Manipulating History Through Art – An Interview with ‘White on White’ Director Théo Court
In the southernmost region of South America, extending over Chile and Argentina, you can find Tierra de Fuego, an archipelago with a sub-antarctic climate that, between 1883 and 1906, attracted many Europeans due to a gold rush. One of them was Julius Popper, an infamous Romanian explorer who, besides getting rich as a gold digger, participated in the genocide of the Selk’nam Indigenous tribe living in the zone. His perpetration was captured in a series of manipulative photographs that artistically staged him and his company as all-mighty conquerors proudly standing over the dead bodies of Indians, depicted there as savages.
“Those first photos of colonizers are somehow transgressive images trying to manipulate a despicable act and turn it into a heroic act. From there, I asked myself: Who is that man behind those images? Who was complicit in this representation?,” told us Chilean-Spanish director Théo Court, who took Popper’s photos and their anonymous photographer as the inspiration to create the award-winning White on White, a slow-burn distressing film that highlights the violence perpetrated by colonizers on Tierra de Fuego through the eyes (and lens) of a photographer and his moral degradation.
With unsettling focus, Alfredo Castro (Neruda) plays the titular role of Pedro, a photographer sent to Tierra del Fuego to take pictures of the young soon-to-be bride of “Mr. Porter”, a mysterious and rich landowner. “He’s a voyeur who shows his purposes through art,” said Court about his protagonist who, despite never lifting a gun and being only there to take photos, uses his art to manipulate, stage, and control thus becoming a perpetrator of atrocities toward women and the local Indigenous population. For Pedro, beauty and aesthetic perfection come before morality.
Without the need of depicting explicit violence, White on White creates a quiet, yet very powerful and disturbing reflection on the ways art can be used as a tool to manipulate history.
To learn more about the film, which is Chile’s submission in the 2022 Best International Feature Oscar race, I spoke with director Théo Court about his inspirations, the work behind the most uncomfortable scenes, the tough shooting in icy Tierra de Fuego, the astonishing cinematography, and more.
Ricardo Gallegos: White on White’s central idea came from Julius Popper’s photos. After obtaining the inspiration, how did they shape the script and its story about colonization and image manipulation?
Théo Court: The film was born from the photos of Julius Popper. Those first photos of colonizers are somehow transgressive images trying to manipulate a despicable act and turn it into a heroic act. From there, I asked myself: Who is that man behind those images? Who was complicit in this representation? And the idea for the Pedro character started to take shape Then, came another inspiration: a photographic series by Lewis Carroll, writer of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who has a rather ambiguously sexual and erotic photographic collection about girls. I liked the idea of this character who is obsessed with capturing certain moments of beauty which in turn transforms and leads him to hide the despicable act of killing through representation and manipulation.
RG: The movie has a couple of uncomfortable scenes in which Pedro is taking photos of Sara, who is practically a teenager. How did you approach actors Alfredo Castro and Esther Vega so that they can comfortably execute such a difficult scene?
TC: I worked with Esther and her mother, explaining how far the scene would go so that she did not get very nervous. However, I did want a certain nervousness from her in the scene because, naturally, I was looking to transmit that reaction in the film. I showed her precisely the photo that we were trying to recreate, Carroll’s photo of Alice lying on a couch. Of course, I also worked with Alfredo to establish where the scene would go.
RG: The Pedro character is complicated and quite real. He is a man who’s only committed to photography and his art, regardless of the moral aspect of what he captures with that art. How did you build this character?
TC: I worked on it a lot with Alfredo. We had many meetings and script readings with him. We began to realize that, as a photographer, there had to be a certain distance. That is why the film constantly maintains a relative distance from the landscape, from what is happening, from the events. And somehow, Pedro’s inner desire was only demonstrated in his representations, in his art. It is a duality. He’s a voyeur who shows his intentions through art.
RG: What does the character of Mr. Porter mean and why did you decide to have him as an omniscient figure?
TC: He is an omniscient figure, a kind of moral God. Everyone carries out this man’s orders. Everyone wants to participate in his company to own something. When I was writing the script, I kept remembering the Count Westwest character from Franz Kafka’s “The Castle”, someone who is constantly dominating from above, imposing a morality or, in this case, amorality. I liked it as an expression of the value systems that contemporary society is exposed to. We are managed by something, maybe the Central Bank … There is an omniscient power that dominates us in some way and we do not know what he is like, what face he has, or who he is.
RG: White on White’s cinematography captures the beauty of inhospitable natural landscapes but also communicates a moral void. How was your work with José Ángel Alayón to achieve this?
TC: José is also the executive producer of the film. We talked a lot about the subject of natural lights, of bringing in the light that was used at that time: chandelier lights, torches, and the natural light that the Tierra del Fuego landscape provides, which is very beautiful because the sun is always sideways. It’s almost magical.
We worked a lot with exteriors, interiors, and light explosions. The gloomy interiority was inspired by Dutch Baroque paintings. We were always looking for contrasts between interiors and exteriors, as well as different cinematography. I feel that the images we see in HD movies are all very similar. We tried to occupy seventies optics and play with light limits to find another type of sensation, something epidermal between the touch of the image and the characters.
RG: What complications did you have while shooting in Tierra del Fuego? It’s a place that seems inhospitable and icy. I imagine that transportation, for example, was very complex.
TC: It was very difficult. In the Chilean part of Tierra de Fuego (there is an Argentine and a Chilean part) there has never been a shooting with large crews because, firstly, there are no production logistics. There is no place to sleep. There are a few fishing lounges and little else. Absolutely everything is closed during winter. There are practically no people, there are very few inhabitants in that area. It was very complicated, especially the production logistics and the use of vehicles. It took us two weeks to transport two trucks of art, lighting, and machinery. The whole weather thing was difficult. The roads were cut off several times due to the ice and some trucks fell into ditches.
However, we used all of this to fulfill our purpose, which was to communicate this idea of the conquering of inhospitable landscapes through image. For me it was important to have that approach with the crew, to seek the empirical experience of living that landscape.
RG: I read that it was so hard to shoot that some of the extras in the film were also part of the production team…
TC: That’s right. I talked about it with some team leaders, especially with the art team which was quite large. I asked the art director to find me people who somehow had European features because we were going to have very few people in that location. Many of the people who ended up acting as mercenaries in the film were part of the technical team too.
RG: How are the Indigenous genocide themes treated in Chile?
TC: Official history has not addressed it. It is an underground issue, so much so that the remaining Selk′nam community is trying to force this issue to be discussed, so that the Senate imposes the law. Official history does not speak about it, but many books have come out to talk about these genocides, about Braun Menéndez, the great landowner in the area responsible for many exterminations.
RG: What does the industry need to do to push towards the visibility of this issue?
TC: Between the famine, the European diseases, and the massacres that the film portrays, 5,000 individuals were exterminated in 15 years. This culture has not been completely exterminated. It’s necessary to give visibility to that territory and the remaining people who are fighting to be recognized as an ethnic group.
RG: What can you tell me about the Chilean film industry? How did the pandemic affect it?
TC: We are in a prolific time. Many films are coming out, there are many viewpoints and a lot of hard work. As we know, making films in Latin America is not easy because of the cost and the fact that the financial support we get is not always enough. Even so, Chile is having a plurality of very interesting views and unexpected portraits that were previously forgotten. As a result, there’s artistic wealth in the Chilean film industry. The pandemic affected everyone. White on White stopped in its tracks; its path through film festivals and distribution was going pretty well until everything stopped. The film was unable to move forward for eight months.
RG: How do you feel about your film being selected to represent Chile at the Oscars?
TC: I’m very honored that the Academy has selected us to represent Chile. It’s a film outside of the traditional storytelling cannon, a film with little narrative causality, with a mystery edge and many layers. It also has a certain contemporary urgency in our country due to many factors. I think that will give it strength.
White on White won the Orizzonti Best Director and FIPRESCI Awards at the 2019 Venice Film Festival. It’s Chile’s submission for the 2022 Oscars and will open on December 10 at Cinema Village in New York and at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Los Angeles.