A film over a decade in the making, Felipe Gálvez’s directorial debut The Settlers takes a formally thrilling look at the brutal genocide of the now-extinct Selk’nam people, who were native to the Patagonian region of southern Argentina and Chile. Following its premiere at Cannes Film Festival and acquisition by MUBI, the film went on to play at TIFF, NYFF, BFI London, and AFI Fest, was selected as Chile’s Oscar submission, and will now arrive in theaters starting this Friday.

I said in my Cannes review, “Backed by Harry Allouche’s Morricone-inspired score, The Tale of King Crab cinematographer Simone D’Arcangelo’s appreciation for vast Leone-esque vistas is apparent, albeit with a more inhospitable, bleak variety as the sun always seems to have just a few dying gasps of light left. It recalls Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja in more than just subject matter: D’Arcangelo shoots these stunning landscapes in the Academy ratio, finding a persistent beauty amongst the solitude.”

While at the 61st New York Film Festival, I caught up with Gálvez to discuss the long road to his directorial debut, the film’s strong visual language, his conflicted characters, and provoking a conversation. Check out the conversation below ahead of the film’s U.S. theatrical opening this Friday.

The Film Stage: With this being your feature debut, what was the development process and how did you get the support you needed to make this story?

Felipe Gálvez: This was a film that I first thought about making 12 years ago, and I began writing ten years ago and I finished writing about five years ago. It was a lot of research that had to be done because the whole topic has been buried. So it was really a work of trying to figure out what was going to be inside the film and what was going to remain outside the film. What ended up inside the film was anything that had reminded us of the story itself and whatever relationship I thought that was to film. There’s also lessons that I thought had been cut from other Westerns that I included.

The film was very difficult to finance. It was my first film and it was considered an ambitious film, which I hadn’t realized at the time. Chile was actually the last country to give me the funds. I had received all of the funds, and the money that came from Chile was actually the last to come in. We collaborated with Taiwan. We actually finalized the sound on the other side of the world in Taiwan, and we had a lot of different collaborators and producers from different countries. The name in itself, “the settlers,” became quite universal, working with all these different people from all these different backgrounds. So the process in many ways, despite all of this, was quite organic. And as I talked and worked with all of these different people from all around the world, I started to open it up and make it more universal.

Within the first moments the viewer is so struck by the visual language of this film and its atmosphere. At the end, you have this silent-film montage and there’s a sense the entire movie could be silent––the images are so strong and powerful. What was your process working with the cinematographer?

Tierra del Fuego is a beautiful, beautiful place. The scenery is incredible. The light is incredible. And we knew that we were we were very privileged to be filming in one of the most beautiful places in Chile and in Argentina. It’s really beautiful, but it’s also very Bambi-like. And I was trying to tell a story that was quite violent and wanted it to be very sensorial. I wanted the audience to feel like they were going on a journey, that they’re traveling with us. Simone D’Arcangelo, our cinematographer, has an incredible understanding of color. And our references… well, at the beginning, I wanted to make it in black-and-white. We wanted to include this autochrome of the beginnings of film with the Lumière brothers. I was never interested in creating a realistic film. I wanted it to not be realistic; I wanted the colors to be distorted. 

The Western genre is a genre of evolution of technology––they always had the latest tech. The aspect ratio that John Ford used in his films was the latest technology at the time. I used the Sony CineAlta Venice 6K, and I believe that’s what John Ford would have used if he were making it today––the newest camera. I also think the film is meant to be seen in the cinema, but I like to think of all kinds of audiences: the ones that are watching it on the phone, the ones that are watching it on the iPad. And this is a format that fills up the full screen of the average tablet and computer now. There’s more information that you can see in there, and I think it’s a beautiful format that kind of links the two worlds. And it shows the landscape: you have this wide shot where you see the landscape but we can also focus in, in the narrowest shots, to the pores of these characters, because skin is also a big part of the conflict we’re representing.

In a lot of American Westerns, the conflict is very black-and-white––cowboys versus Native Americans––but in your film I’m fascinated by the character of Segundo, who is half-Spanish and half-Indigenous, and the psychological toll he faces for having a hand in murdering his own people in a way. Can you talk about crafting this character and his pathos?

Usually for Westerns you have two characters: there’s the mentor and the one that’s following along––the mentee, the one that is learning. Here we have three characters and we have Segundo, who is looking at these two worlds through these two other characters. You have the path of American capitalism with Bill. And then you have the old world represented in the Englishman. He also serves a purpose because he has the same point of view and he has the same information that the audience has. So in that way we’re making a journey with him. I think he’s a very attractive character to keep us engaged. And he would certainly be newer to the genre. It was important to me that he was young and that this was his first journey for us to go on. 

I love the way you do the chapters in the film and how boldly designed they are, then we get to see the high society upper-class and we learn how they are masking the horrors they are enacting under a veil of religious right. Throughout the history of your country, how have you seen that manifest? In America, as you may know, it’s quite prevalent to hide behind religion to cover up horrors.

The Catholic church in Chile, you have the people of Mapuche, which is the largest Indigenous group in Chile––they are great warriors. And the Spaniards actually were never able to win any war or any battle with them. The church was actually the one that convinced the Mapuche to give over their lands. So Segundo, who knows the church and feels Chilean and it was really religion that westernized him and westernized all three of these characters. The church has an important role in all of them. Towards the end we have Monseñor who, again, kind of brings that in. The movie is going to be premiering in Spain in not too long. I actually had an interview with a Spanish journalist and he had said something about how the Crown had actually made agreements with the Indigenous people, that it wasn’t as violent as it was portrayed. But what’s more violent than building a church or a pyramid? So there’s different types of violence. 

Photo by Julie Cunnah courtesy of the 61st New York Film Festival.

Not to spoil the end, but I like how it concludes on this small, bold act of rebellion. Talking about the scope of the film: in some Westerns it gets bigger and bigger, but here you’re getting more narrow and intimate as you get toward the end. Can you talk about coming up with that structure?

The film is done in different chapters. I wanted the audience to connect with the three characters in the beginning: we get to laugh with them and almost feel they are friends. I wanted them to want to take the journey with them. After the massacre, there’s some distance that’s created and it becomes difficult to continue to empathize with them. And that’s why we made that seven-year jump. There’s a change in perspective and we’re back to Segundo and Kiepja (Rose). In the script, I realized that, as attractive as Segundo’s character was, I didn’t feel that the audience could fully empathize with him at the end. And I did think that it was important to have a character that could show their strength and their resilience. I wanted to hold space for that and I thought it was important to have that character be an Indigenous character and a feminine character. And this kind of appeared to me in the script. When I was casting for Kiepja, we did these very extreme close-ups of the face. And in those close-ups I found that shot of Rosa.

Being at Cannes and then the New York Film Festival, where there are not many first-time directors in the Main Slate––as well as being Chile’s Oscar entry––what has the journey been like for you? And what do you hope audiences will take away from the film as it opens across the world?

I’ve spent twelve years working on this film, so it’s almost a quarter of my life. I’m very happy. I’m really happy that everything is happening that can happen with festivals. I’m almost relieved because there’s so much time that I have put into it and to not have that impact… and I think it’s really important to be in these festivals, but for me it’s really about the platform that the festivals are giving the film. If this film had premiered in Chile and had only been released in Chile, there’s [only] about 3,000 people in Chile that watch Chilean films. So the waves that it’s making, thanks to all these festivals, thanks to the submission for the Oscars, it’s really given the film a larger platform for more people to know about it and watch it. 

I like to challenge and provoke with the image and the sound. I don’t want to do that just for the sake of doing that. I wanted to create debate, to open up conversations, to move the waters. The Western is a propaganda genre. And I say that looking for a reaction. I think the movie speaks for itself. And I’m not trying to provoke in an infantile way; I think it’s interesting to have some ambiguity. I want people to identify with different characters, to choose which character they want to follow throughout the journey. I didn’t want to create good or bad characters. I hope that somebody says, “Yeah, you know what, I think Menéndez did right by doing that. I want to celebrate them.” I want that. I hope that somebody can identify with that. I want to open up conversations. And if somebody wants to defend this, then after knowing and seeing the film, it might be a little bit different in each country that premieres the film––I feel like there are different conversations that are going to start. In Spain, there was this whole idea about how what happened internally in the countries was actually more violent than the colonization. And maybe here, in the States, there’s going to be a conversation around the genre of the Western itself. And Chile may provoke different political stances. So [that conversation] is what I want to promote.

The Settlers opens in theaters on January 12 and will expand.

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