Interview with director Viktor Jakovleski Brimstone & Glory: The power and the passion

Berlin-based filmmaker Viktor Jakovleski.
Berlin-based filmmaker Viktor Jakovleski. | © Anastasia Coyto

For his first film, Berlin-based filmmaker Viktor Jakovleski embarked upon an adventure many others might have shied away from. For a director who quotes Werner Herzog when describing his methods and aims, that’s hardly surprising. After hearing about Mexico’s annual National Pyrotechnic Festival by chance, he was determined not only to visit and film it, but to truly experience it — and to convey that sensation to the audience.

Brimstone & Glory is the end result, and as the documentary steps through the making, planning, setting and lighting of fireworks and other combustible materials in the town of Tultepec, it does more than just document the festival. From its intimate yet expansive imagery that climbs up towering castles laced with pyrotechnics and ventures up close to giant, burning, papier-mâché bulls as they’re pushed through the town square, to exploring just what the industry means to three particular townsfolk, it celebrates the beauty and the danger of this explosive occasion.
 
With Jakovleski in Australia for the film’s screening at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival in Sydney, we chatted with him about his multiple visits to the festival, trying to strap cameras to explosives, working on Hollywood productions and taking Brimstone & Glory into virtual reality.

Lighting of fireworks in the town of Tultepec. Lighting of fireworks in the town of Tultepec. | © Brimstone & Glory How did Brimstone & Glory come about? What drew you to the National Pyrotechnic Festival, and inspired you to make a documentary about it?
 

It was a strange coincidence that occurred in Berlin a couple of years ago. I went to an after party of a gallery opening, but I was not in the mood to socialise at all — I was having a down moment and was sitting and drinking beer by myself. And suddenly this guy sits next to me and starts talking to me. I was not in the mood to converse, but he asked me what I do and I told him that I’m into filmmaking. He starts talking about Tultepec because he had a cousin who is a firework-maker who goes to this place every year to work with the local firework-makers there.
 
So he had just come back from this place and started describing the way they make fireworks — and that they have this crazy festival once a year involving the 'castillos' [castles, or towers] and the *Burning of the Bulls'. It sounded so insane and intense that I couldn't follow.
 
I convinced him to show me the photos he took. He was a painter that went to Tultepec to get inspiration to create paintings out of what he saw, out of the photos that he took. And when I saw the people raving in the middle of millions of sparks without any form of protection or even a shirt, I was mesmerized in so many ways. That was really the spark, the moment of inspiration for me, because I got so obsessed by the cinematic quality and by the danger and mystery in regards to what these people were doing there, what is this festival about, why is it so radical and archaic and ritualistic. What was behind all of this? Something spiritual or just utter madness? All I knew was that I needed to find out. That really was the key driving point.
 
At that point I had never been to Mexico. But through reading The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz [the Nobel Prize-winning Mexican author] I really found deep understanding of the Mexican culture and the very unique way of the Mexican fiestas, the Mexican way of partying. And as a Berliner I know everything about partying. So that gave me the confidence to make the film, as I found a very strong connection.

A giant, burning, papier-mâché bull. A giant, burning, papier-mâché bull. | © Brimstone & Glory When you went to Tultepec for the first time, and experienced the festival for yourself, what was that like for you?
 

We arrived about a month and a half before the festival started and took our time to embed ourselves in the town. We were living there as a crew, hanging out with people, drinking Mezcal, breaking the ice, and getting information about who's making which bull, and who has which role in the festival. And then the closer the festival came, the more stories about the Burning of the Bulls we heard from the people, the more menacing it became — and we knew that something absolutely insane was awaiting us.
 
But it was no comparison to when it actually started. It was so much crazier and so much more dangerous and insane than I could have ever imagined. Obviously we were there to capture all of it and get the shots from the inside instead the outside perspective. We were never interested to make an objective documentary about this place. Our ambition was to really try to recreate the intense experience. So we had to balance the ambition to get the shots and respect the interest to stay safe and don’t get hurt. That was a huge issue: how do we map this out, who is going to play which role, which operator captures which angle, etcetera.
 
You went back to the festival three times — did anything change over that time?
 

With every visit we became more experienced and more confident, which helped us to handle the madness and get the shots we needed. The periods in-between the filming we used to assess the footage and start editing, to see what works and what doesn’t. We became increasingly conscious about what the concept of the film was and what it could be.
 
The first shoot was like an experiment. We just went to Tultepec to see what we would encounter. At that point, the concept was broader — we shot interviews and other things we never used. We realised after that first shoot that we should cut all of the interviews — or any footage that was trying to objectify and simply give out information. Anything that resulted in losing momentum.
 
The second year, we found the characters that we needed to guide us through the town and through the festival. And then the third shoot was a pickup shoot of getting shots of our characters — in particular the little boy, Santi, participating in the bull burning. Making this film really was an organic process. Filming, editing, understanding the footage and the potential, finding the soul and form of the film, then going back to film some more, and so on.
 
When we finally finished the film after more than a year of editing we went back to Tultepec in March 2017 to finally show the film. Of course all the locals were very curious because they saw us coming every year but hadn't actually seen what were making. And it just happened that earlier, in December 2016, there was a horrible accident. The gigantic firework market exploded — where all vendors sell their fireworks — and more than 40 people died. It was a horrendous tragedy. It also brought fear to the community because of the impending political pressure to possibly shut down the firework production. So when we arrived to show the film, there was a big sense of fear and sadness in the air.
 
So when I showed the film — on the bull-burning square, the night before the bull burning, in front of 3000 people — the reaction was intense and very emotional because my film does not show the image usually presented by the media. My film is a love letter to Tultepec and celebrates the art and traditions of this place, and even the danger that is part of it all. The aftermath of the screening was extremely emotional. Lots of crying, hugging and thank yous to me for making the film and honouring the people of Tultepec. It was quite spectacular and heart-warming.

They celebrate the beauty and the danger of this explosive occasion. Celebrating the beauty and the danger of this explosive occasion. | © Brimstone & Glory In the film, we get a strong sense of the danger in the making of the fireworks and the lighting of them, and even in being close and watching them. How do you balance conveying that sense of danger with conveying the excitement and the beauty in the experience of being there?
 

The decisions were to really get inside the madness with our cameras. I was not interested to get the shots that I had already seen, from a safe rooftop or from the sidelines. I really wanted to get on the inside and see what kind of images we could get, especially with the slow-motion camera — to get the cosmic quality of this crazy event. Something very spiritual happens there. Something that Octavio Paz calls a form of liberation, and celebration of rebirth. Bulls are being burnt, people get wasted and injure themselves, and “destruction makes room for new creation.”
 
And the level of adrenaline is as high as it gets. I had no idea that my body could produce such a strong substance. There's a French artist, Francis Alÿs, who has been living in Mexico many years, and there is this great quote by him that I really connected to when I finally got into the bull burning: “adrenaline is the oldest psychedelic drug known to mankind.”
 
I really felt it. When you are in the bull burning and suddenly thousands of fireworks fly around you — you really believe you could get seriously hurt, and even that death is suddenly a possibility. That's how dangerous it is. But the moment you realise that you weren't harmed, you have this rush. This high feeling is like a drug, and you immediately want to do it again. That was a sensational, revolutionary feeling for me. Being in the bull fire made me understand why people are so obsessed with it — because the adrenaline and the feeling of being invincible is addictive. It feels amazing. This experience that created the adrenaline, that's what we tried to get to the big screen.



Were there any occasions where you couldn't film something because it was too dangerous?
 

I had this idea of attaching a GoPro to one of the bombs that were being shot in the sky from within the pipes. I really wanted a shot of a GoPro as close as possible to a bomb that explodes. We eventually got one of the firework-makers and his crew to collaborate and build a rig that would attach the GoPro to the bomb when it is being shot up into the sky. And I was thought, "this is going to look great — the angles are perfect and we’ll to see how it burns. And then just before the explosion, the camera will probably shoot off and we'll capture that movement!"
 
But then, of course, the camera broke during lift off because the ignition was so incredibly hot — it destroyed the GoPro within seconds. It did not work at all, so I knew I needed to let go because it was just an outrageous idea.
 
But that was my vision generally. As Herzog says, the world needs new images and we as filmmakers have the job to find them — images that have never been seen before. That's what I was thinking about: trying to get images that will inspire and enchant an audience.
 
In some cases I went too far — in this case we lost a GoPro. We actually lost two GoPros, because one of my subjects, Chincolas, who went into the bull fire and filmed himself while doing so, got into a fight and got hit so hard the GoPro flew out of his hand. That footage was lost forever, although it probably looked outstanding. Those are the sacrifices that are part of making film like this. The experience counts.

Trying to strap cameras to explosives. Trying to strap cameras to explosives. | © Brimstone & Glory How did you choose the subjects in the film? I can imagine there were a number of different candidates within the town.
 

The firework-maker, Chincolas, is the guy who has the GoPro on his head, runs up and down the towers and lights them up eventually — and who talks about love. We found him whilst filming the crew who was building the towers. Suddenly this thunderstorm hit the site and one of the towers gets hit by a lightning bolt. Chincolas was the one who emerged as the person who took responsibility in his own hands to save the day. He took off his shirt and started directing people, and refused to give up and really tried to fix the situation in time for the competition that same night, a couple of hours later. He was this cinematic enigma, like this shining samurai in the rain with all his tattoos and energy. That's when I was like, "who is this guy? Let’s stick with him." That was pretty automatic. The cameras really liked him.
 
Regarding the young boy, he was found by my local line producer before we got to Tultepec in the second leg of the shoot. We asked him if he could do a bit of scouting to find someone among the townsfolk who had a son or daughter. We really wanted to have the perspective of a child in the film, channelling our own inner child — this wondrous, naive perspective that makes it easy for an audience to connect. We auditioned a couple of families, and he sent us some video clips and photos. When we arrived, we met with them and Santi was clearly the right one — his face was just meant to be filmed and he fully understood the idea of project, so it was very easy to work with him. He was really excited for the adventure, and him and his whole family really helped us in every possible way to make it work.
 
And Amauri, the bull maker, was actually one of the very first people that I met. One of the local women, named Juanita, who is in charge of the Tultepec archive, pointed me to him because she’s friends with his mother, Belen. Amauri is a very unique character and immensely talented when it comes to making artistic figurines, like the bulls — he always has new ideas and tries to test the limits. He’s a real inventor, and, for example, helped us put a GoPro on top of his bull.
 
We filmed with a bunch of other people as well, all of whom would feel justified to be included in the film. But in the end, the film had a very limited running time and we felt like it was these three guys who made most sense together as a triangle of perspectives on this town and the traditions and festivities.
 
If we can chat a bit more generally about your career — you have an interesting array of credits leading you to this, your first feature. You’ve worked on Hanna, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Valkyrie, The Monuments Men, for example. What inspired you to be a filmmaker?
 
I've always wanted to make films since I was 15 or 16, and I was obviously watching movies a lot at the time. And it was three films that really made it clear to me that I wanted to go in this profession. One film was The Usual Suspects. When I was 16, for me this was a spectacular movie. I couldn't believe the huge twist — I couldn't believe what this screenwriter had done to me. He had fooled me and the audience completely, which I felt was such a powerful tool. And then another film was Darren Aronofsky's Pi. It just blew my mind because I had never seen a film like that, an experimental film that was so touched with the laws of nature and spirituality at the same time, and entertaining and thrilling. I saw that when I was like 17, so in that same period. And the third film was Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth, and again, I had never had seen a film like that, that was structured so weirdly, that on paper really shouldn't necessarily work as a film but it did and it was so charming and beautiful. Those three films just made me realise how interesting the medium is and how much you can do with it. That was kind of the beginning. But also the earlier days of me repeatedly watching the Back To The Future trilogy, Star Wars, Terminator 1 and 2 — all that and many more films had an impact on me.
 
I started working as a driver on international film sets in Berlin. That was a great perspective. As a driver, you see everything. You see how a production is structured, and you see what the different jobs are. And you talk to people in your car, so I talked to lots of producers and directors and cinematographers. Me being naive and curious, I always asked a lot of questions. That was all very helpful. And that led to me starting to study film at the Berlin film school, where I eventually dropped out and started becoming friends and working with filmmaker Benh Zeitlin in 2005. In 2006/7 I helped assistant direct and co-produce his short film Glory At Sea that he made before Beasts of the Southern Wild.
 
It was always going to be film for me, to be honest. I never felt like I had another option. And then I just tried different things, like producing and camera operating and being a personal assistant to more established filmmakers. Which was all very interesting.

A photo from Mexico’s annual National Pyrotechnic Festival. A photo from Mexico’s annual National Pyrotechnic Festival. | © Brimstone & Glory And from those credits — working as a driver and assistant on Hollywood productions — what did you learn that helped inform your own filmmaking?
 

A lot. The learning doesn't stop. You just see how passionate people are in their jobs, and how to work in a team. That was a big learning curve. On these Hollywood productions, when the director is the head of a 200 or 300-person crew, and he is pulling the strings and he is responsible for this whole ship of a production to go in the right direction — that was really inspiring to see how calm people stayed, and how clear the communication has to be. Because it is all teamwork, it is all communication. If you're misunderstood, the direction doesn't go the way you intended it to, so you have to be very clear in your communication skills. It was really interesting to watch people communicate and work within the key creative team. That was always super interesting to me. I was obsessed with observing directors at work.
 
But also the producing side — for a long time I wanted to be a producer. And so seeing the producers, how well they structured their teams, how sensitive a decision it is to get the right team together, and how one wrong decision can really mess up the whole vibe of the whole film set, that was really an interesting to understand. It’s a particular talent.
 
And I obviously love cinematography. I'm a big camera nerd. So talking to cinematographers like Phedon Papamichael [cinematographer on The Monuments Men] or Newton Thomas Sigel [Valkyrie], both master cinematographers. And to see how they choose their gear and how they work with their respective key teams, with the operator, with the assistant, how they respond to the director, how fast they need to be, how much equipment they have on call, and all of that. There's so much to observe on a film set, it's really a universe of itself, an endless source of inspiration and learning.
 
After Brimstone & Glory, what’s next on the agenda for you?
 

I started a new project and have already filmed the first leg of the shoot. It's a project that centres on Berlin-based artist Julius von Bismarck, who is more of an inventor-artist, and who is obsessed with lightning strikes. He found the area in the world where the most lightning strikes occur — the Catatumbo Delta on Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. It’s in the Guinness Book of Records for exactly that reason.
 
And he has this crazy idea to shoot big, self-made rockets into the storm clouds in order to attract, tame and ultimately control lightning — and to have the bolt hit exactly when and where he wants it in order to work with it artistically to get the perfect close-up photograph, and to have the lightning run through certain materials that he wants to experiment with and create lightning sculptures. So we are exposed to thunderstorms non-stop — once they come each night.
 
Again, it is a very daring, dangerous endeavour. Julius has asked me if I'd be interested to make a film about this whole adventure, travelling to this remote fishing village on this gigantic lake, and I was obviously very drawn to it. It's a bit like Burden of Dreams where one filmmaker [Les Blank] accompanies another [Werner Herzog] to an area unfamiliar and hostile to them, the jungle, to see if Herzog’s obsession will create amazing, transcendent work, and by which means and levels of madness, or if he is completely out of his mind and will fail in the greatest possible way.
 
And we're also planning to go back to Tultepec for next year's fireworks festival in March to film a virtual reality version [of Brimstone & Glory], where you get really inside the bull burning and the burning of the towers in a even more intense and frantic way.
 
Thank you very much for the interview.

[This transcript has been edited and amended for clarity].