Alonso Ruizpalacios


Originally published on Ink 19 on October 20th, 2021
by Generoso Fierro

Having greatly admired Alonso Ruizpalacios’ work since viewing his auspicious debut from 2014, Güeros, I knew that the day was forthcoming when the native Mexico City director would have to take on a more visceral approach to confront the unethical elements of his society that plagued the main characters of his first two feature films: the aforementioned Güeros and his highly-acclaimed follow-up, Museo.

A Cop Movie, Ruizpalacios’ third feature, which was nominated for Best Film at the Berlinale where it won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution, sees the director not only abandoning temporal settings decades in the past—Güeros and Museo examine the institutionalized dysfunctions of previous eras in the ’90s and ’80s respectively—but also sees him incorporating a daring hybrid cinema approach that creates empathy for his characters, while he closely investigates the human costs of police corruption that is omnipresent in and around Mexico City.

As our film opens, we witness Teresa, a lone police officer who is patrolling her sector of Mexico City, being called to respond to an apartment where a woman is giving birth. Teresa arrives on-scene, but without an ambulance in sight, she wades through the bystanders amassed in front, and is questioned by them as to the absence of emergency personnel who had been called some time before. As Teresa is a veteran officer, she sadly knows full well that EMTs, who are in short supply and in high demand in Mexico City, will most likely not be arriving anytime soon. Still, she pleads with her dispatcher to send an ambulance, but receives no helpful reply, so she is forced to deliver the baby herself, a feat that Teresa executes bravely with her only pair of rubber gloves to grab the baby and children’s scissors that the expectant mother’s husband has on premise to cut the umbilical cord. It is a miraculous moment of valor, and when the mother’s state raises concern after the birth, Teresa has no choice but to call in a favor with her life partner, Montoya, a fellow officer, who normally has better luck in getting the dispatcher to do her sworn duty.

Through filmed recreations of Montoya’s and Teresa’s exploits on duty, which Ruizpalacios adeptly combines with direct to camera interviews with the pair, we gain knowledge of this couple, who, despite taking different paths that led them to their careers in enforcement, are still confronted with similar negative outcomes from their time on the job. We see these officers struggle in their interactions with a public who refuse to view them as anything but corrupt, even though it is made clear through Teresa’s and Montoya’s own testimony that it was never their intention to be complicit with the graft that is the hallmark of their department. Their fellow officers also provide no relief to their feelings of persecution either, as Teresa and Montoya must begrudgingly pay cash to them for the use of the very gear that is essential for them to do their jobs.

As A Cop Movie progresses with its erratic construction that purposefully keeps the viewer off balance, we become immersed into Teresa’s and Montoya’s turbulent world, and thus, we develop a great deal of sympathy for their situation. This is the case until the halfway point of the film, when Ruizpalacios makes an abrupt shift in the structure through the use of a surprising reveal—a reveal that makes us question the reality of what we have seen until that point, and potentially opens up preconceived notions that we may have about law enforcement in Mexico.

I was thrilled to have an in-depth conversation with Ruizpalacios about his new feature. We discussed his original motivations for making A Cop Movie, as well as his decision to incorporate a hybrid documentary approach and his unique methods for preparing his actors for their challenging roles.

Q (Generoso Fierro): I see a parallel between your previous feature, Museo, and A Cop Movie in that both films delve into the normalization of motivations and behavior that clash with society’s expectations and morality. In Museo, Benjamin and Juan are middle class, whereas Teresa and Montoya come from working poor families. After you made Museo, was it important for you to examine this societal issue from a different socioeconomic perspective with your next project?

A (Alonso Ruizpalacios) : Yes, it is a very interesting link, the one that you’re making here, Generoso, and I think that it’s probably there, but in a very subconscious way. I will say that the motivations for this project came from a different place, but then, of course, it ends up happening that once you’re doing something or even when you are finished doing something, you realize what was really behind your motivations. Also, I should say that at some point during filming, I realized that I am making another road movie in Mexico City (laughs). You know during this one moment, when we were shooting that patrol car around town, I thought to myself, “Shit, am I really doing this again? Why, why am I shooting people in cars in Mexico City!?” (laughs)

But for me, the starting point was to do something to address a kind of false hope of feeling useful somehow, as I don’t believe that cinema is useful at all, but that is also why I like it. I think that it gives us the illusion of somehow being able to do something that will be a useful tool, and so I did have that urge of wanting to create something useful at the end of the Peña Nieto period.

Peña Nieto, the former President, towards the end of his term was operating at an all-time high of impunity and corruption, so I wanted to make a movie that addressed that, and I got together with Elena [Fortes] and Daniela [Alatorre], my producers, to start thinking about some way to comment on this situation. So, it didn’t all start off as specifically being about the police force or about someone being in a lower sphere of the social ladder, but that kind of came together organically as we all began exploring the subject matter.

Q: I do feel that through the story of Teresa and Montoya in A Cop Movie, you do exemplify the absurdity of the corruption of the Peña Nieto period. I also believe that, although A Cop Movie exhibits you taking a different kind of approach than the ones you took with Güeros and Museo, you still have as central characters people who want to exact some kind of change in their lives, but who are all stymied because of the reality of a corrupt or unethical system in front of them. With Güeros, which is set in the late ’90s, and Museo which is set in the mid-80s, we have a chance to look back and judge in hindsight the negative effects of the venality of the past, but with A Cop Movie being contemporary, how do you view the corruption of the past eras that you explored with Güeros and Museo in terms of how they led to the institutionalized corruption that is present with the police in Mexico today?

A: That is an interesting question. For me, it is very sad to realize that corruption is still so pervasive and that it rules over Mexico. It is one of the biggest cancers in Mexico, and it is one of the main sources of all that is going wrong with our country, particularly, I mean, corruption combined with impunity. So, frustratingly, it has not been solved. That is the big wager with the current government in Mexico; they came in saying that they were going to fight corruption and that it is their main agenda. We’ll see what happens and if they have any success, but I don’t think that it has been fixed.

We discussed this issue a lot when we were developing this movie. This movie had a long period of gestation when we spoke with academics, very smart people who specialize in public order and public policy as well. We had some key advisors who accompanied us through the whole process of making the film. Even during the editing period, I was still having conversations with these advisors, three key people who work in police reform and public policy who assisted us along the way.

I remember one of these early conversations, we even went as far as discussing the foundations of Mexico. I remember asking an advisor, “Why is corruption so pervasive in Mexico, and why is it so much a part of our psyche?” His reply was very interesting. He said, “When Mexico was a Spanish colony, and the laws were dictated from Spain, the laws were made in Spain for how España, the colony of New Spain, was going to govern themselves. It was made by people who were not physically there—they were thousands of miles away. So, the legislators in New Spain had this saying between them: ‘We abide by the law, but we do not obey it.’” That was a common saying. And so, Ernesto López Portillo, who shared this with us, was serious when he said that this attitude comes from the foundation of Mexico. There is this huge distance between the law and what is achievable in reality. And I still think that is kind of the case. It is a very complex issue.

Q: As corruption is such an overarching dilemma in Mexico, it makes me wonder how some of the police cadets whom you interviewed for your film felt about how they could make any difference. And here, Alonso, I am particularly thinking of the one cadet in your film who stated that she joined up because of the tragic epidemic of femicide. Did any of the cadets, or the veteran officers whom you spoke with, express to you that the corruption which encumbers officers from doing their job effectively subsequently contributed to the rise of this particular crime?

A: That is a tough question, and there is most likely some relation, but the issue of femicide is again, a very complex problem. I think that a lot of the cadets whom we spoke to come in with a real desire to change things. That said, for many of them, it is frankly just a job, a way of making a living, and for others, it is a family tradition. But for a small number of the cops, it is a vocation. But in the end, you have this body of people who are undertrained, underpaid, and those factors are going to bring out all sorts of problems, but the femicide problem is beyond my comprehension and theirs. It is a tragedy, a sickness, and there are too many factors playing into it.

Q: Thinking about your process in creating A Cop Movie, I understand that you were originally approached by your producers to do a conventional documentary, but then you ultimately made the decision to utilize actors, even going as far as sending them to police academies and to patrol the streets, which ultimately created a work of hybrid cinema. What I found to be an interesting choice was that you waited until the middle of the film to show the audience that we are indeed watching actors portraying Teresa and Montoya. Can you talk about that decision?

A: The premise that we set out for ourselves was that we were going to find the form as we went along. We were not going to predetermine anything, and we were going to let the material tell us how it was going to be shot and how it was going to get shaped. And so, it was a very organic process of investigation for me, both thematically, because I was going to dive into something very foreign for me, and also formally. It was very freeing in that sense. I think that every decision was a solution for a particular problem.

Originally, we were not going to have actors portray the police officers. When we found Teresa and Montoya, our first instincts were to record them and somehow illustrate what was said, and then we thought, how are we going to illustrate all of these things that they are talking about that are very sensitive and impossible to capture on camera? All of these acts of corruption, their relationship with the public, the racism, it seemed impossible for me to capture all of that, so we are going to have to use fiction elements for this to work. Also, I have a soft spot for actors. I trained as an actor myself. I have a theater company. I am married to an actor, so the acting process has always fascinated me, and so, that is how the idea came to me, to make that a part of the movie. Why don’t we register that process, and that will be the audience’s process of getting to know the world that Teresa and Montoya are portraying.

So, finding the structure and doing that reveal in the middle of the movie was something that I wanted to give as a little shock to the audience to change lanes. There are really two stories in one: There is the story of Teresa and Montoya, and there is the story of Raúl and Mónica. There’s not one story, there are two stories, and Raúl’s and Mónica’s story is as important as Montoya’s and Teresa’s story.

Also, I thought that by that point in the movie people are going to be wondering, “What about everything that we know about the police? Where do I stand as a citizen and as a viewer with what you are showing me? I have all of these ideas about this, and they have not been addressed. The film has spent this whole time being empathetic to these characters, but what about my feeling of insecurity when I see a policeman? And what about my knowledge of corruption?” And so, I wanted to address all of this through the actors, and I thought that once we became engaged with Teresa and Montoya, it was going to be a good shift, and we were now going to address your problems with the police. I like this structure where this happens in the middle of the movie, as it switches lanes and abandons Teresa and Montoya, but then we circle back to them, and the stories reunite. And so, when you meet Teresa and Montoya after you’ve just been listening to their voices, I think that it comes as a surprise. To discover the structure along the way is a different process for me.

Q: As far as the preparation that Mónica and Raúl did for this role, did they listen to Teresa and Montoya’s dialog and then offer an emotional interpretation of what they heard, or were they directly reciting what was said to them?

A: The process was that we recorded Teresa and Montoya during interviews that took many days, and then we transcribed the interviews; we edited them; and then, we created a script, we meaning myself and a friend of mine named David Gaitán who is a playwright whom I worked with in the theater before. So, together we did the structure for what the actors were going to play, and while we were doing that, writing the script and deciding what we were going to shoot fictionally, the decision of always using the real voices was there. I knew that I never wanted to lose the voices of the real Teresa and Montoya, so then we cut the interviews into what was scripted, and we gave that to the actors, but we only gave them the sound. I didn’t want the actors to see the real Teresa and Montoya. They had no image, so they had to memorize by sound because I never wanted the actors to do an imitation of Teresa and Montoya. I wanted the actors to become them just with their voices. And so, they did the training first, and then they had two months to learn the lip sync. Raúl and Mónica worked their asses off, and they were pitch perfect.

So, they rehearsed, but they never saw the people whom they were portraying until the final day when we were shooting, and we brought Teresa and Montoya to the set where they met for the first time. We recorded that moment actually, and it was originally going to be part of the movie. But these things never turn out the way you think they will, because for me, I realized that that moment didn’t need to be seen.

A Cop Movie will be released globally through Netflix on November 5th, 2021.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Director Alice Rohrwacher


The eclectic World Cinema programming at the American Film Institute Fest is always exceptional, as year after year they have brought the most eagerly awaited new features from established talents who have consistently garnered prizes at Cannes, Venice, and Berlin, and this year was no exception as AFI Fest 2018 welcomed the newest and justifiably distinguished works from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Hirokazu Kore-eda, and Jafar Panahi to name a few. As strong as the features were from veteran directors, what distinguishes the curation this time around was the work of some of the newer voices in international cinema, most notably the brilliant third feature by Italian director Alice Rohrwacher titled Happy as Lazzaro, which earned her a Best Screenplay award at Cannes. Amazingly, given that Rohrwacher’s first feature, Heavenly Bodies, was only released seven years ago, this 2018 Best Screenplay win for Happy as Lazzaro is not her first award at Cannes, as her accomplished 2014 feature, The Wonders, received that year’s Grand Prix.

Like The WondersHappy as Lazzaro shares that film’s timeless and naturalist core narrative of rural people who are out of sync with the modern world. Both films also interestingly utilize the talents of veteran actresses playing against type (Monica Bellucci in The Wonders, and Nicoletta Braschi in Happy as Lazzaro), and the two features both contain exceptional performances from the director’s sister, Alba Rohrwacher.

Happy as Lazzaro follows the titular character, a pure spirited man (played by the seraphic-faced Adriano Tardiolo) who works amongst a community of sharecroppers in the mythical town of Inviolata where they toil for a tobacco overlord, the Marchesa Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi). Through the use of organized religion and a certain amount of twisting of the truth, which convinces the workers that they are environmentally unable to leave their village, the Marchesa exploits the sharecroppers who are overwhelmingly unhappy with their situation, except for Lazzaro, whose unblemished soul allows him to complete his farming tasks without issue while he even becomes the unknowing victim of his already exploited community. Regardless of his treatment, Lazzaro lives beatifically in the hills above Inviolata until one afternoon when Lazzaro befriends Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), a young nobleman and member of the Marchesa’s family who wishes to remain separate from his people as well. Shortly after sealing their friendship, Lazzaro hides Tancredi so that this cynical privileged man can fake his own kidnapping to make some funds to escape his own predicament, but the subsequent search for Tancredi uncovers the ugly truth of the Marchesa’s activities, which have a ripple effect that forces the workers of Inviolata into the urban landscape, bringing them face to face with an even more grim reality.

I spoke with Alice Rohrwacher during AFI Fest 2018 about her meditative feature, focusing on her symbolic use of the Roman Catholic religion, her comments in the film on systematic exploitation, and the use of surrealism and the grotesque to draw attention to urgent contemporary economic and social issues.

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Q: After the family’s liberation from Inviolata, Antonia regales to Pippo on the bus a story of a saint and a wolf. You do not identify the saint as St. Francis of Assisi, but given the story, are we to assume that this is a reference to St. Francis’ experience with the Wolf who terrorized the town of Gubbio, and who St. Francis eventually appeased by offering it food from the very people whom it had terrorized? If it is a direct reference, then is what we see as the inability of Lazzaro to appease the wolf of the modern, urban society beyond Inviolata due to the fact that this wolf is an unnatural being?

A: There are many ways to explain this. Let’s say that Antonia only knows stories of saints. In fact, she is unable to tell any other kind of story, but somehow with the power of these narratives, she can bring us to another time. Of course there are references to the Wolf of Gubbio and St. Francis of Assisi, but I think that Lazzaro is a saint that exists outside of religion, so we can see similarities between Lazzaro and St. Francis, but I wanted Lazzaro to exist outside of that world. He’s almost prehistoric. He’s beyond a formal human era.

For me, in my film there are two religions: On one side is Roman Catholicism, and it is a very historical religion, and in a way, it is part of the problem in the film because it is an instrument that is being used by the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna to keep the sharecroppers in ignorance. So, in Happy as Lazzaro, the Catholic religion is a very strong force over people, but there is another religion in my film, a religion of the people who believe. It is the religion of innocence, and there is no name for this religion — it is just the belief that human beings have in other human beings, so in Antonia’s story, you can see how the individual names of these saints could be connected, but there is not a direct reference.

Q: What I find interesting in your film is that the exploitation comes from the sharecroppers as well as the Marchesa, suggesting that exploitation and even cruelty is an essential part of natural existence, and here I am thinking of the moment when Pippo is being teased when he was a child that his mother committed suicide because of how ugly he is.

A: I wanted to establish that there are behaviors that are good and bad in this film, and we cannot simply make the conclusion that the peasants are good and the Marchesa is bad, as this kind of exploitative behavior is like a chain effect in that the people who are being exploited will occasionally seek out others to exploit who they feel are beneath them, but sometimes there are miracles because, in this ugly cycle, there are people who remain free of this need to take advantage of others, and they are considered by their peers as fools, but maybe they are in fact, saints.

Q: In terms of the geographic change that occurs in your film from a rural to an urban landscape and how that change plays out as far as the behavior of your characters, do you suggest that nature provides a protection of sorts for innocence? I ask this question as I feel that your film, in terms of its message, has a kinship with Lee Chang-dong’s most recent feature, Burning, in which two of the protagonists, both rural characters, find themselves in Seoul for different reasons, and the various challenges of urban existence and their inabilities to react quickly enough play out in tragic ways.

A: From one side, I think that over the last fifty years the world has changed in such a dramatic way that we are sort of stunned, and for that reason, we don’t acknowledge the good and the bad the way we used to — we just acknowledge the size of the change. Before all of this rapid change that has occurred recently, humans moved in conjunction with what had occurred in the eras before them, but now, like what happens to Lazzaro in my film, we seemed to have jumped from one era to another without any link to the past. Now, I am not saying in any way that it was better or worse in the past. I am not nostalgic, and as a woman, I have absolutely no desire to return to a time long ago, as it was even harder than it is now, even with the problems that the world is seeing today, to have been a woman in any point of the past, but I do feel a need to show to my children and the people in my life that something monumental has happened to humans, that we once had a common language somehow against enemies, that we now have passed from a social middle age to a human middle age. So, I think that if you were making a movie about this phenomenon you need to do it right now, because things are moving so fast that in a few years, even the storytelling language will be fantasy, and for that reason I feel that this generation is on the precipice of something, and we have to document this before we move on.

There is something available for these rural people to use in the city, as I show with the group from Inviolata finding the chicory to eat right by the squat where they live, so there is nature thriving in the city, but this isn’t as much about the urban environment making nature unavailable as it is about there being no place for innocence. I tried to create an atmosphere in Happy as Lazzaro that is timeless. When the sharecroppers are in Inviolata, they do not know about the outside world, and so they are able to maintain their sense of innocence, so they aren’t necessarily good or evil because the definitions of good and evil are not clear to them, but now that they have experienced the reality of the outside world, they have become skeptical, and I feel that my film tries to divide these two times. As for nature, it is always there, and it is consistent to all experiences, just like the wolf that you see in the bank and in the street with cars, you also see the plants that grow on the borders by the side of the train, but the problem is that people do not want to see it.

Q: As in the way the sharecroppers harvested tobacco for the Marchesa, but yet, could not identify the plants that they could easily eat in the area around them because they were never instructed in Inviolata on how to sustain themselves?

A: Yes, and because of being so insular in their environment in Inviolata, they ate only what the Marchesa gave them, so now, when living in the city, they only try and eat processed, packaged food that they steal.

Q: There’s something that I discussed at last year’s AFI Fest with your colleague, director Jonas Carpignano, when we spoke about his film, A Ciambra, regarding the dilemmas faced by rural people who are being thrust into more urban situations, that I’d like to discuss with you. There are moments in his film that, to me, conjure up memories of the Italian grotesque films of Ettore Scola, Marco Ferreri, and Lina Wertmüller. Specifically in your Happy as Lazzaro, there is also an absurd, but no less real possibility of people today living like the people from Inviolata, who are forced to live in city and have no choice but to squat in an abandoned oil tanker and who would have to steal an entire display of potato chips from a gas station to feed their group. Do you feel that these moments in your film appear because the dire economic and refugee situations that exist in today’s Italy, and throughout the world, mirror the era when the Italian grotesque films were being produced? Do you feel that given the extreme issues going on now, that a more exaggerated, almost surrealist treatment needs to be employed in order affect audiences, as the grotesque films did in the 60s and 70s?

A: I didn’t make any direct references to any particular scenes in those Italian films, but I very much do feel that, specifically how the platforms of most politicians have become so nightmarish, even yes, grotesque as their agendas are not based on what anyone would see as rational thought, so during this time, I truly feel that we do indeed need more surrealism in cinema to get people to understand their reality. For example, let’s look at the scene in (Happy as) Lazzaro when Nicola is selecting refugee workers to pick olives, and he is having them outbid each other so that he can select the workers who will work for nothing. The scene, as I created it, is done in an absurd, surrealistic manner, but in this desperate time, it plays out more realistically than a scene using realism. So, sometimes you indeed need to be grotesque to understand reality when the reality is this vulgar.

Q: Finally, this is a personal question, but it has been quite a while since we’ve seen Nicoletta Braschi in a film, and so my wife and I were thrilled to see her in Happy as Lazzaro. We love her work, especially her films with Jim Jarmusch where she plays wide-eyed, sweet characters. In your film, her performance as the Marchesa exudes a conniving insipidness that I have never seen her do in a film before. To my knowledge, she has never played a villainous role before, so why did you feel that she was right for this part?

A: I always love to work with great actors and to ask them to play against type, the way that we imagine them in our imaginations, like the way that I used Monica Bellucci in my film, The Wonders. So, for Nicoletta in Lazzaro, it was fun for me to have her play a villain because she almost always plays characters who are good spirited and sweet, like the parts she plays in Jarmusch’s films, so I felt that it added something intangible to her role as the Marchesa.

Nicoletta Braschi as the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna, Credit: Cinetic Media

Special thanks to Rachel Allen at Cinetic Media for her valued assistance with this interview.

Happy as Lazzaro is available now on Netflix.

This interview was conducted by Generoso Fierro and was originally published on

Director Tarik Aktaş


Year after year, AFI Fest, through their New Auteurs section, dedicates a substantial amount of their programming to the feature film work of new talents, whose usual port of entry into festivals that are this prestigious is through the short film programming. AFI Fest’s robust New Auteurs selections draw from works from all over the world, and in 2018, the amount of features that were screened in the section went up to eighteen as opposed to the eleven that were shown there in 2017, and in fact, two of our most appreciated films came from the New Auteurs section last year, both best described as having experimental narratives: Júlia Murat’s Pendular, and Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki’s El Mar La Mar. This year, our favorite film to come out of the New Auteurs selections was the confident first feature by Turkish director, Tarik Aktaş, Dead Horse Nebula, which to be candid, we also felt employed an experimental narrative construction like Pendular and El Mar La Mar, but after my conversation with Aktaş, I now realize that I was mistaken in a way.

Utilizing naturalist elements and a sparse, but effective amount of dialog, Dead Horse Nebula follows Hay (Baris Bilgi), who first experiences death as a boy by way of interacting with the titular deceased horse. As Hay stands in awe of the horse, he begins to poke at the rotting horse’s stomach and then witnesses the life that is subsisting within the animal’s organs, which creates a thought in Hay’s mind about the transitory/cyclical nature of death. The film then jumps to Hay as an adult, who we then observe having more interactions with death, and we see how these cumulative experiences and his memories of these moments shape his behaviors as he encounters more episodes dealing with mortality. Impressively executed in its 73 minute running time, Dead Horse Nebula succeeds by allowing the viewer to clearly examine the experiences of Hay, the passive protagonist, and interpret how Hay’s memories determine his future.

My lively and meditative conversation with Aktaş examines the director’s own particular method of production, his preference for working with non-professional actors, the challenges and rewards that choice presents, and his thought process for creating his central character.

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Q: I’ve been thinking about the pure definition of a nebula, a dark cloud that blocks light while forming an environment where stars and planets can form. If we are to assume that mortality is the dark cloud that shadows Hay’s thoughts, how then do you see that nebula allowing for Hay’s ability to grow in the world around him?

A: Actually, I never thought about the nebula as a darkness, but perhaps something that is just material that has no life, but in the end when it comes together, and there is an explosion, the planets are formed, which leads to organic life. In another way, regarding the material world, the incidents that we see also, through memory, shape this one particular soul. I have always seen the film as having two parallel motifs: one motif is for the material world, and the other is for the more metaphysical side.

Q: Hay first observes death with the horse, then partakes in death by way of slaughtering the sheep, and then faces his own death in the end. In terms of the construction of the film, how do you feel that his earlier experiences address Hay’s mindset on the construction site as he is almost killed while behaving a bit recklessly?

A: I think that death merely initiates his skill of observation. Death is of course important; it is something that is important for every human being because of its inevitability, and because of this inevitability, it is something that ignites a fire in someone’s character. If you look at Hay’s friends, for example, in the scene at the beach, they are concerned about the dead bodies on the sand, but not in the way that Hay is concerned, as they have a more ethical question, and ethics always emerge after reality. The reality is the boy’s lying dead on the sand, and then if you start talking about the ethics of the situation, it becomes something else, a way of reacting as we tend to do as human beings. Similarly, when we see the women in that scene crying, we understand that they are having an emotional reaction, but as you can clearly see, the effect overall is indeed very material. So for Hay, death is something material, but the emotional side of his reaction is somewhat lacking because of the previous incidents that he experienced, such as the way that he saw the dead horse—it was no longer a living animal, it was material, but from the dead animal, he saw life coming out of it. Of course, since he experienced the dead horse as a small child, he could not intellectualize the moment at that time, but he did find an awesomeness in the experience. There was a huge body, and it was dead, but when he saw the animal’s insides come out and witnessed the living parasites on the organs, he understood death produces more life, and this understanding carries through his perspective as an adult.

Q: Then, in terms of the perception of life, and here I am thinking of your film in contrast to Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte, like Frammartino’s film, you have a naturalist setting, but in his film you witness a transitional progression of life from man to goat, from goat to tree, and then finally from tree to mulch, whereas in Dead Horse Nebula you see death as a looming obstruction more than a natural transition inherent in life. Frammartino’s film is about the circle of life in reincarnation, so death is not an obstruction, but again, in your film, even the removal of the horse takes on an element of conflict by having the need to blow the horse to bits in order to clear it from the field because it is a potential impediment to the community’s water source. Then, while slaughtering the goat, Hay almost dies from cutting the artery in his leg, and by the end, Hay takes the tree he and his friend have chopped down and brings its processed planks to a building site, but Hay almost dies working on it. So, to me, in your film, there is always this obstruction that appears in the cycle of life. How does that play into Hay’s perception of death?

A: I think that in our daily routine we mostly miss the point of death. Maybe this is just me who does this, but I am pretty sure that I am not the only one, but I see things, and I find some value in almost everything. For example, right now I am sitting in my hotel room, and looking at the curtains, I see a value there and that value is in the crafting of the cotton, and then I see agriculture in it, and then I see our civilization in it, and that is what I do. So, in our daily routine, no matter what our industry is, let’s say education or really any other work, there is always a meaning there. For Hay, this obstruction as you say, is like a veil between life and what life carries as a meaning, and for him that veil is becoming more invisible. At a certain point, when Hay sees the bird when he is hanging from the ledge in the construction site, he sees that bird as a savior, not that the bird could physically save Hay, but the bird is a savior because he looks into his eyes. The bird’s existence itself is already a savior for Hay.

Q: I find that very interesting as I saw the bird in that scene as something completely different. I wouldn’t say that I thought the bird was mocking Hay, but I interpreted that moment as one where Hay might feel that the bird’s natural ability of flight, which allows it escape the unnatural predicament that he is in where he could potentially fall to his own death on the worksite, is kind of taunting Hay, who killed the tree, a natural material, which has now become the structure that might end his life.

A: That is not too far from my point then if you feel that the bird is mocking Hay in that situation, or mocking death to be more specific, because Hay already has already confronted death, so he will not be so sorry if he dies, and he shouldn’t be, given what he has seen so far in his life.

Q: This is your first feature Tarik, and it has been described as having an experimental narrative, but compared to your short film work, Dead Horse Nebula seems to have a more conventional structure, especially visually.

A: Indeed, my early short film work has much more of an experimental nature than Dead Horse Nebula does. And although I do understand why you might call my feature experimental, I myself would not call it that. My short films use elements of illustration, and I incorporate small fragments from very well known movies and other found footage to build up a narrative. I am fortunate as when I made them, they soon were accepted to national film festivals and then to international festivals. But again, about Dead Horse Nebula being experimental, or why does my feature have such a structure? I will say that my next feature will possibly not have have a structure like this film does in its fractured, fragmented sense of time. As I see it, reality is completely fragmented, at least in terms of memory, for when you try to remember moments, you rarely to never remember them chronologically. You might remember a sound or an emotion, or a smell, so there is an illusion in your mind that you remember that day, but in reality it is very fragmented, and your brain combines these pieces, and that combination becomes your memory, whether you are fond of that memory not, and that is why this film has this structure.

Q: Narrative structures similar to yours are normally assessed as works of “dream logic,” but I appreciate that in your film, you are trying to replicate the narrative through the way we recall memory. Will you further explore this kind of narrative with your next feature?

A: This might sound even more abstract, but my next film will be about what I mentioned before, and that is the “veil.” So to explain further, Dead Horse Nebula is about, “seeing,” and more specifically, when the veil disappears. In my second feature, you will understand how to move once the veil vanishes, so it is then about movement and the will to do it. In Nebula, Hay is a very passive character. He just observes, but in the next film, the character, though not in the very beginning of the film, will begin to learn how to move to change his fate.

Q: Not to dwell on this point, but Hay is, as you describe him, a completely passive character, but do you feel that any of his actions lead to his potential demise or to an implicit tie between the events leading up to his death?

A: I think these two things, passiveness and assertiveness, merge together, and by this I mean, that if you do something or if you do nothing, the nature of your action or inaction will lead to this conclusion. For example, Hay is not the one who says, “Hi friends, I have found a job for us. We will chop down this tree and sell it to this construction company.” Hay is just the friend of the person who is being proactive in getting work. So, when I say, “passive” or “active,” I am referring to a person who makes decisions, and in the case of my film, Hay is never the person who makes the decision. In the first edit, for example, I had Hay asking, “Why don’t we go fishing tonight?” to his friends, but of course, I edited that moment out of the final cut because it shows Hay as being more of an active participant than he really is.

Q: I must ask then, how did that moment of proactive speech come about in the earlier cut?

A: That line came about from a motivation for the actor. You see, these are all non-professional actors. Baris Bilgi, who plays Hay, just a few months before shooting the film, was working as security guard in an apartment building. The characters were all played by my friends and family, so when Baris asked me, “Why don’t I ask my friends to go fishing?,” I said, “Sure,” because it was part of the process, since there was no script for him to reference. None of the actors in this film actually had to read a script. We would all just meet in the morning on location, and I would give them direction like, “Now, let’s cut down this tree,” and they would all say, “Sure, O.K.” We bonded so well because I started working with the actors three months before shooting, but I never actually rehearsed a scene with them because I wanted their natural reactions to come through.

Some directors, I feel, make a big mistake when they select non-professionals to be in their film, but then apply acting methods on them, which destroys the natural feel of their performances. So, I never discussed the movie with my performers. I never had them read the script so that they could simply focus on the physical activity that they needed to do that day.

Q: I really appreciate that method and your philosophy there Tarik. Almost twenty years ago, I was very fortunate to have interviewed Abbas Kiarostami, and he told me something that I keep with me to this day. I asked him if he still preferred to use non-professional actors, or if he was unable, since the revolution in Iran, to find actors whom he really wanted to work with on his films? As a response Abbas asked me, “Do you know the game of polo?” and I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Well, in polo you are on the horse, and you are supposed to control the ball, correct? But, the ball is always in front of you, and that is why I insist on using non-professional actors.” I didn’t understand it at first, but it soon became clear. You must direct these performers, but the flow of movement and of the pitch will send them places that are more natural, even with your direction.

A: Yes, exactly. But, do not get me wrong as everything on Dead Horse Nebula was indeed scripted, and in this film, as was the case in my short experimental films, I draw up storyboards for every scene. Everything that you see onscreen has been scripted and drawn up prior to filming. Let’s take the scene where the Ömer character delivers the monologue where he talks about the time when he almost drowned in the sea. Well, that scene is a mixture of Ömer’s own memory and mine. There was a moment like that in the script, but the scene came about as such: I told Ömer that in the scene, “You need to come up with a memory of your own, so what can you recall that involves this moment and that moment?” I gave him the keywords, and we made the scene happen together.

Q: I am not sure if he continued it throughout his career, Tarik, but, to me, your method is somewhat similar to what Mike Leigh did with his 1996 film, Secrets and Lies. Leigh would take Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste to the shoot location, and before a scene would start, he would hand the actors each a slip of paper that would have written on it, something to the effects of, “This is your mother, who you are meeting for the first time.” And then, they would have to improvise the scene from there. How did your method come about?

A: In my art school, we also had an acting department, but even with that talent there, I always used my friends or family to act in my short films instead because I could place them on the frame wherever I wanted to place them. You just cannot take how the acting should be done for granted, more specifically, what kind of acting does your film require? Perhaps in my second feature, I will need professional actors, but as a director you have to think about it, and truthfully, I am not sure if every director thinks about the kind of acting their film needs prior to shooting. For example, we can see the difference between a director’s approach to the camera: the framing, the lighting, but we usually don’t focus in on the director’s choices for the acting.

As you mentioned Mike Leigh, you can see how realistic the acting is in his films, and I recently showed one of his shorts to my students, and it really was incredible, the acting in his films, especially the flow, and I feel that filmmakers are indeed using this powerful kind of tool in their work, and that has always been my approach, and I have never thought about acting differently.

Q: Once you have selected the type of acting you require, and given that you, at least for this film, preferred a more natural reaction from your performers, did you then only rehearse a scene on location?

A: Since I didn’t want them to overthink the scene, the only rehearsal that took place was on location. In Dead Horse Nebula, there are two or three monologues that take place, and like I stated earlier, I only give keywords, and those words are incorporated in the dialog, but what is really open for improvisation is the structure of the sentences, which I feel is important, as it is necessary for the idiosyncratic aspects of the Turkish language to come through.

Generoso: Thank you very much Tarik, and best of luck on your next film.

Tarik: Thank you so much. This was a very nice experience.

Still from Dead Horse Nebula, Credit: AFI Fest

Thank you to Johanna Calderón-Dakin for her valued assistance in making this interview possible.

Featured image credit: AFI – Manny Hebron

This interview was conducted by Generoso Fierro and was originally published on