Invasión tells the story of a city, Aquilea, “which is besieged by powerful enemies and defended by a handful of men, who may not be heroes”, according to Jose Luis Borges’ words.
Shot in a wonderfully contrasted black and white, this eternal story of a town under siege becomes, through Adolfo Bioy Casares and Jorge Luis Borges’ writing work, a metaphysical and poetical tale. Focused on its complex storyline and on its characters, depicted with care, Invasión is and ode to all the forces of resistance -past and future. Directed in 1969, shown on the opening of the very first Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes Films Festival, the film had a strange destiny. Banned in 1974 by Argentinian authorities, its negative was stolen and it was impossible to see the film for years before its restoration in 2000. A look back on a forgotten gem of South American cinema with director Hugo Santiago.
*** On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the making of Invasión, a trilingual (French, English, Spanish) DVD boxset including two discs and a 156-page booklet will be available on sale exclusively on Dissidenz and at Blaq Out la boutique (52 rue Charlot, 75003 Paris), starting from December 1, 2009. A special presentation with Hugo Santiago will also take place at la boutique on December 1 at 19:15. ***
What is the genesis of Invasión?
I was living in France and going back to Buenos Aires to make two short films. I had a simple idea, a town invaded and defended by a handful of people. I saw Bioy Casares and told him about it. He told me “you have to speak to Borges about it”. That very day we went to meet Borges at the National Library. I told him about my idea. I had been Borges’ student for a year and I had regularly met him before I went to France in 1959. Borges and Bioy were movies buffs, Borges wrote some film reviews when he was younger. They had both a bad experience with cinema as they wrote two screenplays, which never came to life. They wrote a twenty-page text: there were some of the characters, a few scenes, some from their memories, but not enough of the continuity they were beautifully implementing in their novels. My idea to work with them was that the film was part of a universe they were the masters of. I would have made the film their way so why not making it with originals? Borges loved it and laughed a lot. They asked me to critize their work. I couldn’t do it in front of Borges so I did it with Bioy. He told me he was going to leave for Europe for a few months and that Borges was waiting to hear from me. The day Bioy left I met with Borges and for hours -with an unexpected courage– I analyzed and criticized their work. When I stopped talking, Borges said “we’re starting tomorrow”. We started the next day and we wrote for a year. We worked scene after scene. A structure emerged and we carefully sticked to it. The things we needed for our structure were coming one after the other, even the characters.
How was it to work with Borges?
It was wonderful. Borges was our master and we had a great admiration for him. He was very curious. He always took care of keeping our work together balanced. Every one of his suggestions had to be discussed and criticized, often with humor -he was a great humorist. I never worked as easily as with Borges. There was absolutely no room for ego. I didn’t need it, not any more. He had already been, when younger, very proud, adamant, there was no room for pride anymore, except for the work coming. We were working on things over and over.
What was your purpose through that story?
There was no purpose. Some events, in South America and other places, have seem to suggest answers but as we were making it our only care was about characters and storytelling. Maybe you could say there was something in the air we could have felt, but you could especially say that now, forty years later. For example, we had to choose a place where the hero would be put in jail and beaten. We chose a stadium because it could be like an antique theater. Later, people where tortured and put in jail in stadiums in Chile. The events occurred afterwards. When the film was finished –in 1969, a few days before the Cannes Film Festival where it opened the very first Directors’ Fortnight– when I was asked about the meaning of the film I answered that I was dealing with themes, like in music. And the main theme was invasion, in all its aspects. A few events and characters were inspired by Borges’ memories -the character of Don Porfirio was inspired by Borges- master, Macedonio. But we were guided by the storyline. When we established the structure, Borges asked me “where do we start from ?”. I answered, “we start with the beginning”. I was so afraid our collaboration might stop anytime that I asked him to write the last scene right after the first one. I was saying to myself: if he wants to stop working with me, I would have these two sentences to get the tone of the film. Then we wrote the dialogues. The dialogues in Argentinean are not realistic. It’s a language nobody ever spoke, a kind of 30s-40s Argentinean but very stylish. A really peculiar language.
How was the shooting and where does the black and white contrast come from?
The shooting went very well. We had an old Arriflex camera from pre-war time but it had a great short lens and we had an excellent operator. We worked a lot, we had time. There were no spectacular things that would have required a lot of money and I had what I needed. We had already made two short films with Ricardo Aronovich, the cinematographer -the second one was more contrasted than the first one. To make Invasión we experimented things. We looked for those intense greys, our reference was Rembrandt’s sketches. We had the chance to work with a laboratory where we could experiment what we wanted. The baths, the times, we worked a lot with an ultra-sensitive film we brought from Rochester, from Kodak. When the film was done and the people of Kodak saw the film, they sent us a congratulation letter asking “how did you do that ?”. This had been the work of a photographer in a lab, testing baths, trying again…
How was the film welcomed in Argentina and in the rest of the world?
In Argentina, the official film critic found it impossible to understand. They didn’t tell it too loud because it was Borges and Casares but they talked about a fantasy universe and things like that… When the TV channel that had put money in the film decided to broadcast it, they found out it had been banned. The army was almost controlling the country. The film was banned and reels were stolen from the laboratory. This film, which was acclaimed by the whole world critic, was, five years later, banned by military forces as a subversive film. They started to grasped things that weren’t there when we made it. Ten years after the release of the film, a French critic wrote a newspaper article in which he listed things he had seen during those years, like the stadiums used as prisons and many other things like that in Argentina, Chile or even Korea, and he said ”I saw all those things in 1969, in a film called Invasión”.
Had the film disappeared by that time?
Eight reels of the original negative were stolen, no new print could be made. Such was the situation until 2000, when, thanks to Pierre André Boutang and the people of Arte Channel, we could restore the film. I took the two reels left -forty minutes of the film-, I found two good prints and, with cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich, we worked to find again the density and the contrasts of the original reels.
By Olivier Gonord, Paris, November 4, 2009