Coldblooded Justice: Alejandro Fernandez Almendras on His Thought-Provoking Film "To Kill a Man'

Dealing with the some of the darkest shades of the human experience, Alejandro Fernández Almendras’ “To Kill a Man” (Matar a un Hombre) is an unsettling character study about an individual that leaves life as a passive man to get revenge on a man that has been harassing his family. It’s been almost a year since the film premier at the Sundance Film Festival, and during this year it has earned numerous awards from Rotterdam to Cartagena and everywhere in between. Now, Fernandez Almendras latest work, which will be distributed in the U.S. by Film Movement, is Chile’s Official Oscar Submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Award.

“To Kill a Man” is not only another outstanding example of the great films coming out of the South American country, but is also a thought-provoking work that explores crime and its consequences. Director Alejandro Fernandez Almendras recently sat down with us to discuss his intriguing film and what pushes a man over the edge.

Read the review Here

Aguilar: How was the idea for “To Kill a Man” born? Was it your interest in the nature of crime or was it something else that set in motion the creation of this project?

Alejandro: The origin of the story is sort of funny. I was inspired by a Chilean TV series called “Mea Culpa”, which is a sort of a true crime docudrama. The cases were very intriguing but the reenactments were incredibly cheesy. The format was very funny. During the reenactments, the characters would suddenly freeze, sort of like a corny version of a tableau vivant. Then smoke would appear out of nowhere and from behind the smoke a presenter or narrator would appear and say something like, “This morning was his last time.” He would say it in this ridiculously serious tone [Laughs].

Aguilar: Sort of like “The Twilight Zone”

Alejandro: Yes, but this was terrible [Laughs]. However, the cases were actually really good. They were very interesting. For some reason a phrase that the protagonist in a particular episode said stuck with me. I never saw that episode of the show after the original release about 7 or 8 years ago, but I was certain that the character had said this phrase. In my mind this show probably blended with other information. Recently, a magazine in Chile announced that they were going to publish an article on the actual case from this particular episode. When I heard about this I looked for this episode again and I finally found it. After watching it I realize that I had constructed this film based on a phrase that I thought the character in this show had said, but he never did! [Laughs].

The case is very similar to what’s on the film. In the show when they ask the character “If this events would happen again, would you commit this crime again?” In my mind, I could have sworn his answer was, “No, you don’t know what it means to kill a man” and in reality the character just says “ No, is not worth it,” {Laughs]. That’s how it started, but I just found out I was wrong recently. I was never really interested in finding out if that was what he had actually said or what was the truth about this case. This just served for me to think about what would happen to a regular person in this situation if he/she commits this crime.

I think that cinema is not always about delivering an answer. It’s more about putting myself in a situation and trying to understand how would I behave in that situation. That’s what interests me.

Aguilar: The film starts as a very familiar, everyday type of story and then it evolves into this transformative experience for the protagonist.

Alejandro : Exactly. For example, the scene that involves the car alarm going off came to me from something very familiar. I knew the location and I knew I wanted to shoot there because I like this particular look that these housing projects have. Then I put myself in the character’s place and thought, “If I’m trying to get someone to come downstairs, I’m not coming directly towards the place because then he would see me. I have to wait for him to turn around and follow him up the stairs, but if that happens then I will probably not reach him until he is almost back in his house. That wouldn’t work. I have to think of how to make the “victim” come towards me by getting his attention.” At this point I thought about the one thing that always makes people, including myself, come out of their house to see what’s happening, and that is the car alarm.

In the film we see our protagonist hiding behind the car, but in real life he would have had to be face down on the ground not to be seen. Daniel, the actor had to lay on his stomach not to be seen and this wasn’t working for the rest of the scene. We decided to alter reality in order to make it work [Laughs]. In cinema we can lie a little bit and change reality.

Aguilar: Tell me about this duality that’s at the center of “To Kill a Man.” The division between the victim and the executer is blurred through the protagonist’s actions.

Alejandro: The more I think about he film it becomes more difficult to see who the victim is. There was a moment when I thought I knew who this character was as a person. For most of the film we empathize with him, we suffer with him. We even think about doing the same thing he does, but after he kills a man it’s harder to be on his side. I had trouble during editing because I couldn’t find the right tone for what happens after the murder.

Then, I watched one of those shows on Investigation Discovery - which is a channel I like a lot – in which a girl killed her boyfriend because he was violent and abused her. The interesting part was how strange her behavior was. She stabbed him multiple times, and though she knew he was dead, she returned the next day to make sure he was dead. It was crazy. From that point on I felt my character had crossed a threshold and, just like with the girl in this true crime show, it was impossible to follow him in a logical manner anymore. The film had to become sort of a dream, or better said, a nightmare. From this point on the editing became much more ethereal, less grounded on reality.

Aguilar: Is he the victim or the perpetrator?

Alejandro: I see him as both. He goes from being a victim to becoming the perpetrator. I’ve notice that the film is more shocking for people from more developed countries like the Netherlands or countries in Scandinavia where they have highest standards of living. In this countries prisons are truly seen as places that help people reintegrate into society. In my film the protagonist takes justice into his own hands, which is a politically complex act because it’s something sort of protofascist. His actions are justifiable in his mind, but they really have no justification. He is very intuitive to this notion but not in a moral or ethical way, it’s physical. His actions are on the border between being justifiable and being the worst crime of all.

Aguilar: In a sense justifying his crime is the worst thing one can do

Alejandro: Yes, if societies worked this way every time you got robbed on the street you could pull out your shotgun and shoot the criminal. That’s much more terrible.

Aguilar: Would you say everyone is capable of committing such a crime?

Alejandro: This character is the in the middle of the spectrum between those who would jump at the chance and the last person capable or killing somebody. In on side there are those who would do it without remorse and on other side there are those, like me, who would never do it. I would probably just move to another neighborhood. In Chile there are other cases similar to this, at least two more that I know of. In one, a man killed his neighbor because this neighbor would threaten his family, very similar to what happens in the film. He continued disturbing the family until this man shot him. When this story appeared on the news, people online would voice their opinions and many of them would say, “I know that crazy man. He lived across the street and he would threaten our family as well, so I understand why this man killed him. We just moved to another city.”

In a sense other people also wanted to kill this man, but none of them were taken over the edge, except for the one man that actually killed him. Not everyone is capable of doing something like this, but most people understand his reasoning behind it. Other people would comment, “I was very close to killing him myself” or “I knew someone would end up killing that disturbed man.” Yet, this people didn’t do it.

Aguilar: There had to be something that pushed this person over the edge, something that separated him from those who wouldn’t do it and turn him into someone capable of killing.

Alejandro: Absolutely, in Jorge’s case this happens when he loses his family’s support.

Aguilar: I feel like it also has to do with the pressure he feels to be the protector. His family expects him to defend them and be this archetypal male that won’t let anyone push him around.

Alejandro: When his own family shuts him out for not being “man enough” to do something drastic about the situation, that’s what tips the scale. That’s what turns him into something else. His own family abandons him, judges him, and considers him a coward, and he feels like he needs to prove himself.

Aguilar: He is expected to do something to defeat this villain that’s harassing them, but is it unthinkable for them to give up and just move to another city?

Alejandro: Besides the fact that it could be practically difficult for some people to move to a different house, what plays a big part as well is the fact that people don’t want to accept defeat. The thought process is more like, “This is my territory, I’m not moving from here.” Recently a Chilean critic interpreted the film in a very interesting way, he wrote that the first time Jorge resorts to violence is when he grabs the shotgun to protect the property he works at.

It’s interesting that we think police exists to protect people. In reality the police as we know it appeared after the Industrial Revolution when business owners needed to protect their factories and other private property. That’s when police as an institution appeared. Jorge feels like he must defend that property. The fact that his family doesn’t move to a different house has to do with this instinct to protect what’s “theirs.”

Aguilar: I also think that Jorge feels like justice has failed him. The corrupt and indifferent bureaucracy has failed him. Do you think this story would work the same in other parts of the world where people have more trust in their institutions?

Alejandro: The only places in the world where I’ve felt like people didn’t fully understand it were those I mentioned before, which have higher standards of living and less corruption. In countries like Japan, in which 80% of homicide cases are solved, it probably wouldn’t make much sense either. Impunity is not such a familiar concept in these places, but there only a few places like these in the world. In the U.S. people seem to understand it very well. In Miami a woman said to me during the Q&A, “I would have killed that man in the first five minutes of the movie. Why did he take so long to kill him?” [Laughs].

In France people also understood what I was trying to say. Unfortunately the idea that police is not impartial and that it can be bought is something very familiar in many places around the world. In Russia people evidently understood it. Russians are very familiar with what corruption is and some people there were angry with Jorge for not taking justice into his own hands sooner. Obviously, all over Latin America people related to this story, it’s much more common than what it should be. This feeling that justice doesn’t exist for you but only for those with money is sadly very common.

Aguilar: The visual style of the film is almost impersonal. It’s very realist and it’s beautifully done, but it almost feels like you didn’t want to get emotionally close to this man. We are looking at him from afar in a solemn manner.

Alejandro: I fell that was the only way to not pollute the film with any judgment towards the character. There are two handheld shots at the beginning of the film. One is when Jorge gets robbed outside his house and the other when his son gets shot. These represent instances in which he is the victim. Then there are two other moments in which he is clearly the perpetrator. One is when he chases the man in the woods with his shotgun and the other when he kidnaps his victim.

We have to note that this film is politically dangerous. If I formally accentuate a feeling of empathy with this character I lose the distance that I need to question him and his actions. This is very important. Having this distance allows the audience to create their own judgment. I didn’t want to label him as a hero or a villain through my images. If I would have gotten closer to this man I might have empathize with him. I didn’t want that. In the Dardenne Brothers’ films, you always loves their characters regardless of what they do because the way they make their films forces you to follow the characters all the time. You end up siding with them even if what they do is bad, like with Rosetta who almost drowns her best friend. Since we are so close to the character all the time, we are tempted to condone or justify her actions.

If I was trying to make more of a genre film in which this political issues are not approached in a serious manner and the spectacle was the most important thing, then in that case I would make a film that’s less about restraint and more visceral. In this case I wanted to keep that distance because I still don’t feel like I know who this character is. Because of this distance I can form a more complex opinion of him, one that is not only driven by emotion.

Aguilar: At the end of the film we are not sure of the consequences Jorge will face in terms of what his family will think of him or how society will perceive his actions.

Alejandro: I feel like leaving some questions unanswered allows me to explore just this part of the story. If I wanted to understand what happens after I would have to dive in even further, but I think that his family wouldn’t understand what he did. Even if they did understand that he did it for them, they wouldn’t allow him to return to the family.

Aguilar: He has crossed a line and he can’t come back

Alejandro : Exactly, and I feel that this line was crossed before he actually committed the crime through all the circumstances around him. His family won’t say, “You killed him, you did good!” It might be the opposite. I picture his wife telling him, “You are so dumb for doing that. Why didn’t you just scare him? “ Or “Nobody asked you to do it.” He is going to be the villain no matter what. They might understand it as, “He did it for us, but what he did was still wrong.”

Aguilar: Is there a way for Jorge to redeem himself?

Alejandro: No because he made this decision on his own. If this had been a mutual decision between him and his wife or between him and his son, then he would have some support from his family. But he did it by himself. I’m very interested in crime as a disassociation of reality. There is a Romanian film called “ Aurora” by Cristi Puiu, which is three hours long, and is about a man that murders four people. In the end it’s very clear that crime is a consequence of the isolation this character experiences.

Aguilar: It’s difficult to see crime in such a pragmatic manner. We usually have very emotional reactions to criminal acts. Finding a specific reason for it is not easy.

Alejandro: Crime is definitely not a normal state in human beings. Even during the worst moments in World War II, soldiers would train at least for about two weeks because you can’t just teach a man how to use weapons. You have to teach him to obey orders, which is a way to place the guilt on the institution. Is not you who is killing people, it’s the institution through you. You have to disassociate yourself from your conscience in order to be able to do terrible things.

In this types of situations like in the army or a in a gang, people do terrible things as part of a group and they justify it as doing something for their country or their partners. Jorge is alone. However, even if you find comfort in justifying these acts through something else, they still damage you. Many soldiers come back from war very damaged emotionally.

Aguilar: Like we were discussing before, the act of taking another person’s life is a line that once crossed can’t be uncrossed or taken back.

Alejandro: Thankfully most people haven’t and will not cross this line, but films cross this line often and without consequences. My film doesn’t use over-the-top violence, but it brings you closer to the violence we experience everyday day. I would say the most violent scene in my film is when the villain harasses the young girl. Most of us will never know what being in a war is, but we all know what being humiliated or being afraid feels like.

I’ve been robbed in several occasions and I felt that way. In the great scale of things being robbed is nothing compared to the violence other people experience, but it’s very personal. Some films show too much violence without any emotional context, I wanted to show less but give it more recognizable emotion.

Aguilar: With such a thought-provoking and morally challenging story, how difficult was it to find the right actors to play these parts?

Alejandro: The actors that play the two protagonists, Jorge and Kalule, are theater actors. I chose Daniel Candia, who plays Jorge, because he is a very particular actor in Chilean cinema. He is not the typically handsome guy. He is very real and I believe everything he does on screen. Coincidentally, he used to work in a forest and he knew how to cut down a tree. This knowledge also helped me understand how to direct him.

On the other hand, I chose Daniel Antivilo to play Kalule because he is a very tall man. He has a deep voice, and is very imposing. I knew it had to be him. I also knew that he would be on screen for a brief period of time because this wasn’t his story. I needed someone that just by looking at him a couple times could produce fear or make people uncomfortable. He captured that very well even though he is a really charming man in real life.

When I met him I told him, “We are going to have a barbeque at my house. All the other actors will be there and I want you to behave like Kalule in front of them to see if you can pull it off.” He arrived pretending to be the character and he annoyed everyone. He was insufferable [Laughs]. He broke several plates and he searched my entire house looking for liquor while playing this character. It was horrible but he proved he could do it. [Laughs]

Aguilar: This has been an incredible year for you and the film. First winning at Sundance, then Rotterdam, Cartagena, among many others. Did all the success catch you by surprise?

Alejandro: It’s been a great year. I never thought the film would be so well received because it’s a very rough and dark film. Some people have even told me that after watching it they’ve had nightmares. What’s more surprising to me is the fact that it has won different awards from Best Actor, to Best Screenplay, to Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, and even Audience Awards. This shows me that people like it for different reasons. I didn’t expect this because my first film did very well in festivals and my second film didn’t do well at all.

I love my second film but it didn’t connect with other people. However, I feel like I’m still working in the same way even if the theme and the situations are different. I’m true to the way I like to make films but you never know if people will respond. We were lucky, we were about to submit the film to the Berlinale, but they wanted to see the final version of the film on a Dcp and we finished the film the week before Sundance. Berlin didn’t get to see it in the best quality and then Sundance wanted us to confirm because they needed to announce the lineup. We said no to Berlin. Maybe if the film had premiered in Berlin nothing would have happened and it would have been just another film. We won at Sundance and then we sold the film to many territories in the Berlinale market. After that we won in Rotterdam, in Cartagena, in Miami, and many other festivals.

Aguilar: And now the film is the Chilean Oscar submission

Alejandro: This has been great for the film. We got great reviews in Chile probably because it’s very different to other films being made in Chile. This is a film about real people, about the working class in a small town. It’s not the typical Chilean film about a certain economic or social class. “ To Kill a Man” is different. Whatever happens now is out of our hands
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