September 23, 2014
‘We never wanted to go for shock value’
For the Herald
Filmmaker José Pedro Charlo focuses on subtleties of political prisoners’ experiencesUruguayan filmmaker José Pedro Charlo was a political prisoner for nine years during the Uruguayan dictatorship. Once he was free again, Charlo started a career as a filmmaker. Needless to say, he was more than keen on telling the different stories of other people who had also been prisoners during the dictatorship.
In El almanaque (The Calendar), Charlo focuses on Jorge Tiscornia, a political prisoner with a very singular story. Even if it’s hard to believe, Tiscornia kept a clandestine diary in which he recorded in painstaking detail each single thing, episode, incident and event that took place during the 4,646 days (over 12 years) he was held captive in the Penal de Libertad, the largest penal establishment for political prisoners in Latin America.
To begin with, Tiscornia not only wrote about everything that happened to him, but also about what happened to others. What’s most amazing is that he did so by making tiny calendars that he would hide in his hollow clogs. For over 12 years. Talk about being creative and perseverant.
In an interview with the Herald, director Charlo speaks about the making and the meaning of El almanaque.
How did you approach Jorge Tiscornia and other protagonists of the film?
To start with, we felt it could be useful to talk to a psychiatrist about the people we were interviewing. The psychiatrist told us that if the person was able to talk about his experience, then that meant that he’d already overcome what had happened. Actually, he said it would be good for them to talk about their stories.
How difficult it was to get them to talk?
First, you have to establish a bond based on trust, and you can do so by taking into account all aspects related to the situations and the context they took place in. They also knew that we wouldn’t go at all for the sordid side of their experiences, and that was a relief for them. We never wanted to go for shock value or blows below the belt, even when many people told us to do so because, from a commercial and marketing point of view, it would be way more effective.
But you didn’t agree.
No, definitely not. That’s not the point of view we wanted for the film – on the contrary, we were keen on delving into the facets and subtleties of their experiences. We didn’t want to hit viewers with hard images, but to get them to ponder and reflect on what they were seeing.
When and how did you meet Jorge Tiscornia?
I met him after reading his book Vivir en Libertad, co-written with Walter Phillips Trebys. In the book, he mentioned the existence of the calendars and his way to hide them. This really struck me because I thought it was truly exceptional that someone could keep some kind of clandestine diary in a prison for such a long time, over 12 years. I became very interested in seeing those minimal writings as well as the personality of the author, whom I didn’t know.
What were your first impressions?
First, we easily reached an agreement as to what we were going to do together. So that was the beginning of our relationship that we’ve kept ever since. I found Jorge to be a very confident, easygoing man. Then I discovered other aspects of his personality such as how rigorous he was as a constructor. You could already see he was a perfectionist. These traits are key to understand his relationship with the calendars.
What else did you think of so peculiar a story?
I found it very impressive because the place where this prisoner kept the diary, that is inside his hollow clogs, had a very personal resonance to me since I had also been a prisoner and perfectly remembered the sound of those clogs. So I linked that sound and the story of the calendar and I thought that, in symbolical terms, there was a very valuable story to be told. The fact that a diary has to be hidden for 12 years speaks more of the general situation than conventional speech.
Let’s talk about your own experience.
I spent eight years in prison. I was detained when I was 23, so I spent a very important part of my youth there. It was a space where I met many people, many experiences in my life. I read a lot and made many new friends. When I was finally set free, I had to start working right away, which put some order in my life.
And from then on?
I tried to adapt to a world that had changed a lot in those years in prison. I’ve always loved cinema, and so I started working in this new field as a way to relate to social problems. I became more and more interested in the creative challenges cinema poses, and that’s what I’ve been doing for a lot of years. I believe man is a process in construction. I try to assimilate knowledge and experiences, and look forward to what is yet to come. I mean new projects and new stories.
What was most difficult task in making the film?
I think it was the challenge to give the personal diary the dimension and importance any regular character would have. We decided to depict it in different ways, but keeping the same aesthetics; and most importantly, to link the diary with the everyday life of his creator and those of the other people in the movie.
What would you want viewers to feel and think about El almanaque?
This is a film that has to do with human experiences in extreme situations, and so we want viewers to connect with these stories, even if they are so dreadful. I feel there’s a lot to learn from learning about these kinds of tales, and there’s much growth for viewers too. This is the type of dialogue I wish for the film to establish with viewers. So far, people who saw the film have responded very well to what they’ve seen and didn’t know about.