At this point you hopefully already know that there are lots of Latino films playing at the Tribeca Film Festival. There are stories about New Yorkers searching for love and a divorced L.A. chef who buys a food truck (his ex-wife is played by Sofia Vergara), plus documentaries on transgender youth in Puerto Rico, Diego Maradona, and the Argentinian pretty-boy boxer Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez.
Three of the Latin American filmmakers featured at this year’s fest crafted multi-layered stories that focus on young people’s perspectives, weaving in musical themes in unexpected ways. Venezuelan director Mariana Rondón tells the story of a Venezuelan kid who’s obsessed with having straight hair in Pelo Malo. Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios brings us Güeros, a black-and-white ode to slackers set during a Mexico City student strike and American director Josef Wladyka is at the fest with his first film Manos Sucias about a naive Afro-Colombian teen who gets caught up in drug smuggling.
We had a chance to chat with the three directors about their inspirations, favorite movies from their childhood and working with young actors.
How did your film’s story come about?
MR, Pelo Malo: Pelo Malo is a story that is constructed from small details and violent gestures that cumulatively add up to a hard start in life. I was interested in addressing the idea of respect, respect for others and for their differences within a society that is filled with dogma and doesn’t accept difference, and where public opinion extends into private life.
JW, Manos Sucias: I was traveling with a friend who had been living in Colombia for a while and knew a lot of the areas on the Pacific Coast. As we travelled, we started to hear a lot of stories of fishermen and communities that were trapped in this vicious cycle of narcotrafficking in these areas that were sort of forgotten by the government. I always thought that there was a story to tell there, and I started develop the idea more in [NYU] film school and eventually went back, working with a Colombian I met there — Kelly Morales — to do more extensive research, and that’s where the ball started to roll.
AR, Güeros: I started writing Güeros ten years ago, as a sort of occupational therapy after a year of unemployment. The anxiety around the limbic state between youth and adult life I was experiencing at that time took me back to the days of the university strike that occurred in Mexico in 1999. UNAM students (the largest and most important university in Mexico) went on strike to fight for tuition-free education. Many of my friends were involved directly, some tucked into the bowels of the movement, others fiercely against it, but all were affected in some way by everything that happened. It was a complex strike with many successes and mistakes, with much internal conflict and in which also flourished the classism and social resentment that prevail in Mexico. For many, the confusion was such that they did not know what to think about it and stayed away – my [film’s] characters belong to this third group. They are those who entered a limbo like I lived years later – the “premature retirement syndrome,” as it was called. It always seemed fascinating to me to go inside of that world, not from a political point of view, but rather from a social perspective. It is a period of the modern history of Mexico that has not been explored in fiction and has fascinating parallels. Having said that, it is important to clarify that the strike in my film is only the context. The film is not about politics. The other focus of the story has to do with Mexico City, as an unfathomable place that contains many very different worlds. I always wanted to make a road movie in my home town, as a love letter and a way to know the city a little better.
What advantages or disadvantages did you find in telling a story from the point of view of a young person?
MR, Pelo Malo: I like working with children because it is the point in life in which wounds become irreversible. I chose the actors Samuel and Samantha, mother and son, very quickly. I worked with them both in the same way, without differentiating between child and adult. Both actors are very different from their characters, Junior and Martha, so it took a long time of working closely together to really craft their roles. In rehearsals and casting, we always approached things through games. We played a lot, and through that, the results came very organically.
JW, Manos Sucias: I had been introduced to a professor who runs a group with Afro-Caribbean students from a school on the coast, and we auditioned some students — all from different barrios in Buenaventura — and I thought they were incredible. So a lot of the cast aren’t completely non-actors, they are theater students who travel around and do plays — I love the actors very much.
Once I saw Cristian Advincula, who plays Delio in the film, Alan [Blanco, film’s co-writer and cinematographer] and myself really changed the script for him in a sense, because the more we traveled and talked to the people there, we saw that there is a really vicious cycle of youth in Buenaventura getting caught up in this life. We wanted to show the loss of innocence, which is the reality of what goes on down there with a lot of young people and how the youth there are caught up in this cycle.
AR, Güeros: The story is mainly a story of maturity, as they say a “coming- of-age story.” At first it’s all from the point of view of Tomás, a kid who is becoming a teen, and upon whom everything makes a big impression. It was important that the camera keep this curiosity that comes with being young and also in being outside of the city. Staying curious about everything around us on the journey that was filming the movie, and allowing ourselves to improvise a lot on the road, was crucial.
Are there certain movies or texts that deal with young people that influenced you in developing the film. Any movies that made a big impact on you when you were a kid?
MR, Pelo Malo: As a kid, the Beatles The Yellow Submarine long made me dream .
JW, Manos Sucias: We watched all kinds of films that influenced us; films that were shot on water everything from Hitchcock’s Lifeboat to Apocalypse Now. And then of course City of God is one of my all-time favorite films. And there is also a really great film that came out a couple of years ago, War Witch, about a girl who gets kidnapped into guerilla warfare in Africa. So there are a lot of different influences.
AR, Güeros: There were several of them. A novel – Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, its free and rambling prose, peppered with unexpected poetic moments was certainly an inspiration to Güeros. Before filming we watched a lot of early Fellini, from I Vitteloni (another story about maturity) to La Dolce Vita. The framing, the social portrait, the use of close ups to create poetic moments in them is also something that greatly influenced me. But most of all, what influenced me was a Mexican film from the 70s called Los Caifanes by Jose Luis Ibáñez. It is a gem almost forgotten outside of Mexico — a road movie by night around different corners of Mexico City .
I was a cinephile from a very young age. The truth is that my generation grew up with gringo films — most of them junky — but they got into our unconscious and occupied our dreams, from the Ninja Turtles to Goonies and Back to the Future (which I still consider a great movie!). But the first time I became aware that there was someone behind it making decisions and creating the result called the “director” was watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I must have seen it twenty times as a child. Later, when I saw Fellini’s Amarcord, that confirmed that I wanted to dedicate myself to filmmaking.