Roland Joffé on The Mission
Taken from Trento Cinema «Incontri Internazionali
con la Musica per il Cinema», ed. V Curzel,
Servizio Attività Culturali della Provincia Autonoma di Trento, 1988, pp.75-77
1. Interview edited by Dansi and Grosoli in Ciak, June 1986.
For me, The Mission represents a bridge between an art film and a film for a general audience, because I don't like making films for small groups of people or élites. But, at the same time, I want the audience to take something home with them, something that encourages them to think.
The film was made entirely on location in Colombia and Paraguay. I imagine there were considerable difficulties.
There were all kinds of problems, starting with the dreadful heat, especially in the jungle. The most curious episode, though, was reaching agreement with the bosses of the coca plantations, who are naturally constantly at war with the Colombian regular army. And to be able to work in peace we had to deal with both sides.
2. From an article by M P Fusco in La Repubblica, 11/10/1986
I have always been fascinated by man's ability to discover justice in his own conscience. And I have always asked myself what it is that makes certain individuals capable of so much love, so much generosity, so much courage. An extraordinary example was Benito Aquino, who returned to the Philippines although he knew that he might be killed. "If they kill me as soon as I arrive at the airport', he said, 'I want to die with my arms wide open in the gesture of embracing my earth, not with my arms closed tight in on myself". So, these are the themes, the issues that struck me as I first read the screenplay for The Mission , and it was these that immediately attracted me to making the film.
He is convinced that it is still possible to make popular films without being forced to descend to the level of Rambo or Top Gun. 'With feelings', he says , 'and with the language of the emotions which is the purest, the most sincere, the most universal. When I first arrived in the village of the Indios, I immediately noticed their extraordinary sensitivity and humanity, their readiness to communicate with gentleness, their intelligence in immediately understanding that the film was to do with them, that it told their story. In certain villages slavery only disappeared only in the last century. But I also noticed, with sadness, their fragility and weakness deriving from the trust that they were so willing to give. And I thought that if I could manage to convey my feelings in the film, the audience would love the Indios as much as I did. And I also wanted to offer the audience the emotional experience of Nature, a two-hour journey into an unknown, different world, where they could appreciate all of its beauty and life.
I learnt a lot from the Guaraní. I was left with the sad knowledge that the serenity of their life depended on the size of the community. When one of them came to London, he told me that we were too fertile. How, he asked, could we know and love one another when there were so many of us?
The Mission demonstrates the Church's split personality, even the Church of today. In Poland, for example, the Church is an essential dialectical element, a symbol of democracy.
But its function and presence in Chile and other Latin American countries is quite different. My film is neither pro or anti-Church; it simply expresses this contradiction through its various characters. There's the philosophy of Father Gabriele, the pure missionary, who believes only in defenceless and passive love. There's the philosophy of Mendoza, the convert, who expresses love through violence and force. There's the philosophy of Bishop Altamirano, who carries out his orders from above to close the missions, and who comes to the conclusion that perhaps it would have been better for the South American Indians if the Jesuits had never crossed the Atlantic.
I wish that the power of the waterfall was as effective as the strength of the small figure climbing the rocks, the individual who takes risks and struggles to fulfil his humane ideals... Have I succeeded? I hope so, although I don't think I shall ever find the precise answer.
It is the story of the redemption, as well as of the friendship, of men who acquire dignity and respect... Manicheism rejects change, while in The Mission the characters evolve. Even the children who flee from the massacre and return to their savage state, take with them a violin.
3. 'Il paradiso perduto': encounter with Roland Joffé by Piero A Corsini in Primavisione Cinematografica, no. 11, November 1986.
How did the passage from The Killing Fields to The Mission come about?
I started thinking about The Mission while I was still working on The Killing Fields , and I was stimulated by the idea of making it for two reasons: the first was my perception of the distorted view that Europeans hold of the Third World, of its real problems and how they can be solved effectively. At most, people base their ideas on what they pick up here and there from their reading. For example, as far as Vietnam was concerned, I realised that very few people in Europe knew what difference there was between North and South, between the Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, and what the relationship was between the two sides. This was when my interest in the Third World began. The other reason for my interest was that if The Killing Fields had shown the radical change in a population that had lost all contact with the idea of humanity because of its exclusively materialistic view of the world, then perhaps something more creative was happening in Latin America where, although there were people who had adopted radical attitudes, these people were still aware of the importance of the individual. This is what focused my attention on Latin America.
The next step was to consider the role of the Church in Latin America, the Philippines or South Africa and ask whether power in the Church belonged to the bureaucracy, the hierarchy or the individual priest alone with his community. If I were to compare The Killing Fields and The Mission , I would say (even though they both deal with individual responsibility) that they are cousins rather than brothers.
What would you say about your style?
I think that the cinema is experiencing a golden period at the moment. It now has enough history behind it to be able to rediscover itself visually and reinvent itself using all the mixture of images that are part of our daily lives. The Killing Fields was apparently a documentary but only deceptively so; in fact, when examined more closely, it was more like a dance, where what counted was understanding the essence: the emotion felt by the people involved in the situation. With The Mission I tried to do something different. That is, I tried to use the natural thread or core provided by the Indios their colours, their faces and their joys and weave everything into something that was poetic and exciting. At the same time, I tried to create a fresh new world, distant from our own; a world that the people in the cinema would discover for the first time, as if they had only then found out what South America was really like. The Mission is closer to a poem than The Killing Fields was.
Your idea of the work of a film director seems inseparable from deep social commitment .
Other directors may see it differently, but I think that everyone is committed in one way or another. Even Fellini and I hope he doesn't take offence at what I'm going to say has chosen a form of social action by filtering everything through the childish lens of innocence. My point of view, however, is that something good should come out of a good conversation or a good film. That is, they should serve some purpose. A good story can help the audience to communicate with the world. Film directors don't just exist for their own sakes, just as the cinema isn't a world in itself: we are all part of a much more global system.
The Killing Fields dealt with Asians from the Far East. In less than a year John Boorman's Foresta di Smeraldo * and your The Mission had come out - both with South American Indians as their leading characters. Do you think that there is a return to the myth of the 'noble savage'?
That's an interesting question. Personally, I believe that this myth has never left us, and that the problem lies in whether it's true or not. The saddest thing I learnt while working with the Indios was that there is no chance that they can continue in their old way of life. Imagining that the Indios will live in the same way for another thousand years in the Amazon jungle is like imagining them committed to a zoo. That is, it's against the natural order of things: although their groups can stay united as long as there exist particular tensions within a tight community, these groups are now bound to break up because this is what has always happened in the history of mankind. In this, the Indios in some sense represent our past, but also what we would like to be in the future. So, however natural the role of the Indios may be, it will always be functional because the public will always project something onto them.
4. 'Les Forces de l'Histoire': interview in Le Figaro, October 1986
I have always been very interested in the relationship between the cinema and the world of entertainment. One of the first films I saw was Chaplin's The Little Tramp , which I watched when I was seven years old at a private film show at a friend's house. There was a great difference between what I saw and the circumstances in which I saw it: between our lives and that of the little tramp. As soon as someone begins to ask himself why things are as they are and can't be any different, and starts to convert them into images, then he has begun to be a film director. Having said this, I agree with Trotsky when he said, "Politics owes everything to art, but art nothing to politics". Because politics is always reductive, while art in its chaotic way achieves something that is true. The truth of art poses questions; the poverty of politics provides answers.
When you're making a film, any great ambitions that you might have will be limited if you want to be the only author. While I'm working on a film my ego is reduced to the minimum. I am in favour of dialogue, and I have always thought that the role of the producer was of prime importance.
If the idea of making a film in South America attracted me it was because, at the present time, the area is one of the places in the world that crystallizes the great ongoing debates between man and nature, the State and the Church, the rich and the poor, an area which at the same time offers greater chances of finding solutions to these problems. The economic, philosophical and religious |76-77| tensions in South America are extreme, and if the Church isn't careful I think it's heading towards a schism. However much it may be under attack from Marxism, the theology of liberation has deep and ancient roots in Latin America.
The Mission reflects two very characteristic features of the 1980s: the search for a balance in economic, political, moral and spiritual life, after years of predominance by the first two, and the rediscovery of the individual beyond ideological determinism. When Altamirano decides to sacrifice the missions, he acts on his own responsibility, he is not the tool of the forces of History. And when the Jesuits refuse, it is their personal consciences that intervene. They understand economic injustice and they commit them to defending the oppressed: not in Marxist terms but in typically Christian ones, according to which the individual must not be sacrificed because each one of us represents something that is "greater than ourselves".