Alejandro Landes has had a busy year. His survivalist saga Monos debuted at Sundance in January where it won a Special Jury Award and was acquired by Neon after its world premiere there. Landes was then signed by UTA and the film went on to play Berlin as well as a host of other festivals, scooping prizes along they way including in London and San Sebastian among others. In late August, Monos was selected as Colombia’s entry for the International Feature Oscar race.
Monos follows group of young soldiers and guerrillas training on a remote mountain in Latin America with an American hostage played by Julianne Nicholson. The teenage commandos, who have nicknames like Rambo, Smurg, Bigfoot, Wolf and Boom-Boom, perform military training exercises while watching over a prisoner and a conscripted dairy cow for a shadow force know only as The Organization. After an ambush drives the squadron into the jungle, the mission begins to collapse.
Praise has been high on the fever dream of a film for which Landes says the inspiration came from “a lot of places.”
He tells me, “My first fiction film (Porfirio) premiered in Directors’ Fortnight. It was about a man in a wheelchair who hijacks a plane hiding grenades in his diaper. It was a big casting process to play the hijacker, and I ended up casting the real guy himself who was at end of his long house arrest. I went to the Ministry of Justice to ask for permission and the place was packed with kids in jeans and sneakers running around the halls. It felt like a high school. These were kids who had left illegal armies in Colombia and were there in a reinsertion program and had a theater workshop that I attended… The kids were fascinating — a few had fought with the guerrillas and also the paramilitary, and it stayed with me.”
Landes also muses that he had never seen a war film “that really spoke to me… There is a romantic notion of WWI and WWII where the battle lines and ideology were clear: good and bad. But the character of modern warfare today like in Colombia is fought from the shadows, backlines, shifting lines. You look at Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, these are messy wars with no clean-cut ideological lines like the cinema about WWII.”
So, the idea was “to create a war film, but in an ideological vacuum, not from left or right… an allegorical situation from the lens of the Colombian conflict in a way that spoke about the nature of war today.”
Filming atop a mountain at 4000 meter elevation and down in the jungle presented a challenge, but one Landes was seeking. “To give a sense of scale and juxtapose this mini squad of soldiers, you want to create context. I tried to find places that disoriented you in time.” In the jungle canyon, Landes explains, “one of the only good things the war has left is that these used to be places so dangerous nobody would go,” leaving the spots “virgin.” He did enlist the aid of Colombia’s national rafting and kayaking teams, recruiting them as production assistants — along with a troupe of mules and two families of “illegal gold miners.”
He says, “I really like the idea of the exterior landscape acting as a sort of mirror to the interior state of the characters. At the mountaintop, you have a clear sense of who you are, a notion of scale of being on top of the world. There is a certain innocence there on top of the clouds. In the jungle, the notion is distorted under the canopy.” And that’s where the group of kids “starts fragmenting.”
Landes calls the past year with the film “a gift. I arrived in Sundance and had no distribution. Now it’s in over 40 countries. It’s a radical piece of filmmaking that left the festival circuit and lingered in the minds and (has reached) regular every day moviegoers. It challenges a lot of conventions and plays in a genre where you’ve seen a lot. I like how it’s playing on people’s psyches.”
At home, it’s become the most successful local title of the year, Landes says, calling it “exciting,” but noting it’s also “crazy for people to watch a film that touches on the most sensitive thing. It’s like showing a film about Vietnam during Vietnam.”
Has anything surprised him in audience reaction from abroad? “I remember a very dapper gentleman at MoMA New Directors New Films approached me with his wife and said, ‘My daughter goes to an elite school on the Upper East Side. (The film) reminds me exactly of my daughter’s school.’”