In Search of a Universal Language:
Interview with Rolando Klein
Interview by Amalia Cordova, Latin American program specialist,
AC: Would you tell us your full name and where you are
RK: My name is Rolando Klein and I was born in Santiago,
ChileI'm a U.S. citizen now. I came to the States in 1968.
I married a U.S. citizen and then I stayed on. I have a big family
that grew up here, so I became an American. Actually I was always
an American. (Laugh) In South America we also think of ourselves
AC: And you came to the States in the search of the study
RK: That's correct. I had studied engineering in Chile.
Maybe things have changed now, but I'm talking 30 some years ago.
If you went to college you had about three choices in those daysyou
were an engineer, a doctor or a lawyerand because I had
a facility for mathematics, I became an engineer.
But film was always my passion. I used to make 8mm movies with
my dad's little movie camera, and it always stayed with me. One
day I learned that they were teaching film at the university level
in the states. And then I took the plunge. I came here, studied
film at UCLA and stayed on.
AC: How did you find the study of filmmaking in the U.S.
and its relationship to the indigenous history of the country,
of the U.S.?
RK: Completely disconnected. Actually, we are talking
1968, and there were some very bright filmmakers that went through
right before my time, Coppola at UCLA, Lucas at USC, among others.
But in terms of the way film was taught at the university, I thought
that it was pretty substandard. To tell you the truth, I felt
that the teachers were pretty much frustrated filmmakers that
couldn't make it in the industry and ended up teaching.
I wasn't learning much but the atmosphere was good, you know.
We got to see a lot of movies, we connected with people and shared
the film bug. Then, with some friends, I made a low budget 35mm
movie in black-and-white. It was quite a labor of love. That's
how I really learned how to make movies, more than at the school.
But back to your original questionthe connection between
that learning experience and the indigenous culturethey
were completely disjointed. I don't think there was any connection.
AC: So how did you decide to make that connection?
RK: Only in retrospect you know what inspired you. When
you're doing it you're not too clear.
AC: You made a film that was shot in an indigenous community
in Mexico, spoken in the indigenous language, at a time when that
wasn't something that a film school would encourage you to do;
you walk out of film school and start this project. I was fascinated
with how youbecause it's a big undertaking, right?how
you pulled it off?
RK: Being naive helps you, really, not knowing what you
will encounter. Because it was quite an undertaking, when you
go through the process you're not sure what you're going to face
AC: And you chose Mexico because
RK: Well, I was interested in the Mayans first. Partly
because, with my engineering background I've always liked numbers,
mathematics, and here was a culture that seemed to have no connection
with any other culture in the world, [and it] had such advancements
in astronomy, in numbers, in mathematics. I got very curious to
know how all that came about. Also, in those years, in the 60's,
a lot of folk science emerged. Some even claimed that the Mayans
came from the lost continent of Atlantis. All that curiosity prompted
me to keep on researching more about the Mayans. And I did not
want to make a Hollywood movie, I wanted to go to my roots, really,
of Latin America.
I also wanted to make a movie where the actors were not recognizable.
It is hard for me to be fully absorbed by a movie without disassociating
the thought of seeing the actors as known celebrities; seldom
can I make that leap. I thought if the audience has no relationship
at all with the actors they are watching perform, then the story
will feel more credible.
Later on, looking back, I thought of one movie in particular
that I saw as a young man. It was a Russian film. I don't even
know the English title. I saw it in France really many, many years
ago, under the name The White Horses of Fire, shot in rural
Russia and performed by real villagers. I remember feeling so
impressed at how real they all looked, how credible they seemed
in those surroundings. I think that was one of the seeds that
prompted me to launch into this story. There was also Cinema Novo
in Brazil, Nelson Pereira dos Santos
and other influences.
AC: So you felt that it could be done?
RK: Yes, I wasn't sure it could be done, but I was determined
to try it. What convinced me
was when I went down to Mexico
to research the subject and went into the churches and saw, especially
the women, how they prayed to their saints with so much conviction
and passion and with not an ounce of self-consciousness. And I
said to myself, "These people may be shy or reserved, but
they are natural actors." Because I could see how they could
relate to non-physical deities in such a credible way.
AC: In one of your interviews, you said that the communities
where you worked hadn't had contact with film as a medium.
RK: That's correct. We're talking early 1970s. There was
no electricity in the village of Tenejapa, where I chose to film,
so television had not arrived and most of the villagers had never
been to the movies, although living 20 miles from the city of
San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas. The fact that the
actors had no preconception of themselves on a big screen made
my job easier.
AC: I'm really interested in the negotiation that you
probably had to do in both directions, in terms of preparing your
crew to shoot in the village and in preparing the village to receive
RK: You're right; those were two challenges to be met.
I was lucky both ways. With the villagers themselves, I made friends
with their president, who ended up playing the role of Cacique,
one of the main characters in the story. He was a very bright
young man, and he understood what I was trying to do. He became
my right hand man and helped me recruit actors.
AC: So would you call it a collaboration with one of the
RK: Yes, very much so. Well, it had to be a collaboration
with the whole town, because, if not, it never would have happened.
AC: I imagine that you probably spent a lot of time talking
RK: Very much so, I movedby then I had a wife and
three kidsI moved my family to Mexico, and it took about
a year and a half of preparation before I even started shooting.
AC: And you moved them just to make this film?
RK: Yes, (laugh) it was an adventure. I tell you I was
naive. I didn't know what I was getting into. But it worked out
AC: Apparently your family was very supportive.
RK: Yes, they were supportive, because, you know, filmmaking
is a very selfish profession. You really have to leave everything
else by the wayside if you want to make a serious movie, it's
so absorbing. So the family suffered a bit in terms of me having
to tune them out. But, of course, they were supportive; it was
an adventure for them too.
AC: And that took two years?
RK: The whole making took about two, almost three years.
I spent about a year-and-a-half in Mexico before I brought in
the crew from Mexico City.
Originally I wanted to make a more intimate movie. I did not
want to disturb their lifestyle with an enormous crew. I had worked
as an assistant director in Hollywood for a few years, and I knew
how invasive movie making is, you know, with lights and cameras.
The crew always takes over a town, and I didn't want to do that.
My idea was to work with a crew of maybe seven, eight people.
Also I did not want the budget to suffer because of time constraints.
I knew that the pace of the Indian village had nothing to do with
the pace of Hollywood movies. And so I was trying to make something
much more intimate, where time was not a factor.
But because I wanted to shoot in 35mm for a real professional
finish, the Churubusco Studios union in Mexico City was demanding
that I carry an enormous crew of like fifty-five people. So I
negotiated with them and finally brought it down to a crew of
twenty-two. That was still extremely expensive for a movie of
this kind, with no commercial potential. It was quite a challenge.
With twenty-two professional crew members that were costing so
much per hour, time became precious. We set up a schedule of eight
weeks of principle photography and four weeks of second unit.
And there was a lot of pressure there to get it all together in
such a short time.
AC: And before the shoot, you wrote the whole story.
RK: Yes, I researched the whole story. I had a concept:
I wanted to do a story of a drought and about a rain ceremony.
I researched it, I wrote it in Spanish. I scouted the region and
located the village where I wanted to film
.I made contact
with the people and we agreed to make it happen.
Then the script was translated into the Tzeltal language, their
dialect, and we started inviting folks to come and rehearse with
us. We selected the cast and as we played the roles over and over,
the actors themselves helped me rewrite the dialogue to suit their
customs and their beliefs, so that what they were saying felt
credible to them.
AC: I think that's an important thing, that they feel
comfortable, right? You want the community that you're working
with, because you're reflecting them, to be comfortable with how
you're portraying them.
RK: Yes, and to be believable, it has to be credible to
AC: And when the film was already made, how did they react
to the final product? What was the response from the community?
RK: For them it was like a home movie
it was hard
to separate themselves from the story once they saw it, because
they were watching friends and relatives on the screen, not actors
in a play. And so they kept on pointing at each other, "Oh
look, there's such-and-such and such-and-such," and they
would laugh. Imagine a birthday party and you later show the home
movie to the people that attended the party. It was a little like
that with them.
AC: Was there any interest in any of them in continuing
work in the field of film?
RK: No, they all moved on back to their life. It was like
this whirlwind that came through, because, in truth, it was very
disturbing. It created a lot of conflict within me because I was
so respectful of their culture. I really wanted to portray them
in the right light, and I didn't want to disturb them. It was
an intrusion, really, in their liveslike the people that
worked with me in the film had to miss the planting season that
year, they missed fiestas that they had never missed before. It
was so very disturbing. But once it was done, I thought it had
been a worthwhile effort. Besides, globalization was destroying
their culture anyway, and we were just like a blip in the middle
of this whole process.
AC: I don't know if you've seen any of the works that
are coming from the indigenous communities of Chiapas now?
RK: No, I have not followed that, I am very curious.
AC: There are actually a number of Tzeltal filmmakers.
RK: Really eh, also from the Tzeltal? I know Chamula has
shot a lot of stuff. Isn't that something? Tzeltal filmmakers,
eh? Isn't that wonderful
AC: Yes. It would be interesting for you to see their
films, and them to see your film. Maybe one day we'll have a Tzeltal
RK: Wouldn't that be something else? (Laugh)
In Search of a Universal Language
AC: When was the premiere of Chac?
RK: We shot it in the beginning of 1974. Then I took home
the rushes back to the States where we did the editing and it
premiered at a festival in Los Angeles, Filmex 1975. That would
be exactly thirty years ago.
AC: That's interesting. And how did that audience respond
to the film?
RK: Very well. The film became a "darling" with
film festivals. It was unusual, different, and, you know, film
festivals are always looking for different kind of movies. So
it made the circuit, it just went all over the place. I followed
it for a few festivals, and then I realized that that was not
my thing. I just wanted to make a movie and then let it have its
own life. And I was going to keep on doing other things. So I
went with it to try and promote it for two or three festivals,
and then I couldn't stomach it anymore. It took its own life after
AC: And did you have a project to make a film after that?
RK: I thought I was going to make more movies, of course.
I think my mistake was to go back to Hollywood. Because, you know,
this movie did not make money. It was well-accepted but it was
so hard to get distribution. No distributor wanted to touch it.
Nobody knew what to do with it. And people were saying all kind
of crazy things like, "You know you have to dub it. You cannot
have a movie where they speak a dialect." No one had ever
seen a movie in that dialect before. I mean what kind of an audience
is that? Everyone in the movie will have to read subtitles.
AC: Because the film is entirely spoken in Tzeltal?
RK: It's spoken really in three dialects.
AC: Ah, three dialects
RK: Yes, we can talk about that also. Basically Tzeltal
is the main language. The villagers of Tenejapa speak that language,
and most of the movie takes place among those villagers, so even
in Mexico it had to be shown with subtitles. And Mexico is a country
where they are not used to subtitles, everything is dubbed. So,
people in the film industry were saying: "You have to dub
it." I said, "You cannot have these real people speaking
a foreign tongue." I mean, it's a joke.
Originally I wanted the film to be in black-and-white, to tell
you the truth, and the money people said, "No, you can't
do that because of distribution considerations." I wanted
it to have the feel of a timeless old movie. That was my original
AC: A bit like Dead Man?
RK: Something like that, yes, or a Nanook of the North
kind of a thing (laugh). I wanted viewers to have no sense of
time and place, and then, through a few little clues, realize
that "My God, this is really happening in the 20th century!"
Originally, I even wanted to shoot it in the old format of 1.33:1,
looking like a movie from the 1920s. But finally I compromised
there also. We shot it at a ratio of 1.66:1.
AC: I feel like [Chac] is something that came before
its time, in a way. Because there are people speaking different
how did you manage a fluid communication through
those language barriers?
.Did you hire interpreters? The
crew spoke Spanish?
RK: The crew spoke Spanish.
AC: Your actors spoke Tzeltal?
RK: Yes. First, I had my right hand man, Alonso Mendez
Ton, the village president, who plays the role of Cacique in the
film. He was bilingual, he spoke perfect Spanish. I, of course,
did not speak Tzeltal at all, so he helped me translate, all the
time at my side. The dialogue in the film, the script itself,
we got to review it so many times I knew it really. I knew what
they were saying; I knew the words, at least the words in the
movie pretty much.
And then the other main actor, who we called the Diviner in the
story, came from Yucatan and he spoke what today they call Mayan.
The Mayan [language] of Yucatan has the same Mayan roots as that
from the Chiapas highlands [but] they could not even understand
each other. There were some common roots, and some words were
the same, like ik would be "sun," for example,
in both languages. But they could not understand each other.
And what I really find most fascinating, is this third tribe
[in the film], the Lacandon Indians living in the Lacandon jungle.
If you look in the map, you'll see that the Lacandones live just
50 miles from Tenejapa, but the people of Tenejapa had never set
foot in that jungle. They were up in the highlands, the jungle
was down below, and they had never crossed paths with each other.
The Lacandones spoke a language they called Caribe. And the fascinating
thing is that the Lacandones and the "Diviner" from
Yucatan could communicate. Theirs wasn't the same language but
it was similar enough that they could understand each other. And
those people lived a thousand miles from each other
three languages were intermingled in the story and, of course,
through the subtitles we don't even know that.
AC: So for the shoot and for your consultation, you mainly
worked in Spanish?
RK: Yes, with a crew and everything, yes, exactly, through
AC: And then, how do you edit something that's spoken
in a language that's not yours?
RK: Because we shot it in a very classical way; this was
not "Turn on the cameras and see what happens." It was
shot like an old movie, because I wanted a very classical look.
It became very demanding on the actors; they had to repeat the
same lines in every take. You know, in a film you shoot the same
scene in different ways: your close-up, the other person's close-up,
the group shot, whatever. Every time the actors have to deliver
the same words, if you really want to cut it in a classic way.
And every time you have to make the same kind of movements, so
that when you go from the wide angle to the close-up you want
the action to be in the same position in both cases, looking the
same way, the hands making the same gesture, hitting the same
mark every time. That was very demanding on the actors. It was
very contriving for them. But because we rehearsed the scenes
over and over again, the actors learned to repeat the same actions
as if in a school play.
AC: So your original script, you just knew that it was
spoken exactly the same in the original language? I'm just trying
to imagine you cutting and editing that
RK: By the time we got to editing I knew the script like
a poem, by heart pretty much.
AC: So how did you do the translation, did you do it yourself?
RK: I did the Spanish subtitles myself. Because my English
wasn't perfect, I had a friend help me with the English subtitles.
A French teacher that I knew in LA did the French version.
Connecting with Film
AC: And so the difficulties and obstacles in gaining any
distribution made you abandon the idea of starting a next project?
RK: Yes, yes. What happened is that because I could not
find distribution, I had to go distribute it myself. It so happened
that I met a young UCLA graduate who wanted to break into distribution
and he offered to take this project upon himself. I sold him Chac's
US theatrical distribution rights and we went from town to town
promoting the film, like a traveling circus.
We first opened in, I think, Eugene, Oregon. Actually, first
there was one privately owned movie house in La Jolla, California,
the Unicorn. The owner liked the movie and said, "Look, here
I show whatever I like." So he played it for about two, three
weeks, and it did very well at the box office. Those results gave
the film a little credibility. That allowed us to open in Eugene,
then in another town and so on. We moved around the country doing
that for over a year.
In the meantime I was trying to get another project off the ground
with financing in Mexico, from people running the state-controlled
movie industry. As it happens in Mexico, after presidential elections,
a new group of people replaced those government posts, and I lost
my connections. Meanwhile, I had four children and was living
under a lot of pressure. I knew I could always fall back into
engineering, so I took the easy way out, went into business and
abandoned filmmaking for over twenty years.
AC: At the same time, in Chile and in Mexico, there were
a few ethnographic films being made. How do you relate to your
generation of Latin American filmmakers? Do you feel a connectedness
with the inspiration you felt to that work?
RK: Well in those days
AC: In Chile, A la Sombra del Sol was being shot
at the same time
RK: And then El Chacal de Nahueltoro
that movie? There wasn't much in those days.There were a few filmmakers
in Chile, of course, in Mexico there were some. I was pretty isolated
from the whole process, and the fact that I left the film industry
right after, I really got disconnected to all of that.
AC: There's now a resurgence of interest in all of these
works, this field in general
.there are people studying these
works and this type of work as a discipline
.It must have
been really hard to work in that isolation without having anybody
to bounce back ideas.
RK: There wasn't a movement. For example, there was [Alejandro]
Jodorowsky's El Topo. I don't know if you remember that
movie; it was very popular in those days. And some people made
a connection between Chac and El Topo for some reason.
I guess because we were both from Chile originallyI don't
know why. But these movies were just little isolated incidents
of filmmaking and not a movement.
AC: Most of the filmmaking in a lot of Latin American
countries happens because people have left, and are able to get
funding for projects outside and have the freedom to produce things
outside rather than inside. Is Chac a Mexican film, a U.S.
film? The director's Chilean!
RK: (Laugh) I know.
AC: It's a unified effort; it's got many pieces of the
Americas involved in it.
RK: And in a way it's a universal theme, at least I wanted
it to be universal, although it's with Native Americans. It's
myth and myth is universal.
My roots are from Europemy last name is Klein, for God's
sake. Although I was born in Chile and I feel very Chilean, and
now I'm a U.S. citizen, my parents are from Hungary. And the interesting
thing is that I got a lot of criticism from some corners about,
"What is a Chilean doing in Mesoamerica shooting a Mexican
movie that has a Hollywood gloss?"
But later a group of Native Americans from Seattle wrote a letter
to the editor of some Seattle paperI'm talking way back
in the 70ssaying that they had seen Chac, and for
them the movie resonated as a true Native American story. It gave
me a lot of comfort to realize that here I was connecting to the
people that I was trying to honor. And they were not even Mayan,
they were Native Americans from northern United States. The movie
has universality, and I like to hear that.
AC: That's great. You've probably also seen some works
that now resonate with what you were trying to do as well. Do
you have any films that you think are similar, on a similar track?
RK: From today? I have to admit that I am pretty disconnected
because I left the field. I came back for a few years, just about
five or six years ago, trying to make ethnographic films again.
I tried to get back into documentaries, and again I found that
I could not make a living doing that.
AC: It's really hard.
RK: Yes. (Laugh) It's practically impossible. I am not
independently wealthy, so I have to work. I always thought that
I would get back into filmmaking somehow after my kids were grown
and the dust settled. I tried for about four years, and I tried
a couple of very interesting little projects, but in the documentary
AC: In what communities?
RK: For example, in Los Angeles. I'm talking the year
2000, 2001. I worked with a group of Latina teenage mothers in
downtown LA, in central Los Angeles. We made a film together with
a little funding from PBS. But you have to be independently wealthy
or be Ken Burns, or you have to be very young and just starve
for a while, and I was just too old to do that. I tried it for
three, four years and then I gave that up, and here I am back
at being an engineer again. So I lost touch in terms of what's
really happening with movies of all kind.
AC: And if you had that same naivete and that same impulse
you had when you started off to make Chac, what film would
you make now?
RK: I would make social commentary. I think that the world
is in so much trouble. We need voices to speak out; we need people
to scream about what's going on in this world!
You know, this globalization, although unavoidable, is just destroying
civilization in so many ways. This corporatocracyI don't
know how to call itbut it's the idea that giant corporate
beings with disproportionate financial and lobbying power have
taken democracy hostage while we the people are in a state of
stupor. We need independent voices and real movies. There is no
time to escape into fiction. I feel there is an urgency to make
real movies, of any subject.
AC: Okay, thank you very much.
RK: Thank you.
Image credits: Rolando
Klein - courtesy of filmmaker