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SAN SEBASTIÁN 2020 Competition

Pablo Agüero • Director of Akelarre

"I steered clear of period-film clichés"

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- Pablo Agüero talks to us about his new film, Akelarre, the chronicle of a witch hunt that took place centuries ago, but the repercussions of which can still be clearly felt today

Pablo Agüero • Director of Akelarre

Paris-based filmmaker Pablo Agüero (Mendoza, 1977) answered Cineuropa’s questions on his new opus, Akelarre [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Pablo Agüero
film profile
]
, a co-production between France, Spain and his country of birth, Argentina. The movie is being presented in the official section of the 68th San Sebastián Film Festival after taking part – at the project stage – in the sixth Europe-Latin America Co-production Forum (2017), where it won the Arte Kino International Prize. With this film, he is once again participating in the competition in the Basque city after doing so in 2015 with Eva Doesn’t Sleep [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
.

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Cineuropa: Why is it pertinent to look back today at events such as the ones we see in the film?
Pablo Agüero: During the first seven years of this project’s development process, all of the producers were asking me that very same question. Witch hunts were events that served as cornerstones of the society we live in today, with all its prejudice, misogyny, fears and injustice; but still, the film’s link to current events seemed too tenuous for them. And all of a sudden, in the last three years, with the return of the feminist revolution, the witch as this figure of rebellion became utterly relevant again, just like it was in the 1960s. It’s a symbol of the struggle not only for gender equality, but also for cultural diversity, freedom and opposition to hegemonic power...

Your approach to the mise-en-scène, with those short, close-up, fast-paced shots, is not standard in period films, which usually revel in the setting and the décor. Why did you make this narrative decision?
I wanted to steer clear of period-film clichés, to breathe life into this story, give it a modern spin and experience the emotions of the protagonists up close, as if they were girls living in the modern world. I think all of this is important in order to generate genuine dramatic tension, an experience that the viewer can share in, but it’s also important politically, as it reminds us that this story is not over yet.

You also deal with light in a very special way in Akelarre: did you have any visual references in mind, any great painter from the olden days?
The context is what determines the aesthetic. The candles, the torches, the woods and the dungeons would naturally suggest chiaroscuro. The subject matter also necessitates a certain type of lighting: Akelarre is the struggle of the Enlightened against obscurantism. And in a more general sense, I feel like cinema is usually too brightly lit, like in that fake reality we see in reality TV shows, where there are no shadows. And where there is no shadow, you don’t see light either. That was our guiding principle: instead of lighting it shot by shot, trying to copy a certain artistic trend or another, what we did was decide on a series of “rules of play” that would dictate the interaction between the décor, the camera and the characters, so that, even while improvising, it would always generate backlighting and chiaroscuros that would seem natural and organic.

Misogyny seems to be an ill that is difficult to eradicate because, as your film shows, it originally reared its head years ago... Wouldn’t another ill be the patriarchy’s fear of losing its power?
The patriarchal pyramidal power structure revolving around god-king-father-husband has been sustained for centuries through violence and repression. When a woman disobeys her husband, the pyramid collapses. It’s the first parable in the Bible, in Genesis: Eve’s disobedience means that we are damned for all eternity. That is the cornerstone of a structure of power and submission that they have drummed into us, and which it is so difficult to rid ourselves of today.

Sex and its power to disarm terrified people at that time. Have we at least overcome that, and are we free, sexually speaking?
I think we have become much more liberated compared to how we were in the 17th century, but a lot of the time, the capitalistic system turns freedom into consumption and unbridled anxiety. And that can turn us into prisoners of our own freedom.

Why does the fact that someone can be free scare those in power so much?
It’s really surprising that the freedom we have in the most private and personal areas of our lives can have such an effect on political and economic power, but that’s how it is because the whole system of power is based on imitation and mass obedience. It’s glaringly obvious even today: the most powerful companies in the world, like Facebook, don’t produce anything specific or tangible; they just govern the predictable privacy of the masses in order to manipulate them. They wield the power thanks to that internalised and subconscious obedience. If every cow could decide to be free, the muleteer wouldn’t be able to guide them all to the slaughterhouse.

Lastly, as an Argentinian filmmaker living in Paris, was it complicated organising a production between three countries on two different continents?
It was like a pitched battle, and it took far too many years: a ridiculous amount of time. But thanks to our joint efforts and the blend of these different cultures, the dream of making Akelarre came true.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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