The Settlers film interview

The Settlers director Felipe Gálvez Haberle on colonial genocide and the Western genre

Colonialism is the villain in this critically acclaimed, haunting feature debut.

The Settlers, directed by Felipe Gálvez Haberle, began with a photograph by Julius Popper, taken in 1863. Popper was an engineer, photographer and “adventurer” and is now considered one of the perpetrators of the genocide against the native Selk’nam people in the Tierra del Fuego. Speaking via a translator, Haberle explains the scene he witnessed through Popper’s lens, presenting soldiers posing with mutilated bodies as “kinds of trophies of what they killed,” as if they were merely animals. “I decided to make a film with this photo as a starting point,” he says.

The Settlers takes place in the early 20th century in a part of South America known as Tierra del Fuego and inhabited by the native Selk’nam, who were brutally murdered via colonialism and massacres. The film opens as landowner José Menéndez hires three men to mark out the perimeter of his extensive property. Shot in grainy 16mm that exaggerates the brown and amber earthiness of the southern landscape, which seems damp with sweat and blood, the film has been described by at least one viewer as a “Chilean Blood Meridian.”

The Settlers features horrific brutality. Violence of all types is thrown around casually and carelessly by the brutal conquerors of the land. As the film’s early parts are mainly seen through the perspective of the Indigenous character Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), we bear horrific witness to the inhuman and prolific violence of the “conquistadors.” In exploring the subject, Haberle wanted to imagine the world around these photos and how much of the history was buried. “Who gave the orders to kill? What happened afterwards? Who and how was it decided that this chapter would be erased from history?” were all questions he asked himself in the writing process.

The Settlers Felipe Gálvez Haberle

Haberle is purposeful in his approach, emphasizing that it is fiction and not documentary. He’s uninterested in how the questions apply to the present day; his goal was to “look at the past, from the past.” He takes inspiration from how blurry that period of history was, forced into the shadows by the colonial powers who took control of the land and perpetuated the massacres. He wants to “show things that might seem real and make the audience question whether they are real; to question what we think of as fact.” 

This approach is informed by Haberle’s take on Western genre conventions, which were inspirational in creating the film’s atmosphere and vibe. He views the Western genre as an agent of colonialism itself, “an arm of the colonization movement and a protagonist of the 20th century” that helped to “write and rewrite history.” The film fits squarely in the revisionist Western genre, sharing elements of brutality seen in Spaghetti Westerns (more Fulci than Leone) and the disillusionment of some of Peckinpah’s most significant works. 

Haberle says he’s a fan of Westerns and is attempting to “reconceptualize it. What I set out to do is copy. I love copying these things. It was about diving into the genre and appropriating its language, music and characters, like cowboys. The thing is, when you dive in, and you dress in all of these tropes of the genre, you kind of realize that you don’t belong to it.”

The film’s focus on historical engagement, emphasizing that the heroes of the Western genre were not just monsters but perpetrators of genocidal violence, positions his approach closer to something like Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon as it attempts to dismantle the systems of myths and perspectives that have come to shape historical narrative. 

The Settlers exists at a crossroads of historical fiction, naturalism and a brutal genre piece. It opens with a quote from Thomas More’s Utopia, implanting the idea of a world inhabited by sheep and wolves. The metaphor extends throughout the film as a means of humanizing and dehumanizing various characters, casting into doubt who the heroes of history really are. ■

Felipe Gálvez Haberle, director of The Settlers, talks about the Western genre

The Settlers is now playing in Montreal theatres and will be available to stream at a later date exclusively through MUBI.

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