The NS Interview: Cary Fukunaga

The director of <em>Jane Eyre</em> talks about political films, immigration and student loans.

Your 12-minute film Victoria Para Chino deals with a public matter, whereas Jane Eyre is very private. What was your impetus behind the short?

I wanted the audience to experience what it was like to be an immigrant. So rather than getting one character they can identify with, and just as a ride. The initial idea was no visual and just to do it with sound and make the entire cinema itself the container.

So it's implicitly political?

I think anything's going to be political when you're showing tragedy like that. There's got to be a message in there. For the audiences of the short film -basically the American bourgeois - it's easy to watch a documentary and from a distance talk about these things that are politicised, but nothing to experience it.

Your films take a neorealist approach. Is this the most powerful kind of cinema?

I think it's always action/reaction. My generation of filmmakers is reacting to cinema, especially the more popular cinema, which forces emotions. Oftentimes the best poetry is so exciting because you can fill in the blanks: it's the same with cinema. If you do something in a way that allows people to fall into the story and never be aware they're falling into it, you can have a much more successful emotional experience. It's a seamlessness that's very difficult to achieve.

Do you write in other ways?

I wrote in high school because I was trying to tell some stories and would have emotions surrounding them, but I wasn't aware of prose until I started reading classic books and studied French.

What's different in that language?

In French culture people would say "that's an ugly sentence", and try and find a better version of it. There's a real weight on the aesthetic of the sentence itself. I always think of my Japanese heritage, how understated that family is and the way things are communicated. There's "understood", and in French there's sous-entendu: "under-understood".

Sin Nombre and the short were made during the Bush years. How has the US-Mexico border changed under Obama?

It hasn't, really. If anything, the border's much tougher, especially now with the drug wars. Calderon is the person who made it incredibly violent, and he's basically [Vicente] Fox's successor, who was Bush's best friend.

Bush told Americans strengthening the border would make them safer.

I think a lot of it is about selling it to the constituents. Xenophobia is not a new thing. It has existed since the beginning of America. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts having the policy that they can just pull over anyone and ask for papers and deport them - is saying, "Look, we're protecting you".Increasing patrol and building the walls doesn't stop the flow of immigration. The economy does. No amount of frontier patrol is going to stop that. It just becomes more deadly.

Slumdog Millionaire was criticised for its use of child actors. Sin Nombre used several amateurs. Does the director have a financial responsibility to their actors?

I don't think so. Edgar [Flores], who plays the lead role, got more money than he ever thought he could have in his life. Because he was over 18 we set up a fund and got him acting grants. But then, no matter how much I said "save your money", Edgar ended up wasting it. He spent it all. It wasn't that much, but he couldn't take advantage of his acting career because he got a girl pregnant, and was stuck in Honduras. In that case, I'm not responsible for them for their whole lives.

How does your Jane Eyre differ from Charlotte Bronte's novel?

I downplayed the religious side and the racism. [The Rivers-as-cousins element] used coincidence too lightly. I think it's a trope of that kind of literature, and it's not a strong piece of writing. To include that is to weaken the film. What ends up becoming the emotional core is Jane's relationship with Rochester. [Bronte] spends the last third of the book on St. John Rivers, and you think, "why am I wasting my time with this?"... I skipped that part of the novel.

You received a lot of grants at film school. You can't miss all the paperwork that entailed.

The hustle is still there. I work for Focus Features - these ain't the old days! I've been sleeping on couches all summer. That's the funny thing about being a director: you can be flown business class, be driven around by a private driver, and you go back to your normal life where you ride the tube and you sleep on friends' couches because you don't have a place to stay in this town. I have student loans, lots of them.

Do you vote?

Yeah. I waver between cynicism and idealism.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?

Maybe the feeling of first experiences - so that every time it's experience, experienced again for the first time.

Are we all doomed?

No, I believe in a resilience within the most damaged populations.


Defining moments

1977 Born in California to a Japanese father and Swedish mother
1999 Graduates from University of California, Santa Cruz with a B.A. in History
2004 Writes and directs short film Victoria Para Chino for a student competition whilst attending NYU Graduate Film programme, winning a Student Academy Award. Makes a commercial for Levi's
2009 Spanish-language debut film about the Mexican Mara Salvatrucha gang, Sin Nombre, premiers, gaining a Sundance award for directing
2011 Re-make of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre released globally. Signs up to direct sci-fi film, Spaceless

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood