Alex Anwandter Illuminates Queer Life And Death In Chile

His new film and album examine the everyday struggle of homophobia

On February 20, Chilean musician Alex Anwandter was at the Berlin Film Festival collecting the prestigious Teddy Award, which recognizes LGBT stories. His winning debut feature, Nuncar Vas a Estar Solo [You’ll Never Be Alone], was inspired by the horrific, homophobic murder of 24-year-old Daniel Zamudio by neo-Nazis in downtown Santiago in 2012. It was not, as he had repeatedly emphasized, a biopic but a fictional attempt to contextualize the everyday violence against the LGBT community in Chile, where traditional masculine values — machismo — are prized. Just three days before Anwandter collected his trophy, another young Chilean man, 20-year-old Marcelo Lepe, was beaten and shot after his neighbors ambushed him for being dressed in women’s clothes. He died in his mother’s arms.

“No one knows his name here,” says Anwandter, Skyping from his Santiago home. “And no one will care, because, oddly enough, it wasn’t as shocking as the other boy.” Zamudio’s death ushered in Chile’s first proper antidiscrimination bill and brought homophobic hate crimes to national attention, but it also became a limiting flashpoint. “People cannot allow the idea that there are other boys and girls suffering from this violence — that is the level of reluctance to discuss the ideas versus the specific gory violence that is attractive.”

Along with the film, which is touring festivals before getting a theatrical release later this year, Anwandter has also just released his gorgeous second solo album, Amiga. It’s already a hit in Chile, where the 33-year-old openly queer musician is one of the country’s best known artists. His music often sounds a little like Phoenix if they’d emerged as disco gave way to house in the mid-1980s. “When I listen to Grace Jones, I don’t think about her on her own,” he says of his disco influence. “I always picture her dressed as a puma in Studio 54 surrounded by the gay community. Disco is collective and gay and queer and supportive of other communities, rather than straight people. I’m someone that has been embraced by the people that made that music, so I give and receive it.”

Anwandter’s bold Spanish-language lyrics detail what it is to live in Chile amid violence against LGBT people and women, endemic poverty, and other social injustices. His approach is intersectional, but he prefers to avoid academic terms, citing the minimal cultural impact of The Knife’s 2013 album Shaking the Habitual as a warning against getting too theoretical. “I really think those type of ideas have to be attached to emotionally charged artistic vehicles, which is what I think songs, or the movie itself, are,” he says. “They are more opportunities to reflect rather than messages. No one thinks of themselves as homophobic, or that they discriminate, or that they’re sexist. You have to provide a small universe for them to sympathize with whatever you wanna talk about.”

Rather than a protest singer, then, Anwandter is a disco empath. He’s not only trying to influence older generations with entrenched views but also a surprisingly apathetic younger generation of Chilean musicians. That once included him, he admits, until he made a conscious effort “to be political in a way that didn’t act in detriment of my authenticity.” (He repeatedly refers to Bono as another anti-example.) On his previous solo album, 2011’s Rebeldes, he forced himself to be vulnerable, combining the personal and political. His breakthrough came with “¿Cómo Puedes Vivir Contigo Mismo?” ["How Can You Live With Yourself?"], where he declared, “Only through being what I am do I understand what is real.” Its video paid tribute to the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. “I spent the first six months of performing that album often crying onstage,” Anwandter says, laughing at himself. “Not in a breakdown, more like a single tear-type thing. People connected to the record in a way that hadn’t happened to me before. It’s the kind of thing you don’t unlearn.”

Where Rebeldes was made almost entirely solo, Anwandter brought in guest musicians for Amiga to echo the record’s collective themes. It’s also more lyrically up front than its predecessor: Lead single “Siempre Es Viernes en Mi Corazón” ["It’s Always Friday in My Heart"] scans as a party anthem but reveals deeper truths about Chilean working life and Catholicism’s vilification of the gay community. “Manifiesto” is a heavy, romantic piano ballad in which Anwandter declares, “Today I am a woman / The village fag / Even if they set me on fire for it.” The title is tongue-in-cheek. “Obviously, it means ‘manifesto,’ but it’s not a list of political issues,” he explains. “It moves in a territory of language that emotionally stands besides some issues, rather than being a pamphlet.”

Anwandter was born to a Brazilian father and Chilean mother toward the end of Agosto Pinochet’s dictatorship. He was raised without religion, which remains extremely unusual for the staunchly Catholic country. After high school, he tried studying music but soon quit because he got bored easily. Instead, he made his community at the scrappy queer parties he found through a Facebook event after he started dating boys when he was 23. “It was kind of the queer punk scene here in Santiago,” he says, laughing. “I’m not punk at all, but the great thing was that it was very mixed aesthetically. That was amazing. No one cared about identity nor your music tastes, and that translated into a very rich musical scene.”

It spurred him into forming his first band, Teleradio Donoso, which took off quickly after releasing a self-titled EP in 2005. They put out two full-length albums, but he quit in 2009. “I felt part of something that was really old,” he says. “I was stranded with four guys playing drums, bass, and two guitars. That format is very limiting.” On the weekends, he had been listening to house and disco, which influenced his eponymous album as Odisea, a record of longer, electronic tracks, but he pushed into three-and-a-half-minute pop songs on Rebeldes to force himself to write in a more sincere and economical fashion.

Anwandter says he’s pretty much alone in bringing a political message to Chilean pop, and that he wants to reconnect artists with the “shitstorm that happens every day in every level of Chilean society.” He’s mentoring young queer musicians to counter a generation that’s fallen back into the tropes of guitar-oriented rock. “It’s weird for me,” he says. “It’s like recycling an old way of being apolitical, and furthermore, going back into something rather heteronormative.”

He finds that young Chileans are generally more open-minded than their parents, but that the country’s nascent LGBT-friendly laws have had little effect on culture at large. Last October, civil unions were introduced for everybody, although the focus was steered toward the benefits they would provide for straight, cohabiting couples. “I think it’s a very shy effort, and I’m being generous by calling it shy, in the way civil unions erase gay and queer and lesbians,” he says. These laws are just crumbs to him: His concern is that people are dying because of homophobia, but he’s aware that changing the country’s cultural makeup will take decades, and requires an empathetic rather than polemical approach. That’s why his movie focuses as much on his young gay character’s elderly father — and his struggles to cover his son’s medical bills in a country with privatized health care — as the boy himself, to urge viewers to reflect on how an intolerant culture isolates them both.

“I try not to be demanding with my country, my people — we’ve suffered many things historically, and yet we’re expected to compete in this abstract notion of development, and being 20, 30 years ‘behind’ a country like the U.K.,” he says. “Cultural change should be evaluated in the context of every place, and in that sense, I don’t get desperate, because I’m aware that other countries that are more ‘advanced’ than Chile has had people fighting for those issues. And I’m very comfortable with the idea of being one of those people.”