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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.

Cuarón: 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—

Horvat: Cows.

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.

Further Reference

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