Argentine Director Martin Desalvo Talks Putting His Country’s Hidden History on Screen in ‘Unit 15, Jailbreak’

The black and white prison-break period-piece will feature in the Works in Progress section of Chile’s SANFIC festival this week

Unidad XV, La Fuga
Courtesy: Magma Cine

SANTIAGO DE CHILE — Crime and punishment have been well represented at this year’s SANFIC Santiago Intl. Film Festival, which runs through Aug. 26. Many of the films screened, and others still in production, tell histories or fictions of prisoners, spies, corrupt governments or theft. The SANFIC WIP selection playing on this theme is the Argentinian period prison-drama “Unit 15, The Jailbreak.”

The film was produced by Magma Cine, a producer on Argentina’s most recent Oscar submission “The Distinguished Citizen” which won best actor (Oscar Martínez) at Venice, and took home the Spanish Academy Goya for best Ibero-American film, as well as sweeping best film, actor (Martinez), and screenplay at July’s Platino Ibero-American Film Awards.

Co-funding for “Unit 14, Jailbreak” was provided by INCAA, the National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts in Argentina, which also holds the Argentine TV rights for the film.

Playing in black and white, the film is based on the historical account of a small group of political prisoners in Argentina in 1957. The pack of four political leaders have been captured and sent to the Unit 15 penitentiary in Rio Gallegos, a prison bragged about by its warden for never having had a successful escape attempt. The walls are low, the guards are few, but the location of the prison, isolated deep in the Patagonia region, mixed with the sub-zero temperatures, make escape a near impossibility. As violence across the region increases, the prisoners begin to see the writing on the wall, that execution is the end likely waiting them if they remain inside. The group decides that their only chance of survival, no matter how remote, is escape.

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A veteran of TV and cinema, writer-director Martin Desalvo’s “Kept and Dreamless” won awards at Cartagena, Milan and Guadalajara in 2005, while more recently his film “El día trajo la oscuridad” won him a best director award at the 2014 Austin Fantastic Festival.

Desalvo discussed his style of filmmaking and how “Unit 15, Jailbreak” came to be with Variety.

What was the writing process like for the film?

The process had two stages. first development and research were carried out by Martiniano Cardozo, who had previously worked on two television series about political prisoners. For the second stage, we worked hard to create the version that would eventually be the one I shot, which was done with Francisco Kosterlitz. He and I also wrote the script for my next film “El silencio del cazador.”

You have recently worked in both TV and film, with great successes in each. How do you compare working in the two mediums?

While it is true that both media are very different in specific ways, I like to work with a care and a personal style closer to cinema. I feel more comfortable and at ease working that way. I have been quite lucky in TV, making series where I could express my look and my aesthetic tastes without having to argue with the managers of the channels. You could say that the biggest difference for me is the size of the screen.

This film is a shift into the political for you. How did the project come about?

The project was born when I first discovered a historical fact that was practically relegated to oblivion in Argentine history. When I learned that the fate of the greatest political movement in our country could have ended in that southern penitentiary and began to internalize the details of the story, I knew that there was a diamond to be discovered there. When I took the idea to the producers at Magma. they were immediately interested in the project.

Unit 15, Jailbreak” is based on a true story. What kind of resources did you have to work with when piecing your story together?

The truth is that all the elements needed to write the script were already in the real stories. In fact, it had to be simplified because the actual events were much more complex. We also had to make some decisions regarding who would be the protagonists. A very important part was also to talk with some references who had known these men in life. From these talks, and the material written by the men themselves in different publications, we generated the characters.

This looks to be your first period piece. Can you talk about the challenges of putting history onto film?

The first difficulty that appeared at the time was that absolutely everything that appears in a picture must be controlled. From the most insignificant objects of everyday use, through lighting, cars and costumes. All this takes a lot of time and budget, but it is a beautiful challenge. Another interesting point is the tone of the performances. One really important thing for me was the verisimilitude of the time, but without neglecting the current rhythm of cinema today. That is to say that it was necessary to achieve a healthy balance between what people were like in 1957, but with a current style of performance.

Where did you film? Was it in the current prison where the story took place?

The royal prison is currently a museum and remains in the middle of the city of Rio Gallegos, which made it impossible to use as a set. The jail scenes were filmed in two old jails of Buenos Aires, adapting the places with a large and impressive effort from the art director, adding some exteriors that were finished with VFX.