Across the globe, Cannes is synonymous with old world elegance, international glitterati, and the highest achievement in motion picture art; and whether your tastes tend more to the avant-garde or the multiplex, the mere idea of Cannes still holds a singular mystique that sets it apart from any other festival on the planet.
So what must it feel like to receive a discreet envelope in the mail bearing the festival’s unmistakable golden laurel? How does one’s life change upon learning that one has entered an elite circle of artists that include the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini and the Coen Brothers? We sat down with Mexican director David Pablos to find out just that. His second feature, Las Elegidas, produced by Mexico’s powerhouse production company Canana Films, was recently revealed to be the only Latin American film in competition in the upcoming 2015 edition of the Cannes Film Festival.
Taking on the uncomfortable but urgent subject matter of prostitution and human trafficking in his native Tijuana, Pablos brings an unmistakably personal vision to his material along with years of extensive research that imbues the film a level of chilling verisimilitude. But Pablos is not interested in exploitative spectacle. His concerns lie in deeper human themes of family heritage and guilt, explored through the framework of organized crime.
The film follows the story of adolescent Ulises, whose sincere love for his girlfriend Sofía is complicated when his father forces him to join the family business. As Ulises reluctantly enters the sordid world of human trafficking and forced prostitution alongside his older brother, he is compelled to exploit his deep bond with Sofía in order to make her his first victim.
The teaser gives us an idea of just how this works, as a voiceover narration explains the rules of manipulation and psychological abuse employed by traffickers to entrap their victims, while a series of naturalistically-lit, almost documentary-like images shows us how Ulises and Sofía’s relationship gives way to the worst sort of betrayal.
A closing montage of individuals who we can only assume are unwitting clients drives home the horrific nature of Ulises family trade, while a final shot of Ulises silently smoking a cigarette gives us a sense of the ambivalence and resignation felt by a character trapped between family bonds and his own conscience. Ultimately, echoes of Amat Escalante’s Heli and even Gael García Bernal’s subplot in Amores Perros positions Las Elegidas firmly within a tradition of gritty Mexican realism that has put the country on the map in recent years.
Take a look at the film’s harrowing teaser above to judge for yourself, then read on as Pablos talks to us about intuition, making your voice heard, and a bright future for Tijuana filmmakers.
What was your reaction when you first found out that you were part of the official selection for this year’s Cannes Film Festival? How did it feel to be the only Latin American filmmaker on the list?
Well I found out a week before it was made public. I first found out through my producer who called me on the phone even before the festival sent me their official notice. He was the one who broke the news to me. In my case I was really just in shock, and I think I stayed that way for the rest of the day. I processed everything over the course of the week and then when it was made public it was like going back into that state of shock all over again. It’s strange, like it was something difficult to absorb or process. And then it turns into a huge sense of euphoria because obviously I wasn’t able to tell anyone throughout the week. I was dying to tell everyone, especially my close collaborators, but my producer Pablo Cruz made it very clear that we had to keep it a secret. Only the two of us could know. The only person I actually did tell, and it was one day before the announcement, was my cinematographer, Carolina Costa. And I think if I reacted in shock, she was much worse off than me. I think I lost her for the rest of the day after I broke the news. [laughs]
Also, I found out the day of the press conference that it was the only Latin American film in competition — at least for the moment, because this week they announce the Quinzaine de Réalisateurs and Critic’s Week selections [both parallel competitions at Cannes]. But I think above all I was surprised that it was the only Latin American film, given that the presence of Latin American cinema is a constant at international festivals. So in that sense, it was surprising that mine was the only one.
You had a similar experience at the Venice Film Festival with your debut feature La vida después. In some ways did you expect something like this, that it would be successful on the festival circuit? Or was shooting Las Elegidas like starting over again from scratch?
Yes, in one sense, but in another no. I mean, I think shooting La vida después was a huge learning experience for me in many ways, but for me something that was very important was — it’s strange, because a lot of people have the opposite experience, a lot of people make their first film with a lot of freedom and then it takes a lot of work to make the second. In my case it wasn’t like that, it was backwards. I made my first film with all the difficulties that could imply, then making the second was much easier for me in terms of directing, in the sense that I gave myself freedom to do what I truly wanted and take risks. I think it was a film where I took a lot of risks, and in that sense, beyond what could have happened with the festivals, I’m very happy with the result. Very happy. And I think a lot of the decisions that I made were very intuitive. It was a film made with a lot of intuition, a lot of heart, and more importantly I can tell you: I like what came out. I think that making the film in such an intuitive way pays off when people sit down to watch it.
Was this attitude of creative freedom in some way a reaction to the pressure that inevitably results from making a successful film, especially when it’s a debut feature? The “one-hit wonder” syndrome that everyone so desperately avoids also tends to cause undue pressure and can even lead to creative blocks, no?
I completely agree. But for me, it was clear with this film… how should I say this? I’m making the film that I want to make under certain conditions — I’m speaking again about the creative aspect–and when it came time to shoot there was something that I did worry about, and it has to do with what we’ve been discussing. Obviously everything comes from the script, from the story itself, and in that sense I wonder: How am I going to get there? How am I going to express what I want in a convincing way? And this is also important: What is this film going to have that will make it special?
If there’s one thing that matters to me when I watch films, its seeing the author behind the work, seeing the filmmaker. I like seeing films where the director’s presence is strong, evident, where there’s a voice that differentiates it from other films. Something unique. So when it was time to shoot this film, I also thought about that: How will I approach this and how am I going to make this film different? That simple. Does that make sense? How am I going to make my voice heard. That’s it.
So can you talk a little bit about the evolution of this project? I know that it’s based on an original idea by Mexican novelist Jorge Volpi. Was this the product of a formal collaboration? If not, how did you come across this story?
Everything started with [producer] Pablo Cruz, who saw a short film I made years ago called La canción de los niños muertos and based on that short he told me, “I want us to work together, to make a film.” From there everything was taken care of in that Jorge Volpi had a screenplay that he shared with Pablo and myself. I read it and was very interested in the essence of the screenplay, of the project, but not in the screenplay as it was written at that time. So I suggested to Volpi: “Why don’t we collaborate and rewrite this together?” He said yes and we started rewriting the first treatment that he had written on his own, which I believe was his first ever screenplay, entitled Las Elegidas like the film we ended up shooting. But Volpi is a busy man. He had a lot of things to do and at some point he abandoned the project — well, he didn’t abandon it, but he simply left to live in Italy and we kind of lost contact. It was very difficult to continue working together.
What he and I did manage to do was write a second treatment. But once Volpi fell off the map, so to speak, I kept researching the subject, and based on my research I became conscious of exactly what had captivated me so much about the story, or what was sketched out in the story that made me want to tell it. At that moment I became the screenwriter and wrote an entirely different story. The only thing that carried over from Volpi’s script to the current film was the title, the name of the protagonist, which is Ulíses, and the theme, which is about human trafficking. From there on it’s an entirely different story. And what happened with the original script was that Volpi left it to the side for a while and it ultimately transformed into a literary work that will be published sometime soon, definitely this year.
In Las Elegidas you continue your thematic concern with familial relationships. Your previous film was also told from the perspective of an adolescent. What was it like to take this thematic exploration to much more sordid territory? Did it affect you at all to go so deep into this dark world of human trafficking?
Most definitely. It was difficult to research this topic. In my case I actually interviewed girls who had been victims of trafficking. And more than carrying out the research itself, which was very important, what most affected me was speaking with these girls who had been victims. Nothing can compare to having someone tell you first hand what she lived and how she lived it. That definitely transformed the project and left a deep imprint, because in some ways the things that these girls would remember — small details, not even their whole stories — I would put them in the screenplay, and I think that gave the story a lot of life. It brings something very truthful because it’s based on reality.
And on the other hand, of course, what had interested me so much when I read Volpi’s version? Volpi’s screenplay, or rather his story — since now it has become a literary work — is very different in that it follows Ulíses ascension in the world of trafficking from the time he’s young up until he’s a mature man and father. I mean, that’s what I had found so interesting about the screenplay: the idea of a family heritage. At least in my reading of the script, it was about a young man who, on account of a family heritage — because his father and his older brother have trained him — finds he must force women into prostitution.
The family is a very important element, it’s present throughout the film. There’s the relationship between the two brothers, there are issues with the father, there are some very peculiar rules within that family that I found very interesting. And from there I began discovering other things that — and you never think about this while you’re writing, you discover it along the way based on the decisions you make — but in the process I also realized that the family is important but it was more secondary; guilt is a much stronger element. And suddenly I realized that guilt is something that’s present in everything I’ve written.
And the last thing is that I’m very interested in talking about young people. I’ve worked a lot as a teacher, which I enjoy greatly, and I think there’s something very special in that particular age. Then the idea that my protagonist be an adolescent also came out of a conversation I had with one girl who had been a victim of trafficking who told me that her pimp — she had been her pimp’s first girl — was somewhere around 17, 18, or 19 years old. They start out around 14 years old. They train them from the time they’re children but at 14 they start to work.
The movie was filmed entirely in your home city of Tijuana, which is not a city we generally associate with the Mexican film scene. Do you think the fact that Las Elegidas was filmed there is an exception to the rule or do you feel like we could see a cinematic movement come out of Tijuana?
I think it’s already happening. We are starting to see a cinematic movement in Tijuana. Just recently there were two other features shot there, one of which, Navajazo, has done really well on the festival circuit. In fact, the director of Navajazo, Ricardo Silva, is a friend of mine and he just finished shooting his second film in Tijuana as well. Well, in Tijuana and a few other cities. This year there are at least three or four more productions slated to be shot in Tijuana. I think people are starting to pay more attention to the city, and for a lot of reasons. Principally, it’s a very vibrant city; a city where anyone who goes and really spends time there ends up falling in love. Tijuana is fascinating.
Do you think that Tijuana filmmakers could offer a different vision or an alternate narrative about Mexican reality?
I think Tijuana is a very special and important city in that, for one it’s a border city. That definitively marks the life of the city. And of all the borders we have in Mexico, it’s the most traveled. It’s supposedly the most traveled border in the world. And I think that in many ways Tijuana is like — how could I say this? — it’s as though many of the things that are happening in the rest of the country culminate and converge in Tijuana, and they tend to be more visible there. The good as well as the bad. I’m not necessarily talking about violence or anything of the sort, but also in a cultural sense. Tijuana is a city made up of people who come from all over the country. Honestly, if you’re in Tijuana, the majority of its residents were born outside of the city. And that’s what makes it so interesting, that convergence of people from all over the country, from all over the world, that generates all sorts of movements. The cultural scene in Tijuana is very strong, very vibrant, and also rather unique.