Since its initial release at festivals around the world, Andres Wood's powerful and moving new film Machuca has built up an ever-growing momentum, garnering excellent reviews and a number of international awards. But it is in his native Chile that Wood's film has made the biggest impact, becoming the second most successful Chilean film ever and provoking much debate and discussion. On the one hand, Machuca is a simple coming of age story (a lonely boy from a middle class family befriends a streetwise kid from the slums), but the fact that this story is set in Santiago 1973, during the final days of Salvador Allende's presidency and the brutal military coup that would install Pinochet's 30-year regime, gives Machuca the distinction of being the first fiction film made in Chile to really address those dark days of the disappeared and the death squads.
I caught up with Andres Wood in London the day after a special screening at The Latin American Bureau and asked him why it has taken so long for a film like this to be made in Chile .
Andres Wood: I don't know.self-censorship? It's still something that really divides the country. There is an impulse that you want to turn over the page, keep walking, keep moving, you know? And of course there is also a big powerful Right that didn't want to go back. I am an optimist with my country right now, but if we want to keep walking and taking care of the future problems and challenges, it's very important to know who we are. And we are who we were . That's why it was very important to do this movie.
Close-Up: The friendship that develops between the two boys is made possible by the liberal American Priest who enrols poor kids from the local slums into school alongside the more privileged, middle class boys. This was an experience taken from your own school days, wasn't it?
AW: Yes, It was something that really marked me, and naturally was the genesis of the movie. We interviewed a lot of my old classmates and the real priest ( portrayed in the film by Ernesto Malbran ). The script became a mixture of my own story, the story of the others and fiction, you know? ( laughs ) Screenwriting can often be like that: 'Who did what? Who did who?' It all gets mixed up!
CU: The school seems to reflect Allende's Chile - the great social experiment to break down the class barriers, that was ultimately doomed.
AW: The school was a microcosm of what was happening in a way. It was an experiment that had very good intentions, but how do you put it together? It is something you must question. There was a big opposition, with a lot of problems, but also with a lot of 'valiente' (bravery).
CU: Early 1970's Santiago is beautifully evoked. There seems to be very careful attention to detail in the movie's production design.
AW: We wanted to recreate our own past, you know? We didn't want to tell the official story of Chile . The film is very much a partial vision. So we wanted to recreate our own past. My own past was a mixture of things, you know? So in the movie you have the background of different people, different styles. Pop, hippy, Andean, poor, rich. You hear music from the right and from the left, because in Chile in those days it was very different to be a musician from the right to be a musician from the left. And we mixed everything you know, so that nothing was so clear. I think that gives the movie a sense of reality, more so than to take care of every little detail - which of course we did also! ( laughs).
CU: Costume design seems to play an important part in illustrating the divide between the classes in Machuca - from the opening scene of Gonzalo putting on his smart school uniform to the poor boys' having to wear their underpants at the swimming pool.
AW: Clothes were so important in those years. In Chile right now, we have a big importation of used clothes from the US . You don't realise the difference between clothes because they are much cheaper. You can buy clothes made in China that are so similar. In those days though, clothes were so important and I wanted to make a point that this group of kids, all in their blue uniforms, felt that they would be 'contaminated' by these kids of all different colours. It was definitely an important social thing.
CU: We see two very different Chile 's through the eyes of the two boys: Gonzalo seems fascinated with Machuca's impoverished world while Machuca is very impressed with the trappings of Gonzalo's wealth. Would it be fair to say that this is a film as much about class than politics?
AW: For me, yes. It's more of a social thing. But social and political things are so close. Politics change the social situation, they are linked, especially in those years.
CU: The demonstration scenes in the film are very effective. How difficult was it to film scenes like that in Santiago ?
AW: Very difficult, because the budget of the movie was so small and because we only had Sundays to do it. It is always difficult to handle a lot of people who have to act. It's not like doing a manifestation of the present, we have to have the dress, make up, hair of the period. So it was difficult, but the extras were really involved in the recreation so it was good.
CU: What kind of reaction did you get from the public while filming these scenes on the streets?
AW: Nobody knew we were filming! A lot of people would stop and look not understanding what was happening. We really were in the crowd. It was shot with only one camera and it was always in the crowd so people watching were thinking 'What this' ( laughs) so it was funny.
CU: I believe there are some very subtle digital effects in the film, the most chilling being the shot of a fighter plane tearing across the sky above Gonzalo's head, en route to bombing the presidential palace. These effects are certainly well hidden within the fabric of the film.
AW: Yeah that was the idea. It was very funny because the first time the 3D people showed me the plane, it went left and right and loop de loop! And I said 'No! Just straight!' ( laughs )I don't want to feel that this is a special effect. And also we erased a lot of things because the city has changed a lot. We erased a lot of modern buildings.
CU: The child actors that play the three main characters all give amazing performances. How were they to work with?
AW: There are no professional child actors in Chile , which in a way, is a good thing ( laughs ). We worked with them for seven months so we were very confident. In fact it was very easy to work with them. They were really good.
CU: The film feels very nostalgic, with a lot of light moments. That makes the loss of innocence all the more shattering at the end.
AW: Of course. I started with the idea that for me, I really liked my childhood, I have a lot of good memories and I wanted to put that in the movie. But also, my childhood was in that environment of social difference and also that political backdrop. So in a way it was a very personal mixture of great memories but also very sad memories. You are right, I am very interested in those years not only because of the political history but also it was my years of childhood.
CU: Gonzalo's mother is an interesting character: her selfishness, her materialism, and her loveless affair with the richer older man, who keeps giving Gonzalo Lone Ranger books (an ironic choice in that it portrays a cowboy with an Indian friend) seems symbolic of the collective collusion of the middle classes during the Pinochet years.
AW: I don't want to talk about symbols. The character of the mother, she is not political in a way -even though she is. The personal is the political. For me the important thing is the relationship she has with Gonzalo. She is a superficial woman, the kind of woman that has never grown up - but she loves her son. And he loves her back. I really liked the idea that a son is loyal to his mother, no matter what. I wanted these characters to be three-dimensional.
CU: Machuca's success has coincided with a renewed desire in Chile to examine the past, a process that perhaps started with Pinochet's period of house arrest in the UK in 1998?
AW: That was a turning point. I was happy. He had cheated everyone. There were charges of economic fraud as well as the years of human rights abuses. The situation in Chile started to change after this point. His image changed, he lost his dignity. The younger generation got to see who he really is. One thing that I am proud of is that the film has provoked debate and conversations between the generations. It has created a link between the generations.
CU: Given that there has been a lack of justice for the victims of the dictatorship in Chile , how do you think the country can move towards true reconciliation?
AW: I don't know. Maybe we only now have the strength to do it. The return to democracy has come in drops. Justice comes slow. True reconciliation may only truly happen when the generation that lived through that era is dead. They have a different appreciation of that time. When they are gone, the younger generation will take the country forward.