Alejandro Amenábar • Director of While at War
"Changing our minds is what makes us human"
by Alfonso Rivera
- The man behind smash hits such as The Others and Agora returns to historical period films with While at War, in which he relives a decisive political moment in 20th-century Spanish history
Alejandro Amenábar (Santiago, Chile, 1972) has made a return to the historical period drama genre with While at War [+see also:
interview: Alejandro Amenábar
film profile], in which he reconstructs the confrontation between author and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno and Franco’s armed forces in Salamanca. We chatted to the musician and filmmaker in San Sebastián, where the 67th edition of its famous festival is currently under way.
Cineuropa: How were you initially introduced to the figure of Unamuno, the central character in your film?
Alejandro Amenábar: What happened in that place was something I was totally unaware of, and it surprised me because I, like my entire generation, had studied Unamuno at university. Then I began to investigate further, and I discovered Unamunos’s whole stance, from the coup d’état to the day of the speech in the auditorium, and I thought it was an incredible story arc: someone who has effectively been the father of the Republic rebels against it, initially supports the coup, then tries to speak to Franco to avoid the absurdity of war, and in the end, he was so disenchanted that he ended up just exploding. It was all just a great story.
But is changing one’s mind for the wise or for the weak-willed?
Changing our minds is what makes us human and allows us to learn. Whenever you are willing to hesitate and soak up what other people have to say, that contributes to any encounter and achievement in society: a person can speak and, of course, stick up for his ideas, but he should be willing to learn from other people’s ideas. You can’t say much to those individuals who don’t get off their high horse and are unwilling to change, because you simply can’t get through to them.
In some way or other, have you always tried to give people food for thought with your films, like you did with Agora [+see also:
I think so, yes. I’m doing some soul-searching, and I remember that when I started at film school, I thought about cinema in a very mercenary way: I wanted to make anything at all related to the audiovisual world, and that was it. Thesis, from 1995, was born of an era when there were a lot of reality shows on general-interest television, showing crime stories, like the Alcàsser Girls case: that was very present in the film. And that’s how it was in nearly all of them, including Regression [+see also:
interview: Alejandro Amenábar
film profile], where it talks about how we create our own demons, and that can make many people fanatical. And Agora, of course, was about the cycles of history that repeat themselves, with reason pitted against violence: you also have that in this case, in While at War. In other words, it’s going to turn out that I’m a kind of Jiminy Cricket and I didn’t know it.
On the production level, was your latest film as complicated as Agora?
It wasn’t that different. It feels like when you’re captaining a bigger ship, you have more sailors you can delegate tasks to, but you’re still steering the ship all the same. The most substantial change in While at War – which is the film that I’ve shot with the highest degree of freedom, including freedom of conscience – is that it had been 15 years since I’d shot a movie in Spanish, and so I was able to express my ideas more quickly. But all in all, it was the same.
You once again composed the score yourself. Why?
In Agora and Regression, the musicians ended up being other people because I wanted to open myself up to other perspectives and sensibilities, and I learned a great deal from them. In this case, I thought that if I didn’t pounce on this one myself, I would probably be too lazy to write the music for the rest of my career. On the other hand, the film and music were so internalised in my head that I decided to draw all of that out of me by sitting at the keyboard. Composing the music enables the film to have a certain unity: it’s one more element that feels as if it’s my own.
Your film portrays Spain’s recent history, from last century... Do you think it will be equally interesting to non-Spanish audiences?
A few days ago, when we showed the film at the Toronto Film Festival, we had the perfect audience in order to carry out that test: a young, English-speaking country such as Canada, to whom this storyline could easily seem like it was from a galaxy far, far, away, from many moons ago. I think they understood the movie fairly well, but it’s true that it has something to do with the film’s identity: how it encourages or forces the viewers to confront their identity. That can only be appreciated in its entirety in Spain: those shots with the flag filling the screen don’t have the same significance in other countries as they do here, where there’s so much conflict surrounding our own symbols.
(Translated from Spanish)
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