Absaline Hehakaya: Good evening everyone. Welcome to the De Balie. Welcome to the Forum on European Culture, which is themed “Act for Democracy.” My name is Absaline Hehakaya. I’m head of cinema here at De Balie. And a couple of weeks ago I had the idea to ask one of the esteemed guests of the Forum on European Culture to pick his favorite film, the film which he thinks reflects the European situation we live in today best. And this guest is Srećko Horvat. He’s a political philosopher, founder of DiEM25. And he immediately wrote back to me and said, “Well then we have to stream Children of Men.” So yeah, we did that. I arranged the rights.
And then he said, “Let me know when it’s online and I will tell Alfonso.” I think it might be a nice detail that we were able…together with Dutchculture and also with the IFFR and with Dutch distributors, we were trying to get a big guest to the forum, a film director, to reflect on the European situation. And we failed terribly. And then at one point two days ago, Srećko told us, “Uh yeah, Alfonso is coming.” He booked a ticket. And so, without further ado, I would like you to give a big hand of applause for Srećko Horvat and Alfonso Cuarón.
Srećko Horvat: Good evening. I’m extremely glad to be here, and not because I’m here but because Alfonso is here and we are together here. So the idea is just to shortly speak about the movie and why it matters today. So let me start with an anecdote. When I told my sister that I’m going to Amsterdam to this festival and that we will be— That the organizer asked me to pick a movie which in my mind describes in the best way to current situation in Europe but also beyond. And then my sister asked me, “But you know, I loved that movie and I love Alfonso but why are you showing this old movie?”
And then I told my sis— I didn’t tell her but I will tell it to my sister. I didn’t speak to her recently. I think why Children of Men in my mind is a masterpiece…it’s a masterpiece and the best movie about their current predicament precisely because the older it gets, the newer it is. Either way you know, at that time when I watched it—it was 2006, it was as if it was a movie from the future about our dystopian future. And then you know, people called it—and they still do call it—a science fiction movie. But if you watch today, and you will watch it—and we will watch who will watch, so you cannot get out… That was Alfonso’s joke. He’s the one, the dictator.
If you watch it today, it’s a movie about…it’s not science fiction. It’s not a science fiction movie. So let me just shortly, in a few points, say why I think that precisely today the movie matters.
I think the first reason is… Of course the movie’s a prophecy I would say. Because what you have there is this state of exception in Great Britain which is now the only country which is still somehow surviving, although there is no fertility, no new children are being born. So what they do as a reaction is building walls and, well militarizing all of Britain. You can even see—this is what I really like in Children of Men is basically the background. The background where… When I watched it now again a few days ago, I was basically just looking at the background and stopping, and then what you can see when you watch are the posters, or the graffiti and so on. What you will find…it’s amazing.
So you will find for instance “Britain Only For the Brits.” 2006. Refugees helping refugees is…giving aid, shelter, or helping refugees is illegal. I mean, fast forward from 2006 to Hungary this week when Viktor Orbán is trying to impose a bill that anyone who helps the refugees will be criminalized. And so many many many other things in the background, so when you watch the movie, look at the background. And this is what I find amazing, the research you did for the movie which is going a step further than the book.
But to give a more theoretical point why I think it describes our situation today, it’s I think because it beautifully shows something that I would call it normalization. Normalization in the sense how it… You know, when there is a scene in the movie in the cabin when the main character— I mean the good thing with a movie which is from 2006 is that we can spoil it, I hope. How many people here didn’t watch the movie? Well…okay, I will not spoil it. You will have to complain to Universal or who is it.
So anyhow, when you have a scene in the cabin, I will not tell what happens there, you will see newspapers all around the cabin. And when you read the newspapers, you’ll read the following headlines: “Refugees Marching on Europe.” Remember this is 2006; refugees in the meantime marched, you know, through the Balkan route and so on, and they’re still coming. Then there is “Nuclear Explosion in Africa,” “Nuclear Explosion in Kazakhstan.” That likely didn’t happen yet, but when you put all these together, this is what I like, this kind of semiotics. Because I think what you succeeded in doing is really to make reality more real, in the sense to take the already existing signs of a future catastrophe which is a present catastrophe, put them together, and logically go a step further: what would happen then. And I think this normalization is the most scary thing which we have to understand today. Normalization in the sense that you can see refugees in cages. That you can see refugees who are being deported, or bombed by planes and so on. And I think we are today living in this moment which is not—
I don’t want to talk so much about what is now happening in Europe but to understand what normalization means. It means… Imre Kertész described it beautifully in his memoirs, where he said how to explain— And he survived the concentration camps. And Imre Kertész says that normalization consists in steps. It happens step by step. And then he made a comparison and he said you know, when there was a train which was leading us into the concentration camp, I was standing and a thousand people were standing, and I became aware that each step I make… You know, there are only steps that he can make at that moment, nothing else. But each step was leading into the concentration camp. And it goes step by step and he said this happened also when they went into the extermination parts of the concentration camp, in the sense that everything that was there was steps.
I mean you can see the beautiful also in for instance recent TV series and the book— Excuse me?
[inadible comment from audience]
Yeah yeah, I will. I just want to make a few points more. Yeah, don’t worry.
So, this is one thing, normalization. The other thing which I wanted to mention is… Okay, Brexit. In a way you have Brexit already predicted in the movie.
The other thing which I find really interesting since this is a festival about art as well, is the arts aspects, you know. There is now, here, a few meters away, an exhibition by Banksy. But you know, it was Alfonso who in 2006 you have the kissing bobbies at the beginning of the ark, the—what is the name, the new…
Alfonso Cuarón: Ark of the Arts.
Horvat: Ark of Art. Which is I think a very disturbing moment of the movie, you know, what’s the purpose of art if no one is looking at it. So I think… This is— I mean these are just some of the reasons why I find the movie interesting. And one last point, because we had this conversation yesterday. I said that some of the scenes of the movie reminded me of the war in Yugoslavia. And then I found out— Because it is these kinds of scenes where you have a lot of single shots which are basically like embedded journalism in a way, even with blood on the camera and so on. And then Alfonso revealed to me, which I didn’t know, that he was in Sarajevo precisely during that time. So you can see this…realis—I would say it’s hyperrealism in a way, you know.
Anyhow I’ll stop here. I have many other points. How do you look at the movie today? And how was the process of making the movie in the sense of being confronted with all these newspapers and everything in the news which were hap— Do you still do it today, for instance?
Cuarón: Well yeah. That was the— The genesis of Children of Men was actually September 11. I was in Toronto. I was at the film Festival in Toronto. I was with Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal because we were presenting a film I did called Y Tu Mamá También when it happened, September 11, and we were stranded in Toronto. And it was very clear that we were entering a new century. A century in which the rules in which the previous century had played were not going to be at play anymore, any longer. And I really wanted to understand where the century was leading.
And I think it’s very important to say this part of the process because the movie…it was the tenth birthday of the movie I think this year or last year. And there were a lot of articles about the film. A film that by the way when it was released nobody cared, nobody saw, and right now is having like a comeback. And no, I’m happy. I’m happy that you guys are seeing it and that you’re presenting this film.
But when we were doing the film, it was more trying to understand—and all these articles were talking about the prophetic aspect. Of how I was a prophet. And I was not a prophet. The thing is I was talking with people that were not prophets, they were people that were just actually…aware of what was going on. While the media, liberal media has taken us into a beautiful narrative of progress, there were other people that were very concerned about all of these different tendencies that were happening all around the world. And it was like seven years of reading and of talking with some of these great people. And trying to create… I wouldn’t tell that to the studio usually, but we wanted to do an essay more than making a film. We never set off to do a science fiction film.
I’m glad that you mentioned the background, because in the film I think the background is what tells the story. The background in many ways is way more important than the foreground. And we didn’t want to do any explanation. We didn’t need any exposition. We wanted to…precisely for that— If you start with exposition about something, about why the world is the way it is, you turn it into a special event. If you don’t explain it and you create that sense that you’re talking about, normalization, in which people are just living their lives as is…normal. Everything’s normal. They’re used to it and now actually, the ethics of everyone has chan—they have changed. And actually the infertility was nothing but that, infertility of ethics, if anything.
We didn’t set off to do a science fiction movie, and everything that you will see, all those backgrounds, were based upon references. We wanted to do the last fifteen years of images that had been iconic in the media. A lot of them of the Balkans. There were some—
Horvat: Guantanamo as well in a way.
Cuarón: Guantánamo. There was some stuff of Sri Lanka, of the Tamil Tiger fight. A lot of stuff that happened in Mexico.
Horvat: Terrorism as well.
Cuarón: Massacres. Obviously terrorism. That was already on the rise (well, in Europe it’s always been around) in the US.
So we wanted to do it as something that feels about the present. We didn’t want to talk about the future, we wanted to talk about the present. But we said okay, let’s take all of that and then just bring everything into one single location, meaning the UK and London. And that was pretty much the setup of doing the film.
Horvat: Yeah, we spoke about and we agree, basically, on the background. But also lets the speak a bit just about the—how do you call it—foreground. So the narrative, the story. Because I think it contains some a important lesson for activists and how to get out of the current deadlock which is going more and more in the direction of Children of Men. So on the one hand it is fertility, which is quite literal. So new children can be born. But it’s also metaphorical in the sense that everything is dying out. So it’s not only that the Europe is dying, as it is today with lower natality and so on, and that the refugees, the “barbarians” are coming.
But it’s also very metaphorical in the sense that ideas are dying. So it’s an infertility of ideas, I would say. And then it’s interesting…I thought about it only later, about the main character, Theo. Who basically is you know, he’s what happened to many on the left in Europe. For instance after the Syriza experience of 2015, they went into what Walter Benjamin calls a left-wing melancholy, you know. Oh, we were all hoping that the messiah came, and the savior, and so on. Oh fuck, but…it’s not the messiah and nothing actually—everything had to change so that everything can stay the same. And there was huge resentment afterwards. And many activists, even after the decline of the World Social Forum. Or even ’68, you know, when you have people, participants of ’68 speaking about ’68, it is very often looking back to that time. So the main character is this resignated, resentiman, guy who doesn’t believe that change is possible anymore.
And here you come back to fertility. Because what you do beautifully I think is… I think one of the central topics of the movie, and would you agree, did you think about it when you were doing it, is hope. But hope not in this kind of naïve optimism. But what Terry Eagleton would call hope without optimism. So it’s known that the situation is really bad, and the guy even until the end doesn’t have much hope, he ju— Clive Owen, you know. He just goes…in a sort of road movie, following…[to the audience:] you will see what, I will not spoil it.
And in the end…it’s a bit ambivalent the end, I will say. Because it’s still very dark, you know. The camp is being— [Cuarón gestures toward the audience] I will— Oh yeah yeah yeah, okay. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
Cuarón: No, the film is very loosely based upon a book that I didn’t read. [laughter] No, it’s true. And I didn’t read it because I got the… What they do is they send you sometimes a synopsis, like log lines. And the log line is what inspired me but immediately I had a whole story in my head. And I found the premise already great. But the book is more about upper classes in the UK and like—
Horvat: It’s not so dramatic as the movie—in the sense that—
Cuarón: Well there are no immigrants. The notion of the immigrants doesn’t exist. Terrorism doesn’t exist. All of that stuff that is stuff that was suggested by the book because yes—and I’m very grateful to PD James because of that. But I didn’t read it. So I used—
Horvat: Not even to today’s moment?
Cuarón: No, no. I didn’t read it because I didn’t want to derail from what I already had in my head. My cowriter Tim Sexton read it. And just asked him is there anything to adapt from this? He said no, it’s a complete different thing. But we liked the—most of the names of the characters are the ones in the book, you know. And the concept is there.
But it was… Yeah, I mean. Maybe so my background and my understanding and my beliefs, what I wanted was the idea of someone who had believed and that has lost also. So there was this whole thing of infertility of beliefs. And it’s a guy that used to be an activist and now is a disenchanted alcoholic.
My Mexican friends are outside, waiting for anybody that goes out.
Horvat: Well she didn’t hear it. That means that she’s finished. Gael is waiting outside.
Cuarón: No, El Chapo.
Anyway. But I guess looki— It’s just a pity— I find it so weird talking about films before the screening, you know? Because it’s way more interesting…
Horvat: It’ll stop now, soon.
Cuarón: Because I think it’s way more interesting when these things happen at the end. And also because there can be interaction about…whatever. But maybe next time we’ll do it this way. I mean, I don’t know if you want to…
Horvat: Well I can always, but I think I will spoil too much. So maybe… Well.
Cuarón: Well I know that I think it’s better but if anybody has a question or anything before we start rolling the whole thing. Yes?
Horvat: There is?
Audience 1: I think I totally agree with everyone probably here in the audience 90% of the film is a masterpiece. I have a question, why did you choose the intensity of a lot of the scenes in way of the camera usage? Because yes, it is I think science fiction, a utopian film, but why the intensity? Why so many closeups? Why did the car scene… Please explain more about the camera.
Cuarón: Yeah actually, if you see it again, there are very limited closeups. There are not that many closeups. Because part of the reason it was not—and that is connected to your other thing about the long shots, that the film is comprised of most mostly long shots. I had been doing it for a while before that. Y Tu Mamá También was the same thing. Which in many ways is to give the same weight to the character as to the background, you know. If you go into a closeup, you’re giving more predominance to your character from your background. And here I wanted a balance, and in many ways to get the character just blending into the into the background.
Also I wanted the sense of real time, you know. When you do long shots, you’re pretty much allowing a perception of real time. We wanted to precisely to cut out the feeling of the artifice of so-called science fiction. And I’m not against science fiction, it’s just that I was… I didn’t want to distract the audiences thinking that we were seeing a speculative future. I wanted them to try to see the present in the film more than trying to think about a possible future.
Horvat: But I think that’s… You can raise your hands, I will…short comment. I think that’s the definition of good science fiction, I would say. That it precisely becomes…[crosstalk] the present.
Cuarón: The present.
Horvat: Yeah yeah.
Audience 2: I think one of the film’s great unsung virtues is its production design, its sets. Can you talk a little bit about that, how they came into being and your process of working with your art director and production designer.
Cuarón: Yeah. Part of the time that the team, my cowriter and I, we spent the years before the production in London. Because when we wrote the script nobody wanted to do it. And so I ended up doing Harry Potter—it has nothing to do with this. But then after Harry Potter that gave me the free ticket to do this film. And while I was doing Harry Potter I used to go to the studio. You cross through the unflattering part of London. And it’s the unflattering part that also is where most of the people from different cultural heritages live. You know, you’re going through the neighborhoods where the British Caribbean people live; places from Arab countries, you know, living in London. And you start seeing that there’s like parallel society that was going on. At that time, and I guess it’s been for decades, that has been going on over there. Almost like it’s two different cities. So, that was an important aspect.
And then the other thing, and that was the work with the production designer, but a lot of it was Chivo Lubezki with me. Lubezki is the directory of photography, who also has done The Revenant, and he did Gravity, and done a lot of amazing films. One of the best cinematographers in the world.
And he’s Mexican, and we grew up together in Mexico. And we were talking about turning London into Mexico City. In other words to bring the third world into London. And pretty much we were looking for angles that reminded us of Mexico City, you know. Except the posh upper classes and stuff, that had to be very iconic London. It was about trying to bring the third world into London.
Together with that, it was very important each location had a symbolic meaning. From a marble arch… Not marble arch…it’s in Trafalgar going into the mall, where the upper classes they have their private parks and entertainment. To—
Horvat: To the museum, yeah?
Cuarón: To Battersea, as something that is a… It was a station of a decayed technology that now is turning into a private enterprise of…of art. That was the other element, was as you said, the talking about how when you extract art from its context it loses its meaning. Where it’s very different seeing the Guernica of Picasso in its actual setting, that scene as a background uses it, as a wallpaper, in your dining hall. You know, as an ornament. But the work was about trying to bring London into—actually, into what it is today. Unfortunately it happened too quickly.
Hehakaya: Okay, just because some [indistinct] out in the audience who hasn’t seen the movie…
Horvat: You were spoiling it now.
Cuarón: No I didn’t spoil because it’s—
Hehakaya: No no no. Not about spoilers.
Cuarón: No you, you spoiled it. I didn’t talk about— [laughter]
Hehakaya: Everything is film, so it turns out that also the talk is as prophetic to the film, as the film is to contemporary Europe. But you can rewatch everything, so just to point that out.
Audience 4: [inaudible; didn’t use microphone]
Horvat: Yeah yeah yeah, but this is—
Cuarón: I agree!
Horvat: But you know why? Because we come from the future. So in the sense that the end is starting at the beginning…
Cuarón: And actually just to make this whole experience cool, we’re going to play the film backwards.
Horvat: So if I can just add something, this is what you can see. A very crucial part not only of this movie but of your work is humor. And you will see that in the movie the only thing which keeps—
Cuarón: Okay, I think they should see it better.
Hehakaya: So there’s another question here.
Horvat: But maybe we slowly…
Cuarón: It’s just…
Horvat: Yeah yeah, let’s play the movie, yes.
[inaudible comment from audience]
Cuarón: Well that was— Yeah, if that’s…I don’t—
Horvat: No. We cannot continue the Q&A afterwards. No, because we have to do otherwise. We will start showing the movie after.
I think maybe one last question and then we disappear and who else disappears, the Mexicans are waiting, so.
Audience 5: Just one more question regarding the theme as you spoke about, a metaphorical infertility. But then there’s also a literal infertility as a theme throughout the film. For me it was one of the first times I saw that as a potential doom scenario for mankind in the near future, which has now also been used in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which is done very nicely on TV. When you came up with the concept do you feel that’s that’s one of the most existential dreads of society, that we would not be able to reproduce, or it’s nature’s biggest punishment for us to stop reproducing, or is that something that can—
Cuarón: No, I didn’t. I mean, I don’t see that as a threat. I don’t think that’s what is going to kill us at the end. I think that we’re very ingenious how to do it ourselves.
Horvat: Suicide kits.
Cuarón: Yeah. But not, it was… I have to say that when I read the concept of the PD James thing, I found out that it had a very metaphorical element, a very metaphorical value, that whole thing. Also nature I don’t think punishes, you know. Nature is nature. It doesn’t judge. anything. Nature is. And nature will keep on going. I mean, the world is going—maybe humanity may disseminate and the culture as we know will end. And nature will reflourish, you know. I don’t think that nature is really born. You will see in the film yes we deal with environmental stuff, but— You will see, it’s not a spoiler. You know, it’s—
Cuarón: Because it’s part of the chaos of what we’re—
Horvat: No no no, cows.
Cuarón: Ah, yeah.
Horvat: I was spoiling.
Cuarón: Well no— Yeah. No, but maybe for peole who haven’t seen it, it’s not bad to know that the cows is because in the UK— I don’t know how known this is, the mad cow disease, that they had to burn all these cows. So we were just making reference to stuff that was happening, that has references to unfortunately massive graves and stuff that are found that they are burned the same way.
Anyway, I really thank you for being here. I completely agree that next time, and let’s talk to our fantastic host, that next time it would be great if this happens at the end. [laughter] But I know also that it was not expe— I just happened to come, and it was organized at last moment. They run a very tight schedule.
Hehakaya: You’re always welcome back.
Cuarón: Okay. There you go. Thank you.
Hehakaya: I would like to wish you all a very thought-provoking screening. And be on the lookout for Alfonso tonight, still in Amsterdam. Roaming the streets.
Cuarón: Oh I don’t think so tonight.
Hehakaya: A warm applause for them both.