Awarded with the Golden Lion in Venice, Italy last year, ‘Desde allá’ [From Afar] explores the relationship between a middle-aged professional and a street youth — two men from different classes who are friends, father and son, and lovers as their relationship evolves into an eminently human bond.
This solid debut by Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas is a laconic and very masculine film in which the city of Caracas appears as the third protagonist. Succinct and distant, ‘From Afar’ communicates both through the story as well as through its icy aesthetics.
Two days after its presentation to audience and critical acclaim as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, we chatted with Lorenzo Vigas about his beginnings in film making, his obsession with the topic of the absent father, his work with the actors and his visual approach.
‘From Afar’ screens July 8–14 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Spanish with English subtitles. Schedule and tickets: http://www.roxie.com/ai1ec_event/afar-desde-alla/
You were born in Mérida, Venezuela; studied in Florida and New York; lived in México… How did your passion for film come about?
I am the son of a painter called Oswaldo Vigas, one of the most important artists in Latin America. I studied biology and film was my hobby. I made home movies with my friends from high school, but biology was the serious stuff. I completed a technical career on oceanography in Venezuela, graduated in Tampa, Florida, and when I was in Boston studying a masters degree in molecular biology, one day I woke up and realized I needed to express myself.
Science would not let me express myself and I had a need for expression. I knew it was something visual. I decided to go to New York where I took two film workshops at New York University. I did not want to do the whole career, but only learn practical things. From then on I started writing shorts. I went to Venezuela where I worked a few years doing infomercials and institutional documentaries. But what I really wanted to do was making a film. I had already written a script that contained the idea for ‘From Afar.’
And you went to Mexico City where you would meet scriptwriter Guillermo Arriaga (‘Amores perros’), who would co-write your first feature.
I met him in Venezuela, where I presented the idea to him. He told me ‘I love your movie, I want to help you produce it.’ It meant an opportunity to me to leave Venezuela, where I had no one to learn from. I went to Mexico City and I worked a few years with Guillermo, and then I met Michel Franco and Gabriel Ripstein. Their production company is called Lucía Films. And I have my own production company called Malandro Films. And we became partners.
You have stated that ‘From Afar’ was born out of your interest in telling a story about the father figure. In your film there are two fathers, one abuser and one absent…
Yes, Armando and Elder’s fathers; and then Armando becomes Elder’s father. It is the father figure viewed from different perspectives. I’m working on a trilogy about the topic of the absent father, a subject that obsesses me. The first part is a short film I made some time ago, ‘Los elefantes nunca olvidan’ [Elephants Never Forget] that is available on YouTube. Then ‘From Afar,’ and a film I’m writing the script for right now that will be called ‘La caja’ [The Box], the end of the trilogy.
Was your father absent when you grew up?
Never. He was always very close. I had a very emotional, close relationship with him. He died two years ago. We were very close and very good friends. It has nothing to do with that, it has to do with the archetype. For some reason I connected with the archetype. Maybe because my dad is very famous I made a contact with that archetype, but not because I had an experience like that with my father, quite the opposite.
‘From Afar’ is a very masculine film, women being secondary…
But ultimately they are very important. For me, Armando’s mom is very important in the film, even though we only see her in photos, as Armando’s house is full of pictures of his mom. It is there where he tells Elder while eating that his mom taught him to cook. He feels that comfort at home precisely because he lives with his mother. So women are not present in the film but they are important.
Excellent performances! How did you choose and work with the actors?
The biggest challenge was to find the young man. I saw a picture of Luis Silva in a casting agency and I wanted to meet him. I went to lunch with him, we went to the movies… we became close friends. I quickly realized that he would be the protagonist because he is a bright, intuitive kid with a strong presence. We had a year-long relationship before I started shooting. It was risky because I never did any casting as I thought it was not necessary.
And then came Alfredo Castro, the most important actor in Latin America today, I think. When he accepted I relaxed. I needed a solid actor to play with this other actor who was not an actor. I like making combinations of actors and non-actors.
During filming, Luis never knew what the film was about. Every day he received some lines and he discovered his character gradually. I wanted his character to be very raw, without him having an intellectual idea of his character.
Then Luis never read the whole story?
Never, he discovered it little by little. He knew he had to play some very strong scenes, like a sex scene, but without knowing what the story was about. He would learn his lines of dialogue on the set and then we started rehearsing and filming. We did an acting workshop for four months with the youth who are his friends in the film, who are not actors, so that they could know each other, learn to express themselves and feel comfortable. But we would not rehearse the scenes until we were on the set filming.
‘From Afar’ also presents a weighed balance between form and content: it communicates both visually and through the story itself. How was your work with the director of photography?
It is a film in which unsaid things are very important. That is why it was very important for the form to be in harmony. There are many things that are not shown, that happen off frame or are out of focus. It stimulates the viewer’s imagination. You are required to be actively completing it in your head. It is a film that forces you to get in, it does not give you a choice.
Nowadays movies tell us exactly what to feel, what to think. You are not active as an audience. I find it important to stimulate the viewer’s imagination. My film plays with ambiguity, because life is ambiguous: one is never sure of his or her feelings, you do not know whether you love your mom or you hate her, if you love or hate your girlfriend or boyfriend… I think it’s important to play with ambiguity in film because that’s how life is.
Working with Sergio Armstrong, the director of photography, was very fruitful. I had somewhat extreme ideas — leaving things out of focus, off frame — and he tuned in quickly, he liked my ideas. We got along very well. He is a great photographer.
During the presentation of your film at the Roxie Cinema you talked about how the shooting happened just before some mass demonstrations in Caracas, and how difficult it is to make films in Venezuela…
Yes, the student demonstrations that occurred two years ago. We finished shooting just before that happened. It is very difficult to make films in Venezuela but at the same time it is a challenge. It is wonderful to be in a place where there is such a large social complexity. In the case of my film it goes along with the story, so Caracas became another character in the film.
Awarded in Venice, Miami, Havana, Thessaloniki and San Sebastián, selected in Toronto, here in San Francisco, and it will shortly premiere in France with the title ‘The Lovers of Caracas’… your film seems to be doing real well!
Yes, it sold very well around the world. Yesterday I was told that it is becoming a cult film here in the US. So yes, but you never know what is going to happen. A film, once it is finished it acquires a life of its own, as a friend told me. Of course I’m doing all my best to accompany it, that’s why I’m traveling around the world right now. But then the film itself gradually wends its way.