Felipe Gálvez on his Tierra del Fuego western The Settlers: “It’s like shooting in hell”

Chilean director Felipe Gálvez tells us about his period adventure drama The Settlers, based on a dark chapter in Chile’s colonial past.

The Settlers (2023)Quijote Films/Rampante Films/Rei Cine/Quiddity Films/Volos Films/Cine-Sud Promotion/Snowglobe/Film I Väst/Sutor Kolonko

In Felipe Gálvez’s The Settlers (Los colonos) it’s 1901 on the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, at the wild, southernmost tip of South America. Three hired men have been paid to clear a path to the Atlantic Ocean for wealthy landowner José Menéndez (a real-life figure here played by Alfredo Castro). The trio comprise mixed-race tracker Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), American mercenary Bill (Benjamin Westfall) and British army captain MacLennan (Mark Stanley, best known as Grenn in Game of Thrones). En route to the ocean, Menéndez allows the unlikely bunch to do as they want with the indigenous Selk’nam community to get the job done – including murder.

Gálvez’s fiction feature debut, co-written with Antonia Girardi and supported by the BFI through its UK Global Screen Fund co-production strand, premiered at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section this week. We caught up with the director to discuss Chile’s attitudes to its indigenous people, filming in Tierra del Fuego and the influence of a David Lean classic. 

What originally inspired the film?

Reading an independent newspaper many years ago, [I saw] a story hidden in the official history of Chile. I felt like it had some relation with the [1973 to 1990] dictatorship. Today [the story] is massive in some media, but the traditional media never talk about this, because the Menéndez family is still alive in Argentina and in Chile. It’s a really powerful family; they are owners of an important part of the country.

For me, Chile has a problem feeling disgrace for [its] history. They always want to talk about the future, not about the past. In Chile, until today we are not writing the official story of the dictatorship; the story of Chile ends in 1973. The country cannot advance.

It was interesting for me to go to the beginning of 20th-century Chile – during the first 100 years of the country – and see a reflection of what happens when you delete a page of the story. Today, in Chilean airports you can find dolls, chocolate, ice cream and wine with the image of the Selk’nam. That is super-violent, because it’s a country using an image of this native nation, but they don’t talk about the genocide.

What about this time period particularly interested you?

It’s super-difficult to try to do movies of the period today, in an era where all the time we’re trying to be politically correct. For me, the interesting [thing] was putting that period, that present, in a radical way. In that period, for example, Bill is not racist – for me, Bill is Bill. I believe all the people [at that time] think like him. The most important intellectuals in the world in that moment think like him. The president of the countries of all the nations of [the] Americas think like him.

I don’t know if Bill is more racist than Darwin, but he has less education. I believe Darwin is more racist because he all the information, the best education.

Félipe GalvezOscar Fernandez Orengo

Are you trying to say anything particular about colonialism and the way your country treats indigenous people?

Yes. We always talk about when the Spanish came to America. We never talk about the moment when Chile was a colonist site. For me it was interesting putting in the character of Segundo who is from a mixed ethnic background, who has a lot of contradictions in himself. For me that is original, trying to put the point of view of the Chilean and how Chileans were settling in that land. 

This conflict is still alive today. Not with the Selk’nam, because the Selk’nam was a genocide. The white people, the businessmen, the state of Chile, the church killed all of them. But we have a lot of conflict with the Mapuche nation. In the last election, [one reason] people rejected the new constitution is because to have a multicultural country where you recognise another indigenous nation exists within Chile made the majority of the country furious.

Can you tell me about the incredible landscapes we see in the film?

If you see a map of Chile, the area has a lot of ice, and Tierra del Fuego is the last part: we say it’s the end of the world. A hundred years ago, Punta Arenas, on the Chilean mainland, was the only port where you could go between the Pacific and the Atlantic, before the Panama Canal. 

Was it difficult to film in Tierra del Fuego?

It’s very difficult because the weather changes all the time. In one hour you can have sun, rain, snow, wind. When you start to shoot any scene, you need to finish because you don’t know if you can continue the next day. It’s like shooting in hell at some moments. You need to try to be very free in the way you shoot. You have the script as a guide, but you need to be open to changing the plan.

Your film is a type of western. What appeals to you about the genre?

It is a kind of western, it’s kind of an adventure movie. It’s a movie about colonialism, and I believe you have two important genres in colonial movies. In an adventure film, like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or The Man Who Would Be King (1975), you have the big landscape and the journey. And in war movies, you have the idea of people who went to war and then changed a lot after the war. When you [experience] violence, you change a lot.

Were there any other filmmakers who had any influence on the film? Visually, I was reminded of Kelly Reichardt and Albert Serra.
I am a bit far away from Albert Serra in image. I prefer Lawrence of Arabia. Maybe I have the same passion as Albert Serra for cinema and the classics. And yes, for landscape, as in Serra’s movie about Don Quixote [Honour of the Knights, 2006].

And Kelly Reichardt, maybe the character of Bill has a relation, and the idea to show a more realistic character. No real heroes, more normal people in the movies. But it’s a big combination. Between Andrea Arnold or Albert Serra, I’d be closer to Andrea Arnold.

What do you want audiences to get from the film?

Here in Cannes, where I believe 4,000 people watched the movie, what I’m feeling now is emotion. It’s contradictory, because they don’t understand why I want to show so much violence. It’s a good movie to have a coffee after and take a moment of reflection. My feeling is people like the movie immediately but need time to process the information. 

It was a responsibility to show the violence, because maybe it’s the only movie about the Selk’nam genocide. We need to show how terrible it was. My passion is to make political cinema. A political cinema with strong images, with a strong artistic point of view.

The Settlers, which is funded by the BFI through the UK Global Screen Fund, screened at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is released in the UK on 9 February.

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