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CPH:DOX 2024

Håvard Bustnes • Director of Phantoms of the Sierra Madre

“Our idea was to make a road movie, a bit in the style of Twin Peaks, with the protagonist meeting some strange people”


- The Norwegian director assures us that everything we see in his surprising and twist-laden documentary happened just as he shows it

Håvard Bustnes • Director of Phantoms of the Sierra Madre

Håvard Bustnes met Lars K Andersen, the screenwriter and protagonist of his DOX:AWARD Competition film Phantoms of the Sierra Madre [+see also:
interview: Håvard Bustnes
film profile
, at one of the previous editions of CPH:DOX. This fact and the events we see in the entire documentary feel like one happy and curious coincidence after another, with the gods of non-fiction clearly being in a good mood during the whole shoot. The initial idea for the film was that Bustnes would follow Andersen as he recreated a journey that Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad undertook to Mexico in 1937. They were both hoping to find the lost Apache tribe, whose most famous member, also in cinema, was Geronimo.

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Cineuropa: Lars K Andersen is both the charismatic protagonist of the film and its scriptwriter. While filming, were you convinced that he was being himself? Or maybe that he was, at certain points, also creating a character or a persona for Lars, the screenwriter looking for the lost Apaches?
Håvard Bustnes: I think he was very much being himself. Actually, out of all the people I have filmed, he’s one of the individuals who is most “himself”. When the film was completed, I think it was a bit different because then, when he watched the rough cut, he saw that there were parts that he didn't like about himself, but he understood that showing it would be good for the movie. He understood why he needed this conflict, because there are a lot of conflicts between me and him during the film, and normally that might be a bit difficult for a character, seeing himself that way. In this case, Lars also looked at it as a screenwriter and understood why it was necessary.

One of the themes of your film is who can tell whose story. While watching it, it occurred to me that you’re not telling the story of the Apaches, but that of a writer, who is similar to you in terms of age, race and cultural background. Did you think about that issue, too, and that this is how you can reject any accusations of cultural appropriation?
I wasn’t thinking about cultural appropriation when I started this film. Our idea was to make a road movie, a bit in the style of Twin Peaks, with the protagonist meeting some strange people. The idea was to find a lost tribe, but we didn’t believe that we would find anything – it was supposed to be a MacGuffin, the driving force behind the storytelling. And then we found something else that we hadn’t been anticipating.

You found a lot of stuff that we won’t spoil for our readers. I wonder, though, if you made these discoveries regarding Ingstad in the same chronological order as in the film?
Actually, everything happened in the order we show it. I contacted the Ingstad family early in the project, probably in 2018. Benedicte, one of Helge Ingstad’s daughters, was reluctant to tell me anything and wasn’t very helpful. I went to meet her as part of my research, and I wasn’t even filming it. I asked if Helge had written anything about his expedition, and she confirmed that he had, but she didn’t want to show anything to me. She said I wouldn’t get it; I wouldn’t understand his handwriting. So, at the end of filming, I contacted the family again because I had to inform them about Ingstad’s letters that I’d found, and I asked what they thought about it. Benedicte’s son and Helge’s grandchild became a spokesperson for the family, and he was much more open. That was a very nice surprise.

When you show Pius, who is one of Geronimo’s descendants, and the Mexican family who claim to be related to him, too, there seems to be a lot of jealousy and rivalry over “being a real Apache”. Was this something that you discovered early on, or did it become clear over time?
I show that as it happened, too. I went to Mexico on a research trip very early on, before we started filming. I met the sisters and the family – I believed that they were the real thing. I thought this was fantastic, like breaking news. We’d found the lost Mexican tribe of the Apaches. And of course, I was wrong. So no, it happened that way. It's not scripted at all. Actually, it's even better!

Lars says that his childhood heroes were Native Americans. Was it the same for you?
Yes; we used to run around in the forest, playing a game where we would pretend to be Native Americans and cowboys. I used to use bows and arrows, and made tipis, all the time. It was a very popular game in Norway in the 1970s and 1980s.

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