Ernesto Contreras On Creating an Indigenous Language for Sundance Winner ‘Sueño en Otro Idioma’

'Sueño en Otro Idioma'. Photo: Victor Mendiola / mironlibre. Courtesy of FilmRise

Spoken or otherwise, human beings exchange messages that range from practical to profound, but when the ability to express our curiosities, concerns, and desires is threatened by the lack of someone who can understand our words, that result is isolation. Imagine if only one other person in the world could fully comprehend what you need to say?

Inspired by a news article about the last two speakers of the Zoque language in Tabasco, Mexico, who wouldn’t talk to each other because of an old disagreement, Ernesto Contreras’ third narrative feature Sueño en otro idioma (I Dream in Another Language) uses that premise to dissect what the extinction of a particular worldview represents beyond mere communication.

“It was an opportunity to speak not only about language but about a loss of a identity, we don’t realize when it happens in terms of culture, knowledge, roots, traditions, etc,” explained the director who premiered the movie at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival accompanied by his collaborators on the project. His brother, Carlos Contreras, was once again the scribe behind a powerful screenplay, just as in Ernesto’s previous works: Blue Eyelids and The Obscure Spring.

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“We decided not to use a real indigenous language out of respect for the speakers of these tongues that are disappearing.”

Highlighting the luscious vegetation of the Los Tuxtlas region in Veracruz, the Mexican state where the Contreras brothers are originally from, Sueño en Otro Idioma introduces the viewer to a magical realist universe hidden within a rural setting through the eyes of an urban outsider who arrives to save the heritage of this community before it’s too late. Martin (Fernando Álvarez Rebeil), a young and idealistic linguist, is determined to document the Zikril language, which to his knowledge, is only spoken by three elderly people, but when one of them dies, an old quarrel and a heartbreaking secret are unearthed. Peeling away the hardened layers of judgment with compassion, Martin must try to convince Isauro (José Manuel Poncelis) and Evaristo (Eligio Meléndez) to have a series of conversations he can record in order to safeguard their nearly extinct tongue.

Fascinatingly enough, Zikril, the language used in the film, is entirely fictional but was created with the intention of making listeners believe it could actually be one spoken in the region, “We decided not to use a real indigenous language out of respect for the speakers of these tongues that are disappearing,“ Contreras added regarding this unorthodox, yet ingenious approach. “We invited a linguist to create something similar to one of the languages in the region where we shot, such as Zapotec for example, but then as we talked we arrived at the conclusion that it would be better to create something completely different. He created an alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, and phonetics. Then the actors had to study a lot and familiarize themselves with the words, and with the construction of the dialogue, and act.” To fully manufacture the illusion of an ancient form of communication, Contreras and his composer, Andres Sanchez, even wrote an ancestral lullaby, which is performed in the movie by one of the actresses.

In the film, Martin’s love interest, Lluvia (Fátima Molina), is a young woman desperate to leave her small town and who spends her days teaching English via radio to the men and women around her preparing to travel north in search of the American dream. “On the one hand, there are the religious aspects and how they influence the behavior and decisions of the characters, and on the other, the dream of so many Mexicans to come to the US to work as an opportunity to improve their situation. There is a paradox of how we can be worried about learning this language [English], while we forget about the other one and causing it to die completely.”

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“We invited a linguist to create something… He created an alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, and phonetics. Then the actors had to study a lot and familiarize themselves with the words, and with the construction of the dialogue, and act.”

By rejecting what’s indigenous, countries around the world have lost their uniqueness in exchange for what is considered modern and superior. This struggle reaches far beyond the shores of Mexico and Latin America. Contreras opines, “We, as a society, focus too much on apparent progress, progress that has to do with globalization, which sweeps away our identity, that happens in Mexico and all over the world. That’s why I wanted it to be a story that could resonate with any culture. There is a contrast between what is ours, which slowly dilutes, and what we aspire to or what we see as ideal.”

Formally, Sueño en Otro Idioma plays with language even when it comes to subtitles. Contreras chose to omit captions that could help us understand the conversations in Zikril, except for very specific moments that could be elevated by the use of written translations. “I liked the idea that the spectator, who apparently doesn’t understand what they are saying to each other, could still understand the emotions. It was a challenge to play with that convention. At least in Mexico, we are very used to watching films with subtitles. We wanted the moment we used subtitles to feel like we were breaking the rules. We didn’t want conventional or traditional subtitles, but rather something playful that comes from where that sequence takes place, which is the cave named El Encanto.”

Mysticism is employed in subtle doses that manage to entice the audience without breaking the spell of reality or veering into overly fantastical territory, “We decided not to have any artifice. There is not a single digital effect. We wanted it to be more about playing with the spectator’s imagination, with sounds, music, and atmosphere. It was about finding the right places and working with the cinematographer.” Indeed, the jungle as a location enhances the otherworldly feeling the filmmaker was after.

When comparing his newest vision with his first two works, Contreras finds a logical explanation for his need to tell a story that offered more hope to his characters and that was set in open spaces. “After The Obscure Spring. I wanted to make something more luminous. I wanted a film where the characters would smile, where they would fall in love, where they would sing, and I thought this one was the right one. At the same time, both of my previous films were very urban, so I wanted air. I wanted the jungle and nature in general.” His last project, The Obscure Spring, dealt with the tragic love affair between a married man and a single mother and was set in a gloomy and gritty iteration of Mexico City.

“In Eyelids, I was very interested in loneliness and how to connect with another person; The Obscure Spring was a bout how sex is a catalyst, and in this one is about what happens when there is an unfinished story. I loved the concept of an unfinished story between these two men and the universe around them. I made a short film about 15 years ago called El Milagro, which was in the same frequency: realist but with fantastical undertones. This was sort of like a return to that search.” Besides the plot that unfolds in the present day, Sueño en Otro Idioma includes flashbacks that depict the life of the two protagonists as young men in the 1970’s living in a traditional society that was not accepting of them and their indigenous background.

“The challenge was not to make an indigenous drama in the sense of being anthropological, but instead a story about human beings that live in this place and are confronted by these situations,” he explains about the delicate line between telling an ethnographic tale and one that is grounded in humanity. Thanks to the carefully calibrated screenplay, the movie avoids such treacherous paths and lands at the intersection between a meaningful and heartfelt art house drama and an accessible story about embracing one’s innate qualities.

Shot by his long-time collaborator, Director of Photography Tonatiuh Martínez, this is Contreras’ first fiction not filmed on 35mm. In order to facilitate access to the remote and humid locations, the director decided to embrace digital filmmaking . As of now, he believes that making movies in his native Mexico is much more viable than ten years ago when his feature debut, Blue Eyelids, was completed, and it helps that a festival like Sundance has recognized his immense and multifaceted talent, “Sundance is a loving experience for filmmakers and their teams. We were here with Blue Eyelids and we won a Special Jury Prize, and at that point a long-term relationship was created. We were later given Global Filmmaking Award to develop this film.” Clearly, Contreras speaks the language of success, and now, after receiving the World Dramatic Audience Award for Sueño en Otro Idioma, he is dreaming in it too.

Update 7/26/2017: Sueño en Otro Idioma (I Dream in Another Language) opens in New York on July 28.