“Why does a guy like me dream about making a western?”: Lisandro Alonso on Eureka

Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso fills us in on his three-part film Eureka, a spellbinding decolonised western that takes a formally unpredictable approach to the experiences of indigenous people in the Americas.

19 February 2024

By Arjun Sajip

Lisandro Alonso, director of Eureka (2023)
Sight and Sound

A black-and-white period western; a modern-day slice-of-life drama set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation; a dreamy extended coda that unfolds in the Brazilian jungle in the 1970s – Lisandro Alonso fuses multiple genres into a spellbinding whole in his latest film, Eureka. Having debuted in the Premiere section at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – the lengthy rendering process for the huge bird that briefly graces the film’s second half meant the movie was submitted too late for official competition – Eureka, which takes three distinct approaches to the experiences of indigenous people in the Americas, stands as one of the year’s most supremely confident, visually bewitching features. Its director fills us in on his first film since his international breakthrough, Jauja, ten years ago.

You’ve mentioned that you wanted to shoot a western because westerns are entertainment, and as such should be on screen. What else about the western genre appealed to you?

When I finished shooting Jauja, I kept thinking about those [Native Americans] that suddenly appear in some sequences. I asked myself why I hadn’t shot more on them, and said, “OK, for my next project, maybe I should go in that direction, with the indigenous people. Who in film represents them?” And I went straight to westerns. But then I realised that westerns don’t really represent them at all – how they walk, how they breathe, what projections they have in life, or how they live in the present day.

As a South American I was curious about it: why does a guy like me dream about making a western? Who put that idea in my mind as a filmmaker? This kind of cultural information, education, colonisation, whatever you want to call it. Why didn’t I want to make a film like, for example, Tsai Mingliang’s, or German Expressionism, or Italian neorealism?

There are a lot of people just walking from Central America, trying to get into the US. It takes them six months, a year. But if you show how the US treats its native people, you realise that there are huge problems for minorities. The main problem, in North, Central and South America, is the [discrepancy in life expectancy] between inside and outside the reservations. In Pine Ridge reservation, the average life is 50 years. If you move just 10 kilometres out, it’s 70 years. So that’s something to point out. I don’t want to be a political or social filmmaker, I don’t have any statements [to make], I’m not about that – but Pine Ridge was the only place I wanted to show something of how people lived.

Do you have any favourite westerns?

All my previous films are westerns. There are no horses in them, but the plot of most westerns [concerns] a man, usually, alone against his environment, and he has to move through violence in order to survive. My films feature a man with an axe, a man with a boat going through the jungle, a man trying to see if his mother is still alive – these are things that happen in westerns. There’s no love, there’s no comedy, there are no female characters, mostly, in my [earlier] films.

Of course I still enjoy westerns a lot, but after making Eureka [I realised] they really don’t represent anything. They were just made as entertainment, to make money. It’s not ethnographic work, mostly. Even if you go to my favourite western, The Searchers (1956) – I like John Ford, obviously, and the way he frames – I take it as super artificial. Sometimes I read criticism or essays that analyse those films’ [relationship to] the history of the US, but I don’t think [westerns are] about that. It’s just John Wayne trying to create some kind of lore of his own. Probably I’m wrong, because I’m not that [much of a] cinephile, but that’s the way I see it.

Your films Los Muertos (2004), Jauja (2014) and now the western segment of Eureka feature a man looking for his daughter. What about this theme appeals to you so much? It might have started subconsciously, but by now it is surely conscious.

I know. I don’t think it’s a kind of wink from me to the people who like my films, in order to make [Eureka] feel like part of the same film family, with the same kind of plot. But I really think the worst thing you can pass through is to not know where your kids are, or to just lose them. Sometimes in my films I ask questions that I obviously don’t know how to answer, but I would like to be prepared for my own future if that kind of thing happened to me… I think in my next film there’s not going to be a father looking for his daughter anymore. I’m tired of that.

I guess Eureka signals a move away from that, in the sense that the father’s search for his daughter is now in a film within a film. It’s no longer the main focus; you’re reducing it to a conscious construct.

Exactly. But I don’t think I have a lot of things [I want] to say through films…. I mean, I’m a huge fan of Aki Kaurismäki, and it’s always more or less the same kind of film, characters, friends, family. I love that, and if I want [something else, I will go to] another filmmaker… I love Aki being Aki. I love Pedro Costa being Pedro Costa, I love Apichatpong [Weerasethakul] being Apichatpong. 

So I don’t think I have to move forward from what I like to do most. I use my own tools. But I like to [develop] new tools, and I think I do that with every fucking film I make. Don’t forget, [in 2001’s La libertad] I started with one character in a forest with an axe, and I’ve ended up shooting at Pine Ridge, in English. I’m trying to prove to myself that I can go forward all the time. 

Viggo Mortensen as Murphy in Eureka (2023)

Viggo Mortensen was more than an actor in Jauja – he was a key creative collaborator. He plays a smaller role in the western segment of Eureka. What did he bring to it?

He was key to the project. When I was doing my fellowship [at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University], I asked him if he knew any natives in the US that I could travel to meet. He gave me a couple of names. I went by plane and car and knocked on doors… It was important for me to have him on board… I think [Mortensen] really understood the concept of the film. [He said] okay, you really want to show a presentation of this kind of frontier film that was made back in time in the US, in order to show that those films didn’t represent the consequences [of colonisation].

Chiara Mastroianni, who also appears in the western segment of the film, also really understood the concept. I really appreciate that: it’s like risking jumping into an empty swimming pool. Nobody knows how it’s going to look, even if we have a script as a guide. We had a lot of unpredictable situations during the making of this film: we were stopped by the coronavirus, there were four different crews, hurricanes, snow, all that shit. It was only a six-week shoot but it took three years to make.

As on Jauja, you were working with [Aki Kaurismäki’s longtime DoP] Timo Salminen, but he collapsed from the below-freezing temperatures during the US shoot, so you brought on Mauro Herce. Which bits did Herce shoot?

Just the US part. Timo could not handle the freezing temperatures even on the first day. We were shooting 14 hours a day, it was -30°C, so it was too much for him. I called many DoPs, in and outside of the US, but Mauro was the best choice we had, and he’s fantastic. 

Which shots were the hardest to film?

The US part. We could hardly get out of the car, it was so cold… we had been prohibited from leaving [a casino where we were filming], I felt like we were in The Shining.

The most fun was shooting the western in Almería. It was a dreamland. Everything was under control; there was only one set, which was built as a film set. To be in Sergio Leone’s [old studio] with Chiara and Viggo and a huge crew speaking in Spanish, at a good temperature, with drinks – it was fantastic.

In Mexico, it was good, but hard. We had to cross several rivers by foot just to get to the locations. But as you might imagine, I love to have those kinds of environments. I’ve done that all my life. I open a map and say to myself, “I would like to shoot here, here and here,” and I travel there, see what’s happening, take notes, and start thinking of a script. That’s what I most enjoy: to have the chance, through films, to know people and places, and learn about how people have lived in different areas.

Going into a film festival, you know if you see an Argentine indie film that it’s going to be surprising – but that fact itself is no longer a surprise. Do you ever feel boxed in by this reputation?

It’s difficult to define Argentine cinema. There are a lot of filmmakers, and everyone wants to do their own thing. But we are very [creatively] rich. The last year for Argentinian film was amazing; we had two or three films at every major festival worldwide, and a lot of good ideas. I’m extremely happy about that, because I know most of the filmmakers presenting those films.

All the films you may have seen at festivals in the last five years, they’ve been made by the same generation, but they feel very different. If you see a Martín Rejtman film, or Rodrigo Moreno’s, or Llinás’s, or Lucrecia Martel’s, or mine, or Teddy Williams’s, or Martín Shanly’s, there’s a huge map of films from Argentina and it’s extremely good to have those. As you just said, when we’re presenting films [to an international audience], nobody knows what the fuck it’s going to be.

How much does this generation of Argentine filmmakers talk to each other, share ideas and inspirations, spark off each other?

It was a community back when we were younger. Now I’m 48, I have two kids, everyone has their own shit [to deal with]. So we don’t have the time to be that enthusiastic again. But one of the first films I worked on was as a sound assistant, on Rodrigo Moreno’s El descanso [2002]. Martín Rejtman co-produced my first film [La libertad], and Mariano Llinás and I studied at the same place; we played football together. So we know each other. It’s a small club in Buenos Aires. 

What is it like, raising finance from these European backers?

For Eureka, we had financing from five different countries. It was demanding: every country has different protocols and laws. I don’t think I will keep doing it like that – in the end there’s too much paperwork and less freedom, fewer possibilities, too much interference.

Most Argentinian cinema is based on the script and the director’s work – not on what producers or even actors want.

Liliana Alavez in Eureka (2023)

When it comes to international directors, whose films excite you most?

I’m getting older, and don’t have a lot of space in my software to keep introducing new filmmakers. But I’m very curious to see every new work by Albert Serra, Miguel Gomes, Apichatpong, Carlos Reygadas, Pedro Costa, Aki Kaurismäki, Amat Escalante, Adirley Queirós, Bruno Dumont, Alessio Rigo de Righi, Alice Rohrwacher, Kelly Reichardt, Ben Rivers… there’s a lot of filmmakers.

When was the last time you had your mind blown by a new film?

I’m obliged to watch films when I’m on a festival jury. I liked the last film by Oliver Laxe, Fire Will Come (2019). I really enjoy films where I don’t really understand what is happening… obviously, first I feel aesthetic pleasure, but then it goes farther than that, and I say, “What the fuck am I doing here, and why do I love this so much?” It’s the kind of filmmaking that my uncle would hate – but it’s like a painting. 

Even when you were finishing Jauja ten years ago, you were wanting to shoot in the Amazon. Where would you like to shoot next?

In my own country. I got so exhausted by Eureka, which took three years to make, across four countries. I really want to go back to the way I shot films back in my previous filmmaking period: in nine years I made four films. In the last 15 years I’ve only made two.

I want to shoot a film with the main character from La libertad. Not a sequel, but… only two weeks of shooting, in 35mm, on my father’s farm, with an eight-person crew.

The project goes back to what you were saying about a ‘film family’ – films that allow you to explore the same preoccupations in different ways but with elements of familiarity.

In all my films, people are related – father and daughter, father and ex-wife. It’s about the family, and the basis of how [family members] communicate. There’s a lot of work for us to do in order to express our feelings with family, friends, colleagues, and the rest of humanity – we are not doing it very well. There are no studies into how to make this possible. You have school, high school and then university; I think, after university, there should be two years of training in communicating feelings with humans. Only then should you start working. That’s the only way we can have a better world.   

 ► Eureka is in UK cinemas now. 

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