Two Years On The Inside: Pedro Speroni talks about the making of his Argentine prison doc ‘Rancho’

By 09 July, 2021

Director Pedro Speroni spent two years living amongst a group of violent criminals at a Buenos Aires maximum-security prison in order to make his film Rancho. He admitted to being terrified at times – especially when he was threatened with his life if he didn’t smuggle in drugs – but eventually gained the trust of the leaders and was able to access their every move, which he captured in his extraordinary documentary Rancho. ‘Rancho’ is what you call your friend, you ‘ranch’ together; Speroni’s film, which just received its international premiere at Sheffield DocFest, follows this group of prisoners, and attempts to reveal who they really are beyond their crimes.  

Sofia Serbin de Skalon caught up with the Pedro Speroni via Zoom to talk about his film. 

I watched the Q&A after your film was screened at Sheffield and you mentioned the film started off as a short film?

I started off by making a short about the wives of prisoners. People liked it, so in a way it paved the way for me to getting access to the prison in Rancho.

How did you choose that prison?

I didn’t choose it. What happened was that a producer saw my short and he really liked it and introduced me to a Judge. The Judge then introduced me to the Director of the maximum-security prison in Dolores, Buenos Aires Province. I became good friends with him – we are still friends today –  the guy was totally crazy and let me go into the prison.

I’d say you’re the one that’s crazy going to live in a prison for two years!

The prison seduces you. There’s an adrenaline that reels you in – you can’t imagine what it’s like, it’s incredible. Then there’s the love you feel that these people inside have for you.

Did you already have in mind what you wanted to film when you went there?

I’ve got my own fascination with prisons – it’s a world that appeals to me. When I went to Dolores, I was 26, and now I look back I think about how innocent I was. I mean I went on my own into a cell! It was madness, absolute madness.  But I just went in blindly. It was something I wanted to do.

So they took you at face value and treated you well?

Actually before I went into the prison block, I went to the gym and that’s where I met Bilbao, the boxer and Artaza, the old man. I felt they were watching me and asking themselves what was I doing there. That same day I went into their block and I told them my idea for the film. It was very naïve of me I guess. But it was good because I was genuine and sincere, and they took me at my word. With time, I got to know them, and later the old man told me that in the beginning he’d thought I was a snitch for the police, because in 30 years of being locked up in prisons around the country he’d never seen a kid walk into a prison so freely.

So after that did you go and visit them or did you stay and live with them?

At first I was going Monday to Thursday to Dolores and spending all day in the prison. I’d get there early in the morning and stay until around 5 p.m. and just hang out with them all day. Then I’d go back to the town – a totally boring place – and go back to my rundown hotel and just go to sleep and wait until I could go back to the prison the next day.

So you didn’t sleep in the prison?

In the end I did. But it was a process. At first I stayed in the hotel and then gradually as I got to know the Director and the prisoners I started staying there. That took about a year. I was going there every day, chatting to them, drinking maté, hanging out. I actually got tuberculosis from being there and drinking maté. In the end they trusted me so much I could just go in and out without any checks and take a nap on one of their beds. There was even a sign that said filming was forbidden! But it all took time.

Why do you think the Director took a liking to you, was he interested in the project?

He liked the idea of showing what was happening inside the prison. Or maybe what I wanted to show. 

I really liked the human side of the film. You see them firstly only as criminals and then slowly they reveal themselves as human beings. But one thing that struck me was that you barely see the guards in the film, there’s hardly any interactions between them and the prisoners, as if the prisoners are living in their own world. Is it really like that?

They do live in their own world. But there’s an area where they do carpentry and where there are five guards and those guards get on ok with the prisoners. The reality is that there are like, 10 guards for every 1000 prisoners so they just do what they can. But maybe once a month they have a requisa.

What’s that?

So without the prisoners knowing when it’s going to happen, the guards wake them up early in the morning and take them out to the yard and then they search the prison block. They look for cocaine, pills, cell phones, etc.

You don’t see that in the film.

No, because for me personally it wasn’t that interesting. It was something I knew a lot about already and I knew that it happened in the prisons. Also the Director trusted me and I didn’t want to betray that trust and show something that basically happens in all the prisons. But I could have made it more sensational by including it, that’s true.

Not sensational, but you don’t see any of the violence that you imagine exists inside prison, either between prisoners and the guards or amongst the prisoners themselves.

Again what interested me was recognising that these guys might be thieves or murderers or whatever, but to show something more human, their feelings, their thoughts.

I did film the fights. Once there was a full on fight with facas, long homemade knives. When the prisoners strip off you can see their bodies are covered in scars, slashes across their skin. Like war wounds.

So that day when this huge fight kicked off Bilbao grabbed me and pulled me into a cell. He was in the middle of the fight, but he remembered me at that moment and he protected me.

That’s when it hit me, the humanity of these guys. The fact that in a moment of such extreme tension, Bilbao thought about saving me and getting me out of there. That really moved me. It had a huge impact on me. To think of 20 guys with knives and another 30 guys watching, and the guy who was the biggest and the toughest of all of them protected me.

Were you interested in Bilbao as a character before that or was that the turning point? You mentioned that you were already making another film that is just about Bilbao.

Well firstly Bilbao was amongst the leaders there. I was getting close to the leaders. He was there four years, he was only 30 but he looks much older. He was very close to Artaza so maybe he wasn’t the top guy but definitely one of the ones who ran things.

We won the INCAA Documentary Funding Competition in 2018 with the film about Bilbao and now we’re editing it.

Did you become friends?

How can I explain it to you? He’s a guy I have a huge affection for. I’m still in touch with Bilbao and Artaza. Artaza has been in prison for nearly 30 years, but a couple of years ago he was let out for about year and a half.  I went to visit him and slept in his house, it was an amazing experience. I was telling him about the film and he was happy because he said his legend would continue and it would be in the history books. These guys trusted me.

Did you show them the film?

No because I couldn’t show it to them in prison.

But I called Bilbao when he came out and I went to see him. We went partying in his village and then I stayed at his house and shared a bed with him. It was a mad night. All the time I was thinking this guy was in prison six months ago and here I was on the outside with him. We get on really well. I told him to come see the film, but he was like, I’m out of prison now and I’m done with it. But Artaza’s daughter came to see the film and that was really special.

You also talked about an uncle who was on the run from the police who came to live with you when you were a kid, how was that experience in relation to this film?

My uncle was sent to jail, and then escaped from a maximum-security prison in Brazil when I was 12 years old. He came to my house as a fugitive. My Dad had left home and suddenly my uncle appeared as a paternal figure and a type of hero for me. He lived with me for a month and then he had to leave as the police were looking for him. Then he got caught and then my mother used to take me to visit him in prison for a long time. It was an experience that really stayed with me and had an impact on my childhood.

Is he alive?

He died last year. But he saw the film and he loved it.

I got the feeling that the prisoners in your film opened the doors to you because they were looking for a kind of acceptance.

Yeah, they’re looking to be accepted for what they are. In the end a lot of them steal because by stealing they find their place. It’s the same as me with my films and you with your writing: you’re conscious of how others view you. They are too, but their reality is completely different to ours. From what I saw it was like that, they wanted to be someone. It’s a need we all have. But they need to be someone within their own codes and on their own terms – that’s why one guys says: “I couldn’t deal with my conscience if I didn’t steal.” It’s their identity. So for me, it’s a lot more complex than just a guy who wants to steal or wants to hurt someone.

Did you feel like there was anyone you didn’t get on with there, who made you uneasy?

Sure, in some of the different blocks. A couple of guys threatened me to bring them drugs and said they’d kill me if I didn’t. They were guys that have been there 40 years and don’t give a crap about anything. I was terrified. But I couldn’t say much. If I told the Director there would be trouble and if I told the other prisoners they would try to defend me and it would also stir things up. I didn’t want to cause trouble. So I told them, look, I’d love to help you but the Director of the prison trusts me and if I break that trust with him I could break it with you too. Your word counts for a lot in prison.

When I watched the film I couldn’t help thinking about these guys and how they got to where they are, the lack of opportunity and how stealing was their only option. Did you ever think about making a more political film and talking about that?

No and it might sound pretentious but I wanted to make a film more about them, about them as people.

It’s an injustice. Some of these kids arrive in prison when they’re 14 years old, you can imagine how they come out. The system is worse than the prisoners. Prison is a reflection of the crazy world we live in. For example, every day a guy would bring out the food, some disgusting kind of meat with pasta and all the 50 guys would rush to get it like starved animals, without any dignity. That really upset me. But it wasn’t the Director’s fault either. They don’t send them proper food, there’s no money. There wasn’t much he could do. He was putting money out of his own pocket. It’s a shit system, really shit. But what I saw was that if you give a prisoner good treatment – love to call it something – he will come out a better person and society will benefit from that too.

Would you say that the community that’s created in the film is a kind of rehabilitation for the prisoners then?

I think Artaza had a lot to do with that. Once he left it became a super dangerous block. But the old man kept things under control and created a sense of community.

But for me personally I don’t believe in any rehabilitation programmes. I think it is a lot more complex than going to these kids talking to them once a week about whatever. They just go to the programme to get time off their sentence. I don’t believe you can change them because it’s who they are: it’s their identity. For them stealing isn’t a bad thing and that’s why the programmes don’t necessarily work.  You have to find a different approach.

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