The brutal realism of José Campusano

With an almost complete retrospective at IFFR, the “brutal cinema” of Argentinian filmmaker José Compusano is finally getting exposure outside the Spanish language territory. His stories may be filled with violence and depravity (but also generosity and love), but for the artist himself this just seems to be the way of the world. “My films are not connected to the established canon. If people want to say that this makes them anarchist, then they are.”

José Campusano's production company is called Cinebruto. It's a fitting name, in light of his films: the stories the Argentinian filmmaker portrays can be brutal, and are often populated by motorcycle gangs, prostitutes and criminals. But for Campusano, that's just the world he lives in, in the surroundings of his hometown Quilmes – the town where he was born in 1964, and the backdrop to most of his films.

“I simply create fiction out of what I see around me, in an anthropological manner, and working with an inclusive nature”, Campusano explains via e-mail shortly before the festival. Just before departing for Rotterdam, the highly productive director (who has averaged a film a year in the 13 years since his debut short film Bosques in 2005) is still in the throes of creating a new work.

Somewhere in the 1980s, Campusano studied film for a little while. Looking at his official filmography, you'd be forgiven for thinking that he subsequently waited almost two decades before he put those lessons into practice. In reality, that gap was significantly smaller, the director says. “In 1991 I co-directed the documentary Ferrocentauros with Sergio Cinalli, which in essence anticipates all my later films about motorcyclists. And in 2000 my cousin Leonardo Padin, who is my partner to this day, I started to experiment with the digital format and with the style of staging that today still characterises Cinebruto. What I did in those years in between? I worked in other areas, as hard as I have ever worked in my life.”

When I'm looking for actors, the most important thing I'm looking for is that they're unknown.” – José Campusano

Sharp eye
Campusano takes care to call his Cinebruto a collective, not a company. The multitude of voices, on and off screen, has helped the director become the preeminent chronicler of conflicting working-class life in his home country. “I believe that the films I write, produce and direct are strongly critical, but seen from the inside – it's self-criticism. They take hold in the strength of real anecdotes, the energy of real events.”

That approach is already visible in his “official” directorial debut, the documentary Legión - Tribas urbanas motirizadas. Although the film has less of the poetic charge his later fiction works would develop, both the themes and his generous embrace of all the people Campusano encounters are already in place. We can even find some of the figures that would pop up as actors in his later films, with the eccentric Rubén Beltrán a.k.a. Vikingo as the most prominent example. Vikingo would star in his own, eponymous fiction film in 2009, in which he gets to look back at footage from the then three-year-old documentary.

Even moving forward in the following years, Campusano retains his sharp eye for what's all too easily dismissed as the wrong side of the tracks. In Fango(2012) finds humanity in the back streets of Buenos Aires, the parts of the photogenic city that are mostly left out of frame. And in his most recent film El azote, which is getting its international premiere at IFFR, he turns his x-ray vision to the Patagonian ski resort Bariloche.

  • Still: Fango

New language
To retain the power of reality in the fiction he distils from it, Campusano prefers to work with non-professional actors. People he drags in from the streets, sometimes literally, and who lead their lives in the environments that the director wants to tell his stories in. In that light, acting experience can actually be a hindrance. “When I'm looking for actors, the most important thing I'm looking for is that they're unknown. I love to give such talented people the opportunity to participate in a film for the very first time. Then, they need to have some degree of connection to the plot and the social stratum the story addresses. That selection depends entirely on intuition.”

As part of the retrospective, Campusano's latest project Brooklyn Experience is having its world premiere in Rotterdam. It's the first film he's directed outside of Argentina, in New York – even though his English is far from top notch. “Having bilingual collaborators, it was not a problem at all. I also directed films in Portuguese and Aymara previously. In fact, it would be very interesting for me to shoot a traditional drama in a 360-degree format in a country like the Netherlands or Germany.”

A much more important leap, the director says, was the fact that Brooklyn Experience is his first work in virtual reality. “I find it extremely inspiring to film documentary and fiction in 360 degrees; after Brooklyn Experience, we are already working on two more feature films: Bolivia profunda and La secta del gatillo. I enjoy very much the fact that it is brand new; we're starting from scratch and collaborating on the construction of a completely new language, that is more intimately linked to the instinct of the spectator and that explores other types of emotions. I would say that this experience has affirmed the insights and aesthetic decisions that have been central to my films until now.”

Photo in header: Interview: Joost Broeren-Huitenga