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The Settlers Reckons With a Chilean Genocide

© 2023 Quijote Films, Rampante Films, Rei-Cine, Quiddity Films, Volos Films, Cine Sud Promotion, Snowglobe Film, I Vast, Sutor Kolonko.

Chilean writer-director Felipe Gálvez holds back nothing in his brutal debut feature film The Settlers, a thought-provoking and profound neo-Western exploring the genocide of a people largely overlooked in his native country’s history. Wedding 1970s-aesthetic arthouse sensibilities to the heinous violence of turn-of-the-century colonization, The Settlers is both appallingly violent and intellectually provocative, forcing a timely reckoning with the erasure of an indigenous people, first from the mountains and then from history.

The narrative is split in two parts of roughly equal importance, taking place in two time periods and employing two very different registers. The first charts an expedition taken by three horsemen crossing the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. They are sent at the behest of a wealthy landowner, Menéndez (Alfredo Castro), to secure his vast state-appointed property. In charge is the British lieutenant MacLennan (Mark Stanley), a reckless redhead whose curly mane nearly matches his British Army officer’s coat. He is accompanied by a Texan mercenary named Bill (Benjamín Westfall), whose annoying manner is tolerated for his marksmanship and experience.

Bill and Maclellan eat at camp as Segundo sits in the background, at a distance.
Bill (Benjamín Westfall) and MacLennan (Mark Stanley) argue at camp as Segundo (Camilo Arancibia) and others eat quietly in The Settlers. © 2023 Quijote Films, Rampante Films, Rei-Cine, Quiddity Films, Volos Films, Cine Sud Promotion, Snowglobe Film, I Vast, Sutor Kolonko.

Behind them is Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), a quiet, contemplative half-native from Chiloe Island, native Mapuche on his mother’s side and Spanish on his father’s, brought on the mission for his knowledge of the region’s climate and his skill with a gun. Shot with impeccable artistry on land the Menendez character’s family still owns to this day, this first half of the film is the stuff of classical Western imagery: breathtaking landscapes shot in bright sun and extreme wide angle, arduous journeys across foreboding territory, rising tensions between members of the group, and, of course, savage outbursts of violence. As the horsemen advance on a quiet, peaceful tribe of natives, Segundo, though he is nearly silent, comes to realize a sobering truth: that the only means of achieving the stated mission of securing land is to exterminate the indigenous people who live there.

Those people are the Selk’nam, generally referred to as the Ona by whites in Chile and elsewhere, whose full story Gálvez says is not taught in Chilean classrooms or recounted in its histories (Gálvez himself did not learn of their genocide until later in adulthood). Indigenous to the Patagonian region of southern Argentina and Chile, including the Tierra del Fuego islands, the Selk’nam once numbered, in the mid-19th century, about 4,000; by 1919 there were just 297, and by 1930 just over 100; they are today considered extinct, victims of a genocide engineered by landowners, gold miners, and government officials who perceived the Selk’nam as a major obstacle to the success of colonists’ investments—and thus began a campaign of extermination against them, offering bounties for each Selk’nam dead and requiring a severed ear as proof.

The Settlers does not shy from such a brutal history: tribes are slaughtered, ears and limbs severed, villages plundered, women and men raped. Its violence is never fetishized nor glamorized; rather, it merely exists, a matter of blunt fact and of historical truth. Any film that deals with a genocide as concretely and precisely as this is not for the faint of heart. But The Settlers‘ is an honest violence, an historically necessary one, and it is one that is not without consequences.

Those consequences are the subject of the film’s second half. Where its first half took place in the epic grandeur of the Andes and focused on the episodic violence of the Selk’nam genocide, The Settlers finds its uneasy resolution in the surviving characters’ respective homes. History accords that Menéndez, the wealthy landowner whose whose violent means of securing his property assured his success, will be one of them. Years later, his conquest is complete, endorsed by civic and clergy leaders alike. In the dark interior of his luxurious home, he enjoys a wealth won by slaughter.

Menéndez is visited there by a new character, Vicuña (Marcelo Alonso), a government official of two minds. He is quick to denounces the massacre of the natives and ascribe, correctly, blame to the colonists. He claims to defend the indigenous people as he conducts a photographic study of those who remain, recording their life for history and posterity. But that too, as he visits Segundo’s house—he has returned to his native island and married—and hears, first-hand, the horrors of the genocide, is a convenient fiction, one staged and shaded for popular consumption. The film’s ending—an indigenous woman’s (Kiepja, played by Mishell Guaña) unblinking, unyielding gaze at the camera, at a camera, speaks volumes.

Kiepja (Mishell Guaña) stares unblinking at the camera.
Kiepja (Mishell Guaña) stares at the camera in The Settlers. © 2023 Quijote Films, Rampante Films, Rei-Cine, Quiddity Films, Volos Films, Cine Sud Promotion, Snowglobe Film, I Vast, Sutor Kolonko.

Without spoiling the film’s final act, I’ll simply conclude that it’s a stroke of brilliance, connecting the end of an indigenous people with the modernist technology of the 20th century—the film camera—and its ability to record and distort historical fact. If history is written by the victors, Chile’s has, like so many other countries established and ruled as a consequence of colonialism, reduced what is known of the Selk’nam largely to cultural artifacts and gift-store curios. Gálvez’s brave, bracing film takes sure aim at a part of his country’s history, at the world’s collective understanding of colonialism, with a structure and style that calls on the epics of the past to reimagine a future.

The Settlers (Los Colonos), Chile’s Official Selection for Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards, opens Friday, January 12 at the IFC Center in NYC and the Laemmle Royal in LA, with other cities to follow. 97 minutes, in Spanish with English subtitles.



Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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