Just as the Israeli settler state is engaged in fierce warfare with Palestine’s Native people, director/co-writer Felipe Gálvez’s has produced a timely film called The Settlers, which offers an unsettling look at the colonization of Tierra del Fuego in Chile circa 1900.
The film features a British soldier Alexander MacLennan (Mark Stanley), an American mercenary Bill (Benjamin Westfall), who had been a cowboy in Texas and fought Comanches, and a mixed-race mestizo scout Segundo (Camilo Arancibia) that is Mapuche on his mother’s side and Spanish on his father’s, who are dispatched by Chilean landowner José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro) to survey his huge land holdings, establish the property’s boundaries and chart a course through Patagonia to the Pacific Ocean.
From the outset, this colonial endeavor is marked by extraordinary brutality and bloodshed—mercenaries slice ears off Natives as proof for collecting bounties—that may resonate with contemporary viewers as the vicious mayhem in Israel and the Occupied Territories unfolds.
The Settlers dramatizes “the genocide of the Selk’nam people, who the whites in our country refer to as the Ona…Their [MacLennan’s, Bill’s and Segundo’s] mission is clearly to kill the Natives. It was part of the territory’s ‘cleansing,’ to make way for the development of livestock-breeding. The extermination of the Native populations was tied to the preservation of the sheep-farming economy, and therefore to the interests of the farmers,” Gálvez relates in an interview in press notes (from where his various quotes throughout this review are taken).
From Tierra del Fuego to Tinseltown: Gálvez’s “Anti-Western” Film Form
As the colonial conquerors cut a blood-soaked swath through Patagonia, laying waste to Indigenous people, Gálvez’s cinematic style organically matches its upsetting subject matter. The 97-minute movie is moody, somber and jumpy, and for this gringo reviewer, The Settlers was at times hard to follow. Instead of a traditional Hollywood studio-type of storytelling technique that follows a conventional narrative path, The Settlers has more of a Brechtian structure that is episodic or epic in its rendering and intended to teach audiences. Gálvez also seems to infuse his film with a mythic Chilean, Indigenous aesthetic, as opposed to the method of moviemaking common in America that’s heavy on plot points (this happened, then that took place, etc.).
But this is not to say that Gálvez is not influenced by Hollywood tropes and genre conventions, as The Settlers rides from Tierra del Fuego to Tinseltown. Gálvez describes himself as “a passionate cinephile, completely in love with cinema” who “studied at the Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires” and, as such, is presumably knowledgeable about film history. The scenic, wide-open vistas, shot by cinematographer Simone d’Arcangelo as MacLennan, Bill and Segundo genocidally murder their way across Patagonia, are reminiscent of director John Ford’s mise-en-scene in his countless Wild West-set big screen movies, such as 1948’s Fort Apache, starring, of course, that ultra-imperialist on horseback John Wayne.
Gálvez asserts: “The Western turned the process of colonization into a form of entertainment, in which the ‘Indians’ were conflated with danger and barbarity to the point of being a quasi-propaganda tool for the new nation-states and their ideals of civilization and progress.” Instead, Gálvez and co-screenwriter Antonia Girardi have crafted and concocted a sort of “anti-Western.”
The Settlers also references the motion picture panache of Spaghetti Westerns, those 1960s/1970s shoot-’em-ups set in America’s Old West, but actually shot on location in Spain, such as Sergio Leone’s flicks starring Clint Eastwood, like 1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Ennio Morricone composed many memorable scores for Spaghetti Westerns, and The Settlers’ often jangly music by composer Harry Allouche seems Morricone-inspired. On the other hand, a piano recital of classical music at the Menéndez mansion serves as a symbol of Europeanized “civilization” coming to Tierra del Fuego.
It is also worth noting that left-wing screenwriter Franco Solinas—who co-wrote Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 ode to urban insurrection The Battle of Algiers and 1969’s homage to Third World national liberation struggles Burn! starring Marlon Brando, as well as Costa-Gavras films, including 1972’s State of Siege, about urban guerrilla warfare in Uruguay—also co-authored Spaghetti Westerns. Solinas imbued 1967’s A Bullet for the General and The Big Gundown, plus 1969’s Tepepa, with radical politics, sometimes writing the Mexican Revolution into these allegorical scripts.
In addition, another more contemporary stylistic inspiration for The Settlers may be Quentin Tarantino, whose violence-soaked movies sometimes periodically use titles, as Gálvez does throughout his period piece.
Cinema As Social Control
Meanwhile, back at The Settlers, Gálvez explains: “The film is a mix of real and make-believe characters. President Montt and Menéndez really existed. Nearly all of the land featured in the film belongs to this day to the descendants of the Menéndez family who settled in Chilean and Argentine Patagonia.” Menéndez owned almost half a million acres and his descendants still own vast tracts of land in Tierra del Fuego, which limited Gálvez’s location shooting there (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selk%27nam_genocide).
MacLennan, too, was an actual historical figure known as “Chancho Colorado” (literally, “The Red Pig,” perhaps in part as a reference to his British army jacket), who seems similar to that 19th century imperial American adventurer, William Walker. The Selk’nam Genocide, which is alluded to in The Settlers, is likewise fact-based.
The movie is told largely through Segundo’s eyes. As what a character in the movie calls a “half-breed,” with one foot in the white world and another in the Mapuche realm, he has a unique, if conflicted, perspective. Segundo escapes with a Native woman, Kiepja (Mishell Guaña) to Chiloé Island, farther to the north, where the couple pursue an Indigenous way of life. There, after years have passed, Vicuña (Marcelo Alonso), an envoy of the president of Chile who is trying to unify the country and bring it into the modern world, goes to the Tierra del Fuego archipelago on a mission to collect information about the mass murder of the Selk’nam.
Vicuña tracks down Segundo and Kiepja and the one-time scout shares memories of the slaughters of Natives he had witnessed. Afterwards, Vicuña asks the couple to sit at a table with a teapot and pose for his new invention, an early film camera, which he explains captures pictures that move. The presidential envoy repeatedly directs the Indigenous woman to drink her tea, but Kiepja steadfastly refuses to follow directions. At first, it seems as if her refusal to simply sip her tea is perversely obstreperous and obstinate, but this finale is a final act of resistance, as Kiepja declines to go along with an act of misrepresentation that would cast her as being “civilized,” indulging in that “veddy” British custom of drinking tea.
Like Gálvez’s film form, Kiepja defiantly does not fall in line with conventional filmmaking. “The film industry has always promoted the image of the colonizer…Vicuña was particularly aware of the power of cinema, and of staging, as a tool for propaganda and for writing a national narrative…Vicuña has a camera, the Indigenous peoples do not…Vicuña owns the camera and has the power to rewrite history,” and in doing so, to control the narrative and representation—or misrepresentation—of his “primitive” subjects.
Movies As Memory
As debates in the U.S. over teaching American history swirl, The Settlers is a cautionary tale about the denial and cover-up of history, set in the Chilean context. Galvez asks: “What happens to a country when an entire page of its history is erased?…Dawson Island, in Tierra del Fuego, was used by the Pinochet regime to detain and later to exterminate political prisoners, including government ministers and close friends of Salvador Allende. But an earlier slaughter of Indigenous populations took place on the island and has been entirely forgotten.
“To understand our recent history, we need to go further back in time to the colonization of the ancestral lands of the Indigenous peoples. In Chile today, the authorities want to make us forget the Pinochet dictatorship the way they tried to make us forget the earlier extermination of the Indigenous peoples. It’s a double discounting of history…In Chile, the slaughter of the Indigenous peoples, perpetrated by the ranchers of Tierra del Fuego and indirectly supported by the Chilean government, have been expunged from the country’s official history. The events are never mentioned. They were entirely hushed up.”
But with its unique capacity as an audio-visual medium to register, record and replicate reality, movies can also serve as a motion picture persistence of memory. Gálvez declares: “To tell this hushed-up story without portraying the brutality and violence of the events would have been unpardonable, an unacceptable compromise with regard to both history and the victims. There have been very few opportunities for Chilean filmmakers to recount the story of how a peaceable people were brutally hunted down. It took me nine years to make this film and I never considered it in any other light. I felt duty-bound to show in vivid detail what really happened. It was part of my responsibility as a filmmaker.”
At a November private showing in the screening room of the high-powered Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles, Gálvez told an audience of mostly reviewers and film industry professionals that The Settlers had not been released in Chile yet. But he expected that, once it opens in his homeland, his movie would generate domestic controversy. On the international stage, some may see the film in the wider context of the current crisis between Israel—the world’s epitome of a settler state—and Palestinians.
The award-winning The Settlers, which scored the 2023 Cannes Film Festival’s FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) “Un Certain Regard” Prize plus two other Cannes nominations, and is Chile’s Official Oscar submission for Best International Feature Film, is an impressive full-length film debut for Felipe Gálvez. Previously, the Santiago-born filmmaker had helmed three shorts, including 2018’s Rapaz, which won a grand jury prize at the Dallas International Film Festival.
The Settlers theatrically opens in Los Angeles and New York on January 12, 2024.
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