In recent years, students have repeatedly called out and challenged environments of machismo, homophobia and unpunished sexual violence within the Chilean education system. In dialogue with this movement, Lucas Quintana in ‘Animales Extintos’ takes a closer look at the cultures within which machismo exists, offering a sensitively rendered vision of the toxicity of certain male friendships, and their potentially noxious consequences.
In the woods outside the director’s hometown of Osorno – beautifully captured by cinematographer Michael Meneses – a posse of teenaged friends try to distract themselves from their impending PSU results (a standardised test for university admissions in Chile). However, their trip quickly spirals into antagonism and violence.
In addition to directing Animales Extintos, Lucas Quintana also wrote the film’s screenplay, and his ear is well-attuned to the pitch of male communication. For these supposed friends, conversation is a contest, with every word a fresh opportunity to humiliate and degrade one another.
The lumbering avatar of this impulse is the detestable Manuel – wonderfully played by Juan Carlos Maldonado – who seems unable to communicate beyond crude sexual jokes and homophobic bullying, and who seems allergic to the most basic compassion. When he indelicately mocks his friend’s history of self-harm, we clearly see the relational consequences of his stunted emotional growth. Later on, when Manuel asks Pudu if he’s gay, his tone shading smoothly from mockery to accusation, it is obvious that if the latter is Manuel’s ‘friend’, he is certainly not the person to tell.
To an extent, every character is infected by the aggressive demands of male friendship, with all of them dipping at some point into a deep well of misogyny, homophobia, and bullying. Even the sensitive point-of-view character, Sebastián, played by the excellent Sebastián Balmaceda, slips into this paradigm at the beginning of the film when, unable to express his doubts and worries over his academic future to his friends, he gets stuck in himself, joining in the mockery of Manuel’s learning difficulties.
These patterns of behaviour are not inherent, but rather learned, and the film is a timely intervention in the debates around Chilean education which have bubbled over in recent years amid growing challenges to environments of machismo, misogyny, homophobia and sexual violence.
According to data (now unavailable although widely reported on) from the Educational Authority (SIE); between January 2014 and September 2019, Chile’s Ministry for Education received 2,192 reports of sexual behaviour towards minors in Chilean schools. A 2016 report by Chile’s Ministry of the Interior found that students were not being taught the importance of sexual and reproductive rights, nor were they taught about sexuality.
Quintana draws attention to this schooling through a spirited rendition of the boys’ school song, which reveals them as students of Colegio San Mateo, a Jesuit high school in Osorno which only began admitting girls in 2005. Not far out of high school himself, Quintana has spoken of the harmful behaviours young men often learn in school environments and encourages us to question the ways in which young men are taught to relate to their peers.
The film’s greatest virtue is how these patterns of male ‘banter’ shade quickly and effectively into something profoundly darker. When the climactic violence comes, however, Quintana is canny enough to make sure that it is not the parodical Manuel who commits it, or the frequently victimised Pudu who suffers it. Instead of focussing on these individual archetypes, the outrage emerges from a wider context, one in which masculine aggression is often unseen and usually unchallenged.
After witnessing this scene, Sebastián wanders around in a daze before collapsing in tears into his father’s arms. Even now, however, he cannot communicate what he has seen, with vulnerability and trauma seemingly not included in the lexicon or grammar of manhood he has learnt. In this harrowing finale, the title of the film starts to take on a more hopeful quality, with the implication that these destructive patterns of male behaviour are dying out. Before they disappear, however, Quintana’s brilliant film reminds us that they can still deal tremendous damage.
Animales Extintos is showing until Friday 16 April as part of CinemaAttic’s LADS: Toxic Masculinity film festival, within a programme of ten international short films seeking to expose patterns of masculinity and offer alternative views on how men are dealing with manhood today.
You can watch the films here.