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“A Love Letter to Life and Film”: An Interview with Willem Dafoe on My Hindu Friend

my-hindu-friend

By Patrick McGilligan.

Five years after it was made, My Hindu Friend, directed by Hector Babenco, finally is being shown in limited English-language markets. Fans and scholars familiar with the Argentinian-Brazilian filmmaker’s best-known works – Pixote in 1981, his breakthrough, Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), Ironweed (1987) and At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991) – will need little encouragement to seek it out. Not only because the feature is Babenco’s last before death, from the cancer that lies at the heart of the story, claimed him at age 70 in 2016. Also because My Hindu Friend is a showcase for Willem Dafoe, playing an autobiographical version of Babenco facing up to a bone marrow transplant, his flaws and fate. Austere, unflinching, elegantly photographed (by Maura Pinheiro Jr,), the film is an elegy to a life lived on the artistic edge, which draws on the magical healing power of Laurel and Hardy and a nude woman’s dance in the rain to a Gene Kelly voice-over.

You must be besieged with offers. How and why did you choose to make this film and to associate yourself with Mr. Babenco?

I was a fan of Hector’s cinema and had seen all his films. I met him at the Venice Film Festival in 1988 and enjoyed his strong personality and general joie di vivre, humor and passion for cinematic adventure.

Can you tell me about Hector Babenco’s style of directing actors and the camera and how his approach may differ from others you have worked with? 

His approach was very much colored by the extremely personal nature of the material. Sometimes he treated scenes as almost re-enactments or memories of events in his life and other times they were pure invention. He was demanding and didn’t suffer fools but he was also very sweet and playful.

The script and film are obviously a last testament for Mr. Babenco. Was this a tremendous burden for him and you during filming?

When we were filming he had some health issues but was vital and most often energetic. So I didn’t think he was creating a “last testament“ but more a love letter to life and film.

To what extent did you model your performance after Mr. Babenco personally? 

I didn’t really. Sometimes I’d ask him questions about the state of mind of the character- given the autobiographical nature of the film and he’d say “You tell me. You’re Diego, not me.” We are quite different physically, age wise, vocally, in personal history. He didn’t want me in any way to imitate or use him as a model but more wanted me to come to some understanding of what he went through and to go through the events in my terms but with the intimate knowledge that he could give me from having experienced it. He guided me through but wanted the performance also to be my experience.

Can you say something about the struggle to get the film released and shown? Why has it taken so long? 

When the film was completed it was released in Brazil. Although it’s in English language, it was a Brazilian production, so he felt the need to launch it internationally and wanted to present it at a world class film festival. He didn’t immediately find the placement that he thought was right and then he became ill again and with his death… of course the will to release the film was no longer as driven. I am very happy the film is being screened and available on platforms in January. He was a great filmmaker and as this is his most personal film – anyone who has every admired his work I think will appreciate his desire to share his story.

Patrick McGilligan‘s most recent book is Funny Man: Mel Brooks (HarperCollins, 2019).

Read also:

Babenco’s Swansong: My Hindu Friend

Larry Cohen: Film Crazy

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