Before directing the acclaimed documentaries El velador (2011) and El general (2009), talented Mexican filmmaker Natalia Almada shot her first feature Al otro lado [To the Other Side] in 2005, an excellent documentary about the epic journey of a young singer of corridos who crosses over to the United States.
Al otro lado will screen at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on August 26 at 6 pm, with the director in person introducing her film. The evening will continue with the screening of the documentary Chulas Fronteras (Les Blank, 1976) as part of the FRONTERA! film series Tickets
We talked to Natalia about Al otro lado a few days before she was awarded the Golden Gate Prize for Todo lo demás (2016), her fourth feature and first narrative film, during the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival.
How did the idea of filming Al otro lado come about?
I started with the idea of using the corridos, which are like musical chronicles that talk about the border. I started filming with Los Tigres del Norte, Chalino Sánchez — well, his story, not him obviously, since he’s dead —, Jennie Rivera, who’s no longer with us either…
The tradition of corridos was a very local tradition. I was looking for a singer from a fishing village in Sinaloa, and they told me about a 23-year-old boy, Magdiel. When I interviewed him he said: ‘I tried to get a visa to go to the U.S. but they did not want to give it to me; I do not want to be a fisherman like my dad, who is not doing well since the fishing is over; My friends are pushing me to start trafficking drugs with them; So I don‘t know what to do, cross illegally to the U.S. or start trafficking…’
And I told myself, that’s the dilemma of the film. A 23-year-old boy with ambitions who wants a life different from his father’s. So I followed him about 4 years or so, and I also followed the whole thing of the corridos at the same time. Because there was the possibility that nothing was going to happen to Magdiel, my character. We did not know.
Al otro lado is the story of Magdiel, who one day finds a pollero (smuggler) who says ‘I’ll cross you to the U.S. for free if you compose a corrido for me.’
You were filming for 4 years…
Yeah, filming him. And when he decided to cross over, then I started filming more at the border. I filmed the Border Patrol in Arizona, near Nogales.
So you also filmed in the U.S.
Yes, also in Los Angeles. In 2004 a mix corrido music and gangsta rap was flourishing, from Chicano boys from Los Angeles starting their musical careers. Like El Original de la Sierra, who was singing corridos like his parents’ and gangsta rap in English. Not mixing, but doing both. I was interested in filming the world Magdiel was getting to.
But aren’t Los Tigres del Norte from San Jose, California?
No, they are from Culiacán, but they crossed to the U.S. when they were little. And Jorge Hernández, the band leader, tells the story of their crossing in the songs. Los Tigres began their musical career playing in the 70’s in Culiacán, in a hotel that belonged to my family. That’s why they let me get so close during the filming. They were incredible. Jorge would invite me to the stage and he would say to me, ‘Stay here, you’ll get a better shot from here’.
Al otro lado is a great movie about the border…
Most of the films I had seen about the border dealt with the lives of migrants already in the United States. However, I wanted to show the Mexican point of view, where you felt everything was going to the United States.
We were in a shrimp fishing area, and the shrimp were exported to the United States. If there was a crisis in the United States, then the price of shrimp would fall. And the drug that was grown and trafficked was for the United States. That omnipresence of the North and the idea that everything goes to the other side.
I felt that the discourse in the United States about immigration and drug trafficking is from a moral standpoint more than anything else. The United States is a country where law matters and you cannot be an amoral person.
But drug trafficking has a lot to do with consumption, abuse, and the deterioration of society. Therefore, for a guy like Magdiel in 2004, his dilemma of whether to cross over to the U.S. illegally or to stay and traffic with drugs was not a moral dilemma. But I felt that in the United States they saw it as a moral issue, judging it as if what he was doing is bad, him being a bad person. But if you look at it as from an economic point of view that led him to make a decision in order to get out of poverty, then we do not see it as something wrong. I wanted to portray a character with that problem, that was not a moral issue, because you could empathize more with him.
Why do you make movies?
I like to work with the visual language and things that are not rational. I’m not interested in rational stories, characters or plots, but this aspect of what you cannot explain in life with words. You see something and it gives you a feeling, be it the light, the colors, the sound… It prompts something within you, something you cannot explain. That’s what attracts me the most.