Dec 28, 2009

The Ten Best Latin American Films of the Decade

Cinema Tropical has compiled a list of the Top Ten Latin American Films of the Decade (2000-2009), based on a survey of distinguished critics, scholars and film professionals based in the New York City area. I was invited and honored to be one of them.

This first-ever survey of its kind was culled from 35 prominent local voices in film whose work has been devoted to the promotion and dissemination of Latin American cinema in New York and the United States. In all, 124 films representing 14 Latin American countries were nominated for the distinction of being Best of the Decade, demonstrating the great quality and diversity of films from the region.

Click here to see the winners and detail information about each people's choices:

My choices

First of all, I want to thank Cinema Tropical for this opportunity, and for all the contributions they have made, not only to the Latin American film industry, but also to the local film community in New York. It was very difficult to choose only ten among so many great films from what is perhaps the most prolific and blooming decade of Latin American film production and international distribution.

One of the first rules I applied was to resist bias or excessive pride, so less than half of the films on the list are Argentine.

The second rule was to promote low to medium budget productions —an accurate representation of the Latin American film industry. Still, there are a few exceptions I found impossible to avoid.

My third and last rule was to not betray my taste. I think the role of the critic is to highlight the best elements of a film, to ask questions beyond personal ideology, and to not lose sight of our role as audience members. Because after all, cinema is an artistic exercise of communication where the audience has the last word.

We could argue about these choices for hours, days, years; that’s precisely the Latin American essence of contention, rebelliousness and challenge.

The list:

1. Amores Perros (Love’s A Bitch) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, México, 2000)

It made me love filmmaking with animal passion! It marked a “before and after” that revolutionized the Latin American film industry, claiming a space among the best Hollywood films. After Pulp Fiction there is probably no other film that so craftfully treats parallel stories. But this one has a local cultural flavor interwoven under the skin. I didn’t doubt for a second to put this film on the top of the list.

2. Cidade de Deus (City of God) (Fernando Meirelles, Brazil, 2002)

This is the only Brazilian film I have in my list, and I still wonder why I don't have a José Padilha's film in my list. Some people argue that it’s a pity that Brazilian cinema is worldwide known for a “violent” film, having such a long list of great sensitive films like Central Station, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, Two Sons of Francisco or Suely in the Sky. But let’s just say that Cidade de Deus has not a single element in the story out of place, not a single frame without perfect cinematography, performance or sound. It shakes you so strong and touches you so delicately at the same time, that you won’t completely understand why you are seeing it again, and again.

3. La Ciénaga (The Swamp) (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2001)

Argentine society has historically been based on patriarchical values. That’s not a surprise in Latin America; most of its countries are too. Choosing a woman as the creator of the best Argentine film of this decade is... challenging —especially if it’s not about Buenos Aires. But not as challenging as this film: on the surface it’s slow, boring and static. Beneath the surface, it’s exactly the opposite. Well, it’s a swamp after all!

4. Historias Mínimas (Intimate Stories) (Carlos Sorín, Argentina, 2002)

They are intimate, minimal, simple stories. They are nowhere, nobodies. But Carlos Sorín is not. He has been my favorite Argentine filmmaker for many years. When I was a kid he captivated me with La Película del Rey (A King and His Movie). When I was a teenager he made me doubt my own existence with La Era del Ñandú, defying the limit between documentary and fiction. And after a thirteen-year hiatus he came back to make everyone fall in love with this film written by Pablo Solarz, now for many the best Argentine screenwriter.

5. El Violín (The Violin) (Francisco Quevedo Vargas, México, 2005)

Let’s put it this way: when I finished watching this films I said to myself “this is the kind of film I want to make”. Do I need to say more? It’s the most awarded Mexican film in history, it had a very low budget, it’s a powerful story from beginning to end, it’s extremely political and it screams for social justice with great amateur performances and exquisite cinematography. It’s Latin America in its purest state.

6. Japón (Carlos Reygadas, México, 2002)

Reygadas, a master in sublime cinema, keeps on improving his own films and exploring with non-actors and stunning cinematography the worlds of imagery, life and death. Japón, his first film, is a little gem inspired by the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. From its unusual sex scenes to its symbolism, it’s a film that will leave you thinking, wishing this filmmaker releases a new one soon.

7. El Hijo de la Novia (Son of the Bride) (Juan José Campanella, Argentina, 2001)

I had a heated discussion with myself about choosing between Campanella’s Luna de Avellaneda and this one. Both are hilarious, sensitive, and positive. Both masterfully depict the middle class from Buenos Aires. But I think El Hijo de la Novia goes a little further: it brings the unconditional love we can have for the queen of our homes: our mother, our wife. And nobody could ever feel untouched about it —especially with such an impressive cast (Norma Aleandro, Ricardo Darín, Héctor Alterio).

8. Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens) (Fabián Bielinsky, Argentina, 2000)

This is the last Argentine film on this list. It was the toughest decision, leaving behind one of my favorite films like Rodrigo Moreno’s El Custodio, Pablo Trapero’s El Bonaerense, or Israel Caetano’s Bolivia. I finally decided to choose Nueve Reinas for a few reasons: first of all, like the rest of Bielinsky’s stories, it works like a Swiss clock. Second, it’s not just a great action film; nobody depicted the crooks and pickpockets of Buenos Aires like him. And third, it’s simply an homage to one of the best filmmakers of the decade who unfortunately died too soon.

9. Whisky (Whisky) (Juan Pablo Rebella & Pablo Stoll, Uruguay, 2004)

Speaking of losing a great young filmmaker, everyone was shocked in the Latin American film industry upon reading the news of Rebella’s suicide, a week after Bielinsky’s death. This Uruguayan duo of filmmakers put Uruguay on the map of film festivals and awards, inspiring another Uruguayan duo, César Charlone and Enrique Fernández with their magnificent first film El Baño del Papa (The Pope’s Toilet). Whisky is a satire and portrayal of Uruguayan society, also involving the delicate theme of distanced family relationships.

10. Machuca (Machuca) (Andrés Wood, Chile, 2004)

What? There is a “new Chilean cinema” besides Raúl Ruiz, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Patricio Guzmán? This poignant film definitely surprised me. It’s beautifully shot, solidly performed, and its pace lets us get inside the characters’ minds. This last choice in the top ten left behind many great films from countries already on the list, and also from others like Cuba, Colombia and Perú. But I couldn’t help putting at least one film that recreates the dark era of Latin American dictatorships, especially from the point of view of a child, and especially about Chile, with such a divided society clashing because of class and ideology. Wood does it so well that it’s hard to believe it was filmed five years ago.

Nov 17, 2009

Tres Microrrelatos Tres

Ejercicios de 250 palabras para un concurso de microrrelatos de abogados en España.


Palabras: litigio, vendimia, denuncia, globo, teclado

Era irracional sentirse tan desesperanzado, vacío como un globo desinflado; aquella tarde me faltaba el aire. Comprendí que no podía seguir priorizando expedientes y tribunales por sobre el resto de mi vida. El último litigio perdido —el soldador contra la petrolera por envenenamiento con sulfuro— había extraído mi energía como si yo fuese un yacimiento. Observé al dedo anular temblando sobre el teclado y temí un inminente síncope, pero tampoco deseaba cerrar el estudio, herencia que yo tanto adoraba. Recordé cuando aún estudiaba y mi abuelo me decía que defender trabajadores en desigualdad daría siempre sus frutos. ¿Acaso yo no debía sentirme pleno? Entonces apareció ella, tan dulce como uva torrontés. “Reina de la Vendimia denuncia a viñedo por incumplimiento de pagos”, titularon los diarios unos meses después. Lo maravilloso no es que ganamos el juicio, sino que nos enamoramos. Junto a ella pude vislumbrarlo todo: el viejo tenía razón.


Palabras: morbo, multa, espectro, malversación, jurisdicción

—¡Juicio a un espectro por malversación de fondos y estafa! —le aclaró Eduardo a su socio.
—Pero, hombre, ¿de qué hablás? —contestó Mario extrañado.
—¡Lo vi en el tribunal con mis propios ojos!
—Bueno, bajá la voz que nos pueden escuchar.
En el bar se registraba el movimiento cotidiano. Ambos abogados desayunaban y se preparaban para una jornada más.
—Y decime —prosiguió Mario descreído—, ¿en qué cárcel meterán a un espectro, si se puede escapar por entre los barrotes?
—El juez decidió que no habrá cárcel, sino un castigo ejemplar: o revive y paga una multa por lo que debe, o será un espectro para siempre, atrapado entre ambos mundos.
—¡Qué morbo siempre en nuestra jurisdicción!
—¿Nuestra? —dijo Eduardo.
Mario sintió un viento en su nuca. Se dio vuelta; la ventana estaba cerrada. Nunca más vio a su socio. Algunos incluso aseguran que esa mesa siempre estuvo vacía.


Palabras: plazo, panfleto, ginecólogo, resolución, impuestos

La resolución para prorrogar los impuestos acababa de ser aprobada en la Cámara de Diputados. De esta manera, no sólo se extendía el plazo de los vencimientos impositivos garantizando una abultada recaudación anual, sino que el oficialismo volvía a triunfar en otra épica jornada de votos. La Ley de Medios también era un hecho, y una oposición confundida y dividida le estaba dando una alegría tras otra al matrimonio presidencial. Sí, los venían investigando sobre sus escandalosas ganancias, que habían aumentado exponencialmente desde que gobernaban, pero nada de qué preocuparse. Incluso aquel famoso panfleto que circulaba por los pasillos del Congreso los tenía sin cuidado. La vida le sonreía a la presidenta... hasta que llegó esa maldita tarde. Los allegados que la vieron salir del consultorio de su ginecólogo no pudieron ocultar su preocupación. Su rostro lo decía todo: ya era hora de tratar la Ley del Aborto.

Oct 25, 2009

10 Selected Tweets @pablogoldbarg

“El camino se hizo más angosto, y las personas empezaron a comprimirse como si fuesen dedos estrujados por las garras de un gigante.

“Today at the NYC marathon there was a couple (she 85; he 75) running while I was kissing a bagel with cream cheese.”

“Should I quit coffee or writing?”

“¿Cómo animarse, desde la cotidianidad arropada de un día cualquiera, a escribir sobre el artista que desangrado se desnuda ante nosotros?”

“You can be Jailed for feeding the homeless, but not for carrying a gun. I knew some foods were unhealthy, but not so dangerous...”

“I'm worried about the effects of tweeting from the bathroom.”

“I've seen it all in NYC. I even lived in an apartment with no kitchen... in Hell's Kitchen.”

“Whoever leaves New York without writing is trapped by emptiness. But who writes while being there will be trapped by New York forever.”

“How is it possible that 30 years after the times of Harvey Milk being gay is still an issue?”

“¡El pacto Grondona-Kirchner es la última vergüenza argentina!” *

* Este tweet está desactualizado. Hay varias nuevas vergüenzas.

Sep 23, 2009

Luz, Cámara, Acción

"Se enciende la luz sobre la cámara, entran al restaurante técnicos, asistentes de producción, avanzan hacia mi mesa cuidando los cables, periodista con micrófono en mano. ¿Es a mí? Sí, sí. Creo que me gané un premio, ¡estoy en televisión! Mi corazón late más fuerte, no puedo evitar sonreír, asombrarme, dejar de comer. ¿Será una invitación a algún programa de preguntas y respuestas? ¿Un crucero? Una cena con Leticia Brédice. La voy a hacer reír, van a brillar sus ojos cielo, romance prohibido. ¿Estoy bien vestido? ¿Esos son policías o actores? Primero entra el Inspector Tedesco, diecisiete años en la Federal, aún le gusta salir de cacería, trae a dos hombres de confianza: Juárez y Lombardi. Sin las cámaras encendidas, Juárez me va a dar una lección adentro del patrullero. Desaparecen los mozos. Ese que ven ahí, como cuarto hombre, es un chico recién graduado de la Escuela de Policía. Me mira apenado, sabe que soy inofensivo, que estoy en la misma que él estaba hace algunos años; camina hacia el encargado para tomarle declaraciones. Escucho la voz de Juárez algo difusa, me agarra de un brazo, sacude como lo hace con su hijo cuando se porta mal. El periodista sigue preguntando, sólo espero que ellas no estén mirando la televisión. Tedesco apoya mi cabeza contra el mantel, se incrustan algunas migajas de pan en mi cara. El metal de las esposas quema como hielo. Todo parece un sueño, desde las paletas del ventilador de techo veo mi marcha, cuento la cantidad de baldosas, trato de no pisar las líneas, sé que estuve mal pero apagá esa cámara, cuánta gente hay afuera, me meten en el patrullero chocado. La cartuchera de Juárez tiene el cuero ajado, Lombardi no salva sus zapatos ni con pomada Cobra, ni aunque cobre el sueldo que le deben, y si no ¿cómo paga la ortodoncia de la nena?, tal vez con las coimas en los semáforos amarillos, que para él son rojos. Me hablan todos al mismo tiempo, y los entiendo como si me hubiese metido en sus cabezas. ¿De postre?, no me acuerdo. Suena la sirena, empieza el viaje, me corre un sudor frío. Me meterán preso, romperán los huesos, ¡violarán! ¿Me enfermaré, volveré a verlas, moriré adentro? ¿Dónde está el límite de la caída? ¿Lloraré la primera noche? ¿Acaso no entienden que tenía hambre? Avanzo en patrullero como lo hacía en mi andador antes de caminar. Cómo pasa el tiempo, cómo pasan los postes de luz, cómo duele mi estómago; no tendría que haber pedido papas, no me tendría que haber despertado."

Aug 18, 2009

Writing at Grub Street

Writing exercise @ Boston's Grub Street workshop:

1) You must use a "blue bike"
2) You must include the quote "If you do it again, I’ll cut your xxxxx off."
3) One character must be Hannah Sheets, an olympian.
4) You have 15 minutes to come up with a story.

The Story

Hannah Sheets didn’t want to be recognized for anyone in the street after such a disappointing performance in the Olympics. She was riding an old blue corroded bike, not like her $12,000 Carbon Limited Edition provided by the National Team in Beijing. Not like the $13,200 T1 Titanium Carrera used in the NYC Triathlon. It was a dirty bargain that she bought in Craigslist for fifty bucks. That day, she definitely wanted to be just one more.

She was trying to park the bike against a fence, probably private property. A cranky 75-year-old man stepped out of his house and saw her locking the bike onto the fence.
—If you do it again, I’ll cut your tires off! And then your guts! I don’t mind if you’re a lady, a kindergarten kid or even the President’s daughter! Damn cyclists...

A passer-by looked at her, then the bike, and then he kept on walking. She looked around. Just a month before people would ask her for an autograph. A woman with a few kids walked in front of her without paying attention to her. Not even the passing cyclists. Hannah wasn’t recognized; after all, that's what she wanted.

She unlocked the bike, and began walking with her bike, slowly, looking into everybody’s eyes.

Jul 20, 2009

Los Libros de Cortázar

Julio Cortázar (1914-1984) es considerado uno de los autores más innovadores y originales de todos los tiempos; un maestro del relato corto, la prosa poética y la narración breve en general. Pero sus cuentos no fueron únicos hitos en la historia de la literatura: su novela Rayuela (1963) inauguró una nueva forma de hacer literatura en Latinoamérica, rompiendo los moldes clásicos mediante narraciones que escaparon de la linealidad temporal.

El Centro Virtual Cervantes tiene una imperdible colección de libros que pertenecían a él —firmados, dedicados, con objetos, formatos curiosos y obras anotadas—. Esta colección ha sido donada por su viuda Aurora Bernárdez a la Fundación Juan March en 1993.

"Los Libros de Cortázar es una exposición reunida y comentada por Jesús Marchamalo que recoge una selección de los libros de Julio Cortázar. Esta nos dice mucho sobre su personalidad, gustos, aficiones, afinidades y amistades literarias. El recorrido por los escolios y anotaciones, las dedicatorias, las notas cariñosas y los marcapáginas caprichosos abandonados entre las hojas de un volumen es un viaje por pequeñeces solo aparentes. Y revela mucho más de lo que nos dice esa apariencia sobre una enorme figura de las letras universales." *

Pasen y Vean:

* Fuente: CVC

Jun 27, 2009

My 2009 Movie Rentals Favorites So Far

This is a list of the best movies I rented in the first half of this year 2009. Some of them are old, but who doesn't have an old list of must watch in the drawers? So, if you ran out of options, or if you are not interested in watching any new releases, here a list of nice independent films:

Synecdoche, New York
(USA, 2008)
by Charlie Kaufman

Son of Rambow
(England, 2007)
by Garth Jennings

The Lives of Others
(Germany, 2007)

by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

The Kite Runner

(USA, 2007)

by Marc Foster

The Pope's Toilet

(Uruguay, 2007)

by Enrique Fernandez & Cesar Charlone

My Father My Lord
(Israel, 2007)
by David Volach

The Science of Sleep
(France & Italy, 2006)
by Michel Gondry

Nobody Knows

(Japan, 2005)

by Hirokazu Koreeda

Man Push Cart

(USA, 2005)

by Ramin Bahrani

(Uruguay, 2004)
by Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Estol

Image: A scene from Whisky (Uruguay, 2004). Left to right, Jorge Bolani, Mirella Pascual & Andrés Pazos.

May 26, 2009

Tribeca 2009: School Desk

Picture this: you tell your family and friends that you have an idea for a new movie about a Colombian woman coming to the U.S. with her two children and husband. Two weeks after arrival, he abandons them, she then must struggle as a single mother against all odds: including hunger, homelessness, a home-made abortion. Your friends will probably think this story is too much; not realistic.

Well, you better believe it, because this is the life story of Paola Mendoza, writer, director and leading actor of Entre Nos (2009), who dedicates the film to her mother, who fought and never gave up, envisioning a bright future for Paola and her brother. Gloria La Morte co-wrote and co-directed this film that probably would be impossible to achieve without this double-helmed collaboration, being such a tremendous challenge for Mendoza to embark on all these roles, especially being a personal poignant story.

There is a very interesting and diverse casting: Andrés Munar (TV series Law & Order, Che) plays husband Antonio, first-time actors Sebastián Villada and Laura Montana play children Gabriel and Andrea, and two experienced actors like Anthony Chisholm (TV series Oz) and Sarita Choudhury (TV series Kings, Lady in the Water) play Joe and Preet, integrating amateur and professional performances into a balanced, authentic combination. Multicultural Queens, New York is the scenario for this immigrant chronicle where immigration is not the main theme, it is a given and actually, it is barely addressed. What allows the plot to develop is Mendoza and La Morte’s focus on the whole emotional journey of struggling to survive beyond a visa status. Mendoza plays Mariana, the mother, whose first instinct is to provide a daily solution for her children’s basic needs; she is also overwhelmed by the situation.

At some point the plot leaves some important questions unanswered: Why did Antonio abandon them? Why did they never try to call for help in Colombia? We don’t know if that was part of the true story or flaws in the script. Though there is a permanent collaboration between Mendoza and La Forte, the team took an important risk having Mendoza playing such a personal role in her first feature directing herself. But it’s not pretentious, simply because it’s a tribute to Mendoza’s mother. Said that, we must give a lot of credit to this team: it was a first feature for La Forte, and a second feature for Mendoza after her collaboration with Gabriel Noble (P-Star Rising, also in the Festival this year) in Autumn’s Eyes (2006).

Beyond some forced shots and a plot that becomes somehow predictable, this Tribeca All Access Alumni team have a bright future on their hands. Entre Nos has some glimpses of humor inside the drama, and it is an example of hope, inspiration and dignity, not only for most of the immigrants coming to the U.S., but also for all kind of people that must struggle in life. Empanadas for $1, collecting cans for 5 cents, and many other odd jobs that most New Yorkers ignore make possible accomplishing the American dream that still so many immigrants pursue. It is not necessarily becoming a successful artist, or a top executive, or living in a democracy. For many, it’s as simple as having the opportunity to sit in a school desk, the very basic step to have a dream coming true.

(Written for Remezcla)

Apr 27, 2009

Tribeca 2009: In The Bottom

Like she did in her debut film XXY (2007), the first sequences of writer/director Lucía Puenzo’s El Niño Pez (The Fish Child, 2009) submerge us in a dream-like submarine world. While the beginning credits fade in and out we can fly (well, swim) in our imagination and recollection of memories. According to Roland Barthes, the ultimate goal of any literary work is to make the reader participate as a producer of the text instead of a consumer. This fantastic film is based on her first novel with the same title (published in 2004 when she was just 23 years old). and we feel in every part of the story that she is not only a great storyteller, but at this early stage in her filmmaking career, she is becoming a great director as well.

The film score (originally composed by Andrés Goldstein and Daniel Tarrab, who also composed for XXY), the narration, the suspense, the dreams, all get us into a journey that beyond the images on the screen, let us create our own sequences like we do when we read a book. But Puenzo never abuses of that resource: everything is appropriate. The story lays on the Guarani legend of the fish child (mitay pirá), who inhabits the Ypoá lake in Paraguay, and guides the drown people to the bottom of the lake. La Guayi (Mariela Vitale), a Paraguayan maid who has been employed by an Argentine rich but dysfunctional family since she was a young teenager, introduces this legend. Lala (Inés Efrón, also the star of XXY) soon falls in love with La Guayi – and so does Lala’s father Bronté (Pep Munné), a fact that turns this story into a sea of jealousy, fury and unconditional worship. The two girls plan a dream life together somewhere in Paraguay, and to that extent they start stealing from Lala’s parents. But if a runaway and a lesbian forbidden love look complicated, things will get even worse after a mysterious death and the new presence of Sócrates (soap opera star Arnaldo André), Guayi’s father.

Puenzo digs one more time into the exploration of sexuality and acceptance, this time with a bigger role of seduction rather than curiosity – we could now perhaps expect her next film to be about sea and sexuality completing a trilogy. La Guayi sings in Guarani: “The moon is singing to me, while I sing for you, so you can sleep my baby, so you can sleep my baby.” Bronté, who doesn’t care about anybody’s feelings (probably not even about himself) explains that it’s exactly what Guarani women did with Spaniards conquerors: singing to them to mesmerize them; La Guayi mesmerizes everyone in the film – myself included. Cinematographer Rolo Pulpeiro (Emir Kusturica’s Maradona by Kusturica) shot this picture in 16mm, and captured the scenery so well that we can even feel the dry and arid climate without a word from the characters, also playing wonderfully with the use of shadows.

Another attractive element is brought by the presence of dogs and his trainer El Vasco (Diego Velázquez), who is close friend of Guayi and will help the girls with their passionate goal. Serafín, the girls’ dog, plays a passive but interesting role – check the book to find out why he’s not just an ordinary dog. The performances are very convincing – especially the two girls – in this dark and poignant tale produced by Oscar winner Luis Puenzo (Lucía’s father) among others. Lala devotes herself completely to La Guayi, especially when she cuts her precious hair. With this action as a symbol of loyalty, Lala suffers but hopes - that the hair will grow, and that Guayi will stay with her, like the fish child legend, even in the bottom of the lake.

(Written for Remezcla)

Public Screenings:

Mon, Apr 27, 6:15PM (AMC Village VII 3)
Tue, Apr 28, 2:00PM (AMC Village VII 6)
Wed, Apr 29, 9:15PM (AMC Village VII 3)
Sat, May 02, 2:00PM (AMC Village VII 6)

Mar 21, 2009

7 Soles: Interview with Pedro Ultreras and Gustavo Sánchez Parra

This U.S. premiere marks the beginning of the filmmaking career for writer-director Pedro Ultreras, a three times Emmy-nominated Mexican journalist who worked for Telemundo among others, now living in New York. The movie depicts faithfully how the immigrants are treated during their journeys to the U.S., searching with hope for a better future. “El Negro” (Gustavo Sánchez Parra) is hired to smuggle a group of undocumented migrants into the United States. He wants to get out of the human smuggling business and claims this is his last trip. His superiors, now suspicious, send “Gavilán” (Luis Ávila), a younger smuggler, to keep an eye on him. During the troubling crossing through the Arizona desert, a one-night journey becomes a seven-day crossing. The two smugglers fight and eventually lose part of their human “cargo”. Negro tries to escape from his former associates but also from justice.

Gustavo Sánchez Parra started his acting in films in the year 2000 as “Jarocho” in González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros. After that lofty debut, in only eight years he has been in as many as forty films, 7 Soles being his last one. We will see him soon in Rabia, produced by Guillermo del Toro. The movie was selected in the international festivals of Shangai, Málaga, and the new Frontera Film Fest in Ciudad de Juárez . I had the opportunity of meeting Ultreras, who also wrote the script for 7 Soles and Sanchez Parra during the New York Latino International Film Festival. We talked about film, politics and the horrific fate of many undocumented immigrants. After watching 7 Soles and learning what’s Pedro’s next project, the illegal immigration issue becomes so urgent that it burns.

Pablo Goldbarg: In which aspects are both of you similar or different than “El Negro”, the main character in 7 Soles?

Pedro Ultreras: I have absolutely nothing to do with El Negro. My life is totally different, and I’ve never been associated myself with him even in a thought. The character came out from many stories that I was told by border patrol agents, federal authorities and undocumented immigrants; the most important comments from victims and survivors, about the behavior of human traffickers or “coyotes.”

Gustavo Sánchez Parra: Well, I have nothing in common with El Negro either, but there are sensations that you can refer to as an actor. He wants to escape from a situation that involves him and devours him deep inside, and that’s a feeling we all live. We want to get out from some kind of hole, but it’s difficult to achieve it, even if we are conscious about its damage. I took that feeling to recreate some kind of sensation more than a truth about who is Negro, someone trapped in a net.

P.G.: Pedro, why are you so interested in the illegal immigration to the U.S.?

P.U.: I worked as a news reporter for many years in the Arizona desert. I grew up in Juárez, next to El Paso. So since I was a kid I used to see people crossing illegally. As a journalist, I’ve focused my career mostly covering immigration issues accross the country. I’ve lived in many cities and states (Chicago, Arizona, California, Texas). The last four years of my television career I was based in Arizona, and most of the stories I did where about undocumented immigrants. So, I got to see many of them, and I was quite shocked and surprised when I realized that the TV and massive media don’t cover much of what happens there, especially when about 300 to 350 immigrants die each year in Arizona. The killings of women in Juárez have reached about 500 in the last fifteen years, and every one knows about it, the European Union asks the Mexican government to step on it, Hollywood celebrities protest to find the killers. In Arizona, 300 people die every single year and no one says anything about it, and this happens in American soil, and it seems like nobody cares for them. I needed to bring to the big screen what happens here, in a more dramatic way. I want people to see how things happen.

P.G.: So, how much of fiction and real facts are in the movie?

P.U.: I based every single thing in stories that people told me they went through in my last four years as a journalist. I created this fictional movie based on true events. I had to play a lot with fiction; I never got to meet a “coyote,” a smuggler like El Negro or Gavilán. I created those characters. The victims in the journey are created based on survivors I met, and spending a lot of time with relatives, too. All these people didn’t want to be identified, so I had to play with fiction.

P.G.: How did you switch careers, and how has journalism helped your development as a filmmaker?

P.U.: It was an easy decision for me when I was eager to tell a story. But it was also tough because I had a very solid career as a journalist, making a six digit number a year, and I knew that as a filmmaker I wouldn’t make a penny. In Arizona, you live with $150,000 as a king, but not in New York, especially when film school is extremely expensive. The desire to tell this story was bigger than my economic needs. I never thought of this film as a change of careers. I thought that I would prepare myself to make this film and then go back to TV. But through the process of filming this movie I got trapped by filmmaking, and now I don’t think I’m going back to TV, other than freelancing to make some money, because I haven’t been able to make any money as a filmmaker yet. Nevertheless, the TV experience helped me a lot because I used to tell stories; one-two-minute stories, but I got to know the angles and different aspects. Television and film are related a lot, though you bring things to film in a very different level. I had some schoolmates coming from engineering or accounting, and for them was like a shock or a new world, but for me it was easy to adjust.

P.G.: Is there any solution for illegal immigration?

P.U.: That’s the 20-million-dollar question! Many people feel that the construction of the wall is a solution, but I don’t think so; it’s a waste of money and time. I think a new immigration reform could be a temporary solution, legalizing all the undocumented. However, I’m afraid that with time down the line it would become a problem again, because it would only fix the problem with people here and the needs in Mexico and other countries in Central America to come here would continue. Also, people would think, “if they create an immigration reform now, they can create a new one in ten years.” The only solution is that our countries could create better job opportunities, could improve education, and have a reason for people to stay there. Also, the U.S. has a need for cheap labor, so as that demand continues, the immigration continues too. I don’t think this is a problem that will end soon.

P.G.: Please tell us about Mirna Pineda’s book 7 Soles.

P.U.: Mirna Pineda is an old friend of mine. The book is an adaptation from the script, and it was my idea. I didn’t have time to write it myself, because I was already working in the movie. Mirna helped me to bring more details and create a novel. She was also very busy at the beginning, and, you know, coming with a book is not easy. But I convinced her to do it, I gave her the script, I directed her to respect the original script exactly as I wrote it, and I supervised her. This is the opposite of what we normally know as an adaptation. This time it was from screen to paper. I wanted to have an additional promotional tool for the movie.

P.G.: The cinematography and even the subtitles in English look very washed and “eighties” style. What did you want to convey with the aesthetics?

P.U.: I don’t want to take any credits about the subtitles, because I let one of the producers to do it – though, obviously he always knew what I wanted. I didn’t have a special style in mind, other than I wanted to make it look like a documentary. I wanted the audience to feel that they were waking along with the migrants. I spent a lot of time with the D.P. [director of photography] to make sure we worked as documentary filmmakers, and we barely used tripods. I did play with the colors to make it look more like a dry lethal desert, because we filmed right before spring and the colors in the landscapes were changing. I wanted that feeling that you’re not going get far because you’ll die. I was told it looked like a documentary, and even some people think it’s a documentary.

P.G.: How did you decide the genre and acting style?

P.U.: I wanted a more dramatic style than the way it’s today. We had to cut a lot, especially the most dramatic scenes. According to the script it would be a two-and-a-half-hour movie. I wanted the audience to feel the pain and suffering of the migrants. I didn’t have experience directing actors – only with students. I talked with them about my personal experiences as a news reporter, about many of the migrants I saw about to die, people begging for water, and throwing themselves on their knees thanking the border patrols who rescued them. I kind of got them into it. As a matter of fact, I took the entire crew to a place where the undocumented immigrants are getting ready to leave. Also, shooting in the desert gets everyone tired very easily – long extremely hot days. By the end of the shooting everybody was exhausted and ready to leave the desert. They were so tired that they didn’t act. Also most of them weren’t professional actors – the only professionals are Gustavo Sánchez Parra (who plays Negro) and Evangelina Sosa (who plays one of the migrants.) The rest of them were brand new or with some theatre experience.

P.G.: Gustavo, how did you manage to create this character through his eyes rather than its actions?

G.S.P: (laughs) well, that’s why El Negro gets what he wants. If he manages to hide his feelings, the rest of people won’t realize what is going on with him. Sometimes, he can’t do it, but generally he tries to control everything. When things get out of his hands, he acts fast to show who is in charge. He feels that the immigrants and even his assistant are getting off his path, so he puts a mask himself to hide it, and that premise was a kind of character’s father or guidance. He suffers a transformation during the film, but even if he reaches its goals, who knows if he will be able to escape his way of living. It was very interesting to me to try to be constantly subtle, without many violent actions like the audience expects, firm and convincing. He knows what he wants and he takes the decisions, without caring if he hurts somebody, though he realizes that he can also save lives.

P.G.: Death appears since the beginning for any of those who cross the desert, either as destiny, challenge or as a fact that somebody always die in these journeys. Does this extreme theme make it easier or more difficult in order to write or act?

P.U.: The physical death is easier to describe than the emotional death, so, for me it was a lot easier. Not that I wanted to kill so many people, but there were real cases where near eighteen people died in the same trip. In the Arizona desert the largest number I remember was fourteen at once. So, it’s not like I was exaggerating. I could never write what exactly happened, because it’s too much.

G.S.P.: My character confronted death for a long time; he’s used to it. When everybody freaks out if they find a skeleton, he doesn’t. He already killed and saw people dying. The fascinating side of this character is when he faces the opportunity to save a life. This is the point where his whole interior shakes, that’s where he can live the terror caused by his old actions.

P.G.: Pedro, can you talk about your new project, “The Beast”?

P.U.: It also deals with the immigration issue. During the time that I was in post-production I was traveling a lot between Arizona and Mexico City, doing a documentary on the construction of the wall and its effects in the environment and wildlife. During those days, a friend of mine asked me to go with him to conduct a series of television news reports in order to sell them to Spanish networks. He was suggesting to ride along the “train of death”, also called “the beast” – a train that comes all the way from Chiapas to Sonora, in the Northwest of Mexico. He wanted to do it for the last few hours of the trip, but I told him that I wanted to go all the way to Guatemala, in the beginning, and ride the train with all the migrants for weeks. He thought I was crazy, because it’s so dangerous. So, finally I decided to do a documentary film, and he went with me. I took the role of first camera, but also I researched a lot in advanced. Then I traveled with the people in the train all across Mexico. I followed the people from Central America who made it to the U.S. – one lady to L.A., another guy to Texas, and the last guy to Memphis. I even visited them when they were working. Unfortunately one of the persons died, a couple of women were raped, I got arrested, etc. It was pretty sad to know that we talk so much about the Mexico/U.S. border, but not many people talk about the Mexico/Guatemala border. I can tell you that as a Mexican I was ashamed about the Mexican government closing its eyes, and how the authorities abuse the Central Americans more than the U.S. border patrols abuse the Mexicans. The problems in Mexico with illegal immigration are twenty to thirty times bigger than the immigration problems here, but we don’t talk about it. In Mexico is very easy to hide this, so I decided to tell this story. This time, the film is more dramatic, more realistic and sadder. But it’s a documentary; nothing to do with fiction at all.

(Written for Remezcla)

Feb 10, 2009

Feeding The Pigeons

The smart use of talented kids in film and television is a guaranteed formula for success. We will never forget Gary Coleman in the television series Different Strokes, Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense (1999,) and so many others in advertising. It automatically grabs our attention and wins our hearts, even if the story is not so good. But nobody since Larry Clark/Harmony Korine’s Kids (1995) went as far to depict street youth drama authentically as Iranian-American writer-director-editor Ramin Bahrani did in Chop Shop (2007, co-written with France-based Bahareh Azimi), his second feature film after his widely praised debut with Man Push Cart (2005.) I dare to say this is one of the best filmed portraits about the life of a child worker. That’s how effective Bahrani is in this shocking, simple but multi-layered story, winner of the “Someone To Watch” award from the Independent Spirits Awards, and official selection in Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto.

Chop Shop, a flawless piece of street realism, is the story of Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco, a non-professional actor chosen from 2,000 kids), a twelve-year-old Latino street orphan in Willets Point, also known as the "Iron Triangle," an industrial neighborhood teeming with auto-body repair shops, scrap yards, and garbage dumps in Queens, New York. Alejandro, like other young boys in the area, works at one of the “chop shops” that line the street. He spends his days in an adult world, running errands, convincing customers to come to the garage where he works instead of a competitor's, and learning how to paint and repair cars. Alejandro’s life brightens with the long-awaited arrival of his sixteen-year-old sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), who moves in with him in the tiny room that he has found for them in the back of the shop. Knowing that creating a better life for the two of them is their best bet at staying together, Alejandro finds her a job in a food van cooking and selling meals to the workers in the Iron Triangle. With a mixture of childlike naiveté and adult ambition, Alejandro begins obsessively saving his money to buy a mobile food van as the two dream about owning and running a small business of their own.

Alejandro not only works as an adult, but he also lives like one: his little room is a bachelor’s pad of sorts, a luxury for a street kid. He makes popcorn at night in an old microwave oven, takes a soda from the fridge like a tired worker with his beer, he does pull-ups from a cupboard and excercises his small but toned body. He stares out his only window, with an unusual and dull view to the interior of the chop shop. Nevertheless, rather than bored his gaze suggests that he is wondering if another life is possible, perhaps dreaming of being a Mets’ player, a chop shop owner, or who knows what. One of the remarkable things he has is his positive attitude and strenght: most children his age wouldn’t survive his way of life alone. He’s always pushing forward, trying to have fun. He learns from other employees, he always pays attention, and he even manages the finances for himself and his older sister. Their age difference doesn’t prevent him from being the one who set the rules in their home, making sure every little thing they have is secure.

Yes, this boy on the verge of adolescence is the head of the household, and must deal with all the challenges he faces in this complex world: the dangerous environment, the disappointment of a failed business, and working double-journal at night until he falls exhausted. His ambitions and the heartbreaking discovery of his sister prostituting herself lead him to take his brother-father-boyfriend-advisor role very seriously. He shows her how to make extra money as an indirect way to take her away from her parallel life. Isamar’s prostitution is like Alejandro’s thefts, each taking their own risks for the big dream. Yet in this though adult world, Alejandro also has time to be a kid, to laugh and enjoy some glimpses of life: going out for a decent meal, tickle fights with Isamar, or baseball with his buddy Carlos (Carlos Zapata) behind Shea stadium. A few steps away, we see with mixed feelings a shocking contrast: between the street kids and their makeshift baseball game while in the stadium multi-millionaire players become richer regardless of the final score.

The incisive cinematography by Michael Simmonds has a very important role; to be Alejandro’s roommate, consciousness, shadow and soul. Bluring the boundary between documentary and fiction, the cinematography becomes another inhabitant of the Willets Point multicultural community. Every single shot is so smooth and unobtrusive that from the beginning we feel we’re there, but unaware of the camera’s presence. Nothing stops Alejandro in his dream to buy that old ruined van, but he underestimates his unfortunate and obvious lack of experience: even if he lives as an adult, he’s still a child. In one of the most powerful paradoxes in the story, he helps to chop his own investments and savings, living in the flesh the dismantling of his dreams. His hope is untouchable, though his fate unchangeable.

Bahrani deploys a savage beauty, unique sensitivity, and complexity of characters that reminds of Abbas Kiarostami, one of his biggest influences – Kiarostami himself embraced him after the premiere at Cannes. It’s not a coincidence that Bahrani worked with amateur actors. The shop owner, Rob Sowulski, plays himself – he met Bahrani when he was scouting locations. Polanco and Gonzales, both from Puerto Rico, attend the same school, and she was the close friend of his sister. The most experienced of the cast is Ahmad Razvi, who also starred in Bahrani’s debut Man Push Cart - a very strong presence who doesn’t seem like an amateur actor at all. Though many times it looks improvised and natural, every scene was carefully based on the script. If there was space for improvisation it was rehearsed over and over during months where the actors put their own words in the language that worked for them, and finally shot with many takes. The best example of how Bahrani handled the documentary-fiction border happened during training before shooting: Alejandro got paid $5 for every car he pulled in, just as the kids who work there do.

The way that the relationship between Ahmad and Alejandro changes (sometimes Ahmad is the big brother, other times buddy, and other times tough employer), makes us wonder if it’s good or wrong that they treat him like an adult. Are they using him and keeping him out of school? Are they teaching him and helping him to survive in a tough but controlled environment? A flip-flop floats in a puddle of rain, like Alejandro wanders in the the darkness where he will discover a difficult truth about his sister Isamar. But although he doesn’t like what he sees, he understands. Life is hard for everyone, but love is stronger, and among all things he has, Isamar is the most precious. One day things will likely change, and they will fly like the pigeons they feed. This film is not for popping corn. I will leave it in its natural state and feed it to the pigeons.

(Written for Remezcla)