Álvaro Brechner • Director
“They can’t take our imagination away from us”
- SAN SEBASTIÁN 2018: Filmmaker Álvaro Brechner presents his third film, A Twelve-Year Night, based on true events that took place in his home country, Uruguay, not so long ago
Álvaro Brechner (Montevideo, 1976) made his feature debut in 2009 with Bad Day to Go Fishing [+see also:
film profile], which took part in the Cannes Critics’ Week. Five years later, he released Mr. Kaplan [+see also:
film profile], which, like his third movie, A Twelve-Year Night [+see also:
interview: Álvaro Brechner
film profile], now screening at the Venice Film Festival (Orizzonti) and soon to unspool at the San Sebastián Film Festival (Horizontes Latinos), was produced on both sides of the Atlantic.
Cineuropa: What was it about the real-life story that made you decide to turn it into a film?
Álvaro Brechner: As a director and a screenwriter, this project entailed more than four years of research and documentation, and required me to be very thorough on the aesthetic and humanistic side of things. The first thing that struck me was hearing the hostages’ sentence: “We should have killed them at the time; now we’re going to drive them insane.” I was intrigued by the idea of exploring that universe where someone is truly struggling – an individual who, all of sudden, is turned into a guinea pig for an experiment in which all that he knows about the world is no good to him. And I was interested in exploring how, in the solitude of captivity, he has to reinvent himself in order to be able to oppose a plan intended to eliminate the most intimate self’s last remaining traces of resistance. I wanted to delve into an aesthetic and sensory challenge in this new world, where the man plans out his battle to preserve himself as such.
Was A Twelve-Year Night filmed in real prisons?
In Montevideo, we managed to shoot in Libertad Prison, which was built during the Uruguayan dictatorship to hold political prisoners (today it is still a maximum-security jail, but for common criminals), and which allowed us to make the release of prisoners more believable, with Uruguay’s return to a democracy. In Pamplona (Spain), we shot in Fort San Cristóbal, which served as a prison between 1934 and 1945, and which is widely known for the jailbreak of 1938, with its infamous outcome. Plus we had to recreate the cells inside the barracks and the sewers that the characters were slinking around (there were almost 40 different cells) for 12 years. Some were wells, others were rooms with no windows, underground, measuring barely one-and-a-half by two metres. Shooting in such small spaces threw up huge technical difficulties: we wanted to be as faithful as possible to those spaces and find a lighting method that would be fitting, in order to keep it believable.
Now that there is so much controversy being generated in Spain surrounding the grave of dictator Franco, is it still necessary to dredge up the horrors of the past?
Remembering the atrocities that we as human beings can commit is only important if it helps to avoid future atrocities. From our history, we know that peace, regrettably, has always been fleeting: we often forget the internal fighting that is necessary to keep the peace. I think it never hurts to remember the risks that a society takes when violence starts to escalate.
And is imagination the best lifeline in terrible situations like this?
When a man is in solitary confinement, cut off from the passing of time, with no sensory stimuli nor anything tangible to hang onto, his senses begin to betray him. What is left of him when they’ve taken everything away? But in his innermost self, there is something they can’t take away from him: his imagination, his last remaining liberty. After years of being locked up, after years of silence, darkness and sleep deprivation, there were times when the hostages’ confusion was such that they no longer knew whether they were awake or dreaming, if what they were hearing was part of their imagination or if they were being betrayed by their senses. They were disorientated on the spatial, sensory and temporal levels. And so what could they trust? Their physical and mental resistance was being put to the test. As they were hypersensitive to the smallest stimulus, they mistrusted the distorted reality. Conveying this confusing state of anxiety, fantasy, anger, fear, nightmares, resistance and hope was the aesthetic challenge I faced in the visual and aural mise-en-scène.
Apart from losing weight, what did you demand of the actors in order for them to breathe life into the main characters?
I was able to rely on three incredible actors: Antonio de la Torre, Chino Darín and Alfonso Tort. We resorted to long meetings between the actors and the real-life protagonists, who told them about their experiences and how they felt. We also used psychological counselling, to prepare and understand the various different stigmas, and the physical and emotional development of a man who finds himself facing years of isolation and minimal stimuli. They had to see specialists to prepare themselves for the muscle and weight loss, as they had to lose more than 15 kg.
Besides physical exhaustion, I asked them to avoid any exposure to the sun for the three months preceding the shoot, and I requested that they reduce their physical activity to a minimum. But the only thing that mattered is that they had to be themselves, above all, and that, despite the fact that the film was based on a true story, they should have already assimilated it in the months of research and conversations. So the only thing I demanded of them was that they be present at all times… and expecting the unexpected.
(Translated from Spanish)
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