Debuting Chilean director Felipe Gálvez doesn’t shy away from controversy. On the contrary: he actually welcomes it.
“I love to be controversial,” he tells Variety in Cannes, where he is introducing blood-soaked Western “The Settlers,” posing some uncomfortable questions about his country’s colonial past.
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“If something is controversial, it’s a good sign. It means it’s interesting. I am trying to provoke with my film, because this conversation is far from over.”
Set in 1901, “The Settlers” sees three men (Benjamin Westfall, Mark Stanley and Camilo Arancibia) hired by a rich Spanish landowner (Alfredo Castro) to mark out his immense property. One is American, one Scottish, one of Indigenous descent. But what is really expected of them is to get rid of the Indigenous tribes.
Made in co-production with France’s Ciné Sud Promotion, Denmark’s Snowglobe, Sweden’s Film i Väst and Germany’s Sutor Kolonko. France’s MK2 handles international sales.
Presented by Cinema Inutile (U.S.), the film was made in association with Finite Films (UK), MK2 Films and Dulac Distribution (France).
“For me, this film is about the present. All of this is still happening – it’s enough to mention our ongoing conflict with the Mapuche. Right now, the Chilean government is talking about finally recognizing the Selk’nam people. But once you do that, you also have to give them their land,” he explains.
“Our new constitution, if it ever comes to fruition, would describe Chile as a country of many nations. And there are many who still disagree with that concept.”
Chile’s current constitution was written in 1980, under the regime of Augusto Pinochet.
Talking about the “hidden” genocide – erased from the official history for decades – Gálvez decided to play with the tropes of a Western, as his anti-heroes keep getting lost, and getting in trouble, in the wide open spaces.
“The biggest irony here is that Western, as a genre, was often used as a propaganda tool. It’s a dark joke that, I hope, is reflected throughout the film.”
He calls his feature debut, based on some real events and real people – such as businessman José Menéndez Menéndez – “historical but not realistic.”
“I didn’t want to claim that this is exactly what happened. I wanted to be critical of our history, of us, because we are part of the problem, but also of our cinema. Cinema allows us to manipulate reality. Back then, whoever had the camera, had all the power,” he says.
Gálvez, who co-wrote the film with Antonia Girardi, wanted his characters to remain ambiguous despite their horrifying acts.
“I am sure that in Chile, some people will be able to identify with Menéndez and defend his position, as well as that of his daughter. I welcome that: I think the audience should make all the decisions. For me, there are no bad guys in this movie. If there are, it’s just your personal opinion.”
He tried to reflect people’s views at that time, he notes, however disturbing they might seem now, in 2023.
“I have worked as an editor for many years and I am always thinking about how to maintain the relationship with the audience. Especially with a film like this, because it’s so violent and I know I am making it very hard to empathize with these men.”
“Still, the idea was to put you in their position. I am not sure if back then, they even thought they were doing something bad. I wanted my actors to think like them and forget all about today’s political correctness.”
But they are not the only aggressors in the film, with violence seemingly ingrained into the land of Tierra del Fuego and attacking them from every direction.
“This landscape is beautiful, but it’s also so scary. There is this piercing wind all the time, you feel it everywhere. There is something aggressive about it, something violent. You certainly feel that,” he says.
He would like to be optimistic about his country’s future and its approach to the past, he states. But for Gálvez, optimism needs to be earned. And it has to start with a conversation.
“Right now, there is no conversation. At least not about these events,” he observes.
“If some viewers won’t agree with the perpetrators, maybe that’s optimistic? I think it’s better to show all the violence, to be honest about it, and then have a calm, rational discussion about it. To me, making someone think and come up with new ideas is more valuable than a simple happy ending you will immediately forget.”
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