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IFF Panama: Helmer Pablo Fendrik Talks About Turning the Western on Its Head

Pablo Fendrik’s “El Ardor,” which is an Amazon-set Western action adventure, now screns at the 4th Panama Festival. The film, which is Participant Media’s first investment under its Participant PanAmerica initiative, received a Special Screening at this year’s Cannes Festival.

The third feature from Fendrik, whose “Blood Appears” played Cannes’ Critics’ Week, “El Ardor” stars Gael Garcia Bernal as an Amazon rainforest settler, Kai, who befriends a tobacco farmer and his beautiful daughter (Alice Braga). When a band of brutal mercenaries slaughter the father and kidnap the daughter, Kai sets out to rescue her.

In both Fendrik’s move into more mainstream filmmaking and the film’s financing structure, which takes in regional co-production plus funding from the U.S. and Europe, “El Ardor” reps a step up in scale and ambition for Latin America. Variety talked with Fendrik in the run-up to Cannes.

Variety: “El Ardor” is a Western, and classic Hollywood Westerns often had a theme of civilizing the wild. But in your Western this process of civilization has become more negative.

PABLO FENDRIK: That’s the whole point of using the genre. Respectfully turning it on its head. We are pretty much signing our own death sentences in this environment. Kai (Garcia Bernal), says that men should not be in the jungle. He means it. It’s O.K. to have a little farm where you can be self-sustainable, live from the land, without invading everything else. That’s certain point of balance. But when you have to feed seven billion people, no one’s thinking about anything except land for planting, what the world’s supposed to eat. We can’t make an actual Western these days about colonization of the West, because it’s completely anachronistic. The reality is the other way around. We’re not supposed to colonize everything.

Variety: Like Pablo Larrain’s “No,” Sebastian Lelio’s “Gloria” and Alejandro Fernandez Almendras’ “To Kill A Man,” in contrast to your first two features, 2007’s “The Mugger” and 2008’s “Blood Appears, “El Ardor” is a step-up in scale, budget, ambition and the use of stars. What did that stem from?

PABLO FENDRIK: From a personal need to make a film of a different scale and dimension. When I finished “Blood Appears” and after taking it to string of festivals, I felt the need to work with something bigger aimed at a much larger audience, a more pleasant experience for the viewers.

Variety: “El Ardor” is lead produced by Magma Cine’s Juan-Pablo Gugliotta and Nathalia Videla Pena. It is also a pioneering pan Latin America-U.S.-Europe co-production. How did you manage to put that together?

PABLO FENDRIK: The first partners interested in being in the project were Latin American — first of all Brazil, Bananeira Films, then Canana, the production company of Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna and Pablo Cruz. “El Ardor’s” sales agent Bac Films boarded later, bringing in the French co-producer Manny Films. Then, at the end Participant PanAmerica came in.

Variety: Doubling up as a star and a producer, Gael Garcia Bernal’s involvement seems crucial.

PABLO FENDRIK: Gael and I started toying with the idea of making a film together in 2007. First I thought of another kind of film that wasn’t a jungle Western. Then I went to Misiones, into the forest for a few weeks, and when I came back, I wrote a first draft. Gael then became more directly involved in the production, and decided to come in with Canana and then as an actor. From the minute he came in, things started moving and we were finally able to bring Participant Media. In Argentina, the support of Axel Kutchevasky at Telefe, Telefonica Estudios and Aleph Media also proved crucial.

Variety: As a director, in “El Ardor” you begin quite a lot of scenes with a shot of nature, then you pan onto the characters. Also, the camera
often moves into a character or the scene, slowly creeping up on people or a scene.

PABLO FENDRIK: The idea at the beginning is establish a certain sense of induction. The first five minutes of the film are dolly shots. We’re always going forward as a spectator. The idea is to introduce this mysterious world, it’s a jungle but it’s in this place that we sense that there’s something wrong. There’s some lurking menace around. And regarding camera movement, it has to do with trying to work against the style that I developed in my previous films, with too many close-ups in long lenses. I wanted to try a much more elegant and subtle kind of shooting style. I wanted it to be a pleasure to watch these people in this environment.

Variety: This is a near full-on action film. At the same time, you have a sense of environment that is stronger than in many films. Yes, this is an action-Western. At the same time, it deals with social issues, although they’re never rubbed in the spectator’s face. Can you talk about these elements? And how true to real events is “El Ardor”?

PABLO FENDRIK: The secret is not to think about it as a social topic. For me, “El Ardor” is about revenge. But it deals with a situation that interests me: Deforestation, the violent eviction of people from their lands. Researching the script, I met some farmers who were kicked out from their land, or someone tried to years ago. About four to five years ago, the owner of a well-known estancia, a big estate called called La Fidelidad, was killed by mercenaries like the ones I portray in my film: Guys who came around the place by night, tortured him and his wife, forced him to sign a false bill of sale for his land, and when he refused, tortured him and ended up murdering them. They used the hand of the dead man to sign the paper. This happened in Formosa, another province in Argentina. The murders’ organizer was a big landlord who he wanted the land.

Variety: In another departure from classic Westerns, the characters are more shaded. Even the eldest brother, who orders the murder of the father, has moments of generosity, courage, affection.

PABLO FENDRIK: I portrayed the lead mercenary and eldest brother, Tarquinio, as someone who’s reached the stage in his life where he’s absolutely drained. He’s been the leader of people who’ve done so much evil: that’s his job, as a way to make a living. But he’s tired. He’s someone who grew up in an extremely harsh, tough environment, which is the survival of the fittest. It’s the type of life he’s been forced to lead. The first time we see him, he stands up, rifle in hand. And never, at any point in the film is he ever seen without his rifle, until the very end. At the same time he’s obliged to be a father to his two brothers, a mentor. He tries to be a fair leader.

Variety: Could you also say that “El Ardor” is a woman’s Western? There’s a love story and Alice Braga’s character that drives the love story.

PABLO FENDRIK: She is the sensitive soul of the film. She starts as a peasant woman, doing typical farm work, cooking for the men. But by the end she’s a woman capable of putting through a plan of vengeance. Of all the characters, hers is the largest character arc. When she’s attracted to the character of Kai: she takes the initiative, physically, and shows him what she feels for him. Kai is more instinctive, seems to be more bio-mystical, focused on the sensorial, more akin to an animal.

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