During the San Francisco International Film Festival, we talked with Mexican filmmaker Rigoberto Pérezcano about Norteado [Northless], his first narrative film. The film revolves around a young Oaxacan who finds himself stuck in Tijuana trying to cross to the United States. The irony, the mixture of documentary and fiction, and the improvisation with the actors, make of Northless a fresh and unique film admired by the critics.
How did Northless come about?
I was stranded in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, with a project that I’ve been thinking about for almost 10 years of my life and I hope to be able to film next year, which is called Carmín tropical. For one or another reason it fell through several times, but I think that it happened for the better, because now after filming Northless I have more experience to finally shoot it. So Edgar San Juan, the producer of Northless, came to Oaxaca and told me ‘read this script I’ve worked on.’ After the first reading I said to myself ‘another film about immigration when the topic has been treated so many times.’
Yes, for example Sin nombre and Crossing Arizona are two films on the subject that have just been released here…
Exactly, so many movies about immigration. So he asked me if I wanted to direct the project. I thought it over a lot because the subject is very delicate. But after some time time I said ‘I am going to take the challenge and make a film about immigration but from a different angle.’
I think that one way or another most of the movies are not so original nowadays after so many years of filmmaking. The challenge for me was to make a different film about immigration, that was respectful and serious with the subject matter but above all had an involuntary humor. Irony even. Irony and humor that stem from how the characters unfold through their psychology. Us Mexicans like to laugh a lot about our tragedy. And that is how Northless got started.
Do migrants still cross the fence nowadays as spontaneously as it shows in your film or is it part of the lighter tone that you were after? And the idea of the armchair is so funny…
Our countrymen and women, the people of Mexico and Latin America, have a wonderful wit when trying to cross the border. Every time we learned about a new way it made us laugh. So starting with that we said to ourselves ‘we’re going to have to give that humorous touch to the movie.’ We wanted to do it in that light tone but, I insist, very respectful. And finding the right actors helped me a lot.
How did you choose the actors?
I wanted to capture the mestizaje [mixing of races] that persists in Mexico, where you find diverse people with indigenous traits, half breeds and people from the north of the country with Caucasian features. I wanted totally new, fresh actors. I never thought of renowned actors. It is the first film for all four main actors in the film. And I think that it gives Northless more strength, because I was seeking human beings rather than actors. I asked them to forget everything they learned in acting schools if they had gone through that education. I wanted spontaneous, natural characters who exemplify the things that us normal people have, who all of a sudden remain silent, or talk, blink, turn to other sides.
At the beginning of the film the actors act without saying much. The film feels tense. But then slowly they come closer, making the film feel warmer. Because the film changes tone as the characters relate, even the film’s lighting. Very impressive how that tension evolves.
The film begins as another movie about immigration. I wanted the audience to think ‘oops, why did we pay money to see this we’ve seen so many times?’ The loneliness, the misfortune… But then the film changes. The plan was to change the narrative and send it in a different direction so that the audience gets disconcerted without knowing what happens from beginning to end. The audience wonders for the first 20 minutes, which have no dialogues, are quite heavy, there is no music… And suddenly in the 21st minute the film changes structure and the pace is much faster. Dialogues, music and fun begins then.
Your previous experience is in documentaries, but you make good use of narrative techniques such as the reappearance of the photos, the musical leitmotiv of the band Los Relámpagos del Norte or how you use the dashed line of the road to signify.
As a director, my obligation is to propose and say ‘I believe that cinema is this way.’ Or what I have learned I believe can be done in this manner. I love that you guys have noticed that, since my purpose is to build a film through images, and with little music and few dialogues.
How did working with non-professional actors and a documentary style improvisation shape your film?
Documentary filmmaking was my main tool to get to do a narrative film. I knew that at some point in my life I would come to make narrative films. Documentary filmmaking allowed me to know what kind of individuals, what kind of topics, how to treat a narrative. Mentally, documentary filmmaking exercises a cerebral muscle, so that when you have problems in the narrative, you have to begin to respond and provide a solution.
What does ‘norteado’ mean?
We use the term ‘norteado’ in Mexico when someone is lost or confused. ‘He or she is norteado,’ we say. We thought it was the best title for the film because Andrés is completely lost and he contributes to confuse those he meets, who were already kind of confused too. Ella, Cata… they’re lost too. You infect people. I’m going to confuse you a little bit. I think it is the perfect title for the film, since Andrés is also very interested in northern Mexico.
Did you study film?
I studied cinema at the CUEC in Mexico City, University Center for Cinematographic Studies, which belongs to UNAM, the oldest film school in Latin America and the cheapest. But I dropped out after the second year and a half. I preferred to make sound, learn on my own, make documentaries and work as assistant director. And from there I started to work.
Did you have access to film in immigration detention facilities?
No, it was impossible. The producer tried very hard to film in a detention center, but for Americans they are maximum security sites. I found them to be one of the saddest places in the world. No one deserves to be locked up in those places. It seems to me unfortunate that mankind still has these kinds of places.
Art director Ivonne Fuentes knew they were not going to let us, and immediately started sketching. She did a very good job in recreating the space, because it is an independent film with little budget. We hired some real immigrants who were about to cross to Los Angeles and we placed them on the set to try them out, and they told me later ‘we were scared, we saw this and it was like… the colors, the placement, how everything is almost the same.’
However the photo of Bush on the wall is a creative freedom that I took myself, because framed photos are forbidden in such places, because they are glass and could become a weapon. I put it the photo there to convey the message of ‘we caught you, you’re in the United States’. And I think it works, you do not have to say ‘detention center, San Diego and then the United States flag’, but rather and with a single shot, economize through images.
Yes, you have that gift of effectively communicating with images. Did you investigate about previous films on the subject of immigration?
Yes, I tried to see as many films as I could about immigration, and reading as well. From Wet Backs by Alejandro Galindo, one of the few Mexican films of the 50s that talks about migration and has a comic character played by Óscar Pulido who makes it very serious, wonderful film. I saw documentaries too. There is always a tragedy in all of them. And I do not mean it is not tragic topic. The phenomenon of migration is quite unfortunate. But my idea was to make a drama that is hopeful in the end, and fortunately no one has criticized us for being disrespectful of immigration. We just simply took it from another point of view.
I believe that you communicate the tragic formally in a very effective manner, through the color palette, visual austerity, and the dry and silent qualities of the film…
Especially in the first part, the most dramatic.
Going back to how you decide to take another course with your film after the first 20 minutes… It feels like you decide to move away from statistics and an explanatory approach to focus more on the humanity of the characters, all affected by the reality of migrating.
My role as a filmmaker is to suggest. I have nothing to teach people, I’m not a smart-ass. It is more like saying ‘there is a wall and this wall will not allow these characters to continue with their own life’. The wall is always present in the film, becoming another character. With that I explain that there is statistics saying that people die, that there is migration, unemployment, a lack of immigration reform, that there is ignorance through the people who are trying to migrate, that there is a lot of suffering with those who migrate and not just Mexicans, Central Americans as well. And that there is a serious problem and that until it is resolved, that wall, however large and long it is, will continue to be crossed.
Above all, besides being a film about migration, in the second part I take migration as a pretext to explore what interested me a lot more, to portray the relationships of these characters. Their psychology. And they become much more human. I believe that was my job. Films about migration just talk about misfortune and drama. And there is a lot of that, but there are also characters and humans like Andrés who have desires, who dance, who have fun and who one way or another are bastards. So there is a human being there, and it was my job to do that, to say ‘this is Andrés’ and he is one of the many who live, who wants to work and who is a human being with flaws and qualities like all of us.
The film is doing very well, has received several awards, been nominated for the Ariel Awards…
The film has been presented at 17 international film festivals, receiving 14 awards. A great satisfaction.
Will it be distributed in the United States?
Its distribution is secured right now in Switzerland, Belgium, France, Spain and we are trying to get to distribute it in the United States.
Congratulations, I hope it helps us reflect on the subject of immigration.
Of course, and as long as there are laws like the one happening in Arizona, the topic will keep on generating more and more films. As long as Republicans continue to say that immigrants are criminals here, then we will continue with the issue. As long as unemployment continues, as long as there is no immigration reform, until things get clarified by the two governments, the issue will continue to be discussed until there is a solution.
Can you tell us more about Carmín tropical? We cannot wait to see it…
It is a film about Claudia Díaz, a transvestite who returns to her hometown to investigate a crime and the only thing she finds is love with the policeman who carries the investigation. A narrative and documentary mix.