Motel Destino director Karim Ainouz reveals vision for a sci-fi film set in Algeria

Brazilian-Algerian filmmaker, whose latest movie is nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes, speaks to The National about the project and his ambitions

Director Karim Ainouz's steamy thriller Motel Destino is in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in France. Reuters
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Karim Ainouz, the Brazilian-Algerian filmmaker, is desperate to make a movie in Algeria. Three years ago, he arrived at the Cannes Film Festival with Mariner of the Mountains, a documentary about the search for his own Algerian roots in his father’s homeland. But time is ticking. “I’m not young any more and I need to go 'boom, boom, boom', because, you know, I’m not 30,” he says. “And I would love to make a movie in Algeria.”

Sitting in a rooftop space in Cannes’ Palais, the 58-year-old already has some extravagant ideas. “I would love to do a sci-fi film in Algeria, about the nuclear experiments in Algeria in the ’60s, which nobody talks about, but I’m not going to make a movie [directly] about that. It needs to be a movie that people will go see and then that topic will be there. But I also would love to make a love story movie [in] Algeria. I would just love to do fiction. So that’s totally [on] my radar.”

Of course, he’s aware that making movies in Algeria can be difficult, given taxing censorship conditions, but he takes inspiration from directors like Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, who is also in competition in Cannes with The Seed of the Sacred Fig. “I keep thinking it’s very different than Iran. But no matter how much censorship there was, I mean, Iranian cinema was and has been of such great inspiration, and I think its done under conditions which are much worse than Algeria.”

For the moment, Ainouz is back in Cannes competition with Motel Destino, a low-fi thriller that took him back to Brazil, a stark change from his previous film – the 2023 period drama Firebrand, with Jude Law playing English King Henry VIII. “We don’t have many privileges, being a Global South director, but this is one of our privileges, which is to switch between the north and the south. I really felt the need to shoot in Portuguese again … I just felt the urge. And after filming Firebrand in rainy old England I really needed to have some sun,” he grins.

Motel Destino took Ainouz back to Brazil’s north-east, shooting his first film entirely in his home state of Ceará since 2006’s Love For Sale. It was all ready to go until Jair Bolsonaro became President of Brazil in 2019. “The extreme right won the elections, and the project was cancelled,” Ainouz explains. Eventually, when current president Lula da Silva came to power, the contracts were honoured. “I just felt like I owed myself a movie there and I owed the movie to exist, because for many years it was just in the fridge.”

The result is a steamy thriller that follows Heraldo (Iago Xavier), who hides out in a seedy motel, on the run from mobsters. There he falls for Dayana (Nataly Rocha), who is coupled with the owner Elias (Fábio Assunção), who they eventually plot to kill. Shot in lurid colours, with the sweaty heat of Brazil playing its part, it’s very much cast in the traditions of Hollywood films such as Body Heat and The Postman Always Rings Twice. “I really wanted to make a movie that [makes] you feel like you’re going through a fever dream,” he adds

Ainouz was reminded of his 2002 debut, Madame Satã, which premiered in Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section. “It was a bluff, because I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “I pretended that I knew what I was doing, but it was a total lie. I was so free … there was so little negative and I had a blast. I had so much fun making that film. I really wanted to inhabit that space again with this one and I think the conditions were there because the country was starting again. There was a real sense of taking back the country.”

Part of this sense also stemmed from working with relatively untested actors, an experience he compares to filming with Jude Law and Alicia Vikander on Firebrand. “These are people that have been on a million movie sets and I think there’s something that I learnt with this boy [Iago] and with Nataly and also with the other actor [Fábio Assunção], which is they’re fearless. They’re fearless because their careers are not sitting on millions of dollars. And I think it’s so refreshing because that's how spontaneity is created.”

Ainouz will next go back to directing an English-language project, a remake of Marco Bellocchio’s debut feature Fists in the Pocket, starring Kristen Stewart and The Crown’s Josh O’Connor. “I’m actually shooting in September,” he reveals. For the moment, however, he’s left thinking about the rise of Brazilian cinema in the wake of Lula coming to power. “We are back with a vengeance,” he smiles. And of course, he can’t shake the idea of returning to Algeria one day to shoot. “I am flirting with that possibility very much.”

Updated: May 25, 2024, 4:08 AM