We are all too familiar with the litany of gloomy, sometimes deeply pessimistic films coming out of Mexico in recent decades. Festival hits like Heli and El Infierno offered up unflinching and often discomfiting ground level explorations of the quietly terrifying reality of drug violence in Mexico’s small towns, while even Carlos Reygadas’ fragmented, impressionistic Post Tenebras Lux alluded symbolically to the country’s seemingly unending cycle of bloodshed and class conflict. While there are admittedly many Mexicos, and just as many stories to tell, these films speak to a society wracked by a series of complex and interconnected ills that weigh heavily, if often unacknowledged, upon the daily lives of its citizens.
Director Everardo Gout’s debut feature Días de gracia (Days of Grace) fits squarely into this tendency. A gritty, sometimes brutally violent narrative of urban crime and police corruption in Mexico City, its slick visuals and dizzying pace walk the razor’s edge between savage spectacle and philosophical rumination, presenting a grim panorama in which no one is free from the stain of moral corruption.
The disorienting, non-linear plot bounces between three World Cups — Japan and South Korea in 2002, Germany in 2006, and South Africa in 2010 — following the arc of a young criminal apprentice working with a band of kidnappers, a do-gooder cop for whom the ends often justify the means, and two victims of kidnapping and their afflicted families. As the narrative slogs its way through a morass of jagged temporal fragments, Días de gracia approaches a climax in which despite the tragic consequences of individual decisions, we see that there is still hope for redemption.
Días de gracia first premiered at the 2011 Cannes film festival before taking to theaters across Mexico and Europe. Now, as Gout and his team prepare for a much anticipated stateside premiere, we took the opportunity to chat about the state of Mexico, retuning the film for American audiences, and how Días de gracia became an unlikely training video for Mexican Special Forces.
“I went to talk to ex-kidnappers, to policemen, the corrupt ones, the good ones, to a lot of victims of kidnapping and that… showed me the awful truth of what was going on in my country.”
This film has some clear thematic and stylistic precursors in works like City of God and Amores Perros, though I’m sure you’re tired of hearing those comparisons. But it’s true that this is a theme that has been explored extensively in Latin American cinema. With this film, what did you hope to contribute to this conversation about violence and delinquency in Mexico and Latin America? For you, how does it set itself apart and what does it add to the conversation that we haven’t previously heard?
Well, first of all thank you for the comparisons, because if my movies are half as successful as any of those two, I think it would be a great thing for me. I obviously love Amores Perros and City of God, and all of those movies. To me what’s really important with Days of Grace is that I started the project the day I arrived home and they told me, “You’re going to be a father. You’re going to bring a child into this world.” I said, “I need to try and inspire my child to work in what she would truly like,” and you can do that by example. So if I give myself to my filmmaking and show her what it’s like to live with passion, later on she can decide to do whatever she wants with her life. If all of us would work at what we really really love instead of just having jobs like ninety percent of people who just have a job to pay the bills, then we would all be living “days of grace”; we would live in a better society where we would all be much happier. So it was very important for me first of all to inspire my child into following her dreams.
And then on the social front, we started way back. We started in 2005. So I saw this wave of violence that was really aggressively destroying the social fabric, and nobody was really trying to talk about it in Mexico. Mexico was living its great moment, and Mexico was beaches and “we’re almost part of the first world,” and nobody was really talking about all of this violence that came every day closer and closer to everybody that I know. So to me it was really important. I did four years of research into the subject matter before I shot the movie. I went to talk to ex-kidnappers, to policemen — the corrupt ones, the good ones — to a lot of victims of kidnapping, a lot of kidnapped people who managed to escape, and that research really showed me the awful truth of what was going on in my country. I even came across a case where I spoke with a husband who had his wife kidnapped, and what they asked for ransom wasn’t even money, they asked for what we call in Mexico “La canasta básica” which is 2 quarts of milk, 12 eggs, sugar, coffee, beans. So it was no longer a problem of the rich people way over there who got kidnapped, it was about all of us. So I thought that I needed to shine my little light into the subject matter, because I believe that if you have a cancer the first step to cure yourself is to acknowledge that you have a cancer. If you keep on denying your problem then you never solve it. So that is what I wanted to do.
The filmmaker Paul Haggis saw the movie and he said something that I thank him for, that I really like, he said, “Days of Grace is like shining a torch into the darkest corners of the heart.” So, I believe that if I could do that, that would be great.
Obviously Days of Grace is a rather dark vision of Mexican reality, as Paul Haggis mentioned, that seems to suggest a sort of vicious circle from which there’s no escape. Now, in 2015, with the Ayotzinapa massacre and all of the controversy surrounding Peña Nieto’s presidency, do you think these issues have evolved or worsened? How do you see the panorama of Mexican society today?
“Paul Haggis saw the movie and said, “Days of Grace is like shining a torch into the darkest corners of the heart.”
I see that it’s a really complicated subject matter, and if we want to make a change it’s not only up to the government, but it’s up to the society as well to collaborate. I believe that it’s a broken dialogue, because I shot in the most dangerous places in Mexico City, therefore I’ve been in the most dangerous places in the world, and we had zero incidence of violence while we were shooting. Every time that we shot in those barrios, obviously we had the permits and we had some police protection, but we had to talk to the local gangs and hoodlums to ensure protection. And not one single time were we asked for money in exchange for protection. They only asked for community benefits. They asked for some lights, to put up a fence. In once of the places that is one of the most violent places [on the border of Mexico City and Mexico State], for instance, they asked us to sponsor the eye operation of a little 7-year-old girl who had had an accident. So what you realize is that there is really a broken dialogue between crime and the government, between crime and society. Because we’re all striving for a better world, no matter how bad you are, you always want to have a better community within your grasp, within your reach, because we all have children and we all have to live with that. So, what I see is a lack of opportunity for the kids who are fleeing to organized crime, be it jobs or schooling or sports, and that’s what’s absorbing all of these people into the crime scene.
So my first idea when making the movie was, because in those 4 years of investigation I found out that most of the kids who they hire to hold you at gunpoint, they’re between 14 and 19 years old. And there’s at least one of those who holds the gun to your face while your kidnapped, for whatever time you’re there. So I thought, if I could do a kinetic, very action-driven, spectacular movie, it would appeal to that generation. And if I managed to have one of those kids who’s flirting between petty theft and becoming a career criminal, and through the movie see the pain that he’s causing and gain a little bit of consciousness and have that life changed, then I believe it would be an amazing thing. Not just for me, but for the society. So that’s what I was trying to accomplish with that.
Unfortunately I’ll never know if that’s going to be the case, but I do know that we showed the movie to the Chief of Police of Mexico in the past government, and to our surprise they loved the movie and started using it with Special Forces, as a way to show the policemen not to fall into corruption and not to get involved in kidnapping and this type of racketeering. So I know that happened, and it’s something you can be proud of, at least, that you can start building those bridges.
And how do you feel like your personal vision or your personal opinions about the cycles of violence and police corruption in Mexico have evolved since you started writing this project in 2005?
“We can’t just sit down and wait for a magical president to come and wave his magic wand and suddenly all of this will go away. “
Well, fortunately after those four years of investigation and then making the movie, I detached myself, because it was really really painful and difficult to see the amount of violence that I saw. In the movie, you only see ten percent of what I actually managed to see, and that was really hard. I believe that we are going down a very, very difficult path right now. I believe that things aren’t getting better at all. There is a book that is going to come out made my Trilce Ediciones, the editor’s name is Debora Holtz, and she completed the investigation because I stopped in 2010, and she continued it for a couple of years. And in the book it shows that it has grown exponentially, that it is a cancer that is growing and growing because of the amount of corruption and the amount of impunity that unfortunately we are living in my country.
So I personally stopped following the amount of kidnapping cases because I need to change gears and do something else after all this. I believe that unfortunately it’s a growing cancer in my country and it’s crazy that we haven’t found out where the rest of the Ayotzinapa kids are. That’s unbearable, it’s heartbreaking that we don’t have the capacity to figure that out. That’s why I think the government is a little overwhelmed by the amount of corruption and violence and money involved in crime, and it’s up to all of us to contribute. We can’t just sit down and wait for a magical president to come and wave his magic wand and suddenly all of this will go away. It’s so deep and so rotten on the inside that it needs a bigger change, it needs education and it needs opportunity for our youth. And maybe in a couple of generations it will change, but we have to start from there.
You spoke previously about the kinetic style of the film. I’m curious why after all these years of investigation and research, you decided to take on this fragmented, non-linear kind of hyper-kinetic style. Why did you think that this was the best way to tell this story?
“Will.i.am came to Mexico. We did a screening with him and he figured it out in 10 minutes. Other people leave the movie theater still scratching their head and trying to figure it out…”
Many reasons. A) I like it, it’s of my taste; which I think is the most important, because you have to be true to who you are and what you are and put your soul onto the screen and then people will see. The more true you are, the better chance you have of connecting with your audience, even if they like or not what you’re showing. I wanted on the one hand, as I said, to have kids who are flirting between petty theft and becoming career criminals, to connect with them. And I know that in this hyper-visual world that we live in, with very minimal attention spans, if you don’t do something very kinetic and showy, it won’t connect. If you try to be solemn and heavy-handed, they won’t see the movie. It will be too much for them. But if you do spectacular one-shots, and you have Scarlet Johansson singing a song that Massive Attack did for the movie, etc. then you have a better chance of connecting.
In terms of the fragmentation, the movie is a little bit of a thesis about kidnapping. It’s a little bit of a philosophical point of view, so I needed that device to play with time. So if I say that we are in a World Cup, I’m not implying that it’s actually three world cups, I’m just saying that it’s World Cup time, and I have a bigger arc for my characters to grow on and to move through. You know, nobody changes in 30 days. But in 4, 8 or 12 years, then your protagonist from your first story can be the antagonist of your second story, and that’s organic. And I wanted it to be like a game for the audiences as well, like a puzzle that you’re trying to figure out. And there are people who figured it out in the first 10 minutes, like Will.i.am when we showed it to him — because I did one of his first videos before he was big, and we have kept in touch through my brother — he came to Mexico and we did a screening with him and he figured it out in 10 minutes. And other people leave the movie theater still scratching their head and trying to figure it out, but that’s what I wanted. I wanted people to take the movie with them. And by taking the movie with them, there’s a dialogue that opens within yourself and with other people that saw the movie. “So what do you think happened?” And by doing that exercise, you’re opening the conversation on the subject matter.
And finally, with all those years of research the one constant thing that I saw in all the kidnap victims and all their families is that when you’re exposed to this sort of violence, you are a little bit at a loss, you feel lost. You don’t know what’s up or what’s down. You only have people that you don’t know opening all the little drawers of your family’s secrets, and they’re supposed to help you but you don’t know if you can trust them or not. And like every family there are going to be things that come out that are secrets nobody should know. So you feel very much lost, and I wanted the audience to experience that. To submerge them in a universe where you don’t know what’s up and what’s down, and hopefully by the end of it you come to peace with it and you understand what’s going on. But you feel like a part of the ride, just as you would feel if you were in a situation like that.
You mentioned the song by Massive Attack. I’m curious about your use of music, specifically Mexican popular music. It contributes a lot to the atmosphere, it gives it a lot of verisimilitude and personality to the different spaces in the film. But beyond all that, did you want to use the music to make a deeper commentary?
“I wanted to show the world a little piece of my country, not only the sad and the violent part, but also the beauty and the colors and the exoticism and the beautiful music…”
Well for me cinema is equally visual and sound. I pay a lot of attention to the sound. And to me the popular Mexican music… I love it, it’s what I grew up with. I’m a proud Mexican. And I feel like I wanted to show the world as well a little piece of my country, not only the sad and the violent part, but also the beauty and the colors and the exoticism and the beautiful music that we have. And I believe that all of that music definitely contributes to the tone, to the pace and to the idea, to the philosophical idea behind the movie. Every single song is there for a particular and a specific reason, and it’s telling the story as well. So yeah, obviously Scorsese is a big influence in my life in that sense, that he always chooses his music so well, his music is always portraying what the characters are feeling. You can’t just flash it all, you have to think about it and go to the roots of who the character is, what you are trying to say and why. That’s what we tried to do with all of that.
You said you started this process in 2005, the film played at Cannes in 2011, and just now it’s coming to the United States, four years later. I’m curious about the odyssey of this film. Very few films have four years of life after their festival premiere. Did this just come out of nowhere? Had you already given up on U.S. distribution? What was this whole process like?
Well it’s been a wild ride, obviously, because this movie has come with a lot of love and a lot of pain, and waiting for the U.S. release has been exhausting, but we wanted to make it right and to have the right partners. We had to figure out some legal stuff that we were bound to run into. It’s sort of the history of independent movies: it’s so hard to make a movie that you have to pull so many strings and sew them together that sometimes it takes longer than you expect. And also we reshaped the movie a little bit for American audiences. We retuned the movie to what we believe was the best format for America, so it is a slightly different movie than what premiered in Cannes and showed in Mexico. Obviously for a Mexican audience it’s a little bit more familiar, because you know what we’re talking about and you know the language and you know the music, and for the international audiences we have to guide them a little bit more by the hand.
So yeah, it’s been great but at the same time, like when you have a child you have to support it and keep on applauding all of its accomplishments, and it takes years. And every year, roughly, it opens in a different country. It opened in France, it opened in England, and it has been taking from one year to the next to do that. And now there is that amazing book that is coming out this year that was inspired by the movie, so it has a lot of life, fortunately.
Días de gracia opens in New York on May 1 and in Los Angeles on May 15. It premieres on HBO Latino on May 1 and is available on DVD May 5.