Interview with Bonsai Director Cristián Jiménez

By 10 April, 2012

Cristián JiménezBonsai (review here) has already generated a lot of hype and positive reviews for the way it, quite cleverly, tries to squeeze a literary peg into a cinema-shaped hole. With any adaptation between different media, it presents its own specific challenges, but for a book as short as Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai (at 90 pages and readable in under a couple of hours) it was not always clear how best to make the transition to the screen:

“At first I didn’t really see a film in the book. It doesn’t have much in the way of visual material; it’s a very literal book in a way. It’s about literature and about language but I thought there was something in the book which I knew well, and I also wanted to be a writer when I was twenty. We were pretty much the first generation of Chileans who became adults after the dictatorship and I think that feeling is captured in a really subtle way.”

This is a subtlety which many current South American films share. The new generation of directors, rather than presenting their works as crude polemics against the political turmoil which they grew up under, have chosen instead to relegate those themes to the background, to deal with arguably more interesting and down-to-earth subject matter which more people can relate to. According to Jiménez, after Chile’s dictatorship:

“There was this strange thing with discourse that said politics is over, now we only have to focus on economical success. That left us the first people growing up within all this to explain it. It felt very lonely. Suddenly, there was no connective horizon. We were the first ones who had to deal with such individualism at that formative moment in your life, and even though it’s not explicitly tackled as a subject in the book, there was a feeling which I knew and felt and remembered and that was something which really made me connect with the book and want to adapt it.”

The film’s main protagonists fall for each other by both lying about having read Proust and they then engage in a relationship where they read the great works of literature to each other before bed. This is something which we would see as the height of pretentiousness, if only we didn’t know that the characters are acting genuinely, trying to forge themselves some kind of solid identity, like young people do everywhere.

Unlike the characters, Jiménez shuns most parts of nostalgia and pretentiousness: he doesn’t own a bonsai, also hasn’t read all of Proust and doesn’t yearn for the necessary link between the imagination and the pen which Julio copies from the more established writer, Gazmuri. Saying this, he has preserved some of his own past by the use of the band Panico, who play themselves and wrote the film’s soundtrack:

“Panico are an important band from the time. Really well known, though not in the mainstream, but for me they play a role that certain bands play where you attach the meaning in songs to certain moments in your life.”

The soundtrack is also clever in the way that it will stop suddenly when Julio is interrupted or takes out his headphones. The viewer is first drawn along by the dreamy placing of music with flowing scenery or prose, only to be jarred back into cold reality along with the characters. Another notable technique used on set was the foregoing of theatrical makeup:

“In my other films I did use makeup but, in a way, it was something I was not always happy about. I didn’t like it taking ages to get right. It was eating up a lot of time. So, I thought, maybe the solution was to just remove it completely. So we ran some tests and found that we didn’t really need it. So we only used it when either of the characters needed makeup in the film — like Emilia going out or whatever.

“This made us really go straight into a scene: ‘Everyone is ready? We can just do it.’ I also told the actors not to rehearse specific movements. When they come on to set, I’d tell them what to do, the cameras are rolling and then I say: do it. If you wait before a scene you use up all that energy that should go into the first take.”

This is a technique which various filmmakers have experimented with over the years. The chaos and technical requirements of the film set can make it difficult for actors to perform naturally or for the director to keep their creative vision intact. John Cassavetes, for example, used to force actors to stay in character during the whole shoot and deliberately rile them up for emotional scenes before quickly pointing the camera in their direction; and Robert Bresson would force his cast to repeat the same actions hundreds of times to deprogramme the acting out of them, to give a more natural result. Something about the Chilean film-making scene at the moment is allowing Jiménez to use creative flair such as this in a way which the audience can appreciate:

“I think it’s a great time for Chilean film, actually. I think there is a real explosion; something unique is happening now. We’ve never had so many film-makers at the same time. And I think it always shows that, if there have been years of continuous film-making taking place. Fifteen years ago there might have been one or two films a year, sometimes none, but recently we’ve had over fifteen a year for over 10 years now and that shows. There is something happening in the collective of the Chilean theme. Maybe there isn’t one big film-maker standing out, but there is something collective happening which I find really exciting.”

Some French critics have tried to make the connection between the Chilean filmm-aker from a previous generation, Raúl Ruiz and Bonsai, via the Proust connection. Ruiz went into exile in France during the dictatorship and amongst hundreds of other films, he made a cinematic adaption of sections of Proust’s masterpiece Time Regained. While Jimenez doesn’t claim to be a Proust expert, nor a political film-maker, he hopes that Bonsai can link tragedy with a little bit of humour, to make it more lifelike and to not take itself too seriously. The unique mix of styles and tones present in Chilean cinema is a sign of a healthy and vibrant scene, with some of it’s best works only just appearing on the horizon:

“I wouldn’t say that we are a generation in the way that there was in the late 60s because those people shared a vision of society and of film and it was a film-making link to a political option or whatever. We don’t have that. We are much more fragmented, more individual, with less linking; but, there is a dialogue. A lot of people are working in similar areas and we are talking and helping each other out and looking at each other’s editing and screen tests. I have a lot of faith that what we are doing now is setting the fundamentals for something that is going to come in the future and be even stronger.”


Bonsai is at selected UK cinemas from March 30th.


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