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In Conversation With MONOS Director Alejandro Landes

In Conversation With MONOS Director Alejandro Landes

In Conversation With MONOS Director Alejandro Landes

With what is only his second feature, writer-director Alejandro Landes has found a bold, confident voice for his filmmaking and seen great critical success in the process. With Monos he has worked his way through many a film festival including Sundance, Berlinale and most recently London. Add to that being chosen as Colombia’s entry for the Foreign Language Film Oscar and Monos has pushed Landes towards the forefront of the discerning filmgoer’s mind.

The basic plot has us follow a group of teenage soldiers in the mountains as they attempt to keep watch over the captive ‘Doctora’ and a cow. From this, it tells a tale of great, meaty substance and sheds light on parts of human behaviour that Landes is not afraid to get into during our chat. He is a warm, enthusiastic presence, sure to instil a renewed, deeper appreciation of his work in whomever her talks to. He highlights the importance behind the story he tells and always has a good explanation for his filmmaking decisions.

An Uncomfortable Watch

It is worth noting that Landes does not just have a worthwhile story to tell, but he knows how to tell it too; this is an eye-catchingly stylish work. Although, ‘style’ is a word Landes himself wishes to avoid using. “I’m not a big believer in style as much as in identity. I feel like films have to have a kind of fingerprint,” he explains, going on to describe how Monos’ own fingerprint comes in how it frames its band of young warriors: “I thought that it was key to give the idea of movement, because I find that bodies in adolescence are in constant change, constant metamorphosis. That’s why the camera is moving continuously.”

In Conversation With MONOS Director Alejandro Landes
Monos (2019) – source: Participant Media

Landes’ constantly roving eye combines with an imposing soundscape to create an almost otherworldly feast for the senses. “I find there to be a lot of tension and interest when you juxtapose the natural places and faces of the film with the stylised mise-en-scene,” he says. “You have the sound design, the music, the way the camera is set up, which juxtapose against things which look incredibly real like the movement of the kids and the places. So I think that doesn’t give you the safety of something that is easy to classify. When something straddles the line between fantasy and real, it is like an imagined reality, and I find that there is something rich there.”

Indeed, there is something challenging and uncomfortable about much of Monos, most notably in Landes‘ decision to make a film about war through the lens of an adolescent pack. This is on one level a film about child soldiers, but it does not take the overtly sympathetic approach you might expect. “I tried to do anything but approach them as victims,” he asserts, adding: “You see other child soldier films where they kill the parents, then they take them, they force them, then they sexually abuse them and all sorts of crap.” Landes says he appreciates those films and their importance, but it is not the film he wanted to make.

Instead, he uses the teenage fighters as a way of exploring the mindset of someone once they are in that situation. “Those people are us,” he suggests, “So I didn’t want to treat them as victims.” He pushes his characters to do extreme things, all the while probing at the audience to question whether we too would behave in that way: “A lot of the things in the film don’t happen outside of it, the kids self-generate them.”

This approach required his young, largely non-professional cast to go to some dark, amoral places but, says Landes, “They were already there. I think it helps coming from a country where violence is very palpable. It doesn’t mean that they have experienced any of that themselves, but violence has been a part of everyday life in Colombia. There was a lot of desire to treat them with kid gloves at times but they didn’t want that. They wanted the power. They wanted to feel like creators.”

Base Desires

At every turn in Landes’ work with the adolescents, he was trying to filter out anything extraneous to his look at their deep, savage desires and sense of almost familial unity. The film does not delve into the sadness of the soldiers’ backstories because they barely exist. We are given no indication of where these people came from and why they chose to fight. “Like in the real army, some people have gone because they need it financially; some people have gone because they need to believe in something greater than them; some people think it’s cool; some people feel like they had no other option […] and in this scenario with child soldiers, it is also the case that some are forced, but not all of them.” Crucially, the only person who had any idea of what each child had been through before fighting was Landes.

In Conversation With MONOS Director Alejandro Landes
Monos director Alejandro Landes – source: DDA PR

For him, it was crucial that the young actors seemed entirely “present” on screen. “I wasn’t trying to justify their actions. I wasn’t trying to do some type of psychoanalysis,” he explains. “They weren’t thinking ‘oh my father beat me’ or whatever: they were there. I think that for me the most exciting and rewarding thing of how it all came out is how people feel the presence of these kids there on screen. It is palpable – you want to reach out and touch them.”

The grubby, immediate authenticity of the performances was aided by Landes forcing the group to live together for five weeks prior to filming. “I forced them to be in a bootcamp,” he says, “So I made them live in the same space, wake up at the same time, eat at the same time. The kids were all living in the exact same place, in the same tent, but Julianne [Nicholson, who plays the captive Doctora] was always living apart.” This technique took its toll on Nicholson but helped to achieve the film’s clear sense of captivity and the uneasy divide between the characters. “It also helped that they didn’t speak each other’s language,” Landes adds. “Moisés [Arias, who shines as young soldier Bigfoot] speaks English but I didn’t let him speak to her.”

In his endeavour to take a clear-eyed, fresh look at young soldiers from day to day, Landes skewers both war and adolescence, using each one to accentuate the other. Just as the young age of the soldiers makes the violence and downright savagery of war seem all the more shocking, so too the war acts as a way of accelerating the trials and tribulations of youth. Putting teenagers in battle “allowed you to have these two situations that are mirrors of each other,” he says. “You have two conflicts, an interior conflict and an exterior conflict, that both serve as windows to human nature, because you could see the same things in this room, or in a school yard. The difference here is that the situation is so extreme.”

During the film we see many common adolescent desires amongst the soldiers, from fitful sexual relationships to “the desire to belong, the desire to lead, the desire to be loved.” Most shockingly of all is the base desire to inflict violence and cruelty on others that Landes says lurks within us all – “war is just the catalyst”. This is the crux of what Landes is aiming to achieve with this film: to explore war as a state, and its relationship with our basic human nature, rather than all the external questions that surround conflict.

Removing Ideology

In line with this approach Landes, when writing the film, decided to present war without a political filter. The side that the youths are fighting for is known only as ‘The Occupation’ and we are given no indication as to the time or place that these events are taking place. Landes chose to heighten this when choosing his location which, whilst having “specificity and intimacy”, feels untethered from an exact place or historical era: “those places up in the mountain feel either futuristic, or they feel ancient.”

In Conversation With MONOS Director Alejandro Landes
source: Participant Media

With Monos Landes chooses to do something “as radical as create an ideological vacuum. This is a war film where you don’t know if they’re fighting for the right or for the left.” Such a refusal to “allow the spectator to go at it through an ideological lens,” is part of an attempt to make the audience feel less comfortable about war. “A lot of the time we tell each other we are fighting for historical or structural reasons, which means that there are reasons worth fighting for. War is sometimes entirely personal, entirely vindictive.” Such an example, he says, is really rather recent: “They say that George W. Bush only wanted to go to war in Iraq and kill Saddam Hussein because Saddam Hussein tried to kill his dad. You see then how war becomes so vindictive and personal, not historical or structural? Which would make us feel better. People say, ‘there are structural reasons to fight’, but what of the fight within us? Now that’s a little scarier.”

This is all part of Landes’ mission to reflect modern warfare on screen. “For me it’s very important to take away that this is a war film but from the backlines,” Landes explains. “We are used to seeing war films that are romantic and on the front lines, concerned with who wins, battles and flags. What about war today? War today doesn’t have those romantic frontlines your grandparents used to talk about. A lot of it is waiting around; a lot of it is backlines and skirmishes; a lot of it is confusing.” Monos tells a story that, Landes argues, “doesn’t happen today, but I think is relevant today.” His film has a mystical quality to accompany the provocation of a modern audience which Landes believes is one of its great strengths: “That’s the power of a fable or an allegory: they take you to somewhere very far away just to talk about today.”

Landes is not just talking about today in his native Colombia, either, this is an allegory with global reach. “It’s the same with any country that has just come out of a war,” he suggests. “I’m not that sure that the experience of the ‘monos’ is so incredibly different from the experience of an 18-year-old guy from Kentucky parachuted into Afghanistan and they’re like ‘okay here’s your enemy, oh no actually we’re in peace talks with him, now that’s your enemy, and his uniform is kind of the same as his uniform, and winning did mean this but now it means this’.” This is a message, however, that Landes thinks some quarters have not quite understood. “For me it’s a bit disappointing that in the United States a lot of people haven’t seen this film as close to them. The UK understands the big metaphor. In the US people get it, but they sense it’s far away.” If Alejandro Landes has proven anything during our conversation, it is that the surreal, often horrifying world of Monos is not as far away as we think.

What do you think a fable like Monos can tell us about modern warfare? Let us know in the comments!

Monos is released in the UK on 25th October 2019 and was given a limited release in the US in September 2019.

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