Dec 9, 2016 by

The Mexican actor and Chilean director talk about the power and the duty that Latin American cinema has to combat racism in the era of Donald Trump

Gael Garcia Bernal: ‘We have to defend the people that don’t have rights. We have to be very vigiland, and very honest.’
Gael García Bernal: ‘We have to defend the people that don’t have rights. We have to be very vigilant, and very honest.’ Photograph: DDP/Rex Shutterstock

Latin American cinema can and must challenge the “racism and hatred” embodied by Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House, according to two of its leading lights.

The actor Gael García Bernal and director Pablo Larraín have warned that a climate of tension and threat in the US could trigger political violence, even war – but also a vibrant artistic response. “Trump has the nuclear codes and the US army. What do we have? A camera. And I’m going to use it,” said Larraín, the Chilean director whose biopic about Jackie Kennedy, starring Natalie Portman, is attracting awards buzz.

Bernal, the Mexican star of The Motorcycle Diaries and Mozart in the Jungle, said Latinos with sway in creative industries should stand up for the less privileged. “We have rights, and we have to defend … the people that don’t have rights, who are many. Our role is to be very vigilant and very honest.”

Pablo Larrain: ‘Cinema is always a political act. Always.’
Pablo Larraín: ‘Cinema is always a political act. Always.’

Larraín and Bernal made the exhortations in an interview with the Guardian to promote the film Neruda, about the Chilean government’s hunt for Pablo Neruda, a poet and communist senator forced into hiding after the second world war.

They warned that the US has entered a dark and dangerous era by electing a man who fanned xenophobia and anti-minorities sentiment. During the campaign, Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, and vowed to deport millions of undocumented people and seal the southern border with a wall. He also assailed Muslims.

That tone, combined with easy access to guns, could prompt vigilante violence, said Bernal, who played a migrant in the drama Who Is Dayani Cristal? “Anyone can grab a gun and start to take matters into their own hands now that racism and hatred have been empowered and legalised, in a sense.” A single spark could trigger a conflagration, he said. “Genocides are spontaneous.”

Asked if he really considered genocide possible, Bernal nodded. Not so long ago, the notion of a Trump presidency seemed outlandish, he said.

Larraín, who chronicled Augusto Pinochet’s downfall in No, said the world appeared not to have learned from conflicts wrought by hatred and xenophobia in the last century. “Do we need another war to bring peace and respect? We are just not able to understand each other. It’s very scary and very weird.”

The director said he was glad his children lived in Chile. “We’re not in this threat and tension that is in the northern hemisphere.”

In advance of next month’s inauguration, president-elect Trump has softened his rhetoric, but Latino communities still fear his administration could ramp up deportations and fuel discrimination and racial profiling. Robert Crooks, a Minuteman-style militia leader from Arizona, said Trump’s victory had boosted his movement. “We’re reaping the reward for our labour. A lot of the illegals have already started self-deporting because they know a change is coming.”

So far there is scant evidence of so-called self-deporting, but parents and teachers across the US have observed Latino children expressing fear and uncertainty.

Bernal, who lives in Argentina, said Mexican friends in the US were struggling to explain Trump’s comments to their children. “It’s heartbreaking. This is not something that gets solved in one day or two days, or a whole presidential term. There are kids out there that are growing up with that.”

School boards in Los Angeles, Santa Ana and other Democratic-controlled cities have vowed to resist any White House-directed attempt to target undocumented schoolchildren.

Even before Trump’s victory, Latino film-makers were sounding the alarm. Alejandro González Iñárritu, who won Oscars for Birdman and The Revenant, said the tycoon had “spat upon” and unleashed hate against Mexicans. Jonás and Alfonso Cuarón, who won an Oscar for Gravity, used a Trump speech as a soundtrack for the trailer for their film Desierto, about a homicidal sniper targeting border crossers – including one played by Bernal.

Larraín, who has mined Chile’s conscience in films like The Club, about paedophile priests, and Post Mortem, about Pinochet’s 1973 coup, said strong, interesting voices can emerge from oppression. “When there’s crisis, there’s art; when there’s pain, there’s art; when there’s suffering, there’s art. When we struggle we create things, as a humanity.” Neruda depicts events from 60 years ago which still resonate today, he said. “Cinema is always a political act, always.”

The Latin American trailer for Desierto, Jonás and Alfonso Cuarón’s forthcoming thriller about border crossings starring Gael García Bernal.

Larraín vowed to use his camera to protect the truth as he understood it. “I don’t know how effective it is. I don’t know how penetrating and transformative that can be. But I’m going to go out there and keep filming. That’s what we do. That’s why we’re here.”

Bernal said Latin America has suffered – and learned from – its turbulent history of revolutions, dictatorships and messianic leaders. We are more mature, in the sense that we know there is no shamanic answer to things.”

For all its enduring problems, Latin America now boasts a vibrant cultural force and sophisticated political discourse that is no longer in thrall to the US, said the actor. “The US culturally used to be an axis that we all rotated [around]. It’s where the gravitational pull was coming from. Now, it’s not an indispensable country. It feels satisfying to say that. It is not indispensable in the sense that it is not something that we have to take. It is not the centre of the cultural world.”

The Y Tu Mama Tambien star says state support gave Latin American film-makers freedom to experiment. “With that funding, it’s up to us to make a good movie, and up to us to defend that freedom.”

Larraín had been tipped to remake Scarface, setting it in modern LA with a Mexican protagonist, but he has parted ways with the project. With Jackie earning rave reviews might Larraín consider profiling another first lady, say Melania Trump, the president-elect’s Slovenia-born wife? The director’s eyes widened. “No, no, no, no. I need to feel love for the characters that I work with. That would be very hard. And I wouldn’t call her the first lady. I’d call her the immigrant lady – which is a great title for a film.”

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