There’s no easy way to describe Ricardo Silva and Omar Guzmán’s latest film, William El Nuevo Maestro del Judo. It’s partly a character study on William Clauson, an aging Swedish musician living in Tijuana. It’s partly a nature documentary singling out the oldest living tree. It’s also a portrait of homoerotic desire. There are scripted scenes and there are captured ethnographic scenes. This collage of images is the type of fractured essay film that evokes many things and yet feels entirely new, as if Silva and Guzmán were remaking and testing cinema anew.
Its most obvious predecessor is Silva’s own 2014 movie, Navajazo. It cobbled together a series of testimonials from people around the Tijuana area (where both Silva and Guzmán are from) in a dizzyingly poetic ethnofiction experiment which won the director the Golden Leopard award at the Locarno Film Festival. In this latest project, the directors have gone even further, creating a film akin to what Terrence Malick would produce if he were a bordertown kid obsessed with Cocteau and the Eternal Return Law.
The movie’s most entrancing sequences have the directors (who are not gay as they were quick to point out) turning their camera on actor Edward Coward playing a younger (or is it different?) version of William, one who craves the love and attention of a trio of rent boys. They try, by any means necessary, to perform for him and show him they really love him. These scenes call into question the veracity of all that we’re watching (we first meet the boys as eager performers discussing improv with Edward/William), blurring as they do the lines between fact and fiction.
That inability to distinguish what’s true and what’s a lie is, as Silva and Guzmán told us during a Skype call ahead of the their screening at the Los Cabos Film Festival, precisely what they most enjoyed about directing this project. Check out some more highlights from our chat below, including why they think this movie is pushing what cinema can accomplish and why they have no qualms talking about Sylvester Stallone alongside Werner Herzog when discussing their own cinematic influences.
William El Nuevo Maestro del Judo screens as part of this year’s Los Cabos Film Festival. Check out the lineup here.
On The Film’s Non-Traditional Format
Omar: What happened was that we had all these ideas accumulating all of these years. They sort of started to fall into place. I have no idea what happened—it was a series of obsessions that each of us had and we sort of worked them into a movie. The tree, the homoerotic aspect of the movie, everything has to do with things that we’ve always been interested in. We grew up together in a similar surrounding so that’s why we have these codes in common.
Ricardo: For me it’s also a film that’s engaging with cinema itself. It’s an exercise in cinema. In the cinema that the two of us would like to see. For me the film’s greatest theme is time, the passing of time. And how hard it is to create a sense of time and space within cinema. So the film has this sort of need of being in the present but also in the past and in the future too. The sense of time in the film is very hazy. The film tackles the difficulty of creating a linear sense of time. There’s a feeling in the film of what it means to be timeless but from within the very framework of cinema, there’s a self-awareness that this is indeed a film. The intent is to break the passivity of the audience when engaging with it. Well, that’s what I was thinking through while working on it.
On Their Cinematic Influences
“What most impacted the film was what we were listening to: from heavy metal to Leonard Cohen.”
Omar: Actually what’s gonna be very funny about this interview is that we’ve never talked in this level about the movie with each other. We have an understanding between us because we’ve been friends for so many years so it’s a more organic thing. So I’m gonna find out some things about what Ricardo thought about the movie and vice versa. I’ll tell you what I was thinking about all the time: My biggest pleasure in life is watching films. So I really tried to watch one film every day more or less. During the moment when we were writing the script and doing the entire process of producing the film what I was doing was listening to a lot of music. If you see the poster for the film you’ll see we’ve included the names of the bands we were listening to. It’s very tempting to have these sort of high end cultural references (because you ask and we can tell you that we were watching Polish cinema from the 60s and whatever) but I was really thinking of a Win album. I find it very interesting that those guys can make a country song and a punk-rock song in the same album and still have that sense of coherence. We were thinking of a scientific movie. We were thinking of a horror. We were thinking of a historical documentary. We were thinking of a homoerotic movie—and homage to things like Cocteau and Fassbinder. And I think it’s also a very Christian movie. But for me, music was a big influence on me. And comics!
Ricardo: More than influences I just remember Omar and I watching films at night—we’ve known each other since we were like 13. He was the first one to show me films and to introduce to all of that. And the one I remember the most was John Huston’s Fat City. We talked a lot about the films. Not in terms of influences but in terms of how they made films like Malick’s Days of Heaven. More than that as Omar said, what most impacted the film was what we were listening to: from heavy metal to Leonard Cohen. And it was a matter of getting them to work together. What was important was for us to find something genuine, something real there.
On Blurring the Line Between Documentary and Fiction
Ricardo: That’s why I don’t think this is a documentary. But then, you know, you need to make these generic choices.
Omar: I mean, it’s very simple to label things. I’m very much in favor of labeling but people do it because it’s easier. So is it a documentary film or is it a horror film? Or docufiction? It doesn’t matter: it’s a movie. And that’s what we’ve always loved. Movies. We share the same love for Cobra with Sylvester Stallone and Cobra Verde by Herzog. Whenever I say I love Cobra people always assume I mean the Herzog. But no, I mean the George P. Cosmatos which, for me, is an amazing cinematographic exercise.
On How They Met William Claus, the Swede
“We share the same love for Cobra with Sylvester Stallone and Cobra Verde by Herzog.”
Ricardo: I meet William over three years ago. He’s a man who lived in a store-like space in downtown Tijuana. It’s that space you see in the film. The first time I met him he struck me as a man who’d lived so much. He had all of his albums and I remember that whenever I went to see him I’d nick a photo here and there, because this was a guy who really wasn’t moving at that point, and this place was full of his stuff. Every once in a while we’d buy something, a record, you know? When I realized there was something there—looking at his stuff—we began imagining and crafting a story about his life. We’d come up with these crazy stories, like he was on the run, accused of paedophilia or something equally crazy, or that someone had him as a slave. We just kept trying to answer the question as to why this older Swedish guy was living in Tijuana in these circumstances. When we found out it was all too simple (he owed taxes back home and he just lived here because he liked it), we realized we preferred our fantasy. That’s when we decided to create this story, anchoring ourselves in this person but bringing to life what was only in our heads. That’s when we began using William as a core reference
Omar: What we were out to do was to prove the point that any story is interesting, it just depends on how you tell it. That was the challenge and what we tried to do. So how do tell the story of a tree that’s been there for thousands of years? How do you tell the story of a place? Those were our challenges and also our enemies, I guess.
On Giving Their Actors the Freedom to Create Magical Moments
“We just kept trying to answer the question as to why this older Swedish guy was living in Tijuana in these circumstances.”
Omar: Here we have to thank Edward Coward because he gave us everything he had in the film. We just gave him certain points he needed to get to—everything’s scripted, absolutely everything—how you get there, it’s your business. And what he says in the movie is quite true: he was really living it out because of his humongous ego. This was a huge ego trip for him. We really wrote that with him but everything is true, that’s him! We are very thankful because he took us there somehow. Oh, and here I should say that while it may look like Ricardo and I are gay because of these scenes: we are not. So it was really nice to get into this world. I’ve always admired homoerotic art and queer cinema ever since I was a little boy (sound kinda weird, but that’s the way it is). But it was really nice to have this very thoughtful guide to this.
Ricardo: We wanted to make a film where there was a lot of freedom. We had a plan but the magic lies in those moments in between. Edward, we can’t really tell whether he’s a really good actor or whether that’s just him on screen. It’s hard to tell where he ends and the character begins. The character was simple: this was a guy who needed to feel loved. But Edward kept forgetting that he needed to also be a version of William. And we really wanted that, to make it hard to keep those distinctions clear. And that’s really the heart of the movie: not knowing where we’re showing you what’s true and when we’re lying to you.
Omar: And if you see the entire movie under that optic you start thinking, maybe that tree is just a tree. The whole movie is a construction. It’s not necessarily a lie but it’s definitely a construction.
Part of this interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated by the author for Remezcla.