Cathartic and uncompromising, the visceral honesty contained in every frame of Amat Escalante’s third feature, Heli, is a reflection of a country swallowed by tormenting carnage.
Through his images, the fearless Mexican director refuses to condone the complicity of indifference, looking at corrosive evil straight in the eye. Drug cartels are not presented as extravagant demigods or glorified popular heroes – Escalante goes far below the surface into the stories that matter, those that involve the most afflicted, the ones with little hope for escape, caught up in the crossfire between a deviant government and a criminal almighty.
Hidden underneath a truncated teen love story and a young man’s odyssey to find his loved ones, dead or alive, is a message of hope. There is no gratuitous bleakness here, despite the infamous torture sequences in the film. This is an outstanding and bold portrayal of today’s Mexico crafted by a member of that society whose only way to vent his frustration is by telling a story.
Heli earned Escalante the Best Director Award at Cannes in 2013 and it was chosen as Mexico’s Oscar submission this past award season. We spoke to the director a year after the film’s Cannes debut, and ahead of its U.S. theatrical release by Outsider Pictures tomorrow.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Heli is a fearless statement about the state of Mexico today. Given your artistic choices, do you feel a need to provoke?
Amat Escalante (AE): It is not a necessity, but it is a pleasure to make people jump, get excited, get scared, cry, or laugh. I think that’s the core motivation that drives me forward. Of course, I’m interested in telling stories, but I believe we’ve already heard every story. The way that story is told, though—the images, sentiment, and ideas behind it—that’s interesting. It doesn’t mean it’s always the same story, but in terms of cinema for theatrical exhibition, there are certain conventions that have already been used repeatedly. Sometimes it’s hard to think you are the one to reinvent it.
MM: Specifically with Heli, what was your motivation to include explicit images of torture?
AE: I wanted to go beyond the sensational headlines and surpass all of the things we’ve seen in newspapers and the news. I wanted to explore this further. There is a certain frustration when one sees all those images. People would say: “They found this body, they hanged another guy, they found these severed heads.” There are missing parts to their stories, I’d say.
As a filmmaker, I see the way in which these cases are represented as something very abstract. Of course, there are in-depth articles and in-depth books, but in cinema, I feel it is something that hasn’t been greatly explored. Although there may be many films about this subject, there are usually only three films mentioned as the ones that deal with it in a more critical manner beyond just action sequences of cartel warfare: Miss Bala, El Infierno, and Heli.
In terms of the torture scenes in my film, as Mexicans, we all know that unfortunately these things happen every day. I wanted to go deeper into that. My curiosity for images and cinema took me into that abyss, into that hell, to look for something that I can’t explain precisely in words. In the film, when you are approaching this terrible place, you feel it, your hands start sweating, and you get nervous. It is a journey that is real and happens often in Mexico. I had the need to explore that and take the audience in with me.
MM: Was it necessary to be completely upfront about the brutality rather than implying the violence or looking away?
AE: The way I did it is sort of like anti-cinema. The tradition is that the camera moves away and you only hear the screams or you cut right before you see it. Thanks to the technology we have today, you don’t need to move the camera away. You can stay there and watch, which can be sort of experimental. Those are moments in which you, as a filmmaker, are taking – the risk of isolating part of the audience, the risk that the scene will not come out well, or the risk that people will completely reject the film. You can lose a lot of people, but there will also be people that will go to the theater and appreciate it.
This is not something they haven’t seen or can’t see anywhere else. If they wanted to, they could go online and see real gruesome videos. But there is something in my film that is even more real than a YouTube video of someone being tortured: the emotional aspect of those images was missing.
MM: It’s as if you have a connection with these people, i.e. they are not simply bodies, but they have a story and a life before their deaths.
AE: Yes, and there is also something there that documents the societal state of the country. We see those kids in the torture scene and I think that speaks to the present situation in Mexico. Those kids, the mother in the back, and how the man treats the kids – all of those details at that moment, visually and dramatically, explore something deeper. It speaks of a Mexico that is abandoned, a sector of the population, our youth, which has also been completely abandoned by their parents and by society. This violence didn’t come out of nowhere. There are reasons. And in that particular scene, I’m trying to discover those reasons for the audience to see it visually.
MM: On a more technical note, how did you approach difficult scenes like this to give them the realism they needed?
AE: It was very simple because of the technology available. We shot the scene and then digitally added fire around the boy’s penis. It sounds very simple, but at the same time, it’s not so simple. It requires people that have skill for detail.
There are many things in the film that are “invisibly digital,” which, in fact, changes the story. For example, I completely erased a character in order to change the tone of the story. You couldn’t think of doing these things with my kind of budget. I’m sure this could have been done since Terminator 2 in 1991, but now, it’s in the hands of many more people.
We are able to use digital effects that were impossible to think of with our budgets before. Now, with our imagination, our limits have opened up and expanded because of the digital technology. It’s not only about having small and efficient cameras, but many other interesting things. All these things allow us to tell a story where we can see things that one couldn’t see before in an indie film. This is noticeable in many films now.
MM: There is a naturalistic nuance to your actors’ performances. I understand most of them are non-professionals. How do you work with them to elicit such honesty in every scene?
AE: I write a screenplay, but I don’t imagine how the characters look. During the casting process, I discover what each character wants to be. Whoever I choose to play him or her is going to change my vision of the screenplay. In this manner, I fill in the holes in the screenplay and I pass it on to the people I choose.
At the same time, during the shooting, I have to make changes as we go. I go inside a room with one or tow of the actors and we go over the scene, and I modify each line of dialogue adapting them for each one of them. Each day is like that, so my screenplay is full of dialogue changes written on top of the originals.
The actors never read the screenplay. I write down whatever I think may be difficult for them to do in a scene and I give it to them in writing. Before they agree to do the film, they know specifically what their roles entail, i.e. “You have to be naked, they are going to pretend to burn you, or you have to kiss this person.” They know in advance, and of course, there will never be something they’re not aware of in terms of difficult or intimate scenes. Sometimes I write something down that turns out not to be difficult and something I did not consider to be difficult actually is hard for them.
MM: So you play it by ear? You’re not chained to the screenplay?
AE: No, that would be a mistake. If I know I’m working with people who are not professional actors, it would be a mistake for me to get too attached to anything, including the screenplay. Since we shoot mostly on location, with natural light, one has to be flexible to the things nature provides and be open to that. In general, these elements improve things if you are open to them. If you reject everything, it is noticeable in the film. And you can tell when someone is tense and against the world instead of letting nature happen in front of the camera.
For example, in Heli, there are night scenes in the open fields with the car in which you can see a rain cloud; obviously, that wasn’t in the screenplay. We got lucky and shot that distant storm and I think that adds a lot to the film.
MM: Would you say your film is political or that you make political art?
AE: I’m not one to talk about politics or political ideas because I can’t really articulate them; the way I articulate them is in my films. But I wouldn’t want to always articulate political issues. I’m interested in the human condition. And when there is injustice or corruption or extreme inequality like in Mexico, where it is so vivid, it startles me. And I don’t know what else to talk about.
At the end of the day, it is a film with social commentary because it is a problem that we, as Mexicans, are all part of. The film is intuitively social; it is not something that I set out to do, but I do have those preoccupations. I’m passionate about it and I like to raise my voice about the things that disturb me or that I find very extreme in life. So, I put them on film.
MM: There is a huge Mexican community here in Los Angeles and all over the U.S. How do you think this audience will react to the film, given that there is some distance from the problem? And how does it compare to the reaction of people in Mexico?
AE: There is a great difference. I experienced this division during yesterday’s screening of the film at the Hola Mexico Film Festival. In general, people said positive things about the film. But the difference is that, here in the U.S., there is a sort of exalted patriotism from the Mexican community. There is a certain idealistic idea of Mexico. These people have been here for many years. They miss their country and they idealize it. They go see Mexican films because they miss Mexico, but when you confront them with situations that are so ridiculously saddening about Mexico, like some in Heli, they get angry and embarrassed.
Yesterday, there was someone who was very upset and offended by the film. It’s not a film that will satisfy everyone. In Mexico, it was very well-received by the audience. Nobody complained and they admitted it was an important film about the moment Mexico is going through, which I hope, is just that – a moment.
I think here in the U.S., there is also a very big cinephile audience made up of Latinos and non-Latinos, which I think will appreciate the film. Steven Spielberg liked it a lot at Cannes and he is a very important American filmmaker. So there’s that.
MM: Has the recognition of winning Best Director at Cannes changed your future plans?
AE: As soon as the Cannes competition line-up was announced, I got calls from several agents. It had happened to me with my previous films, but this time, there were more calls. Many hadn’t even seen the film, but they wanted to show interest. I didn’t pay much attention to that. After the film opened, there was a bit of interest from Hollywood, but it is not something I feel comfortable exploring at the moment.
I’m very passionate about my country, the place I live in, and I want to show situations and tell stories from there for now. This is a very interesting moment in Mexico in terms of cinema. The year before I won at Cannes, Carlos Reygadas also won Best Director for Post Tenebras Lux. Mexico has won Best Director two consecutive years there. This is great, not only in terms of prestige, but also financially because people are going to watch Mexican films.
In 2013, there were three films that broke all the box-office records: We Are the Nobles (Nosotros los Nobles), Instructions Not Included (No Se Aceptan Devoluciones), and Get Married If You Can (Caseses Quien Pueda). These are very different films from what I’m doing, but we are all reaching our audience in Mexico more easily.
MM: Would you say art house films have a more difficult time financially because of the financial interest of the industry work?
AE: My film didn’t open with 2,000 copies and $3 million for marketing. It opened with 30 copies and $100,000 for marketing. We reached less people, but it’s an investment we made back because my films don’t have huge budgets. Some people might say my films are not profitable, but I think they are, of course, relative to our investment. There are films that cost way less to produce and you make your money back much faster. I don’t think calling films like mine “unprofitable” is correct because as soon as a film gets involved with major theater chains, it becomes profitable. This is an industry that is permanently tied to the business side of things. Cinema and commerce are interlocked. You can think you are anti-mainstream or a true independent artist, and maybe so, but the reality is that you could only make true “art films” if you don’t get involved with any form of commercial exhibition, which is very hard. I think you could call the films I like to make “auteur cinema.” MM
*This interview was conducted during the Hola Mexico Film Festival in Los Angeles in May.
Heli opens in theaters on June 13 in New York and June 20 in Los Angeles.
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