A director in search of the light and beauty of danger
Obsessed with films such as Back to the Future and The Terminator, Viktor discovered his passion for film when he was a child. Born in Berlin in 1983, he used to tape films on VHS as they aired on television so he could watch them over and over again after school. Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, were three films he’s known from an early age, and which have bewitched him for life.
After being a production driver on Hollywood film sets that were shot in Berlin starting at the age of 18, and later studying film, Viktor Jakovleski met Benh Zeitlin in 2005 and started collaborating with him and his independent film collective, Court 13, and now brings us their feature Brimstone & Glory, a documentary that goes on a quest to present the beauty of the National Pyrotechnics Festival in Tultepec, Mexico. A film filled with light and mayhem, in which castles and bulls burn in colorful explosions and the camera takes the viewer right into the center of the chaos. A tribute to the people and firework makers (pirotecnicos) of Tultepec who work their craft with limitless passion and love, and risk their lives on a daily basis in order to provide this gunpowder filled art to all of Mexico because, as Viktor says, “everybody loves fireworks – especially in Mexico.”
How is it that you decided to make a film in Tultepec?
It started in Berlin when someone casually told me about Tultepec at a party. He was an artist who had been to Tultepec and he told me about the Fire Castles and the Burning of the Bulls and all the psychedelic mayhem, and I couldn’t believe it because it sounded so crazy. He showed me pictures he took and when I saw them, I was stunned and immediately obsessed; my curiosity was sparked. It was so beautiful and dangerous at the same time, like nothing I’d seen before. I knew in that moment that I needed to travel to Tultepec and find out what was going on there, and if there was a potential film to be made. This was before my first visit to Mexico, so I did some research and began to read Octavio Paz. I understood the mindset of the Mexican mentality and the importance of their traditions, particularly by reading “El Laberinto de la Soledad”. I learned how people subconsciously use the “fiesta” to balance their lives and how this is an essential element to the Mexican way of living. And I wanted to find a way to bring this mind blowing Mexican fiesta in Tultepec to the big screen.
What was your encounter with the firework makers like? How did they treat you?
They were extremely open. In Tultepec they’re used to people not paying too much attention to them and their traditions – only to the negative news when a accidents happen-. Even most of my filming crew who were from Mexico City, only an hour away, knew little about the place or this festival.
When the people in Tultepec found out that I came all the way from Germany specifically because I was interested in their traditions and stories, they were enchanted by the idea of me making a film about them. They were extremely generous and helpful. They understood immediately that I wanted to do something special. They treated us very well. Making this movie was a beautiful and transformative experience.
What do you think about pyrotechnics as such a strong source of income in Tultepec?
That’s a difficult question. I realize It can be very dangerous and ugly, with all the accidents that happen there while at the same time every real Mexican fiesta needs fireworks, and Tultepec makes 80% of all the fireworks in the country. Which means that the demand for fireworks is very high. Tultepec is a prosperous town and the fireworks feed the people. So it’s essential to them. They risk their lives so the rest of Mexico can have a good time and I fell in love with that idea. They have such a special relationship to the pólvora. They say it has a soul and it’s important to respect it and not to fear it. By being surrounded by tons of this stuff in which just one spark is enough to cause an explosion, they seemed like Buddhist monks while making fireworks, totally at peace. That attitude of risk, life and death was incredible to me and it changed me as a person. I recognize the danger in this industry, but it’s a necessary one. Some pirotécnicos say they’d rather die making fireworks than being shot in the streets or getting run over by a car.
What did you find to be your greatest difficulty filming in Mexico?
For starters, my Spanish is not perfect, and language is important. But my team helped me a lot and especially my Mexican line producers translated for me and helped other people understand what I wanted.
Technically, I think the hardest thing was to film in one of the wildest parties I’ve ever been to, in the middle of thousands of fireworks constantly going off. Our goal was to show this visceral, ecstatic element from within and to capture the feeling of being inside the Burning of the Bulls, which of course also needed a lot safety precautions.
Another challenge was the fact that we filmed with real people, not hired actors. And some of them didn’t even have a cell phone. They have a normal job or go to school. So sometimes you simply can’t film with them because you can’t find them. But this was also part of the charm of making this film.
Generally, I would love to spend more time in Mexico and continue to make films here. I have two pages filled with research and topics I’d like to cover. I’m totally in love with Mexico!
What is most beautiful about cinema?
It’s collective. It’s teamwork. You rely on others. You work together, you live together, you party together. I love that. I love working with my Mexican brothers and sisters. We go on an adventure together and the magic happens when we open up to that experience. Embedding ourselves and walking around in Tultepec, meeting the people and the place, drinking Mezcal with them, that’s what I enjoyed the most about making this film. It’s a beautiful human experience.
What can you tell the people who haven’t seen the film about the National Pyrotechnics Festival in Tultepec?
The beautiful traditions and philosophy of the people of Tultepec is not very well known, but it should be. What I wanted to do with this film is to give them the respect and recognition they deserve, by not portraying the one image that is know through the media (danger, accidents etc.), but to focus on the beauty and the GLORY, while still not ignoring the danger. I wanted to paint a picture of ambivalence. Which I think gets closest to the truth. Brimstone basically is my love letter to Tultepec.
The film is not a classical documentary. No one talks into the camera, there are no interviews where anyone explains anything. It’s a partly abstract cinematic reflection of the beauty I observed when I was there, taking the audience on a journey into the midst of the fire.
What will be your next project?
My next immediate project, which I’ve already started filming in Venezuela, is about the Catatumbo lightning (El Relámpago del Catatumbo), a marvelous natural phenomenon. My film is about an artist friend of mine from Berlin and his great adventure to go into the most lightning prone area in the world to shoots rockets into the storm clouds in order to capture and tame lightning, and turn that into art. It’s about art and nature and technology and how it all is connected to each other.
Do you think film has the power to change the world?
Absolutely. In my opinion, film is the most effective and transformative art form we have. You can show a strong or unusual point of view within 90 minutes (or more, or less), which is the perfect space to ignite an idea and to inspire. You can’t change the world in 90 minutes, but you can raise awareness and inspire a change of attitude and consciousness. That’s the power of cinema. You have the audience stuck in their seats, and their attention belongs to you, and you can take them on a wild journey of inspiration and transformation.