Lorenzo Vigas Talks Confronting Machismo and Homophobia in His Powerful Film ‘Desde Alla’

When Lorenzo Vigas’ From Afar (Desde allá) won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2015, it became the very first Latin American film to win that coveted award. To show you in what great company From Afar now stands, consider previous winners from this past decade alone: Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, and Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Not bad company for a film from first-time feature film director Vigas.

Focused on the unlikely relationship between Armando, a reserved, wealthy, middle-aged man (Pablo Larraín staple Alfredo Castro) and Elder, a young street gang member (newcomer Luis Silva), From Afar is, as Vigas puts it, a film about: “things that are not said and not shown.” When Elder first follows Armando out of the Caracas streets to his fussily decorated apartment, you can see both eyeing each other. Can the volatile teen get what he wants out of the low-voiced older man? Can the clearly infatuated Armando lure Elder into doing his bidding while keeping intact the macho allure that first attracted him to this young malandro?

Set against the backdrop of the streets of the Venezuelan capital and not shying away from exploring the power dynamics between the two men, From Afar asks viewers to engage in discussions of masculinity, sexuality, and what it means to open up to those we crave. Ahead of its U.S. theatrical release, Remezcla spoke with the award-winning director and talked about the way his movie speaks to Venezuela’s current situation, how he found his leading men, and why he’d rather not speak at length about the film’s ambiguous ending.

On the Origins of Desde Allá

Well, I had a screenplay that I had written before this one—not a very good screenplay—but the main character was a shrink but he was kind of this autistic character in the city. That film was never made but it inspired the character of Armando. Then there were two things: at the same time I had a friend who was killed in Venezuela and that also inspired the character, and on the other hand, Guillermo Arriaga, who I worked with him writing the story for this film, he also had a Mexican friend who was also killed. So the character of Armando has a lot of my own obsessions, which I’d looked at in my short film, Elephants Never Forget (Los elefantes nunca olvidan), which is the first part of this trilogy that I’m working on about the absent father in Latin America. This short film is the starting point for—it’s the seed—for From Afar. So the film is a combination of all these things: these people who were killed, that screenplay that was never made, and a bit from the short film.

On the Timely Commentary On Venezuela’s Situation

“Right now we’re living in a moment where there is no dialogue between people, between the classes. And also between the government and the people.”

I didn’t write the screenplay wanting to make a political comment. I just wanted to make an interesting film for people that had a lot of my obsessions but trying to make it as interesting as possible. And then it turned out to be—when you see the film right now—it speaks very well about what is happening in Venezuela in many levels. Right now we’re living in a moment where there is no dialogue between people, between the classes. And also between the government and the people. So what we have in Armando is someone who is unable to communicate. He’s unable to have emotional communication with people. And that works as a metaphor for what’s happening in Venezuela.

On the Film’s LGBT Issues

You know, in Mexico and Venezuela there’s still a lot of homophobia. Words like “puto” in Mexico or “maricón” in Venezuela are used in a very pejorative way. So in that sense masculinity in the film is very important. But not just masculinity, power. I say “power” because you have in Venezuela this vision that the malandro (a leader of a gang) is someone very important in Venezuelan society. He’s a robber, an assassin. But they’re idolized, respected even in their own strata of society. They have the power. So in this film a malandro is faced with someone that is supposed to be gay but who turns out to be much more powerful than he is. So it’s a clash of two alpha characters and suddenly after the scene in the film where Elder (who was an alpha) cuts himself, he becomes the beta in the relationship. It’s a very important comment about power in Latin America and what it is to be a malandro.

It’s a film where the gay issue is important but it’s not the whole thing—it’s important because of the homophobic society and prejudice [around it]. It’s really a film about two characters with deep emotional needs who got together in this place where communication is cut off and trying to be together, trying to communicate, and it just happens that they’re two men.

On Finding His Leading Men

The actors were very important because I knew it was a film because a lot of things had to be said by expressions and by gazes. With Elder I was very lucky—you have to be willing to discover someone like Luis Silva who, to me, is going to become a star. He has never done anything before this film. I actually saw a photograph of him at a casting agency in Venezuela. He’d gone to a casting session because his cousin wanted to be an actor and he just went with him. They took a picture and I saw it, and I saw an amazing face with everything on it. He had anger. He had light. He had opposite emotions in his eyes, in his face. So I met him and I never put a camera in front of him. I was completely sure that he was going to play the part because he’s very bright, very smart. He had this amazing energy. It was a bit risky but I think it’s important to take risks.

Having someone like him I knew I needed someone like Alfredo Castro, a very important and established actor. I knew that there was going to be a lot of tension between both. Because Alfredo was going to be always nervous knowing that Luis wasn’t an actor. You never know what to expect from this non-actor. There was a lot of tension at the beginning of the shoot and that tension was very helpful for the story of the film. And they became very close, very friendly. Alfredo, who is very generous, helped Luis a lot. Many actors wouldn’t have done this, but he’s that kind of person. Very quickly we knew it was going to work. There was an amazing energy between them.

On Coaxing A Raw Performance From Newcomer Luis Silva

I didn’t want Luis to read the screenplay. So he would get his lines twenty minutes before we would start shooting. So that’s all he had to learn the scene. And we would start rehearsing right away. He knew what the film in general was about, so he knew that he had a couple of very strong scenes. And he told me that he was a professional and that I should trust him (laughs) but he never knew what was going to happen the day after. It was also a discovery for him.

On The Film’s Ending (No Spoilers)

The one thing that’s controversial about the film is the ending. Some people love it and some people reject it. But I knew that this was going to happen. For me it’s not a provocative ending though some people think it is. For me it’s an organic ending. I wouldn’t like to talk about the ending of the film because it’s important not to talk about it but I think that there is a lot of ambiguity in life and normally you’re never sure of your emotions—sometimes you love your mother, sometimes you hate her—and for me, art should also be closer to life. So now you go to see a film and the film tells you exactly what emotions to feel and exactly all the information you have to know. But I think filmmaking should be closer to real life. So that’s why I think ambiguity is important for filmmaking. And From Afar — and its ending — is an example of that.

From Afar opens in limited release on June 8, 2016 at the Film Forum in New York.