Go backBack to selection

“Victim Cinema is for People that are Convinced”: Felipe Gálvez on The Settlers

Two white men sit on horses in the foreground, while their Chilean guide sits behind them.Mark Stanley, Camilo Arancibia and Benjamin Westfall in The Settlers

The Settlers simulates several different types of Westerns without committing to one mode. The set-up of Felipe Gálvez’s first feature is classic: Scottish soldier MacLennan (Mark Stanley), American mercenary Bill (Benjamin Westfall) and their Chilean mestizo guide Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), who’s been pressed into service from a chain gang, are sent on a mission by landowner José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro). Making their way on horseback across the Chilean landscape, the three are captured in long zooms and accompanied by the booming tympani of Harry Allouche’s orchestral score.

If that music places The Settlers somewhere in the realm of ’50s westerns, the non-American landscape and sporadic eruptions of colonially administered violence place this closer to the skepticism of ’60s spaghetti westerns. And while the scenery is spectacular, the heavily-worked-over colors and slightly distorted images signal a chronological distance from both the 1901 period and previous rethinkings of Western tradition. When reluctant conscript Segundo is forced to participate in a massacre at the midway point, joining his two Western masters in a massacre of indigenous people amidst a literal and figurative moral fog, a new dimension is added. The third act jumps seven years into the future for a final act that applies a framework of historical context and accountability as government agents  show up to investigate what we’ve seen, even though emerges that their interest is more in public relations than a genuine reckoning—this may well be the first period film ever to use the word “optics” in the contemporary sense.

We are fortunate that fellow Chilean filmmaker Dominga Sotomayor agreed to interview Gálvez for us. Sotomayor is a prolific producer in Chile, as well as the director of two features to date, Thursday Till Sunday and Too Late to Die Young; more recently, she was one of the seven directors to contribute a short to the anthology film The Year of the Everlasting Storm, alongside directors including Apichatpong Weeraseethakul and David Lowery.

The Settlers enters limited release from MUBI this Friday before joining the streaming platform later this year.—Vadim Rizov

Sotomayor: Were any images in the film in your head ten years ago? Sometimes you don’t even have the script, but you have a couple of clear images.  

Gálvez: The film comes from the [image] of post-killing—men hunting, images of bodies. That picture captured me, then it became distorted over time and fog appeared [over it]. It was a very sharp image and I was taking away its clarity. But the image of [one of the mercenaries severing] ear[s after the massacre] was always there. At one point [when] the fog appeared, the idea of showing less came up, but the cutting of the ear is part of the conflict and a decision I kept. In Chile we use a lot of euphemisms. It took me many years to make the film and perhaps a similar film [about] this genocide will never be made, and I thought I could not avoid that image, which is very effective because it is a strong synthesis.

Sotomayor: Yes, because I see the film [as] sort of an attempt to resurrect a photo, and the frustration that it’s always going to be impossible to capture a past.

Gálvez: There’s something of that, yes. Those photos have been transformed into postcards. Somehow, in [recreating] this slaughter, one is shooting at those postcards. But yes, it is a nice idea to resurrect photos that stopped being photos and became like screensavers, isn’t it?

Sotomayor: Yes. A few days ago I was walking along the Alameda [Santiago’s main alley] and came across an ice cream shop that has as its logo the image of a Selk’nam spirit—exactly the image, of this man with the white lines, that is in a scene of your film. I imagine you thought of how sensitive it would be to use [that] image of the indigenous people. Were you afraid of that?

Gálvez: Very afraid. I could have used a different Selk’nam spirit in [a] search for originality, but in the end I chose to use the same one, because it’s like a pop icon and I wanted to insert it in more of a horror scene. Even during editing, it was always a big issue whether to leave it in. I call it the “Selkn’am souvenir”; it had to be in the film as a reminder of the use we make of this image.

Sotomayor: Many years have gone by from the time you came up with the idea until you filmed it. Sometimes you start a film eight or ten years prior and inhabit that project during very different periods of your life.

Gálvez: It did change. The first idea was born from this photo. I like to set limits for myself, and in this case it was to tell the story from the perspective of those who commit the crimes.  The first script was just the mission, the idea of doing a Western, but there wasn’t a seven-year time leap [between the end of the mission and the film’s final act]. That [initial] script [had] that layer of violence, of what was happening at that moment, [but] I felt that I was missing a layer. Where was the Chilean state? Where were the other participants? We had to go forward again, because Segundo’s character never closed. It was a character that was very difficult to close in the first act because he was very violent; he killed someone and you don’t feel like empathizing with him. So, a third act was born in order to understand Segundo, to look for someone with whom the spectator can empathize, who can reveal himself.

Sotomayor: Of course, if you stayed only with the representation of violence in the first part it could be seen as an allegory of violence, just a portrait. I feel that with the passage of time there is a commentary to be made.

Gálvez: Two months after shooting, ideas from the present kept coming in. I had the notion of writing a script but didn’t want to shoot the same script, I wanted to update it all the time. Everything that has to do with the animals, for example, was improvised and came on set.

Sotomayor: I was going to ask you about the horses. It’s hard to film animals. Those horses seem to be watching.

Gálvez: The first thing is that working with animals was weird. Also, the peat—you’ve been to Tierra del Fuego. Horses have a hard time walking [there]. There was the idea that the horses could go through everything, and then it happened that they couldn’t move forward. They sank. I’m not a great connoisseur of horses and was intrigued by them. I observed them quite a bit.  

I always had the idea of this adventure cinema, half Lawrence of Arabia, where music comes in and there are big transitions, [then] I lost those transitions. I knew I had to tie the film together somehow, and I became enchanted with the horses. I also looked at them as settlers, because they are intrusive animals like sheep. I began to understand that animals were also part of the settlers. The Guanaco [a camel-like animal seen in the film’s first shot] is the only native—then came the sheep, the horses. 

I was following these characters [and] it was very difficult to follow them. I thought what I had left to hold the tension, the empathy that I felt on set were the horses. The [gazes] of the horses were part of the journey and are characters. It was also very funny because Segundo’s horse was called Emperor and he was the leader. Yet we put him in the back and he always wanted to go forward. So, [the horses] had their own story, their own shoot, their own struggle.

Sotomayor: I am interested in the fact that this script was updated. Did something similar happen with the form? With the staging?

Gálvez: The first idea was to do it in black and white. [With] that idea of color came autochrome, which was the first Lumière Brothers experiment with color. The [cinematographer], Simone D’Arcangelo, comes from DIT and is a master of color, so when he realized that we wanted to work with this color technique and [he] had license to do so, he felt very free and said “Well, why don’t we take it a little further, to painting?” I was questioning the veracity of photography, of positions that are very posed. In paintings of the time, one finds more realistic poses. There is greater documentation, perhaps more human and less mechanistic, than [what] happens with the camera. In terms of composition, I began to understand a month after shooting started that painting was going to enter the film. Painting is a step beyond autochrome. Autochrome represents the first photos, [which] have some color in them but not all the colors work. The RGB works.

Sotomayor: I was just going to ask you that, because the first thing I noticed when I saw the film was the primary colors—the yellow of Segundo’s vest, the red, the blue of the sky. Only three colors seemed to work.

Gálvez: Of course, the wardrobe is designed to be autochrome to help the picture. The costume designer worked with colors that autochrome would have registered.

Sotomayor: And what was your hedge [when it came to making decisions in advance]? Sometimes you don’t know what it is but you know what it is not. 

Gálvez: For me, this is a film of a cowboy who comes from American cinema, a Brit who comes [from] adventure cinema and Segundo, who comes from the new Latin American cinema. Segundo comes from Miguel Littin’s Jackal of Nahueltoro, from Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes, so you know that Segundo is always going to be [captured with] handheld camera. We know that the other characters are going to be fixed, like a fixed camera portrait, [and] that Menéndez [is captured] with tracking shots.

As you say, since I’m not very clear about what I want to do, I’m a person who listens a lot to his team, but I am very clear about what I don’t want to do. I don’t know what [the visual language is] is but I know what it is not—for example, that Segundo is not going to be [shot with a] fixed camera. That kind of thing builds the narration.

Sotomayor: I got stuck [on] the idea of The Jackal of Nahueltoro. I hadn’t made the connection. That initial shot in which Segundo is nailing the fences has a lot to do with that film. That film is quite amazing, and I think there is something very key in the representation of violence, in making us responsible parties.

Gálvez: Yes, in my head there is an American, an Englishman and a Chilean and a mestizo, you know what I mean? John Wayne, the jackal of Nahueltoro and Michael Caine, the man who wants to be king—for me they are three worlds, three supposed protagonists of cinema that travel together and have their own rules. That is thought of in the script, in the spectrum each character can have, and in the way I filmed and followed those characters. The actors are aware of this as well.

Sotomayor: Yes. The painting also speaks of artifice, of lies. I feel that in that sense the film is super synthetic with those night interiors with saturated colors. I felt I was watching something theatrical.

Gálvez: Sure, the pictorial side. For the nights, Simone brought the pictorial reference [of] Remington, an American who painted Western [scenes]. Painting enters as a reference in the nights and in the killings as well—they are associated [with] Mexican murals.  Then there are also other pictorial references [in] dialogue with other films that also [use] a pictorial language, but if one were to talk about specific references, they’d be those portraits of Remington—how the actors lie down, how the horses are portrayed, how they are lit by the fire.

Sotomayor: I was very struck by those nights with so much color in the interiors in contrast with landscapes that are almost like natural history museum dioramas, a kind of gouache where the characters float, horses are tiny. 

Gálvez: For me, the landscape is a leading character in the film, it carries weight. I never saw it as a set, but I thought about how it becomes a character. When you see Tierra del Fuego in a photo it is so beautiful, and when you are there I don’t feel so much beauty. I mean, I feel beauty but at the same time I feel a lot of violence or a certain discomfort. And it’s hard to be there, especially for many hours. The pictorial [aspect of the film] is understood as a deformation, and that deformation, as you say, has to do with the colors, with the fact that I was interested in moving away from making it look like a realistic film. I wanted it to be artificial from the beginning, because I didn’t want the film to be understood as if I were trying to tell what really happened. I want it to be read as fiction, a film that reflects on the false, on how history is written. The film cannot be viewed as an historical document.

Sotomayor: Absolutely, and I think that’s what’s interesting about the film. The way the actors speak, where does that come from? I don’t know how you came with [co-writer] Antonia Girardi to imagine how those people spoke. How was the work with the actors and those dialogues? 

Gálvez: Well, we wrote it in Spanish, which is an important first detail of the film. It is translated, and then the actors, who are native speakers, arrive, analyze that translation, question and discuss it. The script is a very important guide for me, where most of the dialogues are very similar to those in the film, but also with the actor it’s like, what else can happen now?

For me that happens with photography too, with everything—I like to propose and then work.  I would say that the dialogues come more from novels, they don’t come from movies. They come from many books we read. Then the actors arrive and start to play with those dialogues and taking them to extremes, coming up with their own versions. Sometimes we improvise. They start rewriting and at the same time translating.

Sotomayor: And to deform. Interesting that the same thing happens with the way history is written, these multiple updated versions and what gets lost over time.

Gálvez: Sure. I think many times the Western genre has been revisited by updating the ethics of the characters, or modernizing them, but not questioning the whole mechanism of the genre. I like to say that one infiltrates the genre—I use the music, the framing, all the language of the Western, but in the end I am questioning it. To be a real infiltrator, you have to make it clear that you are going outside the genre. You end up questioning not only the characters but the genre as a whole. I think that another bet presented by the film  is, as some people have said, that The Settlers is a film “with a message, [but] without a message.” I view this as a critique, which I like. It is understood that there is an effort to put an issue on the table, but in the end I pass the responsibility over to the viewer.

Sotomayor: I kept coming back to the last shot of the film, her [Segundo’s wife] drinking tea. Maybe it’s one of the most violent moments in the film?

Gálvez: That’s interesting, because when there are two rapes, sex scenes, murder, mutilations, you think that the final moment is going to be the most dramatic. I wrote it as the most dramatic moment but not the most violent, and I feel that it ends up being the most violent.  I think it has to do with the fact that the other violence—of the genre, of the bullets—is more cinematic, part of a movie. The [violence] at the end seems to be closer to reality. We know about it, we know it, we hear it; maybe you saw it in the subway yesterday, or know it’s happening on the news, or that it’s happening in a police station. It’s no longer the violence of the movies but one that is closer to us.

Sotomayor: Yes, that makes the film so current, doesn’t it? So brutal. Talking about the Western, the genre generates an expectation. How did you play with that?

Gálvez: I come from editing. For me, editing is how to transfer the director’s ideas, to see if what the director wants to tell is being told. You practice the idea of communicating with the spectator quite a bit. The editor wonders if this is being followed, if this is being understood. So, as my training comes from editing, I was very concerned that the viewer was actually following the story.

At the end of the day, what I study most are the rules of the genre to support me. That is, if you are expecting that there will be an encounter and there will be a killing, there will be a killing. I will fulfill that promise. If these characters have to have an encounter with some different men and there has to be a fight and a duel, there has to be a duel. I mentioned being an infiltrator in the genre; for that, there has to come a moment when one says “Here I change the rule.” That’s why I find it very difficult to make films without heroes. I don’t believe much in heroes and cinema works a lot with the idea of following the hero, so if you don’t believe in a hero and in your film there are no heroes and everyone is waiting for the hero to arrive and he doesn’t arrive, and now we jump seven years and a character arrives—well, finally the hero arrives and again he is not the hero. It’s playing with an expectation. What I also use a lot to create that game is music. Music allows me to change genres—I’m in a Western and [then] I go into an adventure film, into a horror film.

Sotomayor: The song that starts that moment with the horses in the sea is amazing, the first jump into the future, what happens there is very beautiful. What is that music?

Gálvez: There was always the idea that there would be a song in English in that house and I found this song by Victor Jara, which is the only time Victor Jara [sang] in English. The song at the end is a Peter Gabriel cover of an American period song. But I thought it was nice to put Victor Jara in the credits singing a lullaby in English. The idea that it ends with that Victor Jara song is in the script.

Sotomayor: Speaking of the ending, the decisions you made leave the viewer in a rather uncomfortable place. 

Gálvez: Sure. Maybe it has to do, again, with what you don’t want to do. I discovered that I’ve seen many historical memory movies that have to do with putting oneself in the victims’ perspective. For example, I  remember when I saw Machuca many years ago, I finished watching it and was excited. Someone stood in front [of me] and said, “These communists, how long are they going to victimize themselves?”

I have always thought that victim cinema is for people that are convinced. It is a memory exercise and serves to empathize with those who think in that similar way, but [does little to move someone on the other side]. So, putting yourself in the perspective of the victimizer and not the victim generates a bigger question, because it invites you to follow the story of that character, to have to empathize at times with him. For example, we know that Chile has just commemorated the 50th anniversary of the coup and 40% of the population believes that what Pinochet did is right or defends him. So, why not think that many people will defend these crimes or may agree with certain things that happened with the war, with the murders, with the genocide? Many people may think that these facts are part of civilization and justify them.

I think putting oneself in the  victimizer’s perspective generates a more open question. Both options are exercises of memory, but following the victim [is a decision that is designed] more to make a condemnation, and the victimizer’s perspective can pose a question. That question does not have much of a resolution. I hold on to the question; I prefer the viewer to answer it. If I question and criticize something it is cinema, like the participation of cinema in the processes of colonization, or how cinema has the power to distort. Part of cinema is stained with blood. I have more of an opinion about cinema than I do about my characters.

Sotomayor: I think it’s good to close with this idea of the power of cinema in a context in which fascism is so comfortably installed in Chile and Latin America.

Gálvez: Yes, isn’t it?

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham