Gael García Bernal On Making Movies That Put His Life in Danger, And Why It’s Worth It


The question is never “can cinema effect change?” but “in what ways?” Whether catching the latest documentary on a human rights violation or seeing a feature film that fictionalizes a harrowing story, filmmakers are often asking their audiences to connect with their stories. And, in many cases, to leave the theater wanting to make a difference and get involved.

These were precisely the issues at the center of Variety’s Creative Conscience Symposium which took place at the Toronto Film Festival. The discussion, around how filmmakers can amplify critical social issues while motivating audiences to take action, featured documentarians Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani (The Ivory Game) and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, Rats) alongside Gael García Bernal. The inclusion of the Mexican actor shouldn’t surprise you. In addition to making plenty of feature films that tackle social issues (Desierto, Rosewater), Gael has also produced a number of documentaries, including the high school dropout anthology El Aula Vacía. Indeed, his commitment to socially conscious filmmaking is such that he’s one of the co-founders (with his pal Diego Luna) of what’s become the biggest documentary film festival in Mexico: Ambulante.

The charismatic actor was graceful and eloquent as always. He didn’t even miss a beat when the moderator introduced him by saying he plays the famously overweight Chilean poet in Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, which screened at the festival. “It would’ve been… uh… I would have to transform,” he joked as he gestured to the belly he obviously doesn’t have. He plays, instead, a cop in charge of hunting down Pablo Neruda in what he called an odd meta-film that’s “for the curious.” Bernal, in fact, had two movies playing at the Toronto Fest. In addition to his role in Neruda, he also appears in Werner Herzog‘s Bolivia-set drama Salt and Fire.

You can watch the full panel over at Variety, but we’ve got you covered and singled out highlights from Gael’s contributions to the panel below which included singling out which movie of his he thinks every kid should watch, what project he’d pursue if financing and distribution were not an issue, and why what actors do is, at the end of the day, a very silly thing.

On His Love Of Documentaries & Starting His Own Festival

[In Ambulante] it is more evident the social pursuit. I’d say that for me, my approach and it’s a very personal thing. I try not to make that the main factor into doing something. I like to involve myself socially with films by creating this opportunity, creating Ambulante, and creating a place where other people can come and show their films and more people can see them. Because I love watching documentaries. I prefer to watch documentaries than to make them. Well, of course! I think we all enjoy watching movies than making them!

On How Docs and Fiction Films Work In Different Ways

Because it can fall into a trap, especially in fiction. It’s better not to define the outcome beforehand. Like, “This is an art movie and it’s socially conscious, so watch it!” I think it’s unfair. There is the direct approach that documentaries have. You have a documentary that deals with a very specific issue and you open it up to its full complexity. The best thing that documentaries have is they eliminate the single discourse. You know, it’s something that cannot be solved in a tweet. Or counter-argued in a tweet. But in fiction we work in tangents. And they’re equally as important as a specific involvement. Because they spin the wheel. And they help raise much more complex questions.

On Making Movies That Put Filmmakers in Danger

I think the short answer to the question of putting your life [on the line for] a film is, metaphorically, “Yes.” It’s an act of faith, like let’s jump off a cliff. Metaphorically, of course. Because we’re doing films. But it’s nothing compared to the people doing the work. And doing it for questions that we may be wondering whilst we’re making these films. When I made this film Who is Dayani Cristal? and working with those people who help the migrants, the main question was where do they get their strength from? For me it’s easy to understand why I want to make a film. My reasons are very simple. I don’t understand how someone can access that strength and keep on going after so many death threats. They earn no money from this. And they keep going and they keep helping. Where do they get that strength? That’s the question. That’s the human question. And of course it’s nothing like what we go through. It’s almost silly in comparison. And it’s really unfair because sometimes we get the credit.

On The Power of Cinema

Cinema is also very violent. There’s an amazing Dennis Hopper, The Last Movie, in Peru. About how a film crew can also destroy or affect a town. The people were already to do it and the film never got made. The Act of Killing is a perfect example of how a film can stir up people getting into the idea of making a film. And everything changes. Everything opens up. Is part of our senses. We have a visual culture. We understand the semiotics of cinema. That’s what got people to talk in The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. It’s very dangerous. In the best sense.

On Which of His Movies His Kids Have Seen

The Motorcycle Diaries. It’s a wonderful film for kids, really. My kids were really impressed, like dad you do all these things! But you know, talking about [endangering yourself] — swimming across the Amazon three nights in a row is probably the most dangerous thing [I’ve ever done.] Well, nothing happened — because once the gods of cinema are there, you know. You put yourself to the gods of cinema. There’s a moment when you think, well if I’m doing this for the right thing then nothing will happen.

On What Passion Project He’d Make If Time and Money Weren’t an Issue

If I was told I could do whatever, I would embark on a very long project about the conquest of America, of Mexico. Because it hasn’t been seen that much in cinema. There hasn’t been that project that can span all the scope of what happened there. We don’t understand everything because many things were hidden and many things were forgotten. At the same time when the records went on to another level. You know, it was a time where the whole world was coming together — Asia mixing with Africa mixing with America. And we come from all that, from all that violence, from all that genocide that occurred, from all those incredible and passionate encounters. I would embark on something huge and fantastic!