Jonathan Cenzual Burley: interview

Jonathan Cenzual Burley: interview

The Shepherd (El Pastor) premiered at last year's Raindance Film Festival, sweeping up Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor awards - accolades previously awarded to films such as Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Lasse Hallström's cult classic, What's Eating Gilbert Grape.

In anticipation of its UK cinema release, we had a chat with The Shepherd’s director, Jonathan Cenzual Burley about the film's critical success, the pervasiveness of globalisation and the responsibility for film-makers in the Post-Truth era.


Q. The Shepherd seems to be a reflection on the nature of greed and the effect that greed has on individuals. Is that accurate?

It's a critique on greed and abuse of power. Particularly inherited power: people who just think that they are above you because they have this God-given right to tread on you. Anselmo [The Shepherd’s protagonist] finds that, when he refuses to sell his land to a corporation, his neighbours who he has known for years, and are selling their properties, have no problem with bullying him out of his own home in order to see the deal through. It's also a kind of threat of what happens when you push people. Basically, you’d better be careful who you bully because that person might turn around and shoot you right in the face!

Q. On that note, there are elements of the film that evoke, Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. Was that an influence you consciously drew upon?

No! I've got it on DVD. It's one of the films I know so much about but I'm just never in the mood to watch it. Same as Irreversible' [Gaspar Noé's gruesome 2002 rape/revenge drama], it's still in its packet. I just don't know when to sit down and actually watch it.

Q. Peckinpah was known mainly for his Western films, and although it's set in Cornwall in the 70s, Straw Dogs is modelled on the typical archetypes of the genre. Do you see The Shepherd as a western?

Yes and no, it definitely has aspects of the modern western. I didn't exactly set out to make one but the similarities didn't happen by coincidence either. Westerns always seem to deal with a capital sin, like the effects of greed, envy, thievery and The Shepherd is very much like that, it's got a very straightforward code; if you do this, this is what happens. The entire film in many ways is a duel between good and evil.

Q. Another trope of that genre is civilization's struggle against the frontier; against nature. In this film, it's more like nature's struggle against civilization.

A couple of people in Q&As and articles have said about how this film goes against progress. But it's nothing like that. It's rallying against the fact that the wrong type of people can embellish or dress up greed and pure personal gain in the name of progress. The company in the film tells the people that their project is going to make the village better but their bulldozing the village completely and keeping all profits for themselves. Case in point, somebody sent me a video about Donald Trump wanting to expand his Golf course in Scotland (Aberdeenshire) and the Scottish guy was like “Trump can take his money and shove it up his arse!”.

Trump did the same thing we see in The Shepherd: he started to try to discredit this man, saying he's dirty, he's a pig, he's all by himself, but he wasn't and ultimately this guy won. That's the biggest “fuck you” to a bully, and to the biggest bully on the planet right now.

Q. Indeed, there is parallel to be drawn with The Shepherd and the rise of Donald Trump. ‘Happy coincidence’?

It was very timely. I wrote the script while traveling in India about two years ago. When you're in a place like that you may see and hear things that have a level of unjustness and a smack of dictatorship or corruption about them and it doesn't necessarily shock you. I came back to Spain and found that I was noticing corruption and greed all over, it was rampant. In the West, we seem to just allow it and not only that, many people measure their success on what is effectively misleading and stealing from people. These people aren't exactly bad, but everybody is being used and the nastier people by definition come out on top.

However, I do think that most people are good. It sounds a bit optimistic, you know, but some people generally just read one angle into things, one newspaper, one news source, only seeing one side of what is often a very complicated state of affairs. They're not all bad. I mean the guys dressed in the KKK outfits definitely are but other than that it's just ignorance. People are pissed off at complex and one-sided systems of government and that allows corrupt people to come out with simple messages to mask an ulterior motive: “Make America Great Again” or that whole anti-immigration rhetoric running through the Brexit campaigns. It's very easy to control people with fear, and right now everyone's scared. That fear has become currency.

Q. Anselmo has this perfect simple existence at the start of the film, he's happy with his lot. Is that the source of his goodness as a person?

That's interesting. He has this pure beauty on his doorstep, he's not turning around and saying I wish I could afford an Apple Watch. In that sense, he has something most people don't. We're basically indoctrinated to think that we have to want more and if that desire wasn't there then consumerism wouldn't work. You might have never worn a watch in your life but now you're thinking “maybe I should buy this Apple Watch because everyone in the advert looks really healthy doing lots of running and stuff.” I don't wear watches and what kind of person enjoys running places. I don't.

Q. You lived in the UK for 16 years and your next feature is going to be an English-speaking one. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Well, I will say it came about because I don't really get that much financial backing in Spain [laughter]. Spanish government and institutions aren't that keen on film being a part of culture it seems, they see it more like “oh, you crazy artists doing crazy art stuff”. England supports its cinema, there's grants in Birmingham, Creative London, Manchester, Liverpool. I lived there for so long, the UK's dry wit has played a huge part in my previous films [2009's The Soul of the Flies and 2012's The Year and the Vineyard] and I'm bilingual so I just thought “why not”.

But in all honesty, I love making films and I'll go wherever people pay me for it! I will also say I don't think it's going to be a very happy film either. The current times we're in, you have to be angry or you will get trodden on. People need to reflect that. Filmmakers need to reflect that to implement changes. If people just turn around and say “Well, fuck it- it doesn't concern me” then nothing ever gets fixed. 

'The Shepherd (El Pastor) is released in cinemas 2 June.

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