YIDFF 2023 International Competition

Notes for a Film
Ignacio Agüero (Director)

Interviewer: Niiya Kazuki

Memories of 1989

Niiya Kazuki (NK): This is your first time back to Yamagata since 2017. Does anything about the city feel new to you?

Ignacio Agüero (IA): It doesn’t seem to have changed too much, to be honest. My first visit to Yamagata was in 1989, for the first film festival, and at the time foreign tourists and Westerners were still scarce in the city streets, so as I walked the avenues people would look at me here and there, as if I were a rarity. Elderly women who came to the festival were all dressed in kimonos. I have come to Yamagata many times since then, and I am always excited for the event.

NK: One Hundred Children Waiting for a Train was featured at the 1989 film festival, Dreams of Ice in 1993, and The Other Day in 2013, whereas in 2017 you were a juror.

IA: This is my fifth time here. I imagine there aren’t many directors who participated in the first film festival and then returned four times.

NK: What directors were with you at the 1989 festival?

IA: Nestor Almendros, Robert Kramer, and then Johan van der Keuken were there. All great filmmakers older than me. I was young then, and not very famous at all.

NK: Much time has now passed. How was your screening at this year’s festival? How was the response of the audience?

IA: I am extremely satisfied. It was a big venue and a special audience.They were sincerely interested in the film, and we were able to share a long conversation after the screening. There were even some who had seen my prior work, and they welcomed discussion of One Hundred Children Waiting for a Train. And I was able to meet Yano Kazuyuki (former YIDFF Office Director) again. I am very happy that I had the opportunity to see him, as I have known him since the first festival.

NK: Your memories of the 1989 film festival still remain fresh, don’t they?

IA: One Hundred Children Waiting for a Train screened on the first day of the first Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, and was even the first film of the day. I’m pretty sure it started at 10 a.m. I remember the time because I was a bit on edge.

NK: Why was that?

IA: There was a green light reflecting off the wall of the venue, and the film was difficult to see. I brought it up to the staff after the screening, and the light was kindly turned off by the next screening. They even covered the foot-level guidelights. Screening venues must be pitch black.

NK: That’s a teaching of Alicia Vega, who appears in One Hundred Children Waiting for a Train, isn’t it?

IA: Precisely. Films require darkness.

Up Until the filming of Notes for a Film

NK: Let’s move on to Notes for a Film. It’s based on an original work, isn’t it? By Gustave Verniory, who becomes the main character of the film, a book called Ten Years in Araucanía 1889–1899. I read parts of it myself, and I think he records the Chile of that time in candid prose. When did you first encounter this book?

IA: I first read it ten years ago, and I was immediately fascinated by it. With humor at every turn, Verniory’s own character shines through. While there ought to be many testimonies of the invasion of capital into the Chilean wilderness during that era, in fact there are very few books. This volume bases itself on the notes and letters that Verniory composed in Chile and was published after he had returned to Belgium. Magnificently depicted are the everyday routines and experiences of the people of Araucanía at the time, as well as the construction process of the railroad; I thought to myself that I definitely wanted to make it into a film.

NK: And that was when you got down to the script?

IA: I did my best to write a script, but the result was not great. It would have taken a large-scale budget and team to make it a historical fiction film, so that was out. At a loss about what to do, I strolled about the main setting, Araucanía, and ideas started to gradually bubble up. There would only be a small number of people in the crew, actors used as little as possible, and Verniory would be the only main character, et cetera. Its scale set small as such, production began. For example, there is a scene in which protesting workers yell, “To the bank!” which was captured after arriving at the filming site, the producer, cameraperson, and other members of the crew acting as the workers, which we thought would be interesting.

NK: How did everyone on the team respond when they learned they would appear on screen?

IA: They were more or less informed already, and everyone enjoyed it. We arranged that scene on site. When you watch the finished film, the main character Verniory is present in the world of the film, but then in a crosscut we see him marching along with us, the crew. I think this is, in and of itself, cinematic play. We, the film crew, became the film ourselves, crafting the film as we went. I thought it important to maintain humor and a sense of freshness. Our goal being subverting conventional rules, we avoided them.

Regarding the voices of cinema

NK: The voices in the work itself too sound creative to me and more in favor of playful expression. In the book, Verniory narrates almost everything in the first person, whereas in the film, his words are read in voiceover in multiple cadences and by various people.

IA: Rather than multiple voices, I think of them as one single voice. You’re right that in the film, you can hear my voice and the producer’s, as well as the text read in French and Spanish by the actor who plays Verniory.However, all of that represents the singular voice of Verniory. Various individuals are evoking his voice. Or, it could be said that the reverberation of his voice changes. Verniory’s voice is reproduced by myself, the woman producer, and other different individuals with like subject positions.

NK: I would like to inquire about the voices, particularly the scenes in which the Mapuche language is spoken, which were quite impactful. How were these recorded?

IA: The scene in which Miguel Melin speaks in Mapuche is around ten minutes in length. The film in its entirety runs at a hundred minutes, with ten percent of it spent on this scene, so it is a very important part. However, this moment with Melin was not one that I had envisioned at the beginning. I first wanted to interview his father, over a hundred years old, who passed away shortly after the film was completed. I had asked to interview him early on but he refused.

NK: What was the reason for his refusal? His health?

IA: No, I believe it was because of his convictions as a Mapuche person. Perhaps he did not want to speak to a white person at all. Whatever the reason, he declined. After he did, resigned, I left the small hut where he was and went to the home next door. I spoke of our exchange with his son, Melin, asking if he would speak instead. Thus, Melin’s words found their way into the film.

NK: Did you capture that exchange in one take, or were multiple takes layered?

IA: It was done in one take. The environment was very relaxed, and what you hear him speak on screen flowed out of him naturally. He is a knowledgeable person who teaches at a university. He speaks quite honestly about his own memories and Mapuche history instead of trying to rephrase it into an obvious political message. While he talks, he roasts horse meat, which he was kind enough to treat us to after finishing his oration. We were very fortunate to have been able to hear his story expressed in Mapuche in this way. Our team had searched all over for people to provide testimony in Mapuche for about three years, unable to find the sincere voices we sought. Everyone we stumbled across would instead begin performing before the camera. It took time for us to reach Melin.

Representing Chile with dogs and railroads

NK: There are various techniques and images that obstruct simple understandings of the film. For example, the sudden knock noise and the dog loitering where a train station once was. I think that these existences bear the depths and mysteries of the film.

IA: I love that dog. At that cold station where the rain falls, it freezes in isolation as if abandoned. Seeing that forsaken dog, I felt, “This is Chile. This is a Chilean image.” The scene was not in the script; we included what we happened upon in the film. The way in which that dog would stare into the camera was beautiful, and I felt there was something that could not be put into words. The dog continued to wait by the old station building and rails, seemingly communicating something to us and the viewers.

NK: This film depicts the construction history of the Chilean railroad, and it is common for railroads to appear in your films. Is there something that attracts you to filming railroads?

IA: In One Hundred Children Waiting for a Train, to make the area where the cinema workshop was like a station platform, I included the audio of an arriving train.

NK: What was the meaning behind the title of that film?

IA: I had in mind the trains recorded by the Lumière brothers. One could say that a hundred children were made to wait a hundred years to go to movie theaters. Railroads and cinema were both invented during the same period, so there is a deep relationship between them. By making a film about railroads, I was able to evoke various themes, such as those of cinematic history and colonialism. If you watch the film you see it also takes the opportunity to discuss Chilean history and territory. Chile is extremely thin and long, and only one train line can be built.

NK: A Japanese shinkansen appeared in your film This Is the Way I Like It II (2016, YIDFF 2017).

IA: Railroads are time, and time is cinema. Moreover, these are products of capitalism. At the same time, railroads are popular with both adults and children. That I depict them in my films is a simple matter of joy.

NK: To sum up, do you have a special message for the Yamagata audiences?

IA: This is my fifth visit to Yamagata, and I expect to return. I am no longer young, and I do not know how many more times I can attend yet I am sure I can make it at least twice more. By participating in this festival I gained renown as a filmmaker and was able to meet other filmmakers. Yamagata is a very important film festival to me. When visiting Yamagata, I always exchange greetings with the festival’s staff like we are old friends.

NK: I look forward to seeing you at Yamagata again. Thank you so much for your time.

Compiled by Niiya Kazuki
Translated by Kyle Hecht

Photography: Shin Chaerin / Video: Oshita Yumi / 2023-10-07

Niiya Kazuki
Niiya studies Latin American cinema while translating subtitles, planning film screenings, and working as a screener of submissions for film festivals. His articles include “‘Shukanteki tenkai’ kara ‘kioku no kyoudoutai e’—2010 nendai no Patricio Guzmán to Igunacio Agüero no sakuhin niokeru eigasakka no shukan no hyougen” He appeared in the film Garden Sandbox (2022).