“I Don’t Think Reconciliation is Possible”: Benjamín Naishtat on Rojo, ’70s Filmmaking and Living in a Right-Wing Zombieland
A charcoal-black comedy about the early days of the Argentinean Dirty War, Benjamin Naishtat’s third feature Rojo accumulated a small but devout critical following after its world premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, then went on to win Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Actor last week at San Sebastian. Naishtat’s 2014 debut History of Fear questioned the companionability of day-to-day life with lingering, suppressed trauma, while his black-and-white followup The Movement cast a brutally acerbic eye to 19th century nation-building in the Pampas, satirizing the belief (perennial in Latin America and other places) that a strong autocrat can bring order and stability, even while his loud promises are light on details. (Both History of Fear and The Movement are still without US distribution.) Rojo continues those queries in a genre-friendlier mold, interrogating middle-class respectability in the guise of Claudio (Dario Grandinetti), a provincial lawyer in 1970s Argentina who finds himself engulfed in a conflict with an aberrant “hippie” in the film’s first scene. The film ends on the eve of the 1976 coup d’etat, whereby General Jorge Rafael Videla usurped President Isabel Martínez de Perón—who inherited the presidency from her late husband Juan Perón—and launched a military dictatorship that would lead to the “disappearance” of over 30,000 suspected “subversives,” the majority of them left-leaning activists, students or unionists, not a few of them the children of Jewish immigrants from earlier in the 20th century.
Naishtat’s screenplay is not subtle about its historical allusions and Rojo, like Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, forces its audience to focus their wits on the physical and mental demands of hiding a dead body. But it’s no mere hanky-waving polemic; Rojo almost functions as a straightforward mystery. (On a different register, Naishtat is clearly having a ball as a filmmaker, rendering Claudio’s increasingly bewildered headspace in a mode that’s unabashedly ’70s: freeze-frames, telephoto lenses and room-traversing zoom shots.) It’s entirely possible to exit the film still unaware that Argentinean strongmen would torture and kill political dissidents under the supervision of Nazis in hiding, with the backing of the Ford Administration’s Central Intelligence Agency. Claudio’s humdrum, unwitting complicity with the elements consolidating power in Argentinean society (chiefly old-guard military reactionaries and the Catholic Church) forms the narrative backbone of Naishtat’s film, a vintage-perfect postcard from the brink. How does a supposedly apolitical person find themselves enabling fascism? The question is embodied by Claudio, but challenged by the third-act appearance of Sinclair (Alfredo Castro), a warped and withered private investigator who turns up in Claudio’s town asking God for strength in battle against the “perverse” elements threatening the fabric of Argentinean society.
Filmmaker: Tell me about some of the stories contained in Rojo. Claudio and one of his colleagues get involved with a house that was burnt down, mysteriously — it begins to dawn on the viewer that leftists may have lived there before the “accident.”
Naishtat: Researching Rojo was easy because many of the stories are from my family. My grandparents and my father were visiting the city of Córdoba in 1975; they were leftist militants, and my grandmother was a prominent union lawyer. She was disappeared into a secret prison, and her house, my family house, was torched. My father escaped before a commando unit came to his house, and he had to flee. He lived 10 years in exile, which is how he met my mother, in Paris—another exile. Some of the pictures in the house are from my family.
Filmmaker: There’s also a burned, or maybe water-damaged, picture of Che.
Naishtat: You saw that? I wanted it tucked in the corner of the frame, I thought nobody noticed it. It’s very quick. Mostly it’s just the home of a middle-class, progressive family. Because I wanted to include this idea: not everybody who was disappeared by the government was a hardcore revolutionary. Just for supporting a union, you could be disappeared.
Filmmaker: Rojo is a mystery film. I guess History of Fear was too but the subtext was murkier.
Naishtat: History of Fear pointed to the idea of doing this sort of social commentary piece that’s sort of hidden within scenes recognizable from horror cinema, but it was more of an arthouse film. The approach with Rojo is much more driven by genre. There are a lot of films about the ’70s in Argentina, but I can’t recall one playing within a genre structure.
Filmmaker: How long did you want to make Rojo?
Naishtat: I was working on this for about five years. It changed a lot in development, of course, and it’s a relatively expensive film, so it took a long time to get the money together. It’s about the Dirty War but it has its little comment on the present day, of course—people being zombies in the context of things happening around them. Of course it applies to Argentina but to other places as well.
Filmmaker: You’re making a film about the Dirty War, but also more broadly about the society that produces that kind of conflict.
Naishtat: It’s about a community in a particular historic context, and how that community behaves.
Filmmaker: Is that what your other two films are about as well?
Naishtat: History of Fear is a little bit about that—a community reacting through this idea of insecurity. El Movimiento is character-driven, with a strong, Messiah-type character who creates a political cult in the 19th century. It’s also period-based.
Filmmaker: Things are happening, but they’re not being discussed explicitly—I can’t spoil what happens but I was very struck by the sense that the most important stuff is peripheral. That reflects how Claudio and the other characters see themselves.
Naishtat: I like movies where I’m invited to work a little bit, as an audience member, completing the picture in my head as I’m watching the movie. Through this script I tried to do it—invite the audience to participate, to figure out in this strange, weird community where people are doing these things.
Filmmaker: Americans are just getting caught up on the Videla dictatorship. Nowadays there are breadlines, massive education strikes, defacement of the Plaza de las Madres… How does the complicity idea relate to Argentina today?
Naishtat: It’s a far-right, Taliban government right now. We no longer have a Ministry of Culture, due to budget cuts. Everything is being driven by the International Monetary Fund: the country went bankrupt and asked for an IMF loan, so Washington is dictating the policies Argentina should have. It’s a dangerous moment right now. I believe and I hope that my film can comment on that. I fear a majority of society is supporting these policies and it’s like living in zombieland. I don’t know if you get my point with this Trump situation but I hope the movie can appeal to audiences regarding that.
Filmmaker: To your mind, why would people actively support policies that are not in their own interests? In the States, we had all kinds of purges, but nothing like the dictatorship.
Naishtat: I’ve been thinking and researching a lot about this. You have to go back to the twenties—Mussolini and Hitler, the whole fascist era in Europe, in parts of Latin America as well. A lot of jobs are disappearing, the old trades are disappearing, the dignity of all the small tasks in the economy is just gone. Capitalism has evolved in a way where now, there is no such thing as a professional driver—everyone’s an Uber driver, working a day job on the side. These situations are happening in many, many parts of the economy and society, it’s created a wave of resentment, and I completely understand. Some people are capitalizing on that—the ultra-rich, the owners of media, people pushing alienation to an extreme. Whether it’s anti-immigrant, or the human rights policies in Argentina pointed out by our current president as “stupid.” I see a parallel between the US and Argentina, obviously—other places as well, like the situation in Brazil.
Filmmaker: Help me understand the aspirationalism of the characters in Rojo. These guys have these nice watches, these three-piece suits, wigs, gold rings, they’re drinking nice scotch. It seems like you’re having fun with respectability politics.
Naishtat: In Argentina, as in many places, there is a certain thing about the middle classes—how they wanna look and be seen. You’re mentioning the scenes in the lounge-bar, the nightclub, they wanna look good… I was just making fun of that aesthetic. The Argentine aesthetic from the ’70s is not quite the same as the American one. We worked really hard on getting that right—the women with their horrible makeup, the monster-ish aspiration. It was just fun to portray that, really.
Filmmaker: Was it easy to present this vision to producers?
Naishtat: I wouldn’t say it was easy to put the money together, but it was easy to get financiers to see the universality of the story: a community in a time of historic trauma and terror, and people are silent about it. People can relate to that—the collaborationists in France, movies like The White Ribbon or Ida. I’m not saying the movies are similar but you can identify a certain theme.
Filmmaker: Tell me about these ’70s aesthetics. You open with a split-diopter shot where one character is comparing himself to the guy ahead of him. Then there are zooms, telephotos, freeze-frames.
Naishtat: I had the ’70s era in the beginning but I didn’t know what kind of movie it was going to be. I was researching a lot about Argentine history but also looking into a lot of the films from that era, and then it was just an epiphany—the film had to have this audio-visual grammar from the ’70s, because it’s so grand and amazing. Not just a film about the ’70s but a film from the ’70s. I wanted it very flat—it made sense, because older people could relate to the films of Lumet, Boorman. You know, for me it’s sort of the peak of cinema. I’m thinking of the New American directors of the time. In Argentina, the ’70s are quite tricky—Raymundo Gleyzer is probably the best filmmaker of that era, but then there’s a big void. The dictatorship meant nobody could make good films in that time so we have a generation missing. I was more inspired by the American stuff, which is what you think of when someone says “’70s film”: Peckinpah, The Godfather, The Conversation, those kinds of things. It was fun to shoot it in that language. It’s hard to say what today’s aesthetic is, because it’s all atomized. There used to be currents or movements within art, but it’s hard to identify today, because each man is his own island. I do like the idea of groups of filmmakers shooting in a similar way, with smaller differences.
Filmmaker: The language of History of Fear is really different: many scenes are just one take long, there are helicopter shots.
Naishtat: It’s a more modern narrative, a slower pace. Rojo tries to emulate that other aesthetic, and there are a lot of technical elements added. We put a layer of film grain on top of the digital images. The sound mix is mono, captured with compressors from the ’70s. The color palette, the wardrobe, it’s a love letter to all those movies. I am a tremendous fan of Cassavetes, but he’s different from New Hollywood. I would say my mind was blown the most by Lumet’s Network.
Filmmaker: Have you seen The Parallax View by Alan Pakula?
Naishtat: I don’t think so. What is it about?
Filmmaker: Well, it starts with a politician being assassinated in my hometown of Seattle, at the Space Needle.
Naishtat: Interesting. Of course it happens in Nashville too. All these films are really just dealing with the Kennedy assassination—Nashville, The Conversation. They’re not putting a message out there in the propaganda sense, but they’re very political. You wouldn’t get away with that today. Sure, the studios were controlled by business people, but at least they were human entities, not Wall Street guys!
Filmmaker: Tell me about the detective character, played by Alfredo Castro. All the critics here at TIFF are losing their shit, like, “Oh, it’s the guy from Tony Manero!”
Naishtat: I wanted to work with him since I saw that film. He’s one of those actors who’s very physical—he’s very capable of embodying an idea. He’s genius. I wrote the part for him, inspired by Columbo. He appears after the first hour, because you need something to wake you up a little bit. I think Alfredo was able to bring humor and mystery to the character.
Filmmaker: He uses this word “perversion.” Much like “degenerates” during the buildup to World War II, it seems the junta used “perversion” as a smear against anyone who was on the left, which of course dovetails with the church in Argentina.
Naishtat: Well, the torturers had an organized network of special priests from the Catholic Church who would pardon them while they were attempting genocide—“You’re doing the right thing,” “This is a Christian Argentinean Republic,” and so on. They accused people on the Left of being “un-Argentine”, “foreign elements” or promoting “foreign ideas”—being apátrida, stateless, without a country. I don’t know if you have this phrase in English.
Filmmaker: I believe “Un-American” was the go-to in the 1950s and is still very popular among conservatives today.
Naishtat: Same thing—in the Cold War context, the dictatorship drummed up hysteria about the “red element.” I mean, the title of the movie pretty much sums it up.
Filmmaker: There’s a scene with a magician at a nightclub, who has to “disappear” a party guest, and he’s literally saying “Ella desaparecida!” In writing the script, how do you decide how much is too much? Or where to draw the line in alluding to what’s about to happen?
Naishtat: It’s delicate—but in this film you never see the military, the actual terror going on. It’s been well staged and documented at this point. But there are obvious symbols of what would happen next. I wanted to put certain ideas down, clearly, out there. And I needed Claudio to hear the word desaparecida at that moment in the movie. I don’t think it’s too much, personally—an excess of subtlety is only so good for dealing with these kinds of issues.
Filmmaker: Where do you stand on the prospect of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee-style inquiry into what happened?
Naishtat: Well, in Argentina there are people who believe in that idea. I’m not one of them. I don’t think reconciliation is possible—right-wing politicians have pointed out the success of that idea in South Africa, but it’s actually not a good example if you look at the real history. The only way to move forward is memoria, verdad, y justicia. And for the large part, we still don’t know where the desaparecidos are. Only a portion have been found through forensic research. But many of the military men are still alive, still in Argentina, and won’t confess what they did. A large number were tried during the Kirchner Government—I’m not a particularly huge supporter of them but they did a wonderful job putting the fascists on trial. Now, with this far-right government, there is a danger that they will liberate some of the generals, but there have been massive protests against it, so.
Filmmaker: What do you think happens to Claudio after the movie has ended?
Naishtat: Well, of course he and his family, his community, they will all become accomplices. He gets away with everything.