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BERLINALE 2024 Competition

Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias • Director of Pepe

“Animals are actually nobler than humans”


- BERLINALE 2024: The director gives us an insight into his atmospheric and intriguing drama about the conflictual relationship that humans have with nature

Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias • Director of Pepe
(© Dario Caruso/Cineuropa)

Director Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias, from the Dominican Republic, presented Pepe [+see also:
film review
interview: Nelson Carlo De Los Santos …
film profile
, his newest work, in the competition of this year's Berlinale. The film tells the story of the life journey of a hippo who travels a long distance but whose tragic end is the result of human decisions. We spoke with the director about the background to Pepe, and about men and women.

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Cineuropa: For the film, did you also go on one of those safari trips in West Africa?
Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias:
No, not at all. Those safaris are very expensive, and I'm not rich. What is great about the safaris, which are attended mostly by Germans, is that they always take place in the same spots, which makes it easier to see the animals. But actually, Namibia is a vast and massive country. If you drive around on your own, looking for the animals, you can spend hours on the road without knowing when you will get lucky.

In the safari scene in your film, people talk with both fascination and a sense of fear about the hippos. What’s your take on them?
You have to be aware that they are synonymous with danger. They are dangerous, and it's very irresponsible to approach them, to be honest. But still, I did. Ever since I was a kid, I have done things despite the risks involved. I had some very dangerous encounters with the animals because most of the time, I was alone there, shooting by myself. Often in the middle of the night, I would wake up, afraid, because of nightmares. It's an animal that can kill you. It was a strange situation when I realised that I was putting my life in danger, exactly at a time, during the pandemic, when death was such a prominent topic.

How did you know where to look for the animals?
In Namibia, I had some advisors. Moreover, during my DAAD artistic residency in Berlin, I had the chance to prepare very thoroughly. I talked to a special department at the Berlin Zoo – there is a scientist who specialises in hippos. He helped me a lot in terms of my understanding. He was the one who told me how to react to the animal's behaviour. Because animals are actually nobler than humans. They will not attack you immediately; they will give you signs first, which you have to be able to read. This knowledge was essential for my trip. In comparison to Africa, in South America, where I went to film the animals, the hippos are much less isolated in the landscape. They are also less wild, therefore. They are more easy-going; they're more used to people.

Can you tell us more about the background of your human characters, especially the fisherman and his wife?
He talks to his wife, and he's so upset that she doesn't answer and doesn't listen to him. The two represent the historical fight in humanity between men and women. Because both represent the “other”. When you simplify life, you realise that the problem for women is men, and the problem for men is women. This manifests itself in our patriarchal system, through violence and abuse. During the rehearsals and the shoot, something beautiful happened: both actors started to cry at a certain point, after performing the fight in the film. Both were caught up in their own lives. They rekindled all the violence within the house.

Can you tell me more about the town you shot in?
Every person whom I met there, without exception, was alone because they were not able to be with someone. This town is very complicated – it’s a very particular one. It is marred by violence. First, there was Pablo Escobar, then the paramilitaries, and finally the war between the two that happened in this area. The town was built on prostitution; first, there were brothels there.

How would you very briefly define Pepe?
Pepe is a film, but it’s not conceived as a film, in terms of cinema. Pepe is a metaphor for the ecosystem of a place and for the ideas of colonisation.

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