This Oaxacan Director Made a Film About the ‘Perpetual Sadness’ That Immigrants Leave Behind

Poetic, beautiful to look at, and intimate like a whisper, La tirisia, Oaxacan filmmaker Jorge Pérez Solano’s second film, shows the sublime sensitivity of an emerging Mexican auteur.

After studying film and making a few shorts in the early 90s, it would not be until 2008 that Pérez Solano shot his first movie, Espiral, when he was 35.

“When I was shooting my first feature in a small town in Oaxaca, I saw a lot of children living with their grandparents because their mothers abandoned them to live with another man,” said Pérez Solano. “In La tirisia I wanted to explore this problem from the women’s point of view. Their struggle to reach happiness again and how it’s impossible, because these women and their communities get sick with a soul disease called tirisia, a perpetual sadness.”

La tirisia presents a tension between the magical and the mundane — a mix of ethnography, social commentary, entomology, and pantomime coexist in a barren landscape inhabited by characters caught up in the drama of life. Using a masterful craft of sound and image, the film supersedes reality acquiring mythic dimensions. Despite its perhaps excessive reliance on the beauty of the images and on occasion too faint of a storyline, La tirisia has all the ingredients of superb filmmaking — it just needs some tightening.

Director Jorge Pérez Solano
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The film’s title refers to the life spirit that keeps us going, “Like a butterfly that moves around through your body filling it up with energy, the air that brings you to life,” explains Pérez Solano. “Tirisia is the absence of the spirit, the life frozen, the last step before death.”

Humble and eloquent, Pérez Solano presented La tirisia — shot in Zapotitlán in the Mixteca region of Puebla, México, where he lives — at the Mill Valley Film Festival to great critical acclaim. We sat down to talk to him about why he chose to center his film on female characters and why he started making movies later on in life.

How was your interest in film born?

“If I have liked films all my life, why not find a way to make them?”

Since I saw my first movie in Huajuapan de León, Oaxaca, the city where I was born. As I recall it was a film with El Santo, projected on the wall of a house. I was 5 or 6 years old. The memory is so strong that it still remains in my memory.

You started making movies at a late age. Why?

After I left school I settled into the television industry, earning enough money to cover my basic needs and a little more. But when I turned forty years old, I questioned the validity of my decisions, and I thought, “If I have liked films all my life, why not find a way to make them?” I had to put the comfort aside and take the risk to find out whether I’d be able to tell a story.

Fortunately, I have already made two films, and hope to make more. Making films like Espiral and La tirisia is difficult but necessary. Even though the competition to film in Mexico is very tough, it is also an incentive to improve with each film you make. In this world, those who film are the stubborn rather than the talented ones. The secret lies in not stopping from being stubborn.

And your inspiration, where does it come from?

“La Mixteca is an area with a glorious historical past that nowadays is mired in deep poverty.”

From my need to know the region where I was born. La Mixteca is an area with a glorious historical past that nowadays is mired in deep poverty. I’m intrigued to know about the reasons for the loss of the cultural memory and its consequences.

Could you talk about Espiral, your first film?

With this film I began to explore the world of women in the province. I wrote the story from what I remember hearing in family discussions and mixed it with a story I read in the local newspaper. At first, I thought about making a documentary, but little by little the idea it became fiction. The story focuses on the change that takes place in Mexican pueblos where men leave to look for work in the United States. Women are alone and have to start making decisions about their lives and their community.

La tirisia presents a right mix of social commentary, ethnography, drama, and magic…

It’s part of what I see in the province and the people who live there. I have not yet touched the topic of violence. I may later delve into it. For now, I like the characters who bear the blows of life with stoicism, but that some day will react and rebel in a way that no one can predict.

What role does the environment play in La tirisia?

Zapotitlan Salinas allowed me to contrast and complement nature with the human condition. The first time I took the actors to the location I knew the casting was good when I saw how easy they integrated with the site. I saw their features could have been molded in that heat, among the cactus órganos and working the salt. Physically, the characters became part of the beauty of the environment, it was a quest.

And what’s up with the basuritas?

Garbage pollutes the landscape as much as the behavior of Cheba, Silvestre and Serafina pollute, the moral should guide us. I could not do much to avoid the beauty of the place, on the contrary, we filmed in that region because of the aesthetic possibilities it provided us with. If I had wanted the landscape to match the suciedad of the story, the location would have been different.

I loved the maroma performance [mix of indigenous and European tradition that involves clowns, acrobatics, and music] at the end. Did you ever consider adding more magic to the film?

I actually tried to stay away from the magic. I kept those moments only when necessary. I don’t know how maroma is seen abroad, but I find it very sad that the Mixteca people try to entertain themselves with those types of performances. I tried to give it more dramatic weight with the actual content of the [spoken] verses — I find it very ironic, the fact that a clown points out Cheba’s arrogance in her wanting to act like a man.

La tirisia’s delicate sensibility lies in the contained performances, but also in the soundtrack. Could you talk about the sound design?

Silence was always the guideline to build the sound design. But it was very problematic because the location was full of noises, birds singing, the sounds of cicadas. Zapotitlán and its surroundings are full of life and consequently sounds. So the work of the designer consisted in creating everything from scratch. It was months of work, but the result is very close to what I had imagined.

Are you working on a new project?

I am in the process of writing a script that will take place in the Costa Chica Oaxaqueña with Afro-descendants in Mexico. I hope to start shooting soon.