The Movie Waffler Interview - ROJO Director Benjamín Naishtat | The Movie Waffler

Interview - ROJO Director Benjamín Naishtat

rojo film
We spoke with the Argentine filmmaker about his acclaimed new thriller.

Interview by Benjamin Poole

Rojo is set in Argentina in the 1970s and early '80s - the time of military dictatorship, the "Dirty War", and the disappeared. Claudio is a middle-aged lawyer with a prosperous life in a quiet provincial town in mid-70’s Argentina, just before the military coup. One night he enters a restaurant where he is verbally attacked by a mysterious stranger, their argument continues on the street outside, and then escalates even more with drastic consequences. A few months later a friend comes to see Claudio about an abandoned house that he is interested in buying.  The two incidents come back to haunt Claudio later with the arrival of a Chilean private detective who is intent on locating the missing stranger, who, it turns out, is a relative of one of Claudio’s friends. Claudio’s life is possibly about to unravel...

We spoke with Rojo's writer/director Benjamín Naishtat about his acclaimed new thriller.

rojo film poster

Hello Benjamin. Congratulations on the British release of your film Rojo and congratulations also for the many nominations and indeed awards Rojo has won during its festival run. Rojo really seems to have struck a chord with audiences! I wonder if you could talk about the ideologies and thoughts inherent to Rojo. Do the period matters of state that the film depicts have ramifications which could apply to Argentina’s contemporary political landscape, or is the film more of a historical document?

The film is intended to be able to appeal to audiences regardless of their particular knowledge of the historical background surrounding the plot. It has now played in many different countries and there seems to be a pattern by which people can relate to their own history. Rojo basically tells the story of a community that refuses to acknowledge the extent to which they have come to accept a state of terror. You can translate that situation to the complicity of occupied France, to the treatment of migrants in current America and so on.

The film was intended also to comment on contemporary matters. In the case of the Argentine current context, the film comes across a time in which the right wing government of Mauricio Macri has systematically tried to go backwards in terms of human rights public policies. His government tried to pass a law to set free many of the former military that currently serve time for the genocide committed during the last dictatorship (1976-1983). Government officials have publicly expressed doubts over the official number of disappeared people during that period and Macri himself has claimed to be clueless about the exact figures. On the other hand they have done little to keep functioning the various structures that have the duty of creating awareness for such events to never happen again, such as the Centro Cultural Haroldo Conti, set in the former ESMA (a torture and extermination camp set during the '70s in a navy mechanical school).

rojo film

Along with some gorgeously realised period detail, Rojo seems to also pay homage to the paranoid thrillers of the '70s. Rojo is certainly its own beast but were there any films in particular which were reference points for you when making Rojo?

Yes, absolutely. It turns out the project took a lot of time for development and financing, five years. Over those years, I kept obsessively digging into the '70s and particularly started being interested in the '70s popular culture in Argentina. So it was that I watched countless hours of TV, advertising, listened to radio recordings, newscasts, and of course, I listened to '70s music and watched '70s films. By going through the most popular film and TV-series of the time, I came with the idea that I could craft this project into the shape of a '70s cinematic object.

From a technical perspective, the '70s was a flourishing time of renewal in film. Lighter cameras and grips, as well as zoom and more luminous optics changed a lot about the process of shooting. In Rojo, together with the wonderful Brazilian DP Pedro Sotero, we tried to emulate much of the technical approach we would have had during those years. In terms of plot and pacing of the editing and the music, a number of political thrillers of the time were key references. Films like The Conversation (Coppola), Network (Lumet), and auteurs like Costa Gavras and Elio Petri were around for inspiration.

I was struck by the use of colour in the film. It is beautiful and I regret watching Rojo as a domestic screener on my telly as I imagine it looks quite incredible on a cinema screen!

The colour red features prominently, and it brought to mind this passage from 'Red: The History of a Color' by Michel Pastoureau: "For the most part, painters have always loved red, from the Paleolithic period to the most contemporary. Very early on, red’s palette came to offer a variety of shades and to favour more diverse and subtle chromatic play than any other colour. In red, artists found a means to construct pictorial space, distinguish areas and planes, create accents, produce effects of rhythm and movement, and highlight one figure or another’."

Could you talk about the use of red in Rojo? Does Pastoureau have a point?

Certainly Pastoreau (I must admit I ignored his text) has a point in how red distinguishes itself from all other colours for its symbolic relevance over time. Regarding my film, we worked carefully with all the artistic crew to have a clear idea of when and how to have red elements in the screen. We were trying to convey the feel of a country that was deep into the psychosis of the cold war paranoia, in which a red t-shirt at some point would have been the cause for a problem. Also being the title of the film, we worked hard not to have random appearances of red, instead creating a sort of crescendo of red in the screen as the portrayed community goes deeper into its moral abyss.

It has been argued that Rojo is your most accessible and conventional film to date. How far do you feel that this is an accurate assessment? Would you mind talking about the evolution of your career and where you feel Rojo fits in with your body of work?

Well, I guess the fact that Rojo presents itself as a genre film has a lot to do with it being more accessible to audiences. Indeed genre introduces us to a known imaginary and we already know, as an audience, how to interact with a thriller, much more than we do with an all-arthouse film.

Also, it was a project in which I wanted to tell a story by adopting classical cinematic language, which is something I didn't do in my first two feature films - History of Fear (2014) and The Movement (2015). I don't care so much where Rojo will stand in my career but rather that it could be a film revisited by audiences wanting to know more about civil complicity during Argentina's most horrible time. Right now I'm working on the adaptation of a novel, 'The Seven Madmen' by Roberto Arlt (1929), and it's likely that this next film will be a bit more strange than Rojo. So I don´t know what that says in terms of evolution.

rojo film

I was stunned by Rojo and will certainly be recommending it to all of my pals. But over to you: why should our readers take a chance on Rojo?

Well, there are at least a couple of reasons ! First, if you are curious - as I am - to know more about this world, in Rojo you´ll get to discover how Argentinian middle classes dwelled in total silence and complicity as the worst days in our history took place. Also, if you like '70s films, you´ll get to see a slow burning noirish thriller that pays homage to many of the films and TV series we love from that time, from Columbo to Peckinpah - there´s a bit of everything.

Rojo is in UK cinemas September 6th.