Two boys are sitting on a hill at the edge of a forest, under a massive stone wall towering above them. Dreaming, laughing, joking, like any other teenagers. The menacing sound of a doorbell foreshadows their happiness, and we begin to understand: the protagonists of the film are living between the walls of a juvenile detention center. This is “Mis hermanos sueñan despiertos” (My Brothers Dream Awake), the new film of the Mapuche Chilean filmmaker Claudia Huaiquimilla, which premiered in the Cineasti del Presente competition at the 74th Locarno Film Festival.
Huaiquimilla’s second feature follows the boys Ángel and Franco (non-professional actors Iván Cáceres and César Herrera), two brothers who have been locked up for a year in a National Service for Minors (SENAME) center, awaiting trial. Despite the hostile conditions of the place, they support each other and create bonds with the other boys and girls, share the routine of confinement, trying to stay alive while dreaming of the day they will get back their freedom. The arrival of Jaime (Andrew Basters), a young man transferred from another facility for misconduct, starts to mess up that routine. The rumor that he plans to escape quickly starts to circulate among the boys.
By telling the story of these teenagers, Huaiquimilla continues the affectionate portrayal of marginalized children in Chilean society that has characterized her other work. The idea for this second film came directly from the experience of presenting “Bad Influence,” her previous effort, to the kids that live inside these institutions: “We went to show our previous film at these centers and we got to meet the girls and boys, and it was very shocking because you imagine that they are like ‘residences’ or ‘centers,’ but when you are there you realize that they are actually prisons, so it was a very strong experience.”
At that moment, she remembered a case that appeared in her research for the previous film, which was about 10 kids that died in a fire inside a center located in Puerto Montt in 2007. “Outside of that center there is a memorial. The photographs were all destroyed and it seemed to me that there was no record that these children ever existed. We started to write the script imagining who they could have been, what they wanted and why they did what they did, why they took such a radical decision to start a riot and therefore putting themselves at risk. It is not the biography of what happened but a way to imagine what could have led them to do this.”
In an ideal world childhood and adolescence would among be the most protected periods in life. Yet as Huaiquimilla shows in “My Brothers Dream Awake,” these young people are completely abandoned and neglected by society. Hopelessness provokes strong emotions in them, and finally they make a collective decision – the riot – that has irreversible consequences. Many tensions unravel around them, lighting fires inside these characters, and indeed fire itself is a central symbol of the film. “We saw human beings wanting to live, but they are vulnerable, like candles that are being extinguished little by little if they are not attended to.”
This film, shot during the Chilean uprising and completed during a global health crisis, resonates powerfully with social demands that are the basis of discussions taking place for the writing of a new constitution in Chile. “In order for a child to be locked up in this place, an education system, a health system and a system of protection has failed. Nobody believes that it is the best solution to keep these children locked up and that is also partly why there is a crisis in our country, one in which there is no childcare policy.”
“My Brothers Dream Awake” doesn’t aim to give a realistic description of actual events. Instead, it is about offering an emotional understanding of the life of these youngsters. In depicting their daily struggles, Huaiquimilla paints a complex image of their personalities, clearly depicting the love and care they show day by day toward each other. These moments of love, joy and care illuminate a warm, tender side of these young people, who are usually reduced to the stereotypical patterns of savagery, aggression and other uncontrolled and uncontrollable behavior.
Huaiquimilla is singlemindedly devoted to parsing the different social issues and institutional malfunctions painfully affecting the life of children living on the margins of society. In her next project, “Mapurbe,” she will shift her focus toward stories of the young female Mapuche – the indigenous inhabitants of Chile – living in the city and the conflicts that they confront each and every day.