Dancing between genres

Juan Pablo Félix on the fancy footwork and tricky casting of Karnawal

by Amber Wilkinson

Alfredo Castro and Martin Lopez Lacci as El Corto and Cabra. Juan Pablo Félix: 'I was clear from the beginning that I wanted to tell the tale using all the genres and all the tools that cinema gives us'
Alfredo Castro and Martin Lopez Lacci as El Corto and Cabra. Juan Pablo Félix: 'I was clear from the beginning that I wanted to tell the tale using all the genres and all the tools that cinema gives us' Photo: Courtesy of POFF

First-time Argentine director Juan Pablo Félix shows no fear in his feature Karnawal, dancing between coming-of-age, family drama and thriller with sure footwork. Teenager Cabra (Martin Lopez Lacci, a newcomer to watch) loves nothing more than dancing the Malambo – an escape from his fractured home life, with his father (Alberto Castro) incarcerated years ago and a new, disciplinarian wannabe stepfather (Diego Kremonisi) wooing his mother (Mónica Lairana). When his father, “El Corto” appears back on the scene, the dynamic of the household shifts, while El Corto also brings threat with him in the shape of habits from the past – threat that, in a particular sting for Cabra, could jeopardise his participation in an upcoming dance competition.

Juan Pablo Félix: 'I share with Cabra, this kind of dance'
Juan Pablo Félix: 'I share with Cabra, this kind of dance' Photo: Courtesy of POFF
I caught up to talk to the director and his producer Edson Sidonie to talk about the film, which had its world premiere in the First Feature Competition in Tallinn. Félix was a dancer himself as a younger man and he says he “put a lot of my experience as a teenage dancer” into the film.

He added: “My strongest experience was doing the dance competition. Not only to rehearse but the feeling of the competition, which means a lot of discipline. It was very helpful for me when I was a teenager because it helped me release a lot of emotion I had to keep inside. In the film, it’s not explicit but my main problem when I was a teenager was that I was gay but I couldn’t tell anyone. I tried to incorporate these things in the film, not exactly being gay, from the perspective of Cabra but these things that he has inside him that he cannot share. I share with Cabra, this kind of dance.”

“When I started the project I had one conviction, that in the final scene, the audience would see he is spreading his wings. And the young star had to dance incredibly for the film to function. So at the beginning of the process, I worked with the casting director and coach and we had a conversation about whether we could choose a very good actor and fake his steps, which would have been very difficult. Or we could choose a champion dancer and make him an actor. We went for this second second option

“So we needed a champion and I also wanted the protagonist to have long, so it narrowed down a lot at options. For two years, we went to all the Malambo competitions in Argentina, and there are a lot. We saw around 200 or 300 little guys, and there is a particular story about how we met Martin last year. So we were very tired after seeing a lot of a lot of competitions and we arrived to a competition and saw him leaving the stage at the at the end of his of his dance. And so we saw and thought, it could be him. He had long hair and a particular look. It was in a small village - so then we went looking for him. And we couldn't find him.” In fact, the search for him took six months and they had to travel almost 2000 miles to his house in a village in the mountains. Once he was cast, the team set about giving the youngster – who had never flown before – acting coaching, flying him to Buenos Aires regularly over the course of the next year and a half.

Félix added: “Martin’s personality is nothing like Cabra’s. He’s very happy and he has no problems and his family is really lovely, so it was a very big challenge.”

When it came to helping the young star find his feet, his experienced co-star Castro was a big help because he was used to working with non-actors.

“The problem was that from the beginning of the film they have to have the same naturalistic style of acting. So we worked with Alfredo a lot so that he got to the level of Martin and didn’t dominate and, as the film continued Alfredo helped lift Martin up to a more character-driven performance.”

Juan Pablo Félix: 'We worked with Alfredo a lot so that he got to the level of Martin and didn’t dominate and, as the film continued Alfredo helped lift Martin up to a more character-driven performance'
Juan Pablo Félix: 'We worked with Alfredo a lot so that he got to the level of Martin and didn’t dominate and, as the film continued Alfredo helped lift Martin up to a more character-driven performance' Photo: Courtesy of POFF
Speaking of Castro, it’s impossible to discuss Karnawal without talking about the magnificent mane the Chilean star sports through the film.

“We were thinking about the character played by Castro and all the backstories that were possible. Alfredo asked, ‘Why does Cabra have long hair?’ So I explained the gauchos, the Argentine cowboys, used to have long hair. And for this kind of dance, it's very common that these young guys have this long hair. Alfredo said, ‘How interesting and maybe if we think of the back story of Cabra when he was a child, the only thing he saw about his father was an old picture of his father with long hair in jail. So, Cabra has long hair, but he has long hair because he's a Gaucho, but maybe his innerself, he also has long hair to be like his father.’ So it was Alfredo’s proposal that it would be very fitting that he had long hair as well. The father and child are very different because Canada is a is a Mestizo, a mixed race. And the father is a is a foreigner, he is Chilean. It was very important that the father wasn't from Argentina, but was foreigner. But it was very important to find a way to see that they have something in common.”

When it comes to the fearless mixing of genres, that was something Félix had in mind from the start.

“I was clear from the beginning that I wanted to tell the tale using all the genres and all the tools that cinema gives us. We wanted not just to tell the story in a naturalistic way, but use other elements and do something that connects with the audience using genre. Although I wanted to be true to the facts and what really happens in the in this region - all the are true are based on my own experience - there is a subjectivity that permitted me to use genre. For instance, when Cabra dances, I wanted to do something very expressionist with the dance because it's the way the character experiments. When he is with his father, we have this road movie and coming of age and family, it is the way Cabra experiences it. And then it goes to the thriller is because Cabra sees it like this. So it's used. What helped me all the way to incorporate genre all the way through the film was to use the way the may character experienced things.”

Although Karnawal doubtless has a rich festival run still to go, Félix is already thinking about new projects.

He said: “I’m developing a story which is a bit more intimate, it is a lesbian coming of age, but of a woman of 65 years old. But I don’t want to leave behind genre, because it feels like my style is this kind of mix of the observational and intimate, but using genre, which is a good way to express it.”

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