Enrique Buchichio is a critic-turned-filmmaker and the director of La Escuela de Cine del Uruguay. His first feature, the gay coming-of-age drama Leo’s Room, is available to stream via Fandor and his second, Operation Zanahoria, recently had its North American premiere at the Chicago Latino Film Festival. I spoke with Buchichio at length about his terrific new film, a gripping procedural about political secrets and journalistic ethics in the vein of All the President’s Men. A fraction of that interview has been posted at Time Out Chicago, but I’m printing the unexpurgated version here.
MGS: It seems like every year there are more Uruguayan films playing in international film festivals. Is that a result of increased production in your country or are the films just being more widely distributed now?
EB: A little of both, I think. I think that the national visibility of Uruguayan cinema began in 2001, 2004 with the production of CTRL-Z films, which were the films of Juan-Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stall: 25 Watts, Whisky. At that time there began to be more interest in Uruguayan cinema. I don’t know why but, being a very small country, Uruguay produces eight, 10 films each year. But many of those films get attention from film festivals around the world. It’s a rare phenomenon, I think. I don’t know why. But at the same time it’s true that in the last five, six years, the production has stabilized. I think as a result of national funds for film production and because of the existence of a new generation of Uruguayan filmmakers who are making films in a more systematic . . . There’s no “film industry” in Uruguay yet but there is a group of people who make films.
MGS: And they’re coming out of the film schools?
EB: Basically, yeah. And some of them are people who studied cinema overseas before the existence of Uruguayan film schools and then came back home to make films.
MGS: One thing that’s impressed me is how diverse the films are. I saw an animated film . . .
MGS: Yeah! It was very charming and different from the animated films we’re used to seeing in the U.S.
EB: Very good, yeah. This was made by my schoolmates – the same generation.
MGS: No kidding. That played here at the Chicago Latino Film Fest last year.
EB: That’s wonderful, yeah. And now there are a wider diversity of films: horror films like Silent House (La casa muda). . . the director of Silent House (Gustavo Hernandez), which had its American remake, is releasing his second film this year. Local God, it’s called. So there’s more diversity in the films.
MGS: Your first film, Leo’s Room, is a very affecting story about one person’s coming to terms with his sexual identity but Zanahoria is very different, it’s more about society. Was it a conscious decision to make something more ambitious in terms of scope?
EB: Not really. The story just came out. I was, actually before the shooting of Leo’s Room, I read the story. It was a chronicle about the relationship between two Uruguayan journalists with an anonymous informant from the armed forces. And something just made a click with me about the good material for a movie and, at the same time, the opportunity to approach some of the open wounds from the military dictatorship in Uruguay, which is a very polemic issue in Uruguay. It’s a very dividing issue in Uruguayan society between the people who believe that there are still things to reveal and to process, and another half of the country who believe that it’s a closed chapter and we have to move on, don’t look back, etc.
MGS: Is it controversial to depict that in a film?
EB: Kind of. For me, the interesting thing about the story, which I adapted (because it’s a real story), is that it’s actually the state of things today in Uruguay – not only 10 years ago when the story took place, but today. Today, it’s the same thing: 10 years after, we are still trying to come to terms with the recent past, with the brutal years and trying to understand what it meant to Uruguayan identity, what some Uruguayan people did to each other because of their ideological beliefs. It was a brutal regime, maybe not so brutal as in Argentina – where it had a bigger scale in terms of the “disappeared,” the political prisoners – but for a small country, it made a huge impact on society.
MGS: That came through in the film very strongly, especially the scenes where the journalists were talking to the families of the disappeared. It’s funny; the dictatorship ended in the 1980s . . .
EB: Yeah, in 1985.
MGS: That seems so long ago to me, as an American, but I guess for those who lived through that era in Uruguay, the wounds are still fresh.
MGS: And one thing I thought while watching it is that maybe it was more suspenseful to someone like me, as an outsider, who didn’t know the history. I thought it was gripping because I had no clue what was going to happen. I was guessing until the end: I thought the information Walter was giving the journalists was going to affect the election in 2004. I was wondering if maybe people in Uruguay had a different reaction.
EB: Kind of. Many people knew that nothing really happened about the clearance of knowing who did what to whom but some people didn’t know about it. And some people actually don’t know today what happened those years in Uruguay.
MGS: Because they’re too young?
EB: Yes, there are younger generations who didn’t live through the dictatorship years and some people because they didn’t want to know. They preferred to ignore it. Or, because of ideological differences, some people are convinced that that was necessary – that the brutality and the prosecution of leftist militants was actually a good idea. To those people, it’s very difficult to make them understand that that was traumatic for Uruguayan society. So, many people knew what was going to happen in the movie and other people didn’t know how the movie was going to end. They were very, very trapped by the suspense.
MGS: And so the character of Walter was based on a real . . . I guess you could say he was a con artist, right?
EB: Absolutely. The real Walter, whose name is not Walter, is a former military who was expelled from the armed forces and he made a career as a con artist trying to sell information not only to the disappeared’s families but also journalists. Jorge and Alfredo were not the only ones. They were the only ones who published a story about it but there were other journalists who were victims of this guy. But they didn’t tell anyone because they believed that there was no story in that story. And, at the same time, it was like recognizing that you were deceived.
MGS: It’s a little embarrassing?
EB: Yeah, for a journalist, it’s embarrassing. But that’s why the movie made sense to me: it was very important to make the story public to a bigger audience.
MGS: Where did you first read the story, in a magazine?
EB: In the newspaper. When I was writing the screenplay for my first movie, a friend of mine recommended to me the reading of this article. I read it and I thought, “This is film material. This is the material for a film.”
MGS: For a thriller?
EB: For a thriller, absolutely. And then I put it away for a couple of months and then I read it again and I start to really think about the possibility of making an adaptation in film form.
MGS: Did you interview any of the people who were involved?
EB: Yeah. Afredo and Jorge, the journalists, they were my main source of information apart from the article, of course. They told me many things, many small things, that they didn’t publish but things that made for me a richer story: tiny details about the relationship with this guy, how he acted, how he talked, how he smoked. And then I interviewed other journalists who were victims of Walter. And then I also talked with some families of the disappeared. They were actually victims of Walter too. At that moment I realized that at some point in the story they, as families of the disappeared, should be in the movie because I think that it was important for the audience in Uruguay who didn’t know or didn’t want to know about this tragic episode. At the end of the day it is a human story. It is not only of political interest, it is not only a thing about journalists, it’s actually a human story of human importance.
MGS: Absolutely. It’s very emotional. The scenes with the families are heartbreaking. And there’s a feeling of paranoia that’s very palpable that infuses almost every scene. It’s similar to other procedurals like, obviously, All the President’s Men but also David Fincher’s Zodiac. Did you see that?
MGS: That’s one of my favorite Hollywood films of this century.
EB: Yeah, it’s wonderful. Yeah, it’s also a very kind of slow-paced thriller. Actually, many people didn’t like Zodiac because of that, because, I mean, there was no action.
MGS: The murders all occur in the first 26 minutes and the film goes on for another two hours and 20 minutes!
EB: Yeah. And at the end of the movie the guy didn’t get caught. You actually didn’t know what really happened. That is very frustrating for many people. With Zanahoria happened something like that – in a different way, of course. Many people thought, “What’s the point to make a film about the guy that didn’t get caught?” I mean, for me it’s very important and it’s very . . . it’s the same thing as the real story. It was very frustrating for the journalists to never get their hands on the information that he promised. So it’s understandable that the audience also could feel kind of frustrated about that.
MGS: I think it’s good, especially when you’re dealing with something political. If it’s open-ended like that, I think you’re more likely to think about it after you leave the theater.
MGS: Fassbinder said something I always liked: “Movies should have an unhappy ending so that life can have a happy ending.”
MGS: When everything is tied up at the end, you often just forget about it; it’s like, the characters solved the problem in the movie so we don’t need to solve the problem in reality. In your film, the audience leaves the theater with a feeling of frustration and maybe rage.
EB: Absolutely. And the feeling that the story goes on. The story is not closed. There’s many things that we still don’t know about what happened. It’s the same today, as I told you before, not only in 2004 but in 2015. 30 years after the end of the regime. We don’t know everything that happened and that’s very frustrating.
MGS: I think your approach is the right one for this kind of material. I think that’s the way cinema should be.
EB: Thank you.
You can check out the trailer for Operation Zanahoria (without English subtitles) via YouTube below: