Alfonso Cuarón looks into the future with the chilling Children of Men.
Get Alfonso Cuarón on the subject of politicians and his speech suddenly turns blue. "The world is in a sorry state because it is being run by "c***s," spits the Mexican filmmaker. "It's so bizarre it's not even funny. The nation that prides itself on tearing apart the wall in Berlin is now building a wall between Mexico and the US. I'm sorry," he says, briefly pausing for breath, "these c***s are looking backward; they're going back into primitive times."
This is not the language you expect from the director of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Then again, Cuarón's new film, Children of Men, has rather more in common with his controversial road movie, Y Tu Mama Tambien, than JK Rowling's family friendly universe of trainee wizards. His breakthrough film took the socio-political temperature of contemporary Mexico in a story set in the present day; Children of Men, a hit at the recent Venice Film Festival, looks at today's world through the future tense of a dystopian science-fiction thriller set in 2027.
"I don't think it's a bleak vision about the future," Cuarón says. "I think it's a realistic vision about the present." Loosely based on a novel by PD James, Children of Men takes place in a plausibly grim, isolationist Britain, into which Cuarón has crammed and condensed the things he feels are "shaping the first part of the 21st century". So, terrorist bombs shake London and violent gangs roam the streets, striking fear into the citizenry. Life feels nasty, brutish and short. For those who cannot take it anymore, the government provides a way out in the form of an over-the-counter suicide kit. Suffering at the bottom of the heap are illegal immigrants, or "fugees", who are rounded up and herded into Guantanamo-style cages before being transported to a violent detainment camp.
The cause of much of this grimness is the fact that women have been infertile for almost 20 years, so it is a world without children. But this could change if Clive Owen's former activist can smuggle the one known pregnant woman on earth, a young African immigrant, out of Britain and into the care of the Human Project - an international group working towards a new society. "The conceit of the world stopping conceiving is a very hard thing to take on board," admits Owen. "But what happens to the world, it's closer than we think, I think. There are images in this movie we've seen on the news.
"The world's very unstable and when you've got young children there are huge concerns. Unless you're completely naïve or trying to pretend it's not happening, we're living in scary times."
Cuarón, who is 44 and has three children, says it is no accident that young people have been central to his work, in films such as A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter, because children are very "important in my own notions of hope. And Children of Men is a film about hope". Referring to the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, he says, "Tony Blair and George Bush had the most absurd, bizarre excuse of why they weren't going to stop the war: politically it was not the right time. Forget about politics; you're killing children. It's completely absurd. And that, pretty much, was the intent of the metaphor of this film. Because even if the approach is very realistic and very documentary, at the end it's like a fable."
In this context, he says the initial "immobility" of Owen's reluctant, world-weary hero, "represents the immobility of people of our generation". The problem, as Cuarón sees it, is that when hope is taken away, ideology pours in to fill the space. "But because the notions of hope and faith are so connected now your ideology's connected with your notion of faith. Ideology then becomes a matter of faith and that just polarises things even further." He thinks this is what leads some young people to commit acts like the bombings in London last year.
Cuarón didn't want to glorify any side in the film because he believes politicians and the people who finance them, and politics and ideology, are part of the cause rather than the solution to the problems we're currently facing.
"The way they are approaching immigration, the way they are approaching the 'war on terror', nobody is standing back and saying, 'OK, we have been thinking like this all this time, maybe we should try something different.' There is no other understanding of these things that we're living. No other."
In Children of Men, the prospective baby offers a small ray of hope for a new beginning. And Cuarón, despite his grim vision of the present, is surprisingly optimistic about the future. "I believe that there's a new generation that is fed up with our generation and our consumerism and our fast-food values," he says. "I believe that in the generation that is now 20, and I feel it more strongly in the generation to come. I don't believe there is any other solution because this world cannot keep on existing the way it is for much longer."
Ultimately, he says, the message of the film is summed up at the end by a recent Jarvis Cocker song. "It pretty much says everything is f***ed up and there's a lot of shit, but shit floats and goes to the top," he laughs. "The chorus," he adds, "says, 'Let's be perfectly clear, boys and girls, c***s are still running the world'."
Cuarón smiles broadly and a mischievous glint appears in his eye. "It would be so great if everybody starts singing that out loud because that is the problem. But I'm very hopeful. I believe in, and I have a lot of faith in, the evolution of the human spirit."
The original version of this article appeared in The Scotsman.
© Stephen Applebaum, 2006