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Gael García Bernal: “Donald Trump is ten times the caricature of Hugo Chávez”

The Mexican actor turned activist on his part in the new film Neruda, playing political roles, and why he feels “emotionally betrayed” by Donald Trump’s election.

“I’m a tropical bird,” Gael García Bernal explains, giving a little shiver as he zips up his gilet and looks longingly at the door. He has been trapped in this dark basement room in a central London studio all morning and is craving daylight. Signed movie posters plaster the walls. Three stale uneaten croissants sit on a side table. A potted plant attempts to survive.

The Mexican actor is on the promotional circuit for Neruda, a film depicting the dissident Chilean communist poet Pablo Neruda’s time on the run. Set in the late 1940s, the film is no conventional biopic – part political thriller, part slapstick police chase, part melodrama, it plays with genres and the poetry of its protagonist.

“You can kill the person, but you can’t kill the ideas”

And although Bernal has been sitting in the dark discussing his role in Neruda all day, he remains impeccably polite and boyishly eager to tell me about it all over again. He plays the fictional police inspector, Óscar Peluchonneau, tasked with tracking down the revolutionary escapee.

Played by Bernal as hapless, sincere and lacking any power, Peluchonneau suggests he knows he’s an invention of his quarry (and of the director Pablo Larraín, a long-time collaborator of Bernal’s): “I don’t care that Neruda created me, or that he made me a supporting character. I created me too!”

Bernal as Óscar Peluchonneau​ in Neruda. Photos: Neruda stills

Bernal found his fame in 2001’s cult coming-of-age hit Y Tu Mamá También as a pretty young teen on a sexual adventure. Now nearly 40, with two children, he looks remarkably unchanged from that youthful character – eyes just as green and piercing, lips just as bee-stung – aside from a few flecks of grey in his hair, and a brush of stubble.

He has played a number of anti-establishment political roles: Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries and Fidel, and an advertising whizz turned anti-government propagandist in No. So how does it feel to be playing an authority figure for a change?

“He’s an authority figure who doesn’t have much authority!” Bernal grins. His facial expressions do all the talking, as he tucks his compact frame into a chair, legs crossed and hands plunged into the pockets of his skinny navy cords.

“I’m always amazed by the amount of resources and passion and nightmares the establishment has when trying to shut one person down,” he boggles, eyes widening. “Oh my god! How do we stop this person from thinking? By killing them! But still, as the old adage says, ‘you can kill the person, but you can’t kill the ideas.’”

Bernal has thought deeply about why the character he plays in Neruda – working-class, the son of a prostitute, “the type of marginalised person of society that would’ve been the natural recipient of Neruda’s poetry” – isn’t beguiled by the anti-establishment hero or communism in general.

“Why is that? Why is the poetry that Neruda does to incorporate people into society, to empower the workforce, why is it that all of a sudden some people decide to go for the opposite – the fascist pathway?” he asks.  “A short-lived, implosive, superficial and non-creative pathway that hasn’t any answers, doesn’t exercise the freedom of a person?”

Bernal as Óscar Peluchonneau​ in Neruda.

He leans forward in his chair, eyes ever wider, his cotton scarf unravelling in all the excitement. “Maybe that’s something we have to reflect on in what’s happening nowadays. To make a really broad, stupid and feeble example – but Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, for example, were talking to the same people. People who feel outside, a precarious condition in their work. They could’ve chosen one side or the other – obviously the Trump side is the worst side!” he laughs.

I’ve been told not to ask about Trump, who was elected nine days before our interview in November. But it’s Bernal who brings him up, and is so infuriated by Trump that he can talk of little else.

“The United States is no longer the ‘good guy’ of the movie”

“It’s fucked up,” he says. “I feel emotionally blackmailed, betrayed. Now we can say, there is a lot of racism, classism, xenophobia, fear of the other, in the United States. It is not the country that they have always manifested themselves to be, which are the ‘good guys’ of the movie. It’s not like that anymore. If you compare it even to Berlusconi or to Hugo Chavez in terms of populist movements, Donald Trump is ten times the caricature of them.”

“It kind of puts things into order, in a way,” he adds, bitterly. “The United States is not that ‘Leader of the Free World’ anymore – how they wanted to see themselves.”

Bernal has long been involved in politics, particularly in highlighting the plight of Latino migrants at the hands of the US authorities. In his 2013 documentary, Who Is Dayani Cristal?, he pieces together the journey and story of a central American migrant worker who died trying to cross the border into the United States.

Bernal as Óscar Peluchonneau​ in Neruda.

He has spoken out against Trump’s comments about Mexicans “bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and their rapists”, and the infamous promise of a border wall.

“I think about the little Mexican girl who’s growing up there [in the US], who is eight years old, listening to this presidential candidate saying that her parents, or grandparents, are rapists and criminals,” he says, looking down at his hands.

“Talk about the worst statesmanship. It doesn’t bring people together – on the contrary, it establishes and empowers racism and fear of the other. And fucking hell, we don’t have time for that. We have to fight against that. And it’s a fight. The war is on. It needs to be battled on all fronts. It’s enough.”

“We have to be radical. We cannot be Clintonian in that horrendous sense”

Bernal is effusive about migration, calling it “a natural phenomenon, something that will always be there” and lamenting what he sees as the US government “criminalising” it.

“Migration is something that has to be so valued and so promoted. If that guy Donald Trump would’ve travelled not in his jet, but in a proper way – in a way that normal people travel – he would’ve realised and been less of an asshole,” he sighs.

Photo: Getty

“They [migrants] cannot organise and form a union, form something that challenges the status quo . . . We definitely have to be radical on those points of view, we can’t be centre. We cannot be Clintonian in that horrendous sense.”

After a passionate speech in favour of radical politics, Bernal eventually pauses, shoots me an apologetic look, and shyly remarks that, “it sounds like first-grade, secondary school politics”. It doesn’t, but it’s clear Bernal’s boyhood influences his politics today. He was a migrant himself. At 19, he moved from Mexico to London to study drama, working illegally in bars and a restaurant for £2.40 an hour.

“Being a poor student here in London is quite dire,” he laughs. “It was either a beer or going to the cinema. It’s a difficult place – it’s run by money, and the transport is so fucking expensive! My sister was telling me how much the Tube is now and I just cannot believe it!”

Perhaps lucky then that he’s not allowed to leave the studio, even if he is given the freedom to veer dramatically off-script. When I get up to leave, I thank him for the interview. “No, thank you,” he says, politely standing up and glancing imploringly at his publicist. “I need the sunshine,” he begs. “I want to see the light.”

Neruda is in UK cinemas 7 April.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist