Brazilian-Dutch co-production Monos by Alejandro Landes follows a group of Colombian child soldiers across epic landscapes. From a mountain plateau above the clouds, this band of rebels descend into complete chaos in the canyons. It’s war in the jungle mixed with booze, shrooms, a hostage and a conscripted dairy cow.
Ordered around by their snappy commander Mensajero, the Monos are given one mission only: to keep alive American hostage Doctora – played by Julianne Nicholson – and a dairy cow on loan from ‘The Organisation’. When the eight kids – including Disney actor Moises Arias and Sofia Buenaventura – find themselves ambushed, they are forced down into the morass.
Monos is both allegorical and philosophical, with Colombia's civil war as the backdrop for adolescents who are creating their own way of life. Mica Levi scored the film’s mesmerising soundtrack. Ahead of our Summer Nights pre-premiere screening, on 4 September, Alejandro Landes talked to us about Monos and its ‘beast’ of a production.
Monos is about war and conflict on the surface, but also about the inner conflicts of child soldiers. Why children at war?
“In a way, Monos is based on something real, which is the capturing of hostages and kidnapping amidst conflict. Oftentimes, the highest in command are the ones that negotiate these strategies, but it’s the lowest-ranked soldiers that take care of guarding these prisoners of war. You’ll often find that lowest rank in any army are kids. I read texts from people who were kidnapped or held hostage and whose guards were adolescents. I also thought it was important was that the protagonists between of the age between being a child and an adult. This borderline spoke to me. It’s the time where you often go through a very big conflict. I also wanted to talk about the future, so the film asks questions for these young protagonists who have their life ahead of them.”
Tell us about the guerrilla wars and backline rebels in Colombia that inspired you.
“As a Colombian, these wars were my biggest source of inspiration. Colombia has gone through a civil war with many fronts and the lines aren’t clear. Here it’s a situation where you have guerillas, paramilitary, narco, foreign intervention, and the state. Even between the guerillas you have different factions. Same thing with the paramilitary. The lines of battle are very divided and there’s certainly a fog of war. I think it’s similar to conflicts we’ve seen in our generation which are more irregular and in which people don’t really know where they or their country stands. You could ask someone about the Syrian civil conflict where the lines and dynamics shift so quickly. You also see that throughout the Middle East, or even in Crimea. We took inspiration for the production design from all sorts of irregular conflicts throughout the world and from the past. So, if you’re Colombian, you’re going to see Monos in a very particular light, but the film can also exist outside of this. At the heart of the film is human nature and war is a window into it.”
“At the heart of the film is human nature and war is a window into it.” – Alejandro Landes on his inspiration for Monos
How does the film consider gender and sexuality?
“Something that is key to film is the idea of rejecting binary concepts of the world. Good or evil, adult or child, left or right, victim or victimiser, paradise or hell. We have the character Rambo who is gender fluid, you don’t know if they are a man or a woman. We have these scenarios in the film which reject classification. It’s the same as the armies in Colombia, you never know if they’re fighting for the right or the left, and in the end I don’t think it really matters. While casting we looked at more than 800 kids throughout Colombia. I think that by looking at so many people I became blind to certain things, blind to gender. There was this one kid named Matt that was interesting to me. In a video I watched him in a basketball game with his friends. Matt ended up being Sofia Buenaventura, but a lot of her friends call her Matt. She kind of became an inspiration for the character Rambo.”
Rambo, Wolf, Smurf, BigFoot, Boom-Boom. How did you come to name your characters?
“I was researching aliases and nom de guerre [a name a person engages in combat]. A lot of these names were very striking to me. When I would try to think of the film in my mind, sometimes I would think of something very iconic like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The film is born out of something very real, but exists somewhere between documentary reality and fable. We have natural places and faces but the names are highly stylised, as is the mise-en-scene. As well as pushing the allegorical element of the film, I think that juxtaposition gives it something fantastical. That’s why it’s interesting that Monos opened the Imagine Film Festival [a festival for genre film].”
How was the production and your adventure into these beautiful landscapes?
“The production was a real beast. We shot at about 4000 metres in the air in a very special place in the Chingaza national park. It’s an area of wetland with a big reservoir, the water trickles down from here gaining speed until it ends up at the torrents of the lowland jungles. That’s the structure of the film: we follow the path of the water into the jungle canyon near Medellín. To get there we took a 4x4, and rode donkeys and rafts. Our production assistants were legal gold miners, we had a pack of mules, a helicopter and worked with Colombia’s national kayak team. Everyone was helping us put this thing together. It was a very strange and unique group. We all worked our asses off but at some point the stars had to align for this to happen.”
For the cinematography you worked with Jasper Wolf, from here in the Netherlands. What was this collaboration like?
“I had a great experience working with my previous cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, he’s the Greek one who did Porfidio and The Lobster. It was tough to think about working with somebody else. But I was introduced to Jasper. I really liked his energy. His absolute determination for the film, his references, his desire and what he was looking for, he never let down throughout the entire shoot. I couldn’t have imagined making this film with anyone else. He was a soldier. It was a very physical shoot and he was moving with the characters. The film has a very strong feeling of movement, and that meant we shot with a Mōvi camera, he had this armour on him that made him look just like Robocop. Incredible!”
The soundtrack was scored by Mica Levi. How did you brief her?
“She’s very special. I sent her an unfinished cut and she connected immediately with the spirit of the film: the colours, the faces and the places. She came up with something that helped the film with the proposal, which was two things. One being the atemporal notion of the film, meaning you don’t know if it’s in the past or the future. She introduced elemental sounds, such as blowing into a bottle, as well more futuristic sounds using synthesizers, like a shot of adrenaline, or something from a Berlin nightclub. The other thing was that she gave a musical note to different characters and emotions. One of the challenges of the film was having so many characters. So, for example: when the messenger, who represents authority and The Organisation, appears on screen, you’ll always hear the shrill whistle.”
Monos was supported by the Hubert Bals Fund and presented at our co-production market CineMart. How did this help bring your film to life?
"CineMart was really the beginning of it all, so it was very exciting. It’s where we met our production company Lemming Film, which turned out to be great. It wasn’t just a co-production on paper, it was by heart and collaboration. The Hubert Bals Fund helped us with production through HBF+Europe. I would say Monos is a house of many bricks of many countries and different colours, very hard to put together, but the Hubert Bals Fund was the first brick."
Monos will screen as a pre-premiere at Summer Nights in Rotterdam on 4 September. A collaboration with KINO Rotterdam and Pathé Schouburgplein.
Photo in header: Still: Monos