CIFF interview: Fernando Frías (Ya no estoy aquí)

Fernando Frias’ Ya no estoy aquí, a film about a teenager struggling with loss and alienation in which dance and music are used as tools to narrate the plot, moved to Cairo after winning both the main competition award and the audience award at the Morelia International Film Festival. And our very own Cédric Succivalli, who was a juror in the short films competition in Morelia, moved with it. After one of its screenings in the Cairo main competition, Cédric spoke to the Mexican director about the film’s life after Morelia, the process of combining so many narrative elements, and the reception of the film outside of Latin America.

CS: How have you been doing since the last time we saw each other in Morelia? How did it go in Mar del Plata?

FF: Well, as I said in Morelia the night of the closing ceremony: I arrived to the festival with the feeling of this being some sort of ‘end of the road’ for the film. But when I left, after such an incredible response from the Mexican audience, the jury and the industry, I left feeling quite the opposite, as if this was just beginning. Then I went on to Mar del Plata where we for some reason were not programmed in competition, so to be entirely honest, I didn’t exactly know what to expect. Let’s say I went with no expectations and with just the excitement of being able to present the film in a different part of Latin America.

Then another reversal, Mar del Plata projected the film three times, two of them in a 400-seat theatre. Let me tell you, all of the screenings were packed and two of them entirely sold out. After the first one, people started to talk a lot about the film and from one day to the next my instagram DM’s exploded with incredible response from young Argentinians who even went as far as to send me videos of them dancing like the kids in the movie at the town’s main square. So I’ll just say that I left Mar del Plata tremendously pumped and eternally thankful to the festival and the programmers who brought my film there.

CS: What drove you to tell such a singular story?

FF: I believe that cinema, besides telling stories, also offers the possibility of showing ways to look at life and its phenomena. In this case the things I wanted to touch upon and the way I wanted to show them were clear for me. From there the story kind of decanted itself. We can say that this particular story became the best excuse I could find to show what I wanted to show. I wanted to first understand and then go beyond the looks of these kids and the deeper I went, the more I kept finding relevant elements for the story.

CS: The way you miraculously manage to blend Cumbia, youth and street culture, the endemic cartel issue and the burning border/immigration question with the US in one single film is so unique in Mexican cinema. How did you make it all fit in one single narrative? It could have been very dogmatic or preachy but it never is.

FF: This was difficult but one thing I knew for certain: I wanted to stay away from what to me were exploiting approaches to a sad reality. So having clear what I didn’t want to do helped me immensely to find what and how I wanted to tell this story. And I think that having so many elements also somehow forces you to keep it subtle, or otherwise it would feel like too much in every way.

Another important thing to mention here is the structure, because jumping back and forth created the necessary elliptical possibilities to have all of what you mention fit. When writing the script I remember I had a notebook, and I wrote on each page the things that I felt must stay in the film. I would leave the rest of the page blank for each thing I wrote down, so that when the time came to kill it I could write the reason for which it couldn’t die. There were so many things that having this notebook was helpful, because whenever I couldn’t write a convincing enough reason for myself, I would then let that element go. This exercise in the end was what defined the film’s narrative structure.

CS: It is the first time you show your film to a non-Latin American audience. I saw it again here, I was at its first screening at the Cairo Opera House, and I have to say the response of the crowd both during the very stimulating and lively Q&As after the film, as well as outside the theater was very enthusiastic. Were you surprised by the questions being asked?

FF: It is actually not the first time outside Latin America, it was shown in Estonia last week where it had a very interesting reading. I feel that from all of the places it has shown maybe Tallinn was the audience most distant to the story. Here in Cairo it is a very different experience for me coming from Mexico, of course, but I felt like people got it. It’s a challenging film in its first 20 to 30 minutes as you know, so I didn’t know how people would react or if they would have the patience to follow the film even when it takes a while to get the setup for the story. As for the questions asked I am always surprised by them, it doesn’t matter where.

CS: Expanding on that Q&A, could you elaborate a bit on your very specific casting process for the film? I was fascinated to hear that your lead actor did not know how to dance prior to shooting. You guys did an incredible job there, he was so convincing!

FF: Well, this is something I could really talk about for a long while. Like I said then, each kid has a story to how we found each other, because it was not only us looking for them. At some point people knew about the castings and they did what they could to be considered.

In the case of Derek I like to say that he came from behind and because he was younger than other candidates that actually did rock that style and were devoted to this kind of counterculture. So yes, at the beginning he didn’t dance but we created the time and space for him to find it and practice while we kept rehearsing and mapping out the scenes with different combinations of the candidates. In the end Derek won the “all round” because he not only showed amazing talent but also a willingness to learn and a discipline to get better without letting frustration beat him up. He is really an extraordinary kid with an enormous amount of talent.

CS: The New York section of your film is quite something in terms of mise-en-scène, all the more so when one learns, like I did at your Q&A here, that you shot without permission. Could you tell us a bit more about the shooting in the US?

FF: Thanks, I think that New York was way more difficult and complicated than Monterrey. People often ask about access to locations in the neighborhoods of Monterrey but New York was way harder. Just like what the character experiences, the film itself had a hard time there. We were a super small crew coming from Mexico, and in New York we had to work with the people we could afford in such an expensive place which is also a place known for how hard things can be. At some point I had to accept that in New York many things, particularly shooting streets and public places, were beyond my control. So we tried to live with what was happening around us and embrace it instead of trying to modify it.

CS: Your film is so rich stylistically and visually that I’ve been meaning to ask you for a while who your Mexican and international influences are in terms of cinema, and art in general for that matter?

FF: This one is a tough one just because so many come from an unconscious level I guess. I designed the film based on the way I was learning about the worlds I was recreating or representing in the film. I took many photographs while researching, and knowing how important places are to the story meant a lot for how the film ends up looking.

Maybe you need a more concrete answer here, but nothing is coming to mind other than the combination of the elements themselves, like the music, places, clothes, colors and what made everything blend together in the best possible way to tell the story with the tone and rhythm we were going for.

CS: Can you talk a bit about Jimigration, the documentary you are supposed to have finished? Is it in post-production? And what is your next project, provided you are willing to share that with me?

FF: That documentary is kind of not moving at the moment but I have a feeling it will soon move again. I have been working on it since 2006, and for different reasons I’ve been away from working on it.

As for the next narrative, I am adapting a great book by Juan Pablo Villalobos. It’s called I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me, and it’s set mostly in Barcelona. Camila Arias, who co-wrote Birds of Passage, is working on the script with me and we are very excited about this.

Probably people will think it is very different than Rezeta, my first film, or Ya no estoy aquí. But again it has to do with cultural clash somehow, and I see some similarities between my previous work and this new one. It’s a completely different world, a completely different story, but without giving away too much I feel that the films share something as of how I imagine audiences to feel by the end of the films.