By Matthew Owens
Perhaps Chile’s most noteable film director, Andrés Wood, is responsible for a wealth of films including Historias de Fútbol, Machuca, la Buena Vida and La Fiebre del Loco. More recently, he revealed his biopic of Chilean folk legend Violeta Parra, arguably his best work to date. The film was selected as the official Chilean entry for the 84th Academy Awards and won the World Cinema Jury Prize (Dramatic) at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Violeta se fue a los cielos notwithstanding, his 2004 outing, Machuca, is probably the best known work.
Praised variously by critics as, “both sweet and stringent, attuned to the wonders of childhood as well as its cruelty and terror (A.O. Scott), and, “an astonishingly intimate and painful coming-of-age story ” (Jack Matthews), Machuca, is Wood’s semi-autobiographical tale of 1970s Chile told through the eyes of Gonzalo Infante (born to a middle class family of European decent) and Pedro Machuca (an indigenous Chilean from the barrio), two young Chilean boys on the verge of adolescence and losing their innocence. Set against a backdrop of the run up to the 1973 Golpe Militar, the plot involves Gonzalo witnessing a radical experiment at the private English college, Saint Patrick’s, conducted by school priest and social progressive Father Wheelan. Machuca and other ‘lower class’ boys gain scholarships and change the group dynamic of the school. Gonzalo and Pedro inhabit two very different worlds and yet both are complex in their own right. On the one hand the former must endure bullies, both in the playground and at home (in the form an elder sister’s nunchucking boyfriend), his mother’s sugar daddy and an ineffectual father; whereas the latter has to face squalor in the slums and an abusive alcoholic father. Ultimately, the differences reduce down to future prospects. Gonzalo is destined to walk amongst the Chilean elite, while the same fate is highly unlikely for Pedro Machuca. In a brief moment of clarity, his father’s impromptu speech to Pedro is both cruel and insightful:
“Know where your friend will be in five years time? Starting college. And you’ll be cleaning toilets. In ten years, your friend here will be working at his daddy’s company. And you’ll still be cleaning toilets. In 15 years time, your friend will own his daddy’s company. And you? Take a guess. You’ll still be cleaning toilets. Some friend. He won’t even remember your name by then.”
It’s this dichotomous social reality that the two boys inhabit, along with their changing relationship, that Wood uses as a metaphor for the looming political upheaval that is coming for all Chileans. Salvador Allende is leading the first ever democratically elected government and Augusto Pinochet is about to orchestrate a coup against his old friend.
The film works on many layers and is ripe with subtle nuances and references. For example, Gonzalo’s mother’s wealthy older lover attempts to placate the young boy with a bound edition of The Lone Ranger, (who of course had a native American sidekick). Graffiti on a city wall proclaiming ‘no a la guerra civil’ (no to civil war) is partly erased to become ‘a la guerra civil’, eventually being whitewashed over. A forceful analogy to the development of tensions in society and perhaps also a forewarning of the inevitable difficulties that lie ahead for the boy’s relationship. At times, the film recalls Ken Loach’s Kes, most obviously with the character Pedro seeking solace from hard times, but also if somewhat perversely, Gonzalo is also attempting escape from the problems brought about by his middle class existence. Moreover, and importantly, the subject of the film was potentially problematic for Chilean people, even some thirty years after the events took place, and could have been difficult for audiences to digest, or certainly discuss. There has been a certain amount of self-censorship on these issues in Chile and in some sense Wood’s film is an unfolding of the Chilean collective subconscious. To misquote George Orwell, ‘in times of (self) deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.’ There are some great performances all round, particularly from Gonzalo’s mother (Aline Kuppenheim). In addition, given that there are no professional child actors in Chile, the performance of the boys and even more so Silvana (Manuela Martelli) are especially noteworthy. The 1970s feel to the film is very well done and because it moves at a sometimes leisurely pace, the political tension becomes palpable.
Not all critics, however, were in agreement. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, for example, opined (or is that whined?) that, “It’s the sort of cinema that tells you at great length what you know already – in this case that the Allende government was flawed but honourable, that the Pinochet coup was grotesque, that 1970s childhoods are to be remembered with bittersweet affection and knowing detail, and that friendships forged across class barriers may come to a terrible end.” More than anything this view is really a misunderstanding of the Chilean culure and history, and of course, ulitimately, the director.
Wood graduated from the exclusive and prestigious Saint George’s College in Santiago, Chile, which boasts many well-to-do alumni including the President of the Old Georgians Association who was Director of Logistics at Johnson & Johnson Medical Chile. The list of ex alumni reads like a veritable who’s who of the Chilean elite; Glittering stars include José Miguel Insulza, current head of the Organization American States (OAS), Andrés Allamand, Minister of Defense, Patricio Melero, current head of the House of Representatives and the Cueto brothers, owners of aviation giants Lan Chile. It was perhaps because of and not in spite of this privileged early experience that Andrés Wood has gone on to make such incisive social commentary in film. A.O. Scott suggests that, “the greater achievement of the film lies in showing both the weakness and the tenacity of those [social and political] divisions”. More than this though, Machuca is a window to the soul of the Chilean psyche; a perspective that is perhaps lost on some.
Andrés shared a few words with chileno.co.uk about his latest film Violeta se fue a los cielos (Violeta went to heaven) and aspects of the film making process.
Violeta must have been a tough subject to tackle given that Violeta Parra is such an icon in the country, although when asked how the film had been received at home and abroad Wood commented, “Muy bien. La película primero en Chile, conectó con la gente. Hizo un pequeño puente entre la presencia emotiva de Violeta en las personas y el personaje interpretado en la película. Un regalo aparte ha sido que haya podido cruzar las fronteras. “
“First, the film made a connection with the people in Chile. It made a small bridge between the emotional presence of Violeta on the public and the interpretation of the character in the film. In addition, it has been a gift that has been able to cross boundaries.”
Moreover, Parra lead an extraordinary life and her myth is vast and multi-faceted, making it potentially hazardous to make a biopic covering her every aspect. Is that perhaps why Wood decided against a more traditional linear biopic? “Pienso que intentar abarcarla en una película es imposible. Quizás como nosotros no intentamos eso, pudimos hacerlo.”
“I think that portraying the whole span of her life in one film is impossible. Maybe it was because we didn’t attempt it, that we were able to do it [make the film].”
The film itself is comprised of interwoven sections of her life (a skill surely enhanced after La Buena Vida), from her humble beginnings in the Chilean south, to the European period and her troubled relationship with Gilbert Favre; the common thread holding the film together being a tv interview given by Parra in 1962. Throughout, Wood does a remarkable job of representing the gritty realism of the period and the characterisations of ordinary Chilean folk are very well done. There are touches of magical realism, especially towards the finale, which is in keeping with a range of Chilean writers from Isabel Allende to Roberto Bolaño. A film for both Chileans and audience across the globe Violeta both moves one emotionally and provides insights into Chilean culture.
Turning to the film industry in Chile, where a large majority of Wood’s filming has taken place, we asked what it was like making films in the country. Overall wealth and infrastructure has been on the increase in recent years, however, it is still a developing country. Has this been a problem for the Chilean film industry? Andrés seemed optimistic, “la industria se está desarrollando y el estado desde hace unos años viene apoyando sistemáticamente la producción y distribución de películas. Aunque estamos mucho mejor que en otros momentos, siempre se puede hacer más.”
“The industry is developing and from a few years ago, the State has been systematically supporting the production and distribution of film. Although we are in a better situation than at other times, there is always more to do.”
Like many other directors, Andrés has built up partnerships with several actors, collaborating on multiple projects. In much the same way that the Cohen brothers have repeated past collaborations with McDormand, Buscemi, Clooney, Goodman, and Torturro, it appears that lasting partnerships work for Wood as well. When asked how important continued collaborations with actors such as Aline Kuppenheim were, Andrés replied, “Mucho. Me gusta trabajar con gente talentosa y si son amigos, mejor.”
“I like working with talented people and if they are friends, then so much the better.”
And of the raison d’etre of a filmmaker? Not that we’re presupposing the politics of Andrés, but Karl Marx famously stated that philosophers have only thus far interpreted the world, the point is to change it. Does he feel the need to make an impact on society through his vision?
“Soy a la antigua, que creo que el cine puede ayudar a crear discusión y con ella, cambios en la sociedad. Pero también tengo ambición artística y eso no tiene porque ser poco atractivo para la audiencia.”
“I’m old fashioned, in that I believe that cinema can help to create discussion and with that, changes in society. But I also have artistic ambition and that shouldn’t be less attractive to the audience.”
It is clear that Wood’s purpose is to create a debate and through topics such as inequality, which are recurrent themes in his films, he is able to do that. When asked about the best part of making a film, he explained “en todos los momentos me alegro de ser parte del proceso y también me lamento. La bipolaridad es parte del que hacer cinematográfico.”
“At all times I’m happy to be part of the process but also I’m sad. The bipolarity is part of doing cinematography.”
The life of a filmmaker is constantly being challenged, through production costs, viewer expectations and balancing artistic and moral visions, there are it seems in filmmaking, as in life, always two sides to the coin. Emotional gratification of being part of the process must make it all worth it in the end. We look forward to seeing more work from Andrés and woodproducciones in the future.