Interview with Julien Elie, director of DARK SUNS
Julien Elie is a Montreal-based filmmaker who has spent more than 20 years getting to know the people and culture of Mexico. During that time, his shock at reading about killings of women in northern Mexico got him thinking about making a film. The result is the monochrome documentary Dark Suns chronicling the devastation of decades of murders and disappearances perpetrated by drug cartels in that country. The film closed the 2019 edition of Doc Days. The following is an edited transcript of an interview by festival co-programmer Todd Savage.
What led you to this subject matter?
It’s a really long process. About 20 years ago I read in newspapers about the killings of women in northern Mexico, and I was, of course, shocked by it. It was shocking but also mysterious. But in those years I didn’t have the relationship that I have now with Mexico. So I thought there were people in better positions than I to do the film so the years passed but I kept really digging on the subject. About 10 years I started travelling a lot in Mexico, doing photos, and the country really inspired me. Five years ago I read a book by [investigative journalist] Sergio González Rodríguez, who we quote as the opening of the movie about the violence in Mexico. He wrote an incredible book, Bones in the Desert, the first portrait and investigation about the femicides. I was completely blown away by the book. Sergio [who passed away in 2017] believed to be a foreigner was probably a good idea because he said Mexicans did not do it yet because they were too close to it.
How did you gain the trust of people and get them to speak to openly despite the potential risk to their safety?
I’ve been there many, many years before shooting I met the people again and again. I went to visit everyone in their hometowns and in their houses. I can say I have so many friends in Mexico because all those people now are friends. They trusted me, but it was a lot of work. Of course they live in fear, but what can happen to them worse than what happened? So they are free to talk. I was surprised how much they opened their hearts and their stories to me in the end. I think they consider that the movie gives voice to them completely.
How long were you working on this film and what what kind of research was involved?
It was probably five years of work. I was working only on this and had no other jobs and I just sacrificed everything to make it happen. I went to Mexico many times. I investigated many stories. We read almost everything that was written about the situation in Mexico.
How did you choose to photograph the environment in which these events happened and capture a sense of place?
At first I visited all of the places alone and took a lot of photos. We asked each other a lot of questions about how we are doing to do the work. It is a long process of patience and reflection about how to show Mexico. It was important for me as I love Mexico very much. Despite what is happening it was important to me for me to show in all that sadness that there’s—I don’t know if it’s hope—but some light in all the darkness.
What do you hope the audience takes away from the film? And how is the film being received in Mexico?
I don’t make films to change the world. I don’t see myself as an activist. I really try to do the best movie that I can, and I’m looking for stories that make me believe that I can make a good film out of it. Of course I’m really touched and concerned about what is happening there, but my first concern is not about changing the world. I think it’s usually not making good movies when you want to change the world. You should do something else. But I say that with all the respect for the people who do that work.
It’s amazing to see the movie is bringing a lot of hope now in Mexico. The reaction is really exceeding all my expectations. The movie will be in theaters in a few months in Mexico. Of course I will be the first to be happy if it can help give a conscience to what is happening. My main idea was to share the fear that is in Mexico. I’ve seen it a lot during my travels. This film is about fear invading a country. It I could have been another one, but in this case it’s Mexico.
Unfortunately what is happening in Mexico is like a concentrated worst of the modern world and economy. We should be scared because that can be the future of many places in the world if we let it happen. This is what I want to show. I’m going in Israel in two days, and a lot of people told me that I should not go and I should boycott Israel. But I think this still has to be seen everywhere because it’s concerning all of us.