Why ‘Monos’ Director Created ‘Ideological Vacuum’ for His War Drama – and Doesn’t Say Where It’s Set

TheWrap Oscar magazine: “The wars that are fought now — Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan — are fought mainly in the shadows,” director Alejandro Landes says

A version of this story about Alejandro Landes and “Monos” first appeared in the International Feature Film Issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Alejandro Landes’ bold and occasionally hallucinogenic drama “Monos” plunges viewers into the jungle and into the midst of a military outpost manned by unruly teenagers who guard an American hostage played by Julianne Nicholson.

The film, which won rave reviews when it was released in the U.S. over the summer, is Colombia’s entry in the Oscar Best International Feature Film category. Landes sat down with TheWrap to discuss the project’s origins.

What led you to this story of a group of kids in a remote outpost during a war?
I was about to shoot my first fiction film, and I needed to go to the ministry of justice. The place was packed with kids, all in sneakers and jeans playing and flirting in the hallways. I thought, “What are these kids doing here?” And I found out they had all been part of Colombia’s illegal armies, be it from the right or the left — guerrillas, paramilitaries, some had actually fought on both sides.

In your film, the country is never identified, the ideology of the young soldiers is never discussed and we don’t know why they’re there or what their backstories are.
Colombia has had 60 years of civil war, and it’s a war with so many different fronts: paramilitary, guerrillas, narcos, foreign intervention, the state … And then on my father’s side, my grandfather was a Californian who was drafted and landed at Normandy on D-Day. So I grew up listening to stories about the Colombian war, and I had people in my family kidnapped, and on my father’s side listening to stories about such a different war, a war with epic front lines and uniforms and ideologies.

I think the wars that are fought now — Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan — are fought mainly in the shadows, in the back lines, with covert ops, special ops, alliances that shift all the time. And I thought a good way into the war genre was to create an ideological vacuum. You can latch onto the humanity of the fighters, but you don’t know the country and you don’t know if you’re rooting for the left or the right.

Through the lens of what I know, which is Colombia, I tried to say something about the world in general. The heart of the conflict, for me, was the interior beast, which is more existential, more “Heart of Darkness,” more “The Lord of the Flies.”

The landscape itself has a primal look to it.
Yeah. And when I found the setting where we shot the opening scenes, I thought it was perfect. Those ruins could be ancient, or they could be post-apocalyptic.

We don’t know the backstories of these characters. Did the actors come up with their own? Did you have backstories in your head?
I wrote backstories for all of them, yes. But I never shared them with the actors. I wanted to give them the freedom to do what they wanted. And I didn’t even show the script to them – just the scenes of that day.

What were your biggest challenges as a filmmaker?
This film had an exorbitant amount of challenges. A big thing was the point of view. You’re accustomed to having a hero who navigates your story through the world. Here, I wanted to create a pinball effect where you’re not trying to create empathy for a single character but for a group.

I also had this idea of the film being like a river. The highland where the opening scene is set is actually the birth of the nation’s water. That water trickles down the mountain, gaining speed and losing its translucency and ending up in torrents in the lowlands. I wanted the film to feel like it was the river — the speed is changing, the point of view is winding and you end up with true action sequences in the torrents. It was a great idea, but it wasn’t easy to get it to actually work in the edit.

Also, I was looking to make something that was both abstract and real. I’m a big fan of the Luis Buñuel idea that film has the unique ability to appeal to your conscious and your subconscious, like dreams do. So I tried to create a film that has these political things, but also is more about sensation, about what you feel.

To read more of the International Film Issue, click here.

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