Jorge Thielen Armand on La fortaleza

With his father leading the cast, émigré filmmaker Jorge Thielen Armand revisits Venezuela in his third film La Fortaleza. Deep in the jungle full of Colombian guerrillas and poisonous gold mines, his father is trying to rebuild an old memory.

Written by Kees Driessen

Jorge Thielen Armand left Venezuela when he was still a teenager, with his mother and stepfather – first to the United States, then Canada. In his films, he keeps returning to his tortured homeland and his family that stayed behind. In his documentary short Flor de la Mar, it was his grandfather, also called Jorge, lamenting the archaeological neglect of South-America’s first Spanish settlement.

In his subsequent features La Soledad (‘the solitude’) and Tiger Competition entry La fortaleza (‘the fortitude’), both hovering somewhere between fiction and non-fiction, Thielen Armand reconnects with his father – another Jorge – who hopes to restore either the family villa or, in La fortaleza, an old tourist camp in the middle of the jungle. In both films, Jorge senior plays fictionalised versions of himself – with La fortaleza recreating his rough years in the jungle, working in the gold mines.

Why did you cast your father?
“It started with La Soledad, in which he plays a supporting role. There, he was my way into our old family house. He was playing me, in a sense. Thanks to him, I was able to go there and recollect the past. Also, it was great to have all this footage of his face, from all angles, in a beautiful 2K resolution. This material will be there forever, you know, for my great-great-grandchildren. At the end of La Soledad, my father says he’s going to work in the mines. When we were editing, we suddenly thought: that’s our next film! So, La fortaleza is like a sequel. Another adventure with my father – just like when I was a kid, when we used to go into the jungle together.”

After Flor de la Mar and La Soledad, you’ve made yet another film in which someone is trying to rebuild a ruinous idea of a home. Why is that?
“That’s easy to explain. Since I left Venezuela in 2005, I’ve never felt I had a home. I’ve moved from one place to another and even after fifteen years in Canada, I still don’t have the passport – which I maybe never will have.”

La fortaleza not only means ‘fortitude’, but also ‘fortress’ – another building.
“I’m glad you picked up on that. The fortitude refers to your inner strength, the strength of the soul. But my father is also building a fortress in the jungle, to protect himself from the dangerous people in the mine – and from the situation in Venezuela. For me, the fortresses are also those table-top mountains in the background, the tepuis, which you can only find in Venezuela. They are our last refuge. Even if the whole Amazon jungle gets destroyed, these mountains will remain. By the way, I now suddenly realise that the next movie I’m writing is also about someone trying to build a house! [Laughs]”

Does that film already have a title?
“Yes, La cercanía – which means ‘closeness’ or ‘nearness’. Because first, when I left Venezuela, I was lost. That was solitude, la soledad. Then, I regained my fortitude, la fortaleza. And now, I can be close again – to those I left behind and to the people in my new surroundings.”

Can we say that these buildings in disrepair also represent Venezuela itself?
“Definitely, it’s an obvious metaphor. There are so many problems affecting people in Venezuela right now. I want to incorporate some of them in my films.”

Problems such as the Colombian guerrillas and the water-poisoning mines in La fortaleza.
“I do feel strongly about these abuses of Venezuela, by outsiders and by ourselves. And the mines where I filmed were real. At the same time, I’d like viewers to not always immediately know if something might be a dream or not; if something is reality or fiction. It’s related to the magic realism of Venezuela. There can suddenly be a horse standing in your garden, in the middle of a city, as in La Soledad. Those things really do happen there.”

Or like the bat that your father spits out in La fortaleza.
Laughing: “Yes! That was based on a dream I had, when I was really missing my ex-girlfriend. In my dream, she squeezed a pimple in the back of my neck. She squeezed and squeezed, and a dark creature crawled out and over my arm. I wanted to recreate that with my father: that he is also getting rid of something dark from within. But the visual effects were too expensive – so now he just coughs up a bat.”

Photo in header: Still: La fortaleza