Husband & wife team airs new documentary about mysterious Incan stones in Peru


Vladimir Simek and Kamila Broulova-Simkova are a well-known husband & wife team that has been making TV documentaries in different parts of the world - from Baikal, Russia, to South America, for years. Their films air as part of the "Ceske stopy" documentary series that follows in the footsteps of famous Czech adventurers or explorers from the past.

Filmmaker Vladimir Simek:

"We've been working on this series since 1999 - usually about Czech explorers in the past. This time, though, we decided not to follow in anyone's footsteps, but to make our own: to show an area less known."

Their latest production - translated as "Secrets of the Stone Computer" -is actually about some of Peru's highest regions, including the "lost city" of Machu Pichu, and about the Inca's mysterious Intihuatana stones: extraordinary carved granite massifs that Inca astronomers are believed to have used to predict the solstices, to determine the planting season, and to time important rituals. In the language of the Incan Empire the stone was called "the hitching post of the Sun".

During the filming the Simek team made unprecedented use of Czech geological experts and expertise, using animation programmes to map, for example, the most famous of Intihuatana stones at Machu Picchu. The programmes helped the team to get an idea how such stones might originally have "worked". First, thousands of points on the actual structure had to be mapped in order to create an animated equivalent: a wire mock-up on the computer screen, then a filled-in structure. Animators could then project as well as speed-up virtual shadows over the virtual rock under a virtual sun. Shadows at different times of the year revealed different effects. Vladimir Simek again:

"I didn't do the actually mapping of the space, that was done by experts, I just filmed the procedure as an amateur. But, I was lucky: I was able to get sponsors as well as to put together a reliable team of specialists we then travelled with. They took measurements, took photographic documentation, while I filmed. What we found could be a beginning: we will certainly continue from here in the hopes that the stone will reveal more, that more mysteries will be explained, and hopefully we can learn more about the Incas."

Shadows as the Simeks' film explains - were key determinants in Incan life - used and read by the wisest as something like a sundial, only in this case to keep track of the seasons. How shadows lengthened and came together over the carved Intihuatana rock formed a complex calendar for the Incas half a millennium ago. Through carefully calculated animation, the Simeks' film shows how shadows cross-hatch at the time of the solstice - and never meet the same way at any other time. But real photography on site was different:

"In order to show the play of shadows over the rock I relied on stop-time photography, which is pretty simple but it is effective. I'd leave the camera running on a tripod for three hours or so, and then you simply speed up the shot extremely to show rapid effects over a manner of seconds. The same was done with the animated bits, but there we had all the time we needed in the studio."

The sacred stones - while central to the story - are only one aspect of the film. On another level the documentary works as a classic travelogue: the editing is crisp, the camera work agile. One shot from one of the highest points of Machu Pichu is unforgettable: it's enough to make your head spin.

"To tell you the truth, I am very much afraid of heights. But, when I'm filming, I somehow get over it. Holding onto the camera I can go anywhere, but if I went as a tourist I could never do that. Hundreds of metres up I could never look down."

Those heights come up again and again: the Incas built fabulous roads stemming the length of the Andes. There the visuals are often stunning. The shimmering waters of Lake Titicaca. The original trails; the paths lower down through the Amazon jungle. Rope bridges and tunnels and steps carved into sheer rock. Runners used to pass messages along the Inca roads five hundred years ago.

One thing you won't see in the film is a portrait of the cameraman, his wife, or the rest of the crew - almost everyone remains behind camera, most of the time. Which is a little bit of a shame: one can understand why - the film is not about them after all, but given the exotic location it might have been interesting to have had at least something of a privileged peek into the lives of the filmmakers: how they were forced to adapt to local conditions. The way it stands, viewers can only guess at the discomforts the crew must have endured to get to so many areas, so far away.

"It's difficult, I won't say it isn't. You have to travel hundreds, no thousands, of kilometres. When you imagine every night being somewhere else, taking care of all the logistics, making sure all your equipment is charged and working, that you have a place to stay, that you don't run out of material, that you've made all the right calculations, avoided being robbed or killed. It's complicated! But, that's how we like it."

In the end, Vladimir Simek admits that there are two main aspects to the film: the romantic and the analytical. On the one hand, viewers may be impressed by the beauty of the visuals, on the other, the filmmakers hope to pique interest in the secrets of the stones. Not esoteric knowledge, but facts. It's perhaps fanciful but there's something attractive about the fact that many of the intihuatana stones were geometrically aligned, within seeing distance of each other. If, metaphorically speaking, one stone was a 'computer', one can speculate that perhaps together different sites formed something of a 'network'. "Secrets of the Stone Computer" tries to connect some of these dots - it's a travelogue, yes, but one with a measure of scientific depth.

For interested viewers: the documentary will air on public broadcaster Czech TV on April 13th.