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)