SSIFF interview: Alejandro Landes (Monos)

Since its premiere at Sundance at the beginning of this year, Alejandro Landes’ Monos has gained a steady stream of supporters at over two dozen film festivals around the world. Cédric Succivalli talks to the Colombian director about the importance of awards, the success of the film on his own home turf, the young non-professional cast of the film and how he prepared them, and about how there is more to film than just a story.

CS: First of all, congratulations on being selected for both the Goya and the Oscar, that’s quite a unique situation. Tell me how you feel about that?

AL: It’s great, and I’m obviously very happy about it, but first and foremost these prizes help you find an audience for the film. There is so much content produced these days that it’s good for something to really break though. To be honest, what I’m more excited about is the commercial distribution. We are opening in more than 30 countries, and with pretty big premieres. We’re talking about 75 cities in the US, Le Pacte is coming later for France, Picturehouse is opening big in London on October 25th. What makes me the happiest is we are at nearly 250,000 people in Colombia who have seen the film, which is massive. Colombian cinema has grown in recent years, but Colombians tend to not watch homegrown product unfortunately. Our distributor thought that the best-case scenario would be 40,000. And now we’re here and it’s still going on.

CS: So theatres are making a deliberate choice to keep it going?

AL: It’s a business decision for them, because people are coming to see it. The subject matter is very sensitive, the country is completely polarized. The film talks about something that people don’t want to hear about, after having 60 years of civil war behind us. The first day, nobody came to see it, but then word of mouth started to kick in. Initially people from the left said it was a right-wing film, the right wing said it was a communist film. So there was a lot of distrust. It’s natural when you have a country that has had such a long war, and you come out with a war film, at least in part, that a lot of people are very hesitant. But that is what makes me most excited, that it overcame that.

CS: I come from a theater and dance background, and to me this film was more into the visual arts as a whole than just strictly cinema, and I think there were a lot of dance references. Are you personally into dance as well? Because for me it transpires in the film.

AL: It’s funny you should say that, because I wanted to make sure that everything was born out of something real, not just a stylistic choice or just there because it’s cool. But what I thought was very interesting is that in these shadow wars we fight these days the powers-that-be have top technology, so the revolutionary armies gravitate towards the most primitive, the most rudimentary. In reality the most prominent guerrilla group uses something that they call ‘tread softly’, where they fight barefoot and use camouflage and everything. That is something that comes from the Vietnam tradition. It is born out of something real, and it is very physical: how can I compete with the army that has the most toys? By going to the most primal.

And cinema today is so much narrative engineering. Story is an important part of film, but I don’t like this American tradition of ‘storytelling, storytelling, storytelling’. Story is one way to produce emotion, but there are other ways. I like the Luis Buñuel idea of “film is a waking dream.” The story appeals to your logic, but dance creates emotion without only telling a story. Ideally we are going for something that straddles the fine line between appealing to the mind and to the senses at the same time.

CS: A major component of the film is this group of young actors who are genuinely authentic and embedded in what they do. How did you find them?

AL: We looked everywhere. We went to schools, we asked for videos online, we went to acting workshops, we looked for people on the streets while we were location scouting. There were more than 800 kids, and out of those 800 we chose about 25. Those we took through a sort of boot camp scenario. In the morning they did acting and improv exercises with pieces of the screenplay, although they didn’t know it was the screenplay. Then in the afternoon they did physical exercises, they did dance, they did physical training. They all lived in the same cabin, ate together, slept together, all to create maximum synergy. Then I started to see things happening: fighting, loving, chemistry, non-chemistry, and by seeing who flirted with whom, who fought with whom I saw a mini-society develop, and out of the 25 I chose eight that I thought could work as an ensemble. So that was a bit of a Big Brother experience, but what was interesting was that since I spent quite a bit of time with them, I knew what made them tick and that helped me to take such young actors, some only 12 years old, to such extreme acting situations. In the film there is a scene where (the character) Smurf is tied to a tree, and you have this great Hollywood actress Julianne Nicholson with this little boy who has never acted, and it is like a combustion.

CS: Your DP, Jasper Wolf, managed to capture the light in such a way that it encapsulates the radical element of the environment, the wilderness, but also makes it very subtle and soft at the same time so that it conveys many emotions just through the photography.

AL: I worked a lot with Jasper before the shoot started, it was our first collaboration and his first film outside The Netherlands of this size actually. We had this metaphor: the film opens on a mountain at 4000 metres, but it’s also a wetland, and the water from that wetland trickles down the mountain. It gains speed until it ends in the torrents of the lowlands, completely muddy and bereft of all transparency. There the water condensates and turns into clouds again, so it’s all a cycle. We had this idea where these kids are at an age where their bodies are changing, kind of like being in a fast-moving river, in constant movement, so the camera is also constantly moving. And at the opening, when you’re on top of the mountain, you know your place in the world and you have a notion of scale. But when you’re struggling under the jungle the world starts getting fragmented and becomes disorienting. That was kind of the arc of the idea behind the photography.

CS: There is a certain amount of LGBTQ content and queerness in the film, but it’s not a discourse on it. It’s just presented as a matter of fact that people have connections no matter who they are. Was that always in the script or did it come to the forefront because of the chemistry between these eight youngsters?

AL: We always wanted to do that, because that is what would also organically happen in a schoolyard, you know, when you try your first kiss with a friend and so on. But I also wanted to do it in a way where the sexuality doesn’t define the character and becomes its most important aspect. It’s more post-gender, very 2019, basically. It’s not an old film from the ’90s, you know, it’s not Boys Don’t Cry. If I made sexual identity the most important thing about the character, you would only think about that, and I don’t think that progresses our thought. We still have a very binary conception of life: are they left or right, are they good or evil? The film does not let you do that, you don’t know if the group is guerrilla or paramilitary. I like this idea of creating a vacuum so you are forced to know a character from its humanity in the present moment. Not the first name or the last. No “What’s your name?” “Where do you live, what neighborhood?” You just know the character from that moment.

Photo: Camilo Ponce de León