by Julian Wood at Sydney Film Festival

Pepe won the Silver Bear at Berlin and is one of those films that you just want to tell people about once you have seen it. It is a wild ride, full of surprising turns and bold cinematic choices.

So is talking to Nelson (let’s just call him that), because the conversation can range quickly over everything from sociology and philosophy to ideas around ‘Third Cinema’, to the history of animation techniques of the 1960s.

The eponymous Pepe is a hippo that escaped from the private zoo of drug baron Pablo Escobar. So, Escobar is sort of the elephant in the room (bears, elephants, hippos – stay with us reader).

Nelson is well aware that Escobar is a very contradictory character, part Robin Hood, part murderous psychopath. Also, the connotations could lead to the idea of a ‘cocaine hippo’ but Nelson eschews such tabloid reduction in the pursuit of something much deeper. Escobar features in the film but only very briefly. Nelson has his reasons for not wanting to get stuck with the already much-discussed drug lord.

“That’s a Columbian problem but I am not from Columbia,” he says of Escobar. “I am from the Dominican Republic and this story is from the perspective that is Caribbean, really. I wanted to get away from the problem of Escobar. Even though that might have been more popular, it is not about Columbia. I wanted to speak in a broad sense. I needed to mention him but not get stuck there.”

The film uses the hippo as a starting point for all kinds of speculation, but at the same time as an impetus for exploring different forms of narrative. It is also the case that Pepe is lost, almost existentially so. As the mesmerising drone footage makes clear, the river systems are absolutely vast. There are great stretches of pale beige water the size of cities, where poor Pepe – perhaps imagining he is still in Africa – could swim for years and never encounter his own kind. Pathos is a human construction though, of course.

There are two artistic decisions that Nelon takes in the film, and they are nested within each other. Firstly, there is the decision to see if one can tell the story from a hippo’s POV. Then there is the question of how to actually represent that in a film… Nelson comes up with a memorably weird factualized montage of voices and linguistic styles, which makes a huge contribution to the film’s uniqueness.

He also has to steer between a false anthropomorphism and a flat nature film depiction of the hippo as a hippo. This taps into what the filmmaker thinks about narrative conventions themselves and that, in turn, takes us towards the complexities of identity theory. So, asking whether Pepe has a point of view is therefore not a simple question.

“Pepe’s monologue was my idea, and it was fun. Actually, I have been questioning these sorts of narrative rules in cinema, for example, the idea of the unified POV of the story. When I was young and studying cinema, I felt [there were] these whole narrative rules. It was sacrilege to break the POV and I was finding that a rather totalitarian view. There is deliberately no POV really. This is a recurrent idea for my work, and it complicates the problem of what is true and what is not true. You could say it relates to the problem of transparency, of the possibility for us to understand the world from another perspective, which is below or beyond the dominant narrative; the opacity, if you like, of what can be seen and said.”

There is a whole page of invisible footnotes to the above disquisition, but you have to keep up when Nelson is on a roll. Everything is linked to everything else, though, as well. Nelson shot the film in several countries, which adds to the sense of it being multivocal and of the film’s involving multiple perspectives. He also plaits in the fact that his Caribbean identity is already historically diasporic.

“I am from Dominica, but where are ‘we’ as Caribbeans? We are not African or American, and this opacity, if you like, is where we can find the relation the poetics of relation, as Glissant says. [Martinican theorist Edouard Glissant] I like these post-colonial ideas.”

Yes, but what about the hippos? We can agree that they are large and dangerous. In fact, it turns out there are geopolitics of difference within hippos too.

“With the hippos in Columbia, it is different because they live closer to humans and they are more used to humans and they can associate humans with a food source. But in Africa, they are more isolated, aggressive and very dangerous.”

Via an aside about Herzog’s Grizzly Man, we discuss the irreducibility of wild animals. “When you are in front of a wild animal, it is so crazy! They will not be on the same plane of rationality. It is just wild. This animal could kill me, and it would not even think about it. When I went to Africa, I got that. I felt that abyss that exists between us and [truly wild] animals. You cannot bridge it. Then, I understood that there is no such thing as really getting inside the hippo, but instead, there is this idea of the beast as a kind of fable.”

So, would Nelson see the film partly as an animal documentary or, rather, would he be disappointed if audiences consumed it that way? On the contrary, he loves animal films. He grew up on National Geographic and BBC wildlife films (dubbed into Spanish) and these were the only sources that he watched running up to the film.

“I was very fond of such things. Jacques Cousteau is so important to my childhood; he was my hero. I grew up in the ‘90s and rewatching all this stuff, I thought about all the ways that animals are portrayed. So, this element was also part of my imagining.”

Interestingly, it also affected the kinds of funding that might be worth chasing.

“I will have to be technical here. This film was complicated, because normally they give you money for docos or for fiction, and they are different sources. There are two different forms in the same film here.”

There are differences too, in the type of enterprise and in the method of filming. “With fiction, you have a crew and make up and actors and so on, but with animals you just start shooting and waiting and sometimes nothing happens.”

It also affected his choices in relation to cinematography.

“I took the role of the camera person myself because when documenting these animals, the poetry had to be impregnated into the images themselves. If this film didn’t do this, it would fail because it would not be able to build the artifice of the fable. I wanted to paint with many colours like fiction does. Also, the framing matters. In this film, it is like a children’s book where the framing is so square and so geometrical. And also, the problem of not going into too many wide shots where everything has to be seen or well lit… Here, not everything has to be like that. Some bits can be dark, and it can be done in a more cinematic way.”

The long chain of signifiers eventually leads to cartoon history.

“I wanted to use this film to rethink the problem of imagination. So, when they told me the Columbian press called this hippo Pepe, I thought of course! A hippo could be personified as the press did in Columbia. And that could be related for me to Pep (Peter) Potamus, which is a cartoon from Hanna-Barbera (clips of which are featured in the film). In the original cartoon, Pepe had a boat. It was a different technique to Disney. With Disney, it is swirling. But Hanna-Barbera invented this technique of ‘limited animation’ in the 1960s, where only the hands and the mouth were in 24 frames a second, so all movement is vertical or horizontal. In that cartoon series, the hippo is doing a sort of safari in North America as well as South America and it is travelling in all these places. And he always escapes with this boat that is a sort of flying boat.”

Pepe has charmed and intrigued audiences at many film festivals around the world. Just don’t expect it to turn up on Netflix any time soon.