Chilean cinema

Much Ado About Nothing:Interview with Chilean Filmmaker Alejandro Fernández Almendras

One of the most challenging films that premiered in the World Cinema Competition at Sundance this year was Alejandro Fernández Almendras’ Much Ado About Nothing, (Spanish title: Aquí no ha pasado nada), the second in a trilogy on justice (or the lack of) in present-day Chile.

Much Ado About Nothing is also screening as part of the PANORAMA section at the upcoming BERLINALE 2016.

The following interview with Alejandro Fernández Almendras was taken in January 2016 during SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL. 

Dana Knight: Much Ado About Nothing is a film that is not very dissimilar, in its theme and general focus, to your previous film, To Kill A Man, that was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance two years ago. You obviously feel very strongly about the theme of justice in Chile.

Alejandro Fernández Almendras: That’s true. In the way that To Kill A Man dealt with justice for the working class, this one deals with the theme of justice for the rich. I wanted to make this film because what happened in the real case that inspired the movie was a clear case of abuse of the law and the justice system, of the privilege that money gives certain people. Much Ado About Nothing is the second part of a trilogy about justice. The third part will deal with justice for the big corporations. So if this deals with personal justice, the third film will move into the social sphere, the focus won’t be on the individual but on the corporations and the community.

alejandro-fernandez-almendras (1)

Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Fernandez Almendras

Knight: And do you think, anticipating slightly, that the conclusion to all these films will be that there is no justice because “there is no truth”. This is a striking line from Much Ado About Nothing…

Almendras: Exactly. The third film is not inspired by true events but is pretty much what I imagine, what I know is happening in the corporate world. The question I ask myself if: when you think you are fighting for something, what are you really fighting for?And how we are led to believe in things like the environment, the rights of indigenous communities, and how behind that speech and well intentions are more powerful interests at play. The whole picture this paints is not different from what any person would conclude after reading the news and living in the world. We are living in a society, in a system that is really unfair, that creates a good life for a few who achieve those levels where they know they are going to be safe in terms of social security, in terms of justice, in terms of access to education. The system is wrong and many people around the world think that. That is what want to tell in a way that is cinematic, that makes you feel frustration at what you see on screen. It is very important for me to put the viewer in that uncomfortable position and realising that things are not right.

Knight: Social injustice is widespread in the world, it’s not specific to Chile but would you say it is much worse in Chile than anywhere else?

Almendras: In Chile you have a great disparity in social status, income, that leads to differences in how people are treated. Because you have the worst case of inequality in terms of how much money the rich people make compared to poor people. In Chile we have a big debate about market loss, the fact that you can defraud a public company, send it to bankruptcy, steal millions and millions of dollars from the public funds and the punishment for that is like a slap on the wrist, probably a very small fine, nothing of serious importance. These losses were made during the time of Pinochet or made by the same people who were ruling the country at that time and who are now involved in big economic corporations. Every week we have a new case, the three major pharmacy chains control 90% of the market and they set the prices for 10 years, for the drugs that people need every month. And they make hundred of millions of dollars and no one ended up in jail. So yes, I think inequality in Chile is much worse than in other countries.

Knight: Going back to the film, while the events are based on a real life case, I assume the characters are fictionalised. How did you go about constructing Vicente and the other characters?

much ado still 1

Almendras: I have these very strong opinions about what things are and the direction they should go into. But despite that I know that I’m making films and I’m not running for a political office. So the important thing is to create scenarios that are involving enough for you to feel and understand the other side, the side you know is going to be wrong from the very beginning.  I did the same with  To Kill A Man, that guy was killing for revenge. You know he is doing a wrong thing but I wanted to understand why he was doing that. In the case of Much Ado About Nothing, I did the same thing, I created this character of Vicente as someone who has been put in a situation where he is forced by circumstances to admit something that is detrimental to him but beneficial for the bad people. So I started with that point of view and then I said I’m going to construct a character that is like a young kid today. A kid that transcends class. And you see that a lot in an upper class kid, but also in a middle class kid or even lower class: the way they relate to each other, the way they construct their relationships, the way they go about friendship and love and companionship and family. I think it’s the same everywhere you look: higher class or lower class, it’s the same. Everything has to be immediate, everything has to be clear and simple. Which is a very egotistic, selfish way of living, the instant gratification and how something is going to be useful and good for me. And not caring for anyone else. And morally these types of characters are very vulnerable to manipulation. Because if they don’t care about anyone, friends, family, etc, they will care even less for the rest of the population or for the society.

Knight: I know that in writing this script you collaborated with a lawyer, how did that go?

Almendras: I did, yes. Jerónimo (Rodríguez) is a friend, we’ve known each other for 15 years, we worked together on almost all my films, he helped me edit one and write another. And I helped him in his own endeavours of making films. He is a lawyer, he never practiced law but he knows a lot about the legal system and the thinking of a lawyer. Then we consulted with a lot of people, public defenders, prosecutors, to create a plausible, realistic, accurate story. At today’s screening there a few lawyers who came to see the film and they commented on how they face that kind of thing almost daily. One of them was a criminal prosecutor and he was saying he was hoping for the kid to not surrender, to tell the truth and what happened. But she also saw it was inevitable for the surrender to happen. […] It took us a long time to find a plausible case and decide how we’re going to cast all the parts, the script is very accurate in legal terms.…

Knight: Did the main actors contribute ideas to the creation of their characters too?Agustín Silva is a young rising star in Chilean cinema, how did you know he was the right one for the role?

Agustin Silva  film poster

Chilean actor Agustin Silva – center

Almendras: I met Agustín a month before the shooting, we had a few drinks and I knew right away. I had the experience of being a middle class kid going to a very high class school with a scholarship. So I was relating to those kinds of people in my teenage years, I know that world but I never felt part of it, I’ve always been kind of observing that. So I have the ear for the right accent, the right way to relate. It is very common in Chile to ask people what is your last name, what high school you went to, because that places you in a certain context. So when I met Agustin, I think the first question we asked each other is what high school we went to! So I immediately thought he was the kind of person I was looking for. And I pushed him to be a little more like that, not to reflect too much about the character but to let the character exist.

Knight: How about the other kids in the cast?

Almendras: The same thing, basically. Most of them are coming from rich families, they live in that world.

Knight: So they are non-actors?

Almendras: No, actually they are all professional actors, fresh out of school, most of them.

Knight: Were they troubled at all by the way you’re representing their world?

Almendras: No, because in a way it is a fair portrait. At the end of the day, because of what they do and the role they play, you’re probably judging them but the movie is not judging them. But at the beginning they are just having fun, and I think we have all been in that situation. We’ve all been partying late and drinking, dancing, doing drugs or whatever. So the movie celebrates their youth until something happens. Which changes the narrative of the film into something more serious and objective.

Knight: You’re saying the movie celebrates their youth but the opening sequence is a bit disturbing: the kids are watching a video of someone who had an accident and they are kind of laughing it off, as if it’s something amusing.

Almendras: Yes, I agree, they are watching the screen and saying things like, “What do you care, nothing really happened to him”. But they are like that, they watch videos on Youtube and the whole film is full of online interaction and watching things on the internet.

Knight: There’s a lot of social media inserted into this film.

much ado 3

Almendras: Exactly.  At the beginning they are watching a viral video and at the end of the film we see a lot of tweets coming up on the screen. And many of those tweets came from the real case that inspired the movie, it’s the same things that people wrote on social media about the case, like “let’s kill this guy”, “let’s raise enough money to kill him”, “let’s dump him somewhere”. Because Twitter and all social media are very violent. Very small worlds but very violent. Also after they are having sex they are watching a porn video, another viral video. And there’s a lot of texting. So there’s a lot of this new different layer of communication that I wanted to put in the film, to add a new layer to the narrative. Usually when texting occurs in a film, they are using it instead of a phone call. People today use a text message as a substitute for a phone call, it’s really funny. I’m wondering why we prefer to text instead of talk. It’s probably because texting creates all this parallel universe so instead of this person being 5 min with you, they are all day with you. So you got the feeling that you’re building relationships with people who seem to be there but they are not. Which is different from phoning someone. So I wanted to have this in the film to create this new narrative layer, to comment on things you see in the film, to talk about people you see in the film.

Knight: I was struck by your decision to insert the content of these text messages directly on the screen. You’re basically writing on the screen.

Almendras: Yes, I decided to go that way because it’s a new form of communication that is still not well integrated into films. It’s so different than actual, physical communication. I remember in the late 90s and early 2000 when the cell phones were starting to appear, it took movies at least 10 years to stop showing pay phones.

Knight: That’s because pay phones are so much more cinematic!

Almendras: Maybe! So most characters from movies of that period would still go to a pay phone and call someone. But narratively you would think: why didn’t that character call that person from a cell phone? And I think some filmmakers deliberately set the action of the film 10 years into the past only to avoid dealing with a cell phone! It was so new to be able to communicate with someone from anywhere. For us now it’s the same with texting. But the way I used texting in the film is different, I wanted these texts to tell part of the story and talk about something you have not seen on  the screen. I don’t know how many of my friends said to me, “this guy or this girl broke up with me over whatsapp!” or “he sent me a text saying that it’s over”. It’s so dry to send a text message to say something that is emotionally important for the other person. This type of communication is so different from what it used to be! And this is what I wanted to emphasise in the film.

Knight: I actually enjoyed seeing all these messages silently displayed on the screen, it was as if you were able to read the characters’ minds.

Almendras:  Exactly. But this changes a lot of things from a practical filmmaking point of view. Instead of having someone say “I miss you, I love you” in a scene, you have that message displayed on the screen. And I’m always curious what people are talking about in all those texts! There was this case once in the Parliament in Chile, this congressman was texting during a hearing in the Congress, he was having three separate sex conversations with three different guys. So you see this Congressman working away in the Congress, but what is going on in reality is something entirely different! So this is a medium I would like to explore more because it speaks volumes about the character, the way the character relates to other people and to the world.

Knight: Talking about the internet and social media, there is also a documentary by Werner Herzog on this topic in Sundance 2016. In an interview I recently did in Havana with NYC filmmaker Sam Pressman who knows him well, Herzog was quoted as saying: “This table is a revolutionary object because we can sit around it and have a conversation but Twitter is not!”. A very contentious, controversial statement,  just as we like them!

Almendras: (laughing) Well, I agree! Also Twitter is such a sterile form of communication, such a bad tool of communication. We created language but on Twitter we’re limited to using 140 characters. This will always end up with people fighting or misunderstanding each other. Because 140 characters is no way you can make yourself understood. And what is also disturbing is that we are using a means of communication created by people who were unable to communicate in the real world. We are using systems created by, many of them, sociopaths. Zuckerberg created a tool to judge women’s hotness in a dorm in a university, which is probably the worst environment. And we’re using the same tool to communicate with friends?Obviously we are doing something wrong!So I’m very critical of that, I don’t think it’s healthy to relate to people in this way, that’s why I used it a lot in the film.

Knight: The title of the film in Spanish translates into “Nothing happened here” but the English title is Much Ado About Nothing. Why was it important to find an equivalent expression for the English title instead of a literal translation?

much ado still 2

Almendras: Yes, the Chilean title means “Nothing really happened here” and we use it when you have a big mess and then you kind of fix it a little bit and then you say that nothing actually happened. And we have a similar expression to Much Ado About Nothing in Spanish, the literal meaning is: “all this noise cracking nuts but there is nothing inside”. In other words, all this fuss around something that is nothing in the end. Which is what happened in Chile with the legal case the film is based on: there was a lot of “noise”, a lot of tweeting, a lot of press and at the end all the kids were freed, except this person that no one cares about. So that’s why we decided to go with that title.

Knight: Basically you have a free but powerless press in Chile!

Almendras: Exactly, the press represents the same powers and what happens is this weird thing where they condemn things publicly but there is no real accountability for what they are doing.  A lot of noise and nothing really happens as a result of that.

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Patricio Guzmán’s beautiful doc The Pearl Button at IFC Center & other NYC cinemas today

the pearl button

Seasoned filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, whose groundbreaking 1975 The Battle of Chile was a key event in the history of the documentary form, follows his astonishing recent work Nostalgia for the Light (2011) with a similar exploration of familiar themes such as memory and the historical past. The Pearl Button was awarded the Silver Bear for Best Script at 2015 Berlin Film Festival and is opening in NYC at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York City this weekend.

Knight: The Pearl Button is a very beautiful and moving film. I was very impressed with the way you used the metaphor of water, that is usually associated with life, to symbolise death and tragedy. And you used this metaphor to link two apparently unconnected stories: the story of the indigenous people who lived in the waterways of Western Patagonia and Pinochet’s dictatorship practice of dumping political prisoners in the sea.

Guzman: First of all we have to consider that Chile has 2,670 miles of coastline, that is a lot of water. Particularly in the South, there are a lot of channels entering the continent. Those channels were once inhabited by six different indigenous groups. And they were all executed by white men at the beginning of the 20th century.

There’s also the story of Jemmy Button, an indigenous inhabitant who was taken to England to be “civilised”. He agreed to go in exchange for a single mother-of-pearl button, hence his English name. When he was brought back to his community in Patagonia, he couldn’t readapt, he remained very much isolated, he died alone. These were discoveries that I made on a trip to Patagonia and served as the basis for the film.

I spent 10 days navigating through the channels with a small vessel, and when I arrived back in Santiago de Chile, I came across another story: a pearl button was found stuck to a rail brought to the surface by ocean divers. And I immediately made the connection between Jemmy Button and this other button. And with that, I pretty much had the whole film. And yes, it is my claim in the film that the ocean contains the history of all humanity. 

Knight: There is a reflection in the film about “the memory of water”, about how water remembers things, events, people. I was wondering if you were referring to the latest medical research from Japan where doctors discovered that water has indeed memory and the ability to form a molecular imprint of everything that comes into contact with it?

Guzman: Actually there are studies about the memory of water that are much older than that. Even in the 19th century in the diaries of FitzRoy, he mentions the possibility of water having memory. There’s another very interesting book by a researcher called Theodor Schwenk, it’s called Sensitive Chaos, published in 1962. This book also talks about water having memory.

Knight: I suppose those were theories whereas now there’s actually scientific proof that water has memory. And not many people know that.

Guzman: That’s true. The very first scientist who started to talk about that was a French scientist in the 1950s. And no one believed him!

Patricio Guzman

Patricio Guzmán during the making of The Pearl Button

Knight: Has the metaphor of ‘sea as cemetery’ been explored by other Chilean artists before or is this the first time it’s been put together in this way?

Guzman: The first time in cinema yes. As to the other Chilean artists I’m not completely sure.

Knight: Could you talk about the potential of beauty and beautiful imagery to convey horror and horrific events in such a powerful way? From this point of view, your film is like a cinematic oxymoron. There’s a disconnect between form and content in your film that mirrors the disconnect that must take place in the human brain when witnessing such horrors.

Guzman: The landscape where I shot the film is very beautiful, especially the channels in the South. There are waterfalls of ice and the sea has a very deep blue colour. There are also volcanos. That’s where the five main indigenous tribes lived and were very happy. And they all died within 2 years after the white men arrived. They wanted the land all to themselves so that they could bring cattle. They hired gunmen to exterminate the indigenous people. Those who remained alive were taken to the missions where they got contaminated with microbes brought from Europe. Today there are only six indigenous people alive.

Knight: What aspect of filmmaking have you found the most challenging in the making of this film?

Guzman: The most challenging part was navigating through those channels, there are very few boats that venture that way. Days and weeks can pass by without encountering any other human beings. And storms happen out of the blue. In those cases, you have to take shelter in a narrow channel and wait for it to pass.

There was another challenge near the coast of Santiago where Pinochet’s political prisoners were dumped. In this case the challenge was not geographic but the fact that there are still very few people willing to talk about it. All in all, it was a difficult film to make.

Knight: This was actually my next question: I read in your interview with Frederick Wiseman that the Chilean television is still a bit reluctant, even now, to show your documentaries on TV, is it true of this film also?

Guzman: We don’t know yet if the Chilean television will be interested in this film because the film is opening next week in cinemas in Chile. So we’ll see what happens.

GLORIA Is Glorious in SEBASTIAN LELIO’s New Film

Gloria_posterWhat are the options for a 58-year old divorcée whose job is not engaging enough to take over her entire life and whose children have long fled home and have a life of their own? To spend her evenings in front of the TV, looking after the neighbour’s cat or indulge in nostalgia and tearful memories about the good old days gone by? Maybe for some this is an option but nor for Gloria, the extraordinary heroine of Chilean director Sebastian Lelio‘s third feature film.

Winner of the Berlinale Silver Bear for Best Actress and  the Chilian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, GLORIA is a most engrossing character study of a mature single woman whose unbridled optimism and zest for life are simply contagious. Drink in hand and dressed in her most glamorous attire, Gloria is constantly teasing life with her heart wide open to anything that this might bring: adventure, romance, new friends, new lessons…Avoiding the all too easy, conventional clichés that surround representations of older people, Gloria is surprising, warm, genuine and very uplifting. No matter your age,  at the end of the film you wish you were more like Gloria.

In an interview taken on October 18 at the Filmmaker Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013, we pick the director’s brain about the film and the amazing performance that makes Gloria such a delight to watch.

Dana: How did you come up with  such an amazing character?Gloria is so brave, so strong, so inspiring, I so admire this woman and also Paulina Garcia’s breathtaking performance.

Sebastian: Thank you. Yes the film is all about this character and in a way in order to create the character I created an entire film around it. I created a mechanism for Gloria to be alive, which is cinema, it’s the complexity, it’s a narrative strategy, it’s also camera style, the uses of a narrative of “iceberg tips”, elliptic storytelling, the lack of written dialogues, there were no written dialogues in the script, so everything comes from the actors. I guess the answer for that is […] I had the intuition that it was a strong film in this lady’s world, in this character that in a way didn’t deserve a film, because she should have been like a secondary character in a normal film…but I thought no, I see a film there and we will make a great protagonist out of this forgotten character.

Dana: How did this protagonist come alive?If there were no written dialogues, I assume you worked a lot with the actors.

Sebastian: Yes but in order not to write dialogue, you need to write a lot, even more, because then when you are on set you can afford the luxury of getting lost, but to get lost you need to have the map in order to get lost within a certain battlefield or territory. And concerning the actors, I have an “invasion strategy”. I invade them, I become their friend, win their hearts and then I torture them. (laughter)

Dana: And they make your film…

Actors Sergio Hernandez, Paulina Garcia and director Sebastian Lelio at the 63rd Berlinale International Film Festival

Sebastian: Exactly, by their own will…It’s a very empirical strategy but for good reasons. I love actors and I do believe that when you see a film in a way you’re seeing the artistic battle, in this case of Paulina Garcia, you see how she’s giving her fight, the fight of her life, she’s like Rocky at the end of Rocky, round fifteen, she thinks she’s going to die but she wins. So I’m much more interested in the person than in the character, I’m much more moved by the human being, the actress, the characters are like an accident.

Dana: Was the role of Gloria a projection of a side of the actress herself? I read in an interview that they are very different, the actress from the character she plays.

Sebastian: The only way to answer that is yes and no at the same time. Paulina indeed said that she would have liked to be a little lighter, like Gloria is. Gloria is the kind of character who knows how to surf life but I think Paulina is wonderful, she’s so fun to be with, she’s funny and smart, but still…The character has a lot of things from her because since we didn’t use written dialogues, she was forced to use herself. So it’s the grey area between character and actress, or human being I would say.

Dana: Is it true that you were inspired by Cassavetes’ Gloria for this character?

Sebastian: Cassavetes is one of the directors of my life and when it comes to a cinema that is able to capture the mystery, madness and complexity of being human, Cassavetes is like the Pope, he is the master, so I would like to capture that complexity also. It’s impossible not to think of Opening Night or A Woman Under the Influence, or even Gloria. Gena Rowlands was very present in our conversations, because of this energy, this woman who in a way is bigger than life, always with a drink, and high heels, and you know, “bring it on”, I love that…

Dana: It seems that Gloria wants to have a good time despite everything, she wants to enjoy life.

Sebastian: Yes, she’s laughing and enjoying herself, she’s not opaque or withdrawn. I’m so tired of these opaque, “interesting” characters that are hiding what they are thinking and you never know how they think about anything, aren’t they empty maybe? Which is OK, I just wanted to go in the other direction, this is her, transparent, in your face.

Dana: And at the same time the film is very nuanced, very subtle. Another interesting thing is that at the end Gloria finds herself on her own again, which is basically the scene at the beginning. 

Sebastian: Yeah.

Dana: She goes back to square one after experiencing all these emotional ups and downs…Was that the idea of the film, to show a woman experiencing life even if it doesn’t lead her anywhere basically, the film doesn’t have the ending that you’d expect.

Sebastian: Exactly, and this is a very interesting insight because vision is a theme in the film, the glasses, whether she sees or not, how she sees other people and how people see her, she puts the glasses on, she takes them off, she goes to the oculist, being a little maybe blind towards the others, towards life, towards herself, or literally blind, whatever…Dancing without glasses at the end is such a strong gesture. For me it is very interesting what you’re saying because it’s the same social context but I would say that at the end she sees that same context with new eyes, somehow everything has changed because the vision has changed. We can say it’s the same, but in a way it’s not. It is transformed, because her vision has transformed, because vision transforms, which is the core idea for the film, when we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.

GloriaDana: What did she see at the end that she didn’t see at the beginning?

Sebastian: Well I think at the beginning she’s looking for the sources of meaning outside her jurisdiction, in men, in family, in therapies and it seems that, but the film doesn’t observe that, it seems that at the end she understands that those sources of meaning might be inside her, so maybe she’s not looking outside, she is dancing blindly but is she blind? So it’s very delicate.

Dana: That’s a very interesting reading of the film.And you’re entitled to your own reading of the film!

Sebastian: (laughing) No, but it’s just a reading, I mean I see myself as a spectator also.

Dana: What were the challenges in making this film?

Sebastian: I would say the main challenge was taking all these low-level materials, like not very sophisticated songs, a lady who’s supposedly a not very interesting character, a boring life, feelings, emotions, and all these dangerous things for an actress, and through combination and alchemy, elevate them and turn them hopefully into cinema. That was the thing, because it is much easier to work with serious issues than to be serious about cinema.

Dana: Is your method of working on this film different from your previous films?

Sebastian: No, my films always had humour and I think they have that complexity but before I made a film that was very sad, because it had to do with the earthquake and tsunami that we had in Chile, and it was impossible not to be serious. We shot only six weeks after the earthquake on real locations where people had died, and we were shooting a fiction based on real events in the real places. But it was very heavy. So very naturally I felt the need to counterbalance, to reconnect with life.

Dana: One last tricky question: why do you make films?

Sebastian: Because for me it’s the best vehicle to cross life, the perfect excuse, it’s a great place from where to think the world. And cinema is a great way to contaminate the world also with what you feel. It’s a wonderful toy.

GLORIA, this wonderful toy from director Sebastian Lelio, is playing in London cinemas now, book your tickets here: Curzon Soho, ICA, Barbican Centre and Ritzy Cinema.