Quietly disturbing and thoughtfully insightful about the evil mankind is capable of, Chilean auteur Alejandro Fernández Almendras’ To Kill a Man has stroke a chord with festival goers and jurors across the globe. The film, which deals with a man pushed to commit a crime by a vengeful crook, premiered at Sundance this past January where it was awarded the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize. Fernandez Almendras, whose previous films include Huacho and Seated by the Fire, seems to have finally reached a level of international exposure with a small film that carries important social commentary about masculinity, violence, and guilt. In this in-depth interview the director talked to us about the origin of the story, the complex themes behind the plot, and the uncomfortable emotions his film can create on the audience.
Read the review HERE
To Kill a Man has received the following awards:
Sundance Film Festival 2014: World Cinema Grand Jury Prize- Dramatic
Rotterdam Film Festival 2014: KNF Award
Miami Film Festival 2014: Miami Future Cinema Critics Award
Cartagena International Film Festival: FIPRESCI Award for Best Film/ Official Competition Award for Best Director
Carlos Aguilar: The events that set in motion the plot of “To Kill a Man” can seem simple on the surface, but you embedded the film with many existential concepts. Where did these come from?
Alejandro Fernandez Almendras: Well, the real story on which I based my film was a very simple story. It was terrible for the family that lived it, but it was a very common story, at least in Chile. It was about a family in which the father was a diabetic, and there was a neighborhood criminal known by everybody who one day robes the father. Then when his son tries to recover his blood sugar meter, the thief, who ends up in prison for a brief period of time, shoots him. Once he is out after 1 or 2 years, the criminal starts threatening the family to seek revenge for the time he did in prison, which he thinks he didn’t deserve since the son was the one who went to his house.
The concept of being helpless in front of justice was very interesting to me to start working around it. What pushed me to make this film, and what caught my attention when I heard the story, was that all the events were described from the family’s point of view and the father’s point of view. After the final crime, which was a bit different to how it is portrayed in the film, they ask the father, now in prison himself, if he would do the same again given the circumstances. He answered he wouldn’t under no circumstances because now he knows how it feels to kill someone and he understands how terrible it is. The personal price he had to pay was that the moral guilt was too much for him. I found that very compelling and that’s why I decided to make the film.
Aguilar: The line between the killer and the victim is blurred in the film. The person who starts being victimized takes on the role of the punisher. Although it is a terrifying idea, would you say that anyone is capable of killing given the right circumstances?
Fernandez Almendras: I think so given the context. I believe that the character of Jorge was pushed to commit the crime rather than being something that existed in him naturally. The dangerous thing about crime is that it is sometimes justified when it is seen as the only possible solution. Those are the types of crimes that are hard to explain legally. They are complicated cases, it is not as simple as to say that the guy did it out evilness, but he did it almost justifiably, yet, what he did was worse than what the actual career criminal Kalule was doing or threatening to do. He doesn’t rape his daughter or hurt them physically, it is more about the fear that he imposed on them than anything he actually did. On the other hand, Jorge ends up being crueler and much more violent than what he looked like. The film aims to place the viewer in a situation that is morally uncomfortable. If one defends the protagonist, Jorge, which is what the film does in the first half, you end up justifying a terrible crime in the second half.
Aguilar: Another aspect that is prominent is the questioning of Jorge’s masculinity. It seems as if he feels he has to prove it by defending his family and standing up to this bully, even if this means taking drastic measure. Was that part of your process while creating the character?
Fernandez Almendras: Sure. There is this image in film and the media of a rugged macho man who protects his family. In the film his son, his wife and his daughter they point out that he is not fulfilling that role as a man. He feels forced to be that man. What the film also deals with is the fact that many decisions like this have to do with what is perceived as being the right thing to do, even if it means committing a crime. Morally, many people justify it. They think, “What else is there to do? He has no other choice” However, by saying that you are justifying a crime. It is interesting to explore that and to make the audience face both sides of the same coin.
Aguilar: The family seeks help from the authorities, but it feels like in the midst of al the bureaucracy they are left helpless. Is there are a flaw in the judicial system, not only in Chile, but everywhere, to deal with situations like the one on the film?
Fernandez Almendras: I believe that in terms of the film, the system functions very efficiently given the lack of resources and the circumstances I feel the family gets treated well. It was my intention to not highlight the bureaucracy, but despite my efforts it is still noticeable because there is an institutional inability to deal with a situations like these. There are also issues like these with those situations that involve domestic violence. The husband could threaten the wife in many occasions, but they can’t ask for a restraining order, or to fine him, or even to hold him for some days because you can’t punish a crime before it is committed. One can’t punish a dead threat as if it was a murder. Otherwise we would live in a completely schizophrenic society, one in which thinking of something would be enough to be arrested, and that’s even worse.
The law can reach a certain point, and after that point instead of being left vulnerable by the law, the law leaves it to your own judgment. That’s the interesting part, when there is no judicial, protection, not because the institution doesn’t want to provide it but because it can’t reach that gray area. The family is forced to make very difficult decisions, but perhaps other choices would have been better in the long run. They could have moved apartments, or moved to another city, start again, and maybe admit that they lost to this evil character. But it would be looked down upon by others “Why do they have to leave if they didn’t do anything?” Well sometimes you cross paths with a person like this and you can’t do anything. Justifying a family that doesn’t want to leave the neighborhood because someone is threatening them is the same argument that one could use to ask why a woman doesn’t leave the house when the husband threatens her. In the case of a mistreated woman we assume that against such violence there is nothing to do but to leave. In this case, many people keep on defending the idea that one has to stand his ground, and it has to do with the fact that he is a man.
People think that if you let yourself be undermined by another man you are not man enough. I’m absolutely convinced that domestic violence in which a woman is the abuser towards the man is much more prominent than what we think or find in surveys. Because from the get-go, to say that your woman mistreats you is like admitting that you are not a man, especially in Latin American societies. Certainly these are perennially male-chauvinist societies, but a woman can still inflict great psychological violence on a man. In my film I feel like the female character is to an extent very violent towards the protagonist. She pushes him to the edge, she tells him he is not good enough, then she divorces him, I believe this is also very real.
Aguilar: Being a Latin American director, how has your experience at international festivals been? Your film has been so well received, and you have won several awards in a short time.
Fernandez Almendras: First, the decision to go to Sundance was taken because we felt that it is a film that can work in the American market, in fact we got distribution at Sundance. The film will be released by Film Movement in the U.S. and Canada in the Fall. It’s a film that has certain genre elements, and there is great tension, which are qualities that I think help the film. Showing it to American audiences will be very helpful for the film, and for myself in the future steps I want to take as a filmmaker.
Aguilar: Would you ever considered making a film in Hollywood? Or perhaps make a film with a greater budget and more exposure?
Fernandez Almendras: I would like to work with perhaps a bigger budget but never at the level of a blockbuster, which is something very “Hollywood”. The obstacles would be too many, and I don’t think Hollywood is interested is something so strange as what I do. Even being something like “To Kill a Man” that connects with audiences, in formal terms, it is not a common film. Hollywood budgets come with many artistic compromises. In Hollywood no one can stand 20 minutes without dialogue. [Laughs)
Aguilar: Are there any American filmmakers that have influenced your work?
Fernandez Almendras: I watched a lot of American films when I started liking cinema, around the 90s. It was mostly American cinema from the 60s and 70s when there was like a re-founding of classic American cinema and the emergence of filmmaker like Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Coppola, or the psychological thrillers of Alan Pakula , those were very important influences at the time.
Aguilar: Why do you think your film has connected with the diverse jurors throughout the film’s festival run?
Fernandez Almendras: Just like with my two previous films, I’ve always thought my films are not cryptic. They are films that the audience won’t understand or that they are going to have a hard time connecting to them. They are films that demand a certain attention. Especially the other two, this one I feel is a bit more open. I think people respond to “To Kill a Man” because in its own way, it’s a film that works. When it needs to create tension there is tension, when it needs to create suspense there is suspense, when it needs a particular emotion it is there. It is a visceral film that works, although the way in which it reaches those emotions is different from what many viewers might be used to.
Aguilar: What are your future projects? What will follow the success of “To Kill a Man”?
Fernandez Almendras: I’m looking into several possibilities. I have two finished scripts, one of them is much more lighthearted, sort of a comedy with a lot of music which I’d like to make in the south of Chile. The other is a tad bigger; it is a political thriller that deals with the crash between the mining industry and environmentalist groups. Both of these are well on their way, I need to find financing this year and see which one of them happens first.