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“I hope people can learn what’s happening with the Natives in the US” — Lisandro Alonso talks Eureka

9 min read
Eureka

Eureka is a brave film in many ways. It's uncompromising in its portrayal of Native American life — it moves slowly, it deliberately challenges us, and it has no interest in providing us with any firm answers to the questions it poses. But just like the people whose story it presents, Eureka never stands still despite its slow pace. It moves from a Western starring to a fantasy narrative in the Amazon Rainforest, and it still has space for an inner-city cop drama set in Pine Ridge, South Dakota in the middle. 

Finally, it's getting a UK release. FILMHOUNDS had the honour of sitting down with director for a chat about what it all means, and how his life up to this point has culminated in a film like Eureka.

I first came across your work in your previous film, Jauja, which is 10 years old now but it shares a lot in common with Eureka. Did one lead to the other naturally for you?

Yeah, actually I think once we were shooting Jauja in Viedma, Patagonia, I kept thinking about shooting more with the two Native American characters that show up in some of the scenes there.  Then I started to think to myself why, or how, can I make a film about Natives, you know? I thought about who's portrayed them before, and if the films that I know really portrayed them right.

Then I started to do some research into the US, because I got a couple of fellowships in Boston after Jauja, and I spent a year out there with my family. While I was there I asked Viggo Mortensen, who's obviously a good friend, if he knows anyone who lives in Pine Ridge on the reservation because I'd kept in mind that idea about Natives. I don't know why but in this film it seems like a particular type of Native, but if you check my previous films I always work with people who in some way descend from Native Americans. Or at least people who really live like Natives did back in time.

But yes, Jauja was the origin of Eureka. That's why the prologue starts with a Western, or a fake kind of Western on the TV. It's the same father with a Danish accent who was in the previous film, it's a continuation of that.

It seems to be a bit of a signature of yours as a filmmaker that your characters are allowed to just sit and think — and we are, too. There's a bit of a contrast in Eureka, though, in that we do get that space to think and form our own thoughts and to experience the stories along with the characters in them, but you move away from the prologue in a way that feels like a wake-up call. When the Western transitions into being something that's playing out on someone else's TV it's almost a jumpscare. Is there anything to read into that in terms of a commentary on the genre?

The idea is to show, and to make it clear, that Western films are just entertainment. They are not real. They are not saying anything about cultural or social issues. The Western never talks about the way Native Americans lived or the people who descended from those people who we see in them. They were made just in order to make money from white audiences.

I'm not judging anything — I mean, I love Westerns by the way. But just as entertainment. It's not as if I can learn things from Westerns, you know? There are a lot of classic Westerns that you wouldn't be able to shoot now because they treat Native Americans so poorly.

Apart from that, I'm not a political filmmaker. I just wanted to put it that way — if you want to see actors in black and white then Westerns are great entertainment. Nothing else. That kind of entertainment is not going to help or is not going to be validated by people who live in Pine Ridge. Those kinds of things never helped them.

Eureka

What was really interesting for me is that you're viewing the stories of Native American people through the lens of Americana, which is something that's traditionally quite exclusionary towards them. The way you transition from a Western to a cop film for example – that's a transition between two mainstream trends that did actually happen in Hollywood. Was that something that you were doing on purpose?

A lot of what happened wasn't on purpose. It took a lot for me to plan and finance this film, which is the most expensive film I've ever made and the most complicated. Some of it was maybe planned, but what we couldn't have planned is how difficult it was to shoot there in Pine Ridge, and how much we had to change.

The weather, but also the people who live there — they don't really give a fuck about making movies. Some days they would show up, but some days they didn't show up. Their priority was not our movie. They have so many other things to attend to, like what they're going to eat, their jobs, to take care of their kids, lots of different things. Even if they give their best there's just other stuff going on.

In the original script, the character who became the bird was the Police Officer, but the actress, she had to go to the hospital for intensive care with her baby. Because of that, we replaced her with the basketball coach — things like that which don't happen on film sets just happened to us all the time. Locations, characters, conditions, climate, it all changed. We even had to change the Director of Photography because he was really fucking cold, man. We were outside in the road for 14 hours at a time at night and even though he's from Finland it was just too much for him. We planned to be there for three weeks and it took two months. It was a pain in the ass.

I want to pick up on that bit you said about the locals and their attitude towards you making a film with them, and how it just wasn't one of their priorities. I read a quote where you said if you had to quit filmmaking you'd go back and work on your family's farm — which I imagine is quite a similar background to the people who live in Pine Ridge. As a filmmaker, do you find yourself feeling that way about your own films?

I just want to make one more film. One more film in order to complete my film career, which is a kind of continuation of the first films I made. It's going to be a very small film, I'm planning to shoot it next November on my father's farm. When I'm not thinking about, or shooting films, or doing things with films, I go back and help my brothers to do some farming work. I feel more relaxed over there and in that setting.

I've experienced film festivals and being a filmmaker, and I try my best but I can't change the way I feel things. I know I'm a slow filmmaker as people say, and I'm not complaining. It goes back to what I said to you about Westerns just being entertainment. My films are about us, ourselves, and in which ways, through cinema, I can serve us as people.

I kind of always think in that kind of structure. If you see my previous films, they're all about similar things — a lonely person trying to survive in the middle of nowhere. I've tried a lot of things with cinema but I really want to figure out how I want to live after 50. Maybe I'm saying this because Eureka was really tough for me, but I just want to be back on the farm, doing small things. It's the only thing I know how to control 100% with more freedom and less dependency on other people.

The best thing you can ever get from the cinema is the experience with the people you meet and the places you see — I don't really care if my films are good. I mean, I do care — I prefer the film is good for as many people as possible. But, a bad film doesn't kill anyone. And a good film doesn't, you know, save anyone from anything. Now, there's so many voices all around telling us what is good and what is not good, and I mean, I don't know about you but I don't see many films a year that I really like. Maybe because I'm too obsessive, but there are a lot of films people say are great and I think are shit.

Just as you mentioned going back to your earlier films for your next one — I think another thing that's quite interesting about Eureka is how it progresses from reality to fantasy, which is something that's reflective of your career as a filmmaker so far. Your earlier films were purposely realistic but your last two have been more interested in dreams, space, time and all of that kind of stuff. Did that come to mind during any stage of production?

Well actually, that depends. The first four films I made I wrote myself alone. It got boring because I thought I was repeating the same thing, so I started to write with a poet — Fabián Casas. He's also a close friend I met through Viggo Mortensen. He started to open doors that I cannot imagine — the stuff about space and time, and even lines of dialogue that cross over between Denmark and Patagonia. He just opened the door to fantasy for me, and to different languages, different cultures, and times, and different lands.

Now we're really good friends, and we will be good friends for a lifetime I think because we really enjoyed our time aside from the films we made. Whether I keep shooting with Viggo or not, or writing with Fabián or not though, I don't feel obliged to keep working with the same people. I have my own experiences and sometimes I just want to go back to what I know. I'm getting older and I'm glad to have opened these doors, but maybe it's time to close some of them.

While we're on the subject of Viggo Mortensen — with him being the biggest star, or at least the most recognisable name in Eureka, it does feel like a statement of intent when his story ends so early. It's as if he's handing the spotlight to a series of stories that aren't usually allowed it. I wondered if that was the idea?

It was, totally. Since we started writing the script it was a clear idea of ours that it was going to be like that. In the script it says that we stop the entertainment, and now this is what's real and this is what's happening today. I think Viggo got it, and he was curious to see the rest after his segment. He knew the rest was going to be extremely hard to shoot but nevertheless, he wanted to be part of it. We've spoken about it since at festivals and other places and I think he likes the film — he told me “This is so yours, they can't beat you because you make films like only you can and you're not trying to be anything else.” It feels organic to me — nothing feels fake or forced.

I think the word you used there is a really good one to describe Eureka, it does feel organic. I'm so glad it's getting a UK release finally, I can't wait to see it in a cinema rather than just on my computer screen.

Yeah, yeah, I'm super glad. I hope people don't just say “I like it, I don't,” and that's it. I hope people can learn what's happening with the Natives in the US, because what I'm trying to say is I'm a Native myself. I don't live differently in South America to the Natives you see in Eureka, it's more or less the same because we all just have to survive that way.

Eureka was released in selected UK cinemas on February 16.