“We humans are capable of greatness,” reads the first line in Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña’s The Hyperboreans as the narrator’s voice beams from an old TV set. On the screen, a hypno wheel spins and spins; the voice speaks of evolution and “the energetic charge of ancestral blood.” These ominous themes already suggest that the Chilean stop-motion animator / filmmaker duo continue to explore religious symbolism and the ritualistic nature of their Latin American heritage. Before premiering The Hyperboreans in this year’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight selection, their 2021 short The Bones was awarded the Orizzonti Award for Best Short Film in Venice and proposed a fictionalized legacy to address colonial trauma. Now, their second feature (after 2018’s The Wolf House) continues to mix fact and fiction as a means to allegorize the past.

The scene cuts from a TV screen to a pristine, overhead wide shot of a film set. Amidst all the clutter, lights, fans, and costumes, there is a woman. She introduces herself as Antonia Giesen (played by the actual Antonia Giesen), an actress and psychologist who will become the audience’s guide through 71 minutes of experimentation––a fantasmatic world of theater, animation, history, and fabulations that is The Hyperboreans. Giesen’s psychology background and the way she speaks about her clients and her country’s past suggests the film itself may be interested in psychoanalyzing Chile as a whole. León and Cociña implement many different aesthetics: their signature papier-mâché figures and drawings, and re-enactments, cutouts, and black-and-white scenes to create a world of multi-layered historicity and fiction.

National identity is a tricky thing to pin down or define, and a country’s colonial past and present reverberations play a crucial part in that push-pull between Ego, Super Ego, and Id. Giesen, however, addresses the viewer in simpler terms, and for most of the film she is more storyteller than analyst. This arrangement makes The Hyperboreans more accessible without subtracting any of its political sharpness. The plot concerns Giesen’s client Metalhead, or “Metalero” (Francisco Visceral), who has written a script. Not only that: he claims the script was dictated to him by none other than Miguel Serrano, a Chilean Nazi writer. Serrano is very present in the film as a demonic figure, and The Hyperboreans includes a mise-en-abyme, fabricated biopic stretch about his life. 

León and Cociña’s multimedia approach is the perfect vehicle to tell a complex story of discrimination and violence, constantly jumping through time, space, and dimensions to a fantastical end. The duo’s work is deeply steeped in religious symbolism, and The Hyperboreans takes a lot from the eponymous figures of Ancient Greek mythology, thought to be the most Northern people in the world. You don’t have to go too far to figure out the Nazi connotations, but there is also a strong utopian element to that mythical imaginary. Hyperboreans were an important symbol for Friedrich Nietzsche and esoteric writers like Robert Charroux and, through him, Miguel Serrano. Legends of those “very large, very white” people have probably played a part in many foundational myths of empires and nations alike; even today, TikTok has been carrying on the trend with neo-Nazi users resorting to Hyperborean imagery and memes. León and Cociña, per usual, have their fingers on the pulse, and their particularly material approach to storytelling and the nation-psyche makes The Hyperboreans a poignant, experimental film-warning urging you to never forget.

The Hyperboreans premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival

Grade: B

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