Meet the Venezuelan Wunderkind Director Who Mark Duplass & John Legend Took Under Their Wing

After spending a couple of minutes with Francisco Cabrera, it’s immediately clear he’s not like most teenagers. He’s the kind of old soul that at age 18, when talking about why he left his native Venezuela, sounds more like he’s 38. At the same time, he’s got a wide-eyed innocence that matches his real age. It’s a trait that fits perfectly with his chosen profession of directing films.

Cabrera left Venezuela with his family as an 11-year-old. In the past seven years in the United States, he learned English, fell in love with movies, made a short, graduated high school, got mentored by Mark Duplass and John Legend, enrolled in Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts, and screened his short during the Toronto Film Festival (TIFF). And, he’s only getting started.

I caught up with the wunderkind after finishing his first week at film school and right before Revolving Child played to a large audience in Toronto to talk about becoming a member of the prestigious Axe Collective and how Tamir Rice inspired his movie’s focus on gun violence told through the eyes of a young child.

On Being a Weird Kid Who Loved Magic

I have always been a weird kid. In the beginning, I wanted to be a mime. Then I did puppeteering. Then I did magic for a while. I got really into magic for like two years and then my mom got tired of it. I was like nine. This is when I still lived in Venezuela. I would come up to her and do tricks and they wouldn’t work. Then I would come back and try it again. I would do it all day while she was at home. So, she got tired of it. I told her if I ever win an award, I am going to thank her for not letting me be a magician, so that I could be a filmmaker.

On Falling in Love With Movies

I got really into film when I moved here [the US] because my brother worked at a movie theater. My brother worked from like 11 to like 6 and I would go to the movies with him. While he worked, I watched movies back to back. All of the movies: the bad ones, the good ones. I wanted to just take it all in. And I wanted to escape from being in school and not being able to talk to anyone because I didn’t know the language. While being at the movie theater, I was learning about characters, I was connecting different mannerisms with different English words. So, I learned the language and I fell in love with storytelling.

On Why His Family Left Venezuela

I came here at the age of 11. I’ve been here for seven years. We came for — how most Hispanic people or anybody who leaves their country to the United States — for opportunity, safety. When we were there [Venezuela] freedom of speech was taken away from the media and I wanted to be part of the media. They were militarizing the schools… We were lucky and privileged to be able to move here.

On How Tamir Rice Inspired Him to Make a Film

There are two things that became a catalyst for this story. There’s the Tamir Rice case, about the little kid with the gun. I wanted to somehow tell that story. But I thought it would have been irresponsible [for me] to tell that story because it had just happened and I don’t think I can speak for the black community. As a Latino in the United States, I can understand discrimination but I don’t think I should speak for them. But, I wanted to grab the core of that. Then, my little cousins got a nerf gun and they knew exactly where the trigger is, they knew the sounds [of a gun], they knew that it could kill bad guys. How do you know where the trigger is if you’ve never held a gun? From movies and TV. So, in my film the little girl — there is a TV on the floor and she passes in front of it and it’s showing violence.

On Finding Out He Was Chosen for the Axe Collective

My best friend, he sent me a tweet mentioning the competition. I saw it and then I kind of forgot about it. I was in school, in my senior year and doing SATs… but I decided that I had to submit. I was so busy [with school] but I got help from a friend to make a trailer and we submitted it. I was in my astronomy class and I got a phone call from a random number in New York, so I just walked out of the classroom and answered. They told me I was a finalist and they told me how important this is and I was just blown away.

On Getting Mentored by Mark Duplass

Then, I had my first talk with Mark Duplass. He is the greatest person I ever met in my life. He’s such a caring person. I don’t understand how somebody can be so nice and support somebody they just met… His mentoring was so helpful. I was worried about writing dialogue. He told me, “If your thing is writing no dialogue and writing stories about quiet moments…” because Revolving Child has no dialogue. He says, “Make that your thing. Focus on your strengths. Your thing is no dialogue, embrace it. It’s stylistic, it’s poetic.” I had thought making a film without any dialogue was a cop out because I didn’t want to write dialogue. For the first time I realized, “Oh, this is what makes me, me.”

On the Overwhelming Support That’s Changed His Life

I’m not supposed to be at TIFF until I make it somehow. And I’m here. This has just been life changing. I never thought I would be at TIFF at 18 for a film that I made when I was 17. I never thought that could happen. I’m here, and everyone here is taking care of me, and everyone’s changing my life. It’s so insane and… I’m about to cry. I walked in here and went onto the floor and just looked and thought, “This is insane; this isn’t supposed to happen…”