December 18, 2017

Benjamín Naishtat, filmmaker

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

‘There’s a very thin line between fear and paranoia’

By Pablo Suárez
For the Herald


1986, Buenos Aires
Nacional Buenos Aires / Universidad del Cine (FUC) / Le Fresnoy — Studio National des Arts Contemporains
Books: Los detectives salvajes by Roberto Bolaño, and La Possibilité d’une île by Michel Houellebecq
Movies: John Cassavetes’ entire filmography

At the time of the local release of his feature film Historia del miedo (History of Fear), which had its world premiere in the official competition of the Berlinale and was then featured in Bafici, Argentine filmmaker Benjamín Naishtat spoke to the Herald about Argentina’s political class, horror cinema, class divide, and violence — needless to say, fear is his main concern.

Did you always think of your movie as a study on fear?

No, at first it was a study on the precariousness of bonds in a context of social inequity. Then came the occupation of the Parque Indoamericano in Villa Soldati in 2010, and at that time I was studying how the Conquest of the Desert in Argentina had taken place. To me, the parallels between the occupation and the Conquest are almost literal.

What do you mean?

The Conquest of the Desert was a big farce about expelling the barbarians only to occupy their land. The only genuine richness in Argentina is the richness of the land, so the powerful come and occupy it, and that’s why some own the land whereas others live in shantytowns. The story was the same when people who had no land and were unprotected by the State occupied the Parque Indoamericano. This time, they were the barbarians who had to be expelled.

How did that go into the film?

It became the story of an occupation in a place where people lived in extreme fear of something happening in their isolated kind of castle. But I didn’t want to underline the antagonism between classes because it was already evident. So the film acquired a more global and conceptual tone, it turned into a colder film, more detached from the characters, a film which uses the horror genre as a mould.

What is it that you like about horror cinema?

Horror cinema is one of the types of cinemas that strongly appeals to the most primitive, physical aspects of the medium. That’s why it works so well all over the world. You see a girl running in the dark, some noises, and you get scared — here, as well as in China.

Which master of horror do you like? Which movies?

John Carpenter, for one. I like The Thing very much, which is a remake of Christian Nyby’s and Howards Hawk’s The Thing from Another World, a metaphor on McCarthyism. I like that Carpenter kept its political edge. Or In the Mouth of Madness, which I first saw in a movie theatre and got so scared that I walked out. I swear. Then I saw it a thousand times. It portrays such an incredible state of generalized madness. I saw it a couple of times while I was writing the script for History of Fear.

How do you go from fear to paranoia?

There’s a very thin line between fear and paranoia. It’s no news that the streets are dangerous, perhaps more than they were in the late 1990s. I’d say we’re all scared and take precautions we didn’t use to take before. This scenario takes place everywhere, and so it ends up creating a lifestyle. You can see it in how people relate to one another now. In this regard, gated communities are a paradigmatic example. They are not necessary; they don’t solve any problems at all.

Why? What’s a gated community from your point of view?

It’s an artificial, boring place with no history. One day, some people went there to protect themselves — only God knows from what. They are located right next to the poorest shantytowns, and so they become the Latin American paradigm of economic growth alongside extreme poverty, all at the same time. That’s how capitalism works. The more growth, the more poverty.

I understand you once said that those who have more are afraid of those who have less.

Gated communities imply wealth, but people have to hide from others because they are afraid to enjoy what they’ve earned. A society that consumes more goods doesn’t equal a more dignified society. And if there isn’t a common ground of dignity for all, the result is a social tension that takes many shapes: political and economic crisis, fear, violence, and deaths.

Where do you see fear in the everyday life?

In the details that make up a whole. In the past, someone would knock at your door, a Jehovah witness or a knife-grinder, for instance, and it wouldn’t be a threat. Now it’s like death is knocking at your door. Or when you take the subway, everybody is clinging to their stuff, trying to find out who the pickpocket is, as though it was a detective’s movie.

As regards violence, is Buenos Aires like New York during the eighties, for instance, or is the threat of crime only “a feeling”?

None of those extremes. Obviously, it’s more than a feeling. But Buenos Aires is not nearly as dangerous as many other places. I’ve travelled quite a lot and I’ve been able to see that. However, that’s not the point but rather whether we are better or worse than we were before, and I think we are worse. In this regard, nobody can deny the situation worsened. And so the issue of crime has been conveniently installed in all political sectors. No party leaves it aside because it pays off big time at the time of voting.

What’s your take on Argentina’s political class?

To being with, it’s highly hypocritical — and I mean everybody. It doesn’t renew itself, they all cling to their chairs, senators earn up to 50,000 pesos (plus expenses accounts) while they promote a law to establish the minimum monthly salary at 3,000 pesos. What kind of social pact do you want to make when your representatives earn over 15 times more than the minimum wage? Where in the world do you see that?

Let’s talk about the role the media played in the lynchings back in April.

When there’s a wave of suicides, the media has the ethical responsibility of not reporting them as they happen so that the wave doesn’t expand. Same thing with lynching. Surely there were a couple of lynchings to begin with, but the media became butchers in generating the wave that followed, even if they didn’t actually cause them for they only picked up a symptom coming from bloodthirsty individuals.

Your short films as well as History of Fear deal with different shades of violence. What do you find so interesting about violence as a theme?

For my films, I read a lot of history — I mean the violent history of the country. I guess I’m interested in violence because I’m interested in Argentine history. And viceversa.


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