“Heli”: Interview with Mexican filmmaker Amat Escalante

Amat-Escalante-HELIAmat Escalante, a self-taught Mexican filmmaker, grew up in the Mexican city of Guanajuato and in Los Angeles, California. At last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Escalante won the “Best Director” award, becoming the fourth Mexican director to do so behind Luis Buñuel, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Carlos Reygadas.

“Heli” places an emphasis on Mexico’s young people. What inspired you to make this film?
“Heli” lays stress on Mexican youth because I think that they are the future of the country. Young people represent hope to me, and that was where I drew part of my inspiration to make this film.

I concentrated mostly on Mexican youth (the very young), which in the state of Guanajuato and other parts of Mexico is growing very rapidly. Many of them are having babies when they are 12 or 13 years old; their lives change drastically.

These babies will grow up, and in most cases, they will not have someone to look up to, someone that can teach them properly what is right or wrong, what is good or bad.

Nonetheless, we are shocked to see youngsters beheading people or hanging tortured bodies off bridges. This is what is going on in Mexico. So, I guess, in a way, I was analyzing or looking into the reasons why one person can brutally kill another person.

There have been thousands of murders caused by the so-called war on drugs that involve young people. I wanted to see why, or at least, I was trying to make sense of it in “Heli.”

What is your perception of the current social, political and cultural situation of Mexico?
When the co-producer of “Heli,” Carlos Reygadas, was asked to write a few words about the film, he wrote that “Heli” revealed that Mexico was a beautiful country unless you had bad luck, and that’s exactly how it is.

Beto_Quema_IMG_2458_-__c__2013_Mantarraya_-_Tres_Tunas_-_Martin_EscalanteOne lives in Mexico knowing that these issues exist. If you are not directly affected by violence and corruption, somebody else is certainly suffering because of them.

In Mexico, many people live very well while others live under the worst conditions possible. Despite all of these social issues, Mexico is a very dynamic and cinematic country.

These contrasting realities make Mexico the perfect scenario for the drama found in contemporary cultural productions. In cinema or literature, this contrast generates an interesting dynamic that allows directors and writers to say so much about what happens in our country.

In “Heli,” you opted to use non-professional actors in your casting. Could you describe what this process was like and the challenges you faced?
For the casting, we looked for semi-professional and non-professional actors. Along with my brother Martín, we organized the casting. We saw more than 3,000 individuals between Mexico City and the city of Guanajuato. The lead actor, Armando Espitia, was found in an acting school in Mexico City.

In Mexico, it is very risky to use non-professional actors in films because they are very different from what most of the public is used to seeing in the soap opera industry. The average moviegoer in Mexico sees this type of acting as a little bit strange or has disdain for it because they are not used to it. For me, non-professional or semi-professional actors reflect something more human, something more real in my films.

The film’s graphic portrayal of violence has received a mixed reception among critics and the general public. What do you intend to accomplish through these raw images?
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I think that filmmaking should aim to represent what is traditionally forbidden in mainstream movies. That is why many people reject this type of movie, in particular, this one.

When I showed “Heli” at Cannes, a sector of the press rejected the film. They asked me, “What’s the point of showing torture so graphically?”

I am trying to play and experiment with this: How far can one go while also maintaining some kind of commercial structure so people that are paying can see a good movie?

Everyday we see images of people hanged or many other atrocities in Mexican newspapers, but these images do not tell everything. I felt that something was missing, something that was not explored or being told.

In “Heli,” I tried to go beyond simply showing images of violence as many Mexican people see them every day in the media, and rather to unfold the contexts, the stories behind these images.

How do you think the public in the United States will receive “Heli?”
I created this film to entertain, to make audiences feel touched and to be unsettled by the story. I wanted to create a roller coaster of emotions in the film, so people could not forget about “Heli” very easily.

In Mexico at least, where moviegoers seem to better understand the issues represented in the film, “Heli”’s premiere had a good turnout.

In the United States, American audiences will understand the film as well. They know about the involvement and responsibility of the United States in the violence arising from the so-called war on drugs.

(Interview conducted by Jonathan Alcántar)

“Heli” will premiere at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco on Aug. 8. For more information and tickets visit www.roxie.com

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