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SANFIC: Juan Pablo Ternicier Explains Why Making ‘Sapo’ Was Inevitable

‘Sapo’ examines how life under a fascist dictator can affect an otherwise normal person

SANTIAGO DE CHILE — “Sapo”, translated to English, literally means “Toad.” In Chile the term is used to refer to private civilians who secretly worked with the country’s fascist government from outside during Pinochet’s dictatorship. In English we might use the title “rat.”

The film is a back and forth journey through the life of fictional TV journalist Jeremías Gallardo. The story is revealed as a series of memories recalled by Gallardo while driving from the state’s most famous prison in Valparaiso, where he has just watched a government-sanctioned firing squad execution of two prisoners, to Santiago de Chile, where he is missing the birth of his child to cover the event.

“Sapo” marks a shift for Chilean post-production company Plataforma Digital, as they move into feature production, alongside fellow Chilean first-timers Pausa and France’s Zapik Films. Domestic distribution is being handled by Storyboard Media.

The film stars Chilean cinema veteran Fernando Gómez Rovira (“Taxi for Three”) alongside Eduardo Paxeco, who featured in 2008’s Goya winner for best foreign Spanish-language film, “The Good Life.”

Directed and written by Juan Pablo Ternicier, “03:34 Terremoto en Chile,” the film represents what he considers to be a right of passage for Chilean filmmakers who were born or lived during Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship. According to Ternicier, making a film about the period is an inevitability for anyone who lived through those years. He went into detail about his theory, and the film itself, in a conversation with Variety.

Sapo” is based on real events: Can you talk about how carefully you adhered to a particular story, or group of stories?

Our film is based on many true stories, not one specific story. It’s a collection. I changes the names of characters because the film is about the institution of “sapos.” A “sapo” gave people up and often those people died. It was important to me that people saw that.

A lot of people are still around today who lived through the events which inspired the film. Where did you go to get your stories you drew from?

At first my stepfather. He was a political prisoner so he witnessed a lot of “sapos.” He saw many of his friends betrayed. He told me of a time he was against a wall and a masked man walked in and shot the man next to him. I interviewed many people who had similar stories, who experienced torture. I heard stories of people who became “sapos” as a means of upward social mobility. They saw opportunity in these circumstances.

Many of these events took place at the prison in Valparaiso. Were you able to shoot on site?

Yes! The context of the execution in the film is the beginning of our protagonist’s journey, so his trip from Valparaiso to Santiago shows his introspection. Throughout his trip he reconstructs the events of his past, and the recent history of the country. It was also important to me to show the relationship of this important news station, and what Jeremías was willing to do in exchange for access from the government. He was in a privileged position to cover the executions.

Your film uses time to slowly reveal the story but in a non-chronological way. Why did you want to tell the story like that?

For me, this is how memories are rebuilt. This was a way to access the character without judgment, I leave that responsibility up to the viewers. I wanted to portray the human condition in a time of crisis. The dictatorship changed the spirit of Chileans and I wanted to show that. I think that this change still resonates today. So this is a period film but it also portrays a brutal side of us that we must continue to recognize.

Chilean filmmaking is experiencing a generational shift. Can you talk a bit about this new generation and how it has been affected by the political climate in Chile?

I was born into a dictatorship, but for me this is a way of moving onto other things. I have only made two films but this is the first I wrote. It’s a movie that I had to do before I was going to be able to make others. I feel that for those born during the dictatorship it is an inevitable topic to discuss. But a lot of directors in my generation delve into other issues. They make love stories and comedies. There are many voices in this generation of Chilean cinema. But we all relate to that period and we are inevitably marked by it.

What does the future look like for the film?

The film is still new, so that is why we are at SANFIC this year. It is starting its international circuit. Domestically, Storyboard is distributing and we are currently looking for international.

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