Q&A: Spanish Oscar winner marked by his parents' decision to leave Chile

Spanish film director Alejandro Amenábar has won acclaim and awards for films such as Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes), The Others and Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2005. He talks about his work, background and concern for refugees.

Alejandro Amenábar, Oscar-winning Spanish film director.   © Reuters/A.Comas

MADRID, Spain, May 25 (UNHCR) - Spanish film director Alejandro Amenábar has won acclaim and awards for films such as Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes), The Others and Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2005. Born in Santiago to a Chilean father and Spanish mother, Amenábar and his family left the uncertainty of Chile in 1973. The 35-year-old responded recently to questions about his work, background and refugees by UNHCR Information Officer Francesca Fontanini. Excerpts:

Your family left Chile when you were very young. Please tell us about this.

Paradoxically, my parents have always tried to stay on the sidelines of political life and they have never been members of any party. Their decision to leave Chile in 1973 was caused by my Spanish mother's experience during the [1936-39] Spanish Civil War. The very complicated social and economic situation in Chile under the government of [left-wing President] Salvador Allende led her to foresee nothing less than another war, and my parents did not want that for their children. We left Chile 15 days before [General Augusto] Pinochet's coup d'état [on September 11, 1973].

Did you have problems adjusting to life in Spain?

I came to live in Spain when I was just one-and-a-half years old. The only obvious problem was that in Chile I had started to talk a bit, and in Spain I did not say anything for one year. My parents were the ones who suffered from the coup the most. My father could only find a night job, and my mother - due to a bureaucratic mistake - lost her Spanish nationality for several years.

How did this early experience affect your thoughts towards refugees?

I consider myself fortunate to have come to a country like Spain, which at that time was opening up to democracy. My parents prospered and our family life continued in total normalcy. I am aware that the situation for many other families has been, and remains, very difficult in both the country they are fleeing from and in the one which takes them in.

What affect has this early background had on your art?

Little up to now. Sometimes I think about making a movie on the situation in Chile in 1973, basically because my parents' decision marked my life: my way of speaking, of living, my friends, possibly my profession. A year ago, I returned to Chile with them and we visited our old home, which I remembered nothing of. My mother pointed to a window and told me, "That was your room." Then she showed me a huge tree that she had planted 30 years before. I got emotional when thinking that something my parents had created was still there, despite the time and distance. If I made a film, I would focus on the more human side.

Have you tried, in your films, to give a message to uprooted people?

I do not think I have done so up to now. In fact, I do not think my films, with the exception of "Mar Adentro," have delved much into political or social topics. But I do think my films have always been the product of personal concerns and convictions which go beyond just entertaining viewers. Some day, I may make a story about refugees.

What do you think about film stars using their celebrity to spotlight the suffering of displaced people in places like Darfur, Chad and Iraq?

I believe these are very courageous decisions. I would distinguish between political involvement, which is always a delicate matter and can create controversy, and the humanitarian involvement of celebrities such as Bono, Angelina Jolie and Audrey Hepburn. Their work deserves my full admiration.

In Iraq, the sad thing is to see that despite the fact that millions of people in Europe hit the streets to protest against a hypocritical, unjustified war, the ruling class ignored us and insulted the essence of democracy. And there you have the consequences; tens of thousands of dead, injured, refugees and destroyed families.

How can your industry best spread awareness about refugees?

I guess the message can be conveyed using advertising media, charity events and documentary films. A good dramatic film like "Blood Diamond" is an unbeatable way to speak out over one specific refugee situation in Africa.

Do you think European countries are doing enough to help refugees?

I suppose the word "enough" is never enough.

What about Spain's record?

For decades, Spain has been a country of emigrants. More specifically, during the post-war period there were political exiles, many of whom found asylum in Latin America. That is why it sometimes hurts me to hear derogatory comments made towards Latin American immigrants who have been coming to Spain to work for years. As for specific policies to aid refugees, I believe that the current status of democracy in Spain and - on a broader basis - the liberal tradition of Europe, are beneficial to the integration of refugees.

Do you have a message for refugees around the world?

We could all become refugees at some time in our lives. I just want to express my support and solidarity to them.