Dark Suns is an unrelenting investigation into mass disappearances across Mexico, urging you to pay attention.
See our feature review of the film >here<.
We interviewed director Julien Elie following the film’s UK Premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019.
Reel Steel: My first question really is where the motivation to make this film came from – I’m hesitant to say ‘inspiration’ because that sounds a bit more … optimistic —
Julien Elie: — Well as I always tell people, I think the first idea for the film came into my mind more than twenty years ago when I read about the first wave of killing women in Northern Mexico. I was at home reading French newspapers and there was this long article about the first killing of women. In those years we knew nothing about it, I think it was in 1997 something like that, but I think the first wave started in 1994 so there were maybe a few killings but not much in the media. And I was of course really shocked, but more than that I think as a filmmaker I wanted to know “what is happening to those girls, and why are they killing them?”. So I really wanted to make a movie about it, but in those first years I was making my first two films so I was pretty busy and I didn’t know much about Mexico because I’d travelled there maybe two times and I really liked the country but I didn’t know much about it. So I thought, honestly, that there’d be better filmmakers in a better position [to make it].
I really thought that I was not the right person to do it because I could barely speak Spanish and I didn’t know much about it. A few years passed but I was still really attracted to the subject and what was happening and I was really shocked. I was surprised that the investigations were going nowhere … besides some protests but nothing happened.
A year passed and then starting in 2000 and something, I started travelling to Mexico a lot and the country really started to inspire me and give me a lot of ideas for films, especially as I worked for many years on a fiction movie script – and I still haven’t made it, I hope to one day, I haven’t made it for various reasons – and I also went there a lot for doing photos. I really fell in love with the country, with the people, the food, the culture, the history of the country and also – I think that in every corner of Mexico there is something mysterious. It’s an astonishing country.
Meanwhile I saw this wave of violence exploding in the country, spreading to every zone, every part of the country, and at that time I told myself “maybe I should go back to my project”. And just a few words about the inspiration – I was going to Mexico for a few days and on the plane I read a book by Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, which is the opening quote of the movie where he talks about exterminating the people but also exterminating the memory of the people … he wrote a book that’s the first investigation about the killing of women in Mexico, it’s 700 pages or so. He’s one of the first to really dig out the facts and went to Juárez many times.
His book is much more than journalist work, he has some … has some talent as a novelist. I was really stunned by his writing and I told myself ‘I would like to do a film the same way he’s done this book.’ I approached him and he helped me a lot, he gave me a lot of tips. He is probably the first person who told me ‘why don’t you open your film to all manifestations of violence in the country?’ because it would be interesting to do a portrait of what’s happening. So my main inspiring is the book, and motivation the wave of killings some years ago.
RS: Why do you think the interviews, the people featured, agreed to be involved? Is it the nature of the crimes, is it some kind of closure?
JE: At first it was surprising for me because I knew nobody there. The first month of investigations was really hard because I tried to get in touch with those people and it’s not so easy, because most of them live — I will say in particular about Dark Suns is that every single person you see on the screen lives with threats and fear – everybody. You know sometimes you watch a documentary and there are those specialists and they talk about their situation but you know that they’re safe, they’re really far from it. But everybody in this film, the lawyers, the journalists, the mothers of course – everybody. So of course it was difficult to approach them, but it was long work to gain their trust. But we became friends easily. It was long work but little by little we became friends. I went to visit them a lot. Those people, they live in fear and with threats everyday, but what can they fear about talking?
Nothing can happen to them more than what’s happening to them now. So they want to talk further about what you’re doing and how you’re going to tell your story, this is really important for them because the media in Mexico, like everywhere – there’s a lot of journalists risking their lives everyday, but the main media group, they don’t talk about this. Or if they talk about this situation, they say, like the government does, that if people are killed it’s because they have something to do with a crime organisation, which is completely false. So of course they want to make sure that you’re going to tell their story and not the government’s story.
RS: You’ve talked about the kind of trust you had to build to speak with these people. What were the other challenges you faced? It seems kind of obvious given the nature of the film, but in terms of making it …
JE: Well, there were a lot of challenges, of course. The first one, it’s really personal, but Dark Suns is my first film in more than 15 years. So that was, for me — it was really hard, to go back to making films and to gain your own trust and film people also. I produced the film myself, to give myself the freedom to do the film I wanted to do, but it was a lot of work and to begin with was really hard. And of course I decided to do a really not-easy movie. It was probably the worst movie to do in my situation! I mean, it’s dangerous, risky — not just for the people in the film and myself, but also there was a big danger to — the scope is so large, but that’s what I wanted to do, it was really important to me.
But it’s really difficult to do and you can make it wrong, and I was really afraid at first about how I was going to tell this story, mix the disappearances of people in the 60s in Mexico and those of today, how to make the links if there are any, how you can show them, how you can tell the story of the disappearing girls in Ciudad Juárez 25 years ago and those of today. And some journalists were telling me ‘oh no, you cannot mix that, you cannot talk about those girls of Ciudad Juárez and those today’ because it’s so different. But I convinced myself it was not so different, because for me — I don’t know if the guilties are the same, but the victims are always the same, and that was obvious when I saw the photos of those girls in Ciudad Juárez and those of today, they look the same. So there are some patterns but also the victims are the same.
I think I’m maybe bit far from your question. The different challenges, the third one of course — the first one was doing this film 15 years after [my last one], the second one about the scope of the story, but the third one was the security of everyone in the film: the characters, the crew and myself. There’s no preparation, there’s nothing that can make you avoid those risks. But we did a lot of work, we received a lot of help from many journalists and activists in the country who know everything about what’s going on so they could tell you ‘don’t take that road, don’t go there today’. But still, of course, it’s not 100 percent safe and you can prepare as well as you can or as you wish, but still you need some luck. I’m convinced about this. I heard many times in Mexico, ‘it’s gonna happen, or it’s not gonna happen’. You can be really prepared, you can go with 15 policemen around you, which we weren’t doing of course, you can take many measures, but it’s a country where everybody’s at risk.
Of course, any tourist will go there and they won’t see the danger and the chances of something happening to them are really, really low but for people living there, for people living in Mexico or the people investigating this it can be really dangerous.
RS: It’s quite a long film. How did you go about deciding what to keep in it? Did you have to cut some things out?
JE: It was torture, really. I think — I know for a lot of filmmakers, or for all filmmakers, editing is a hard process but for most of them, they really enjoy it but for me I don’t! It was a long process. Fortunately for me I worked with a really great editor in Montreal, but still, it’s not our first language so to tell this story in Spanish, with all this nuance and different scales of emotions and everything was really hard to do, to make those choices. I really did not want to make a film of two hours and a half because I know people are now used to seeing films of 75 minutes, no more. And the truth is, I don’t much like going to see long movies!
But I was certain about something; when we started on the movie, that there was no other way to tell this story than with this large scope, meaning it’s going to be long. But it meant a lot. I know there are probably people who think it’s 15 minutes too long, but for me I wouldn’t cut it by five or two minutes because the repetition of the violence and those stories are really important, and at the end, this is the portrait that we wanted to do. And just about the choices that we made.
We’d done maybe 44 interviews with characters, and in the movie there’s 28. They are incredible stories, and some of the best are not in there for editing reasons. This is really hard, because we had a testimony from a woman, I’m thinking of a particular case, she’s not in the movie and her story is devastating and she was great on camera and everything was perfect, but it was just that her story arrived a bit late in the film so we just cut it out. So it’s a really hard process to do this, but you have to stick to it. Each story at the end of the film means something, and that was the main choice. The meanings of those stories in the end, and the portrait at the end.
RS: Did you find that the film and the process of making it — did it affect you personally?
JE: Yeah, of course. I suppose. I think I’m a funny person but I did a really sad movie, and I don’t know why! But yeah, of course it affected me a lot. During the shooting was really hard, going back home or worse shooting in the morning — some days when you were going to specific, dangerous places some days I was really nervous and scared. You have nightmares, you don’t sleep well or you don’t sleep enough. So now, to present the movie, it means a lot, especially in Mexico.
We presented the movie nearly 30 times in the last few months at different festivals and the reaction from the people has been incredible. I mean, some people come into my arms at the end of the movie and they don’t say anything. They wait for me — normally young people, it happens always with youngers — they come to me, and they just want to cry in my arms and that’s it, then they go. So it’s not over, you know? I mean, with me, I gave my movie to them and they receive it and then after they give me something also. And it’s not over yet the movie will be released nationally in Mexico in September/October, so I’ll be back there to do the promo of the film and it’s probably going to be the same.
So it’s affected us a lot. I can just say a word about Ernesto Pardo who’s one of the directors of photography of the film. He’s used to those situations because it’s his country and he’s done a lot of other movies in the same way, so it was not his first experience. And he told me after the movie — he lives in a small village in the mountains with his wife and daughter, and he stayed in the house for two months, with them. He refused projects, he just stayed with them. He told me he asked himself if he would move away from Mexico to protect his daughter. So it’s affected everyone.
RS: Are you still in touch with anyone?
JE: Yeah, of course. Of course. The characters, I don’t see them much, but most of them came to see the movie in Mexico. Yeah, we stay in touch. Most of them are very happy and proud of the movie, that was really important for me. I was really scared about that, it was a big concern. The reaction of the public has been incredible, the press also, but most importantly, the people in the film.
RS: I was going to ask that next, about the reaction to the film in Mexico. Has there been any backlash from certain people?
JE: No, everything has been above my expectations. We present the movie, we did a screening with 1,500 people, it was completely full. A whole theatre in Mexico City and everybody stayed until the very end. The press, the articles and reviews have been very good, and from writers, poets, everybody — the reaction has been impressive. I was really scared, because as a foreigner, it’s dangerous to do this kind of project. When you asked me about challenges, I should include also the challenge of being Canadian and doing a portrait of people in Mexico. I asked some people why nobody had done this kind of movie before in Mexico, or even books doing, because there are a lot of books and films about this situation but they’re also focused on one thing, you know? Most of them focus on Narco traffic. But to do that portrait, I had the impressive nobody had done it before, and most people told me ‘it’s because we’re too close to it’. As a foreigner you have the opportunity to have some distance.
RS: What’s the reaction when you take it elsewhere? I couldn’t believe what I saw, from people’s testimonies in the film. Do you find when you take the film to the UK, for example, are people maybe … ignorant about it? About what’s happening in Mexico?
JE: I think most people are aware of what’s happening, but I think most of us receive only pieces through the media —
RS: We don’t know the full scope of it?
JE: Yeah, people say ‘oh, I heard about those women who were killed 20 years about’, ‘oh yeah, the 43 kids who disappeared four years ago’. I think most of the viewers have a good sense of what’s happening, but they don’t join the dots together. Most of the time the reaction is the same in every country. We’ve been in many countries, presenting the film around the world; in South America, Europe. But most of the time, the reaction is the same. People are totally shocked. But in Mexico, the reaction is not so different. Something that surprised me a bit – the difference is not so huge. In Mexico, they know those stories, but not so much. Those things immigrants, slavery in the North of the country, they don’t know that. So they’ve heard about this and that, and of course they’re much closer than you and I but — really it’s surprised me how the reaction has been the same around the world on some scale, and of course in Mexico the reaction is much stronger emotionally, but the reaction has been the same.
Details of Dark Suns at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019 can be found here: