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‘The Settlers,’ a raw and violent Western about the sins of colonialism in Chile

Director Felipe Gálvez’s feature debut, recounting episodes from the genocide of the Selk’nam people in Tierra del Fuego, premieres in Latin America after winning the Film Critics Award at the Cannes Film Festival

Película Los Colonos
Mark Stanley, Camilio Arinicibia and Sam Spruell in a still from the film ‘The Settlers’ (dir. Gálvez Haberle, 2023).Sideral Cinema (Sensacine)

The idea was planted in Felipe Gálvez’s head 12 years ago. He tried to think of other subjects, but none of them compelled him like this one. It would be a period film, his debut feature, and he would shoot it in Tierra del Fuego. He learned about the history that would inspire the film from an independent newspaper, and was struck by the fact that he had never studied the events in school — that it was not part of the country’s official history. He experienced a kind of déjà vu: it reminded him of certain other historical moments that Chile “tries not to talk about” and “avoids revisiting.” “I found it striking that the genocide of the Selk’nam was so hidden,” says the 41-year-old director and screenwriter from Santiago, Chile.

That early idea and curiosity planted the seed for what would eventually become Los colonos (The Settlers, in its English release), Felipe Gálvez’s first film, which, ahead of its commercial debut in Chile, has made an extensive tour of festivals, including the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, where it won the International Federation of Film Critics Award for Best Film. The film is set in the late 19th century, as sheep ranches cropped up across Patagonia. In 1893, a multiracial Chilean mestizo named Segundo, an English soldier named Maclenan, and an American mercenary named Bill set out on a horseback expedition to delimit and lay claim to the lands that the state has granted to Spanish businessman José Menéndez. What at first appears to be an administrative expedition turns into a violent hunt for the Selk’nam — also known as the Ona or Onawo — the indigenous inhabitants of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago.

Camilio Arinicibia, Sam Spruell and Mark Stanley, in the roles of Segundo Molina, Colonel Martin, and Alexander MacLennan.
Camilio Arinicibia, Sam Spruell and Mark Stanley, in the roles of Segundo Molina, Colonel Martin, and Alexander MacLennan. Sideral Cinema (Sensacine)

“I thought it would be interesting to look at a lesser-known moment in history — a time when there was also a lot of violence, which can move us to reflect on the present,” Gálvez says, speaking to EL PAÍS from his home in France. “I approach the Selk’nam genocide from the point of view of white settlers, from the point of view of those who committed the violence and offenses, to reflect on things that, for me, are happening in the present. It’s a reflection on things in the present and the history of my country 100 years ago, 50 years ago, and what can happen with any history that remains unwritten.”

Gálvez says that the script took him about four years to finish. Much of the information he drew on to tell the story came from documents and research that began to emerge only 15 to 20 years ago, concerning events that took place in the mid-1800s, which is when invasion and colonization began in the region. The film was based on ethnographic information from travel accounts, studies and documents that discuss the Selk’nam and how they lived as a people, but mainly on files from the first judge sent by Chile to investigate crimes committed in Tierra del Fuego. The investigations of the government emissary, who, during his stay, lived at the house of Spanish businessman José Menéndez, considered the “King of Patagonia” because he made one of the largest fortunes in the region and controlled large swaths of land in Chile and Argentina — Menéndez is played by Alfredo Castro in the film — resulted in the publication of the Sumario sobre vejámenes inferidos a indíjenas de Tierra del Fuego (“Summary of the abuses inflicted on the indigenous inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego”).

The document contains interviews conducted with ranchers, police chiefs and foremen who testify about what happened. “Everywhere in the Americas has its José Menéndez, its foreman, its mestizos — characters one relies to interpret the history of our continent, and that we relied on to create a story that works on its own, whether you know the history of Chile or not. I believe that people who have been colonized and the countries that have been colonizers will recognize themselves in the film, which is not intended to be a historical document. My aim was to create a reflection, using cinema — to make a universal film — about, as the title says, the settlers, the colonizers, and when they bring about processes of colonization.”

A still from ‘The Settlers,’ winner of the Film Critics Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
A still from ‘The Settlers,’ winner of the Film Critics Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Sideral Cinema (Sensacine)

Gálvez intended for the film’s cinematographic experience to be a “visceral” one, in which the spectator might feel that he or she has joined the characters on their journey, becoming an accomplice to the events. For this reason, the large landscapes, the ambient and atmospheric sound, as well as the photography, were conceived, he explains, to be experienced in the theater. Following this same logic, Gálvez and his co-screenwriter Antonia Girardi thought of the film in sections or chapters. The first part was conceived as a Western, with adventures on horseback and graphic violence. The second, as more of a drama and political thriller, which takes place indoors, but with scenes where what is said is “extremely violent” in its own right.

“The two structures of the film go through different layers and types of violence. One is outdoors and is executed physically. The other, indoors, in an armchair where it’s executed silently and with words. For me, the film is very cinephile, and as it transforms and captures the viewer, it allows you to understand the techniques cinema uses to manipulate you, because the film also tries to reflect on cinema as a machine that itself is part of the rewriting of 20th-century history,” he says.

Alexander MacLennan points a gun at Colonel Martin, in a still from the film.
Alexander MacLennan points a gun at Colonel Martin, in a still from the film. Sideral Cinema (Sensacine)

This, Gálvez says, continuing on the theme of Westerns, is a tool and an invention of cinema to portray the Americas as a civilized continent. The genre addresses abuses and massacres, but transforms the cowboy, the white man, into the hero, while containing the indigenous, the uncivilized, to the past. For this reason, he says, George Orwell’s famous quip that “history is written by the winners” also applies to cinema. “The film tries to reflect on who those winners are that have written history. What are they hiding, what’s the historical counter-narrative, and why do the winners not want to acknowledge it,” he adds.

The Settlers premiered in Chile on January 18, while in Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, the date is set for January 25. In Argentina and Uruguay it will be available from February 1 and finally on February 8 in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. Gálvez is looking forward to the premiere of the film in Chile, and hopes it will be received, not as a “crude provocation,” but rather to generate a conversation and to experience events from a different point of view.

“I think the reaction is going to be interesting, because first of all, when you make films, you often try to include on the agenda an issue that isn’t part of the agenda. There will be people who share the vision, and people who won’t. What interests me is to provoke a conversation, like making little ripples in the water to generate a wave that makes some small impact. The film isn’t propaganda, it’s fiction, and above all, is inspired by cinematic ideas and hopefully leaves the viewer thinking about a lot other things as well,” he concludes.

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