of a wild sea at the opening of The Sound of the Stars Dazes Me, a boy talks calmly on the phone, while another looks for a cybercafé. Often in Teddy Williams there is a radical incongruity between the world of the characters and that of the spectator. What is stupefying or astonishing to us watcher and listener – a dense forest newly discovered by the film, a sonorous rough sea seen in a zenith angle – is for the characters simply a place where they pass on their way to school or to search for internet connection.
That's why his camera can jump from the outskirts of Buenos Aires (Could See a Puma) to Vietnam (I Forgot!), from Sierra Leone to France (That I’m Falling?), from Mozambique to the Philippines (The Human Surge). In the wandering of That I’m Falling, the protagonist walks alongside a friend through a paved European-style street with its brick houses. A cut takes us to the next shot where everything changes: geography (we are now in a forest), the soundscape, the walking companion and probably the country. And yet, of the walkers and the direction of the walk are maintained, so the continuity of the film does not disturb. The raccord could not be stranger. And yet, continuity is perfectly Griffithian.
The strangeness of Teddy Williams' films is not forged in the incorporation of supernatural elements – as in horror movies – but plucked from prosaic everyday life. The insistent barking of dogs for example in Tan Atentos or The Sound of the Stars Dazes Me, which in a horror movie could perhaps announce an imminent danger, is one more element of this atmosphere. In the opening of The Human Surge, a boy walks in the gloom through the rooms of a house without electricity. The visual and sound construction of the long shot is vertiginous and prepares us for a radical experience. The young man opens the door of the house and the spectator faces a violent storm that happens outside, the wind whipping the walls and the water taking over the street. However, the door does not fully open and soon there is a cut to the boy walking down the flooded street, talking on the phone, stopping to tie up his shoes, as if nothing happened. Later, the boy is carrying goods and filling the shelves of a supermarket, talking to customers, and suddenly a bag plummets from the ceiling and falls on the cart. No one around seems to notice.
On the one hand, this cinema treats with absolute naturalness situations that, in any other movie, would become sparks for the composition of a drama: a boy looks at his cell phone and then vomits violently in That I’m Falling?, but no one around seems to notice and the scene continues as if nothing had happened. On the other hand, symmetrically, the films explore the oddity of situations that, outside the cinema, would be perfectly banal: a lamp lights on the terrace of Could See a Puma or inside the tunnel of That I’m falling? and the change of luminosity that completely transforms the coordinates of the shot. The loose sentences-poems here and there, the immersive sound construction, the smooth and sinuous camera movements, the extended length of the shots, all contribute to the rediscovery of cinema’s incantatory power. In Teddy Williams' films, it's as if everything the camera touches turns into something more than a supermarket, a brush, a street, someone peeing or shitting. The evening of Alguien los Vio seems like a common conversation between two boys who love each other, until one of them receives a phone call from God. On the one hand, to strange the familiar; on the other, to welcome the uncanny as part of the family. Or, to take two location-obsessions that appear through almost every Williams’ film: filming a supermarket with the eyes of someone filming an enchanted forest; filming a forest with the eyes of someone filming a supermarket on a weekday.
Williams was able to see, like no other filmmaker of his time, a true anthropological mutation at the turn of the millennium. In his cinema, the digital age is not just another technological transformation – one that would join the others by accumulation – but a radical change at the heart of what we have learned to call humanity. The strongest index of this mutation is the game proposed by one of the boys on the terrace of Could See a Puma: "I ran out of credit." Friends do not play the game, but the boy demonstrates it: as if he himself were converted into a cell phone, when the credits run out the body falls to the ground.
The most extreme virtuality, however, is inseparable from the most evident concreteness; the peak of artificiality coexists with what is most organic. It is not fortuitous that the barking of dogs mixes to the sound of refrigerators at the supermarket in Tan Atentos. At the same time that they dream of a sky taken by advertisements and spend the whole movie trying to get an internet connection, the characters are obsessed with exotic plants (Could See a Puma, That I’m Falling?, The Human Surge), eat fruit all the time and find a recurring pleasure in taking off their shoes (The Sound of the Stars Dazes Me, That I’m Falling?, The Human Surge). “Did you know that future’s silence is going to sound just like a crowded food court? That will be normal sound, no one will hear it, and it will be the silence”, says one of the Argentine friends in the first part of The Human Surge, in the same conversation in which one of them imagines how a scream would sound in prehistory. In the futuristic and archaic world of Teddy Williams, the obsession with the sound of silence in the future is inseparable from the desire to hear the barking of a prehistoric dog; the obsession with supermarkets is inseparable from the attraction toward forests.
In Could See a Puma, a character says, “I feel like I've lost the rhythm of the live conversation”. If someone writes him a message, he has time to think, go to the kitchen, take a walk, and then answer. But during a face-to-face dialogue he feels pressured, hesitates, does not know how to respond. Something as ancestral as a dialogue – this linguistic exchange that defines the human – has its natural temporality transformed into a problem. But there is no nostalgia in Teddy Williams. In The Human Surge, at one point one of the boys says: “I feel I can smell with my fingers”. Body incongruity is converted into strength; human fingers – the ones that constantly touch the keyboards of cell phones and computers – turn into an unsuspected olfactory organ. Williams has a keen insight into the elasticity of categories so commonly regarded as absolute – silence, smell, the rhythm of a live conversation – and that is why his films are so obsessed with playing with the possibility of changing the phenomenal parameters of the world.
To a large extent, Teddy Williams' cinema lives up to Jean Epstein's old lesson in Le Cinéma du Diable: “Space, time, and causality that were regarded as entities revealed by God and immutable as he is, as preconceived and unfathomable categories of the universal being, the cinematograph makes them appear visibly as concepts of sensorial origin and of experimental nature, as relative and variable data systems”. His genius, however, consists in making this extreme phenomenal variability felt not by the work of the editing, but within each shot. Contrary to the procedures of Epstein's own work as a filmmaker – ralenti, dissolve, time reversal, abrupt changes in scale – Williams has a liking for long takes and rarely interferes in the temporality of the shots.
It is as if Williams' camera witnessed a world deeply altered in its most basic categories, as if the director became a documentary filmmaker in a strange planet – which nonetheless is very much like Earth. In The Sound of the Stars Dazes Me, a sort of tourist guide says to the visitors of a quarry: “In addition, the displaced poems will serve to supply the great electrical network that is in the service of the already famous reality. Follow me”. Williams' immense imagination contaminates the everyday life of his characters, in the same movement that it feeds on the infinite reserve of fable among them, to the point where the question about whether a phrase was written in the script or improvised by someone becomes obsolete. Williams’ cinema materializes an old utopia: to be, at every shot, simultaneously and without contradiction, an observer and a demiurge.