When Costa Rican director Jurgen Ureña found success with his short film, Paso en Falso, he was on his way to making the full-length feature he’d envisioned. The award-winning short centered on a young man living on the streets who finds himself nurtured by a trans sex worker when he suffers an injury. It was the kernel of an idea he wanted to further flesh out. But the more he thought about it, he knew he needed to do more with the trans community he was depicting. If the project was going to be an authentic look at these characters, he needed a trans actress in the leading role.
At a time when both Hollywood and indie productions in the U.S. continue to cast cis-gender actors to play trans roles (that is, casting male-identified and male-born actors to play trans women, as Eddie Redmayne did in The Danish Girl and Jared Leto did in Dallas Buyers Club), Ureña’s decision looks all the more radical. And so through a local NGO, he began working with a group of trans women who helped further develop the project that later became Abrázame como antes.
The film, which screened at the Costa Rica Festival Internacional de Cine, may remind some of Sean Baker’s Los Angeles-set Tangerine, which also focused on the lives of trans sex workers and cast trans women Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. But where that award-winning indie film was driven by a propulsive and hilarious plot, Ureña’s is more abstract in its storytelling. Blending the power of observational documentaries with the flourishes of fantasy that characterize those who live and perform at night, Abrázame como antes is a humane portrait of a number of streetwalkers in San José. Suffused with the bright neon colors of nightclubs and the evocative sounds of the song that gives it its title, the story of Tato and Veronica speaks to what it means to create a non-traditional family and to survive in a world that may not give you the respect you deserve.
After its CRFIC screening, the director was joined by two of his cast members, Jimena Franco and Natalia Porras, to talk about the project’s arduous development process, its political implications, and what rans performers bring to the story at hand. Find some highlights from the conversation below.
On Working Collaboratively With the Film’s Trans Performers
Jurgen: It was a long process to get this film made. It took around 7 years. That sounds long but that’s the average time it takes to produce a debut or even a sophomore feature in Latin America. There was a lot of learning involved in this process. There was some research and some experimentation. The movie has its origins in Tatiana Lobo’s novel Candelaria del Azar. When I read the novel I was brazen enough to tell Tatiana that it was basically a film. She very graciously said that I should go ahead and shoot it as a film. From then on it was a fascinating process. I got to work on putting together a strong crew. That’s how we shot my short, Paso en Falso which has this trans character.
“I felt that in a way we were merely creating a caricature: at the end of the day, it was a man in a dress. Like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie… I felt the need to go in another direction.”
In that first short, the trans character was portrayed by a male actor and dancer, Luis Piedra. He did a great job—he even earned an award for Best Actor in the [XVIII Muestra de Cine y Video Costarricense] film festival that year. Nevertheless, I felt that, in a way, we were merely creating a caricature: at the end of the day, it was a man in a dress. Like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. I don’t say that to disparage Luis’ work but as a way to explain that, at that time, despite the short’s success, I felt the need to go in another direction. I got in contact with an NGO called Transvida which put me in touch with these wonderful girls. And with a group of 13 girls, which included Natalie and Jimena, we began a series of creative workshops alongside a dramaturg, Roxana Aguila—and I want to give credit where credit is due, really. So we did a second short film in 2011 called Los inadaptados and then we started looking for funds to produce the feature film. In between that second short and this full length feature, actually, two of the people we were working with died and that’s why they didn’t make it on the film. So if you saw at the end of the credits, they are Johanna Bagnarello and Fidel Gamboa, who’d worked with us on that short. So as you can see, it was a long and arduous process. We really wanted to get in contact with this often hidden life that’s right beneath the surface. And in a way, we were also in contact with death itself, really.
On Fighting Prejudice Against the Trans Community
Jimena: So, the first time I saw the film I didn’t get it. I kept asking like, why is that here and there, and what? And then the second time I saw it I just loved it. And now watching it this time around I was left thinking that this is a very homegrown story. You live that here, and it starts with family when they don’t accept gays, when they reject their sons and they’re caught up with “el que dirán,” and throw them out on the street. And the street is waiting for them. It’s a trap almost. From there you’re not far from alcohol, drugs, prostitution. Of course, what’s missing in this country are opportunities. And for us in the trans community, we have nothing. Not even the slightest chance at a low-paying job. It’s such that we don’t even have a name: what’s on our ID is a man’s name, not our own. And I will not tire of thanking this man right here for giving us this great opportunity and of making this dream come true. I’m an activist first and foremost so what I keep looking for ways to affect change. That’s in all of us, in you and in me, that’s where change lies. Change comes with respect, with a job opportunity, with an education.
On the Film’s Powerful Trans-Inclusive Message
Natalia: We live in a physical world where people often just look at what’s in front of them, not looking beyond that to see anyone’s potential. Jurgen was someone who could see beyond all these implants. And thank god for all the opportunities he gave us. At this point I should be, I don’t know, carrying his luggage everywhere. He gave me the chance to let everyone else see my artistry, my sketching as well as my creative expression on screen. He took the time to teach me, something not a lot of people take the time to do in this country. He gave me this wonderful gift and to show off yet again what I am capable of. I say yet again because for eight years now I’ve been telling anyone who’d listen that all of us girls are okay. That we’re not ones to be labeled or judged, for whoever is harboring those prejudices is trapped in their own kind of closet.
“Costa Rica may not have given me a country but this movie did.”
As Jimena said, this was a golden opportunity because for the first time someone valued me as a human being. A long time ago I was denied my education given the humiliations I was subject to by fellow students and by teachers who if they couldn’t figure out to help and educate a trans kid, I don’t know what kind of education they’re giving out, really. Sorry for the random aside. I am not here to bemoan or to whine. Costa Rica may not have given me a country but this movie did, and it’s on the big screen and headed abroad! Because like I said, we live in a world where it all comes down to what we see. And so I thank god and everyone involved. I said this on Saturday and I’ll say this again: Respect other people’s lives. Know yourself and live your life, take the time to see who you are and don’t hide that from anyone. And if you don’t have anything to say about someone else’s life, best be keeping quiet.
On Moving Beyond Merely Telling a Story
Jurgen: In terms of the film’s screenplay. There was a conventional-looking script, as it were. We developed it over various workshops including one in Guadalajara and in Michoacán, both of which were very important for this project. But by the time we got back here to work with these girls, the script began losing its importance. The anecdotal became less the point. When you boil down the film, you can see that there’s very little in terms of plot. That’s when we began the work with them to pursue other elements in the work, turning it into a more sensory-driven experience, one more focused on space and the city. To try and generate that connection between the characters and the spaces they inhabit. There’s a shot I really love where Veronica returns to the party and she’s grabbing a hold of the wall and it’s almost like she’s part of the wall. So we began to think more about family and home. The home as refuge, as a womb. So we began to think of Tato as someone who’s trapped in that womb and who had a chance to flee. We engaged in a lot of work to get the story to move beyond the anecdotal even as the experiences these girls were bringing to the project were integral to what we were creating.
On Why the Film Has No Explicit Politics Or Activism
“The fact that these two actresses are on screen, is more than just an aesthetic accomplishment. It’s a political accomplishment.”
Jurgen: What we hope for is that the movie show widely. But we’re also looking for it to screen beyond commercial screens. The idea is for it to open debates and discussion. Briefly, I will say that I am glad that, even in the short number of times we’ve shown it, it looks like it stimulates that need to talk about these issues even if the film itself doesn’t really have a set agenda addressing them. It was very important to me to make a film that wouldn’t feel beholden to any institutional type of activism. That it would be a film that would speak about these authentic characters who would be true to the reality, so in those final words of the film where a character says to another that they need to stay in the streets, that the streets are what they are, that says something about these specific characters.
It’s not really speaking to an ideological imperative. But that there’s something in the film that then opens up those discussions is in itself a success. The fact that these two girls, these two actresses are on screen, is more than just an aesthetic accomplishment. It’s a political accomplishment. In itself, this says that these women can occupy places in society that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And they can be brilliant in them. So in that sense I hope the film can drive that discussion.
The Q&A was conducted in Spanish and has been translated by the author for Remezcla. Additional reporting by Vanessa Erazo.