By his own admission the work of Guatemalan-Mexican writer-director Julio Hernández Cordón is hard to pin down. His eclectic filmography bears that out. He’s brought folkloric music and heavy metal together in Marimbas from Hell, crafted a meta-documentary on Guatemala’s history of violence in Polvo, took us on a high-octane midnight spree in Gasolina, and gave life to a black-market blood drama about gay skaters in I Promise You Anarchy. His most recent production Atrás hay relámpagos, which just wrapped up filming in Costa Rica, focuses on two young female bike enthusiasts who want to live by their own rules. What characterizes his projects is a keen sense of space: these are stories rooted in their environments. Almost proudly unpolished in their execution, there’s no denying that they bear the mark of an artist eager to tell stories that might not otherwise make it to the screen, especially in Central America.
Hernández, who was serving on the International Feature Film Competition jury at this year’s Costa Rica International Film Festival, participated in a lively roundtable discussion titled “Desafíos de ‘lo experimental’ en el cine y el videoarte” where filmmakers and video artists talked about their shared challenges in what are often separate audiovisual contexts. Speaking to his own experience as someone who’s felt ill at ease within the larger film community and feeling more at home amidst groups of visual artists, performers, and poets, Hernández had plenty of insights to share about his career and his hopes for cinema in the region. Check out some highlights from the conversation below.
On Seeing Cinema as a Creative Expression That Goes Beyond Lighting and Cameras
“My gamble in directing films the way I do, is knowing that it’s distinctly my own. Any errors, in terms of production you may point to, actually show that the film is unique, authentic in a way.”
My schooling was very traditional, very academic. And that caused a lot of obstacles in my work. You know I wanted to make films in Guatemala and when I was in class listening to my professors or working some class exercises I realized a couple of things. One, making a film is an expensive effort. Two, that what I was learning in school wasn’t going to help me tell the stories I wanted to tell. And third, which was very important, was that I didn’t really like my teachers’ films. That’s when I started to not take too seriously what I was learning in school.
And what happens in Guatemala is that the film industry is very small. It doesn’t look very far; there’s a lot of navel-gazing involved. That’s when I began connecting with other types of creators and visual artists. There’s a richness there. You have people like poet Javier Payeras and performance artist Regina José Galindo. There’s a lot of people. And what really drew me to them was they were talking about their art, their poems, their paintings. In the film community there was talk of cameras and other technical stuff, which to me, never felt like what cinema is about. So this other community appealed to me more. What intrigued me was their outlook on their creative vision, which was tied to imagining a different country for ourselves.
On What He Learned From Video Artists
What I saw in video artists was that they were very unconcerned with getting the best camera or having the best D.P. or the best light. That’s when I understood that that type of filmic make up isn’t really necessary to showcase what you’re saying, and even what you’re not saying. And there was humor. It was this sort of anti-tradition, this vast ocean of thunderstorms that really took my breath away. Thanks to them I got introduced to the work of people like Bill Viola and Francis Alÿs, which despite existing in this sort of contemporary art world, I feel is very atmospheric and in a sense very cinematic.
On Not Wanting to Be Tarantino & Creating a Singular Style
What I learned really was that to tell a story is to suggest. What’s important isn’t just the story you’re telling but its subtext. That’s what gives richness to your project, to your film. It gives it another dimension. Oftentimes cinema can be very flat, very one-dimensional. What I also saw was that many of the shorts and films out there were very obviously inspired on other films. It was cinema about cinema. It struck me as very repetitive. It was all very Tarantino-esque. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want my cinematic “family tree” to be so exhaustive. I wanted it all to feel more of myself. I wanted my mistakes to be own, not someone else’s. So I began to work on my vision, making sure that my eye, which would be cinematic, would be informed by my experience not merely cinema itself. Thinking about it in terms of video art, photography. To take up things around me. And if you look at my films, Gasolina, Polvo, Te prometo anarquía, the ending has no dialogue. It’s about the image, about mood.
On Championing a DIY Aesthetic
“Everyone kept telling me… that there’d be no way to make films in Guatemala. It makes me really happy to have proven those people wrong.”
My gamble in directing films the way I do, is knowing that it’s distinctly my own. Any errors, in terms of production you may point to, actually show that the film is unique, authentic in a way. It points to the fact that a story like this, like Gasolina, could only be made and could only emerge in Guatemala. I don’t say that in any pretentious way but to explain that I start off and feed off of a specific context. So while I may not make films with known names and may not film them with the best camera, I see myself seeing the camera as an artistic outlet which lets you exorcise your demons, and create culture, which really is what it all comes down to.
You know a while ago there was this rush to shoot with those RED cameras. Everyone wanted to shoot their films on RED and I just didn’t understand it. I was like, I need to find the cheapest camera. I think in the film world you can sometimes get caught up in very unimportant things. A camera does not make a film. Lights don’t make the film. I want my films to have a distinctive look, it gives me pleasure to see people able to identify them, you know? It’s vindicating, in a way. Because when I finished school in Mexico and said I was gonna head to Guatemala, everyone kept telling me I should just stay. That there’d be no way to make films in Guatemala. And I have to say, it makes me really happy to have proven those people wrong.
Hernández’s remarks were made in Spanish and translated by the author for Remezcla. Additional reporting by Vanessa Erazo.