There is a scene in Amat Escalante's Heli that encompasses with artistic subtlety the immense frustration and agony that afflicts Mexico today. As his protagonist takes murderous revenge on one of his sister's captors, the contrasting audio of a man preaching religious verses scores the scene. Just as violently liberating as such a sequence, the entire film speaks loudly of the terrible bloodshed - the product of the ongoing drug war. Focusing on the horrors that a single family has to undergo, Heli is a bold statement that confronts the subject fearlessly and avoids sentimentalism. Winner of the Best Director award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and chosen as Mexico's Official Submission to compete for the Best Foreign Language Film, Escalante's latest is a movie of its time that is interested in the human side of deplorable circumstances. The director spoke to us from Mexico City a few days before the Academy announced the shortlist in the category. The film will screen in the Palm Springs Film Festival this January.
Carlos Aguilar: Your film is a powerful, and fearless statement about Mexico today. How did you develop the screenplay to encompass all its thematic elements?
Amat Escalante: I started writing the script about five years ago. I get my ideas through images, so the first image I had was of a young man looking for his father in the countryside. From that point on the story developed, and I wanted to do something around the General Motors plant in Guanajuato, which is close to where I live. I wanted to portray the environment that has surged in the 25 years the plant has been there, lots of families have moved here and small towns have been created around it. I wanted to create a story about one of these families.
That’s how I went about developing the story. There wasn’t really a lot of investigative research on the subject. I felt like I didn’t have to do a lot of research because everything that is in the movie are things that everyone knows about. What I did was construct a story to tell these things that happen but giving them a face, some characters, a family. To see how these issues affected this specific family. I was hopeful that through these characters I was going to tell a story that grabbed the audience’s attention.
Aguilar: Do you believe cinema can be a tool to create conscience about these issues?
Escalanate: Yes, I don’t know if it’s conscience or more of a catharsis. When one lives and sees the things that happen in Mexico, or you hear of what happens to other citizens, it is anguishing and you don’t really know what to do. I have the the possibility to make movies, and I try to put in them my preoccupation regarding what happens in the country. It is important to do this. It doesn’t mean all movies have to be that way, or talk about the reality or about what is happening, but I do feel there is a void. There is a lot of information on the drug war and about all the violence that comes with it. What’s missing is a more personal vision, a more profound vision about the people not only about the events, in which it seems that ghosts or monsters are the ones killing people, the ones who behead them or hang them.
I wanted to show the human side of these tragic events that have been happening. I consider it important. There are many movies of other kinds in Mexico and around the world, but about these events happening in Mexico I believe too little has been done artistically. There are always two other films that are mentioned on the subject Miss Bala and El Infierno, but for 8 years of intense war against the drug dealers I think it’s too few. I know it is a topic that leaks into other films but few have approached it in such a deep or interesting manner.
Aguilar: Much has been said about the violence depicted in the film. Why did you feel it was necessary to show it in that manner?
Escalante: If it weren’t for these things that are happening, all this violence, and the people perpetrating these acts, the problem wouldn’t be so serious. But the reason why this worries me so much is because of this level of violence, of dehumanization, of lack of values within our society. I wanted to show the real problem at hand. Using drugs or selling drugs I don’t consider it to be bad in my opinion, what is really bad is to torture, to kill, punish other people inhumanely. That’s what I think is the worst. I believed that in order to be honest to what I felt I had to show those scenes. At the end of the day, they are brief scenes; the movie is more than that. However, those parts had to have their weight, their importance. It’s interesting to see the entanglements of drug distribution or corruption, but in the end, for me, the core of the situation are those scenes. We see young men committing such acts, torturing, and I felt they needed to be significant.
Aguilar: In a sense, the fact that you chose to include young men and children in some the most violent scenes speaks of the social corrosion the country is living. Kids want to grow up to be drug dealers. Why did you choose to include them?
Escalante. Yes. I needed to highlight this with strong visuals. The fact that they are young men and children emphasizes the problem that exists. Since people in Mexico are so used to this already, if in that scene there were 40-year-old men or a man with a hat and a mustache torturing the boys, it would be much different than seeing these young men, who are the future of Mexico, doing this. In a certain way, they are what I think is the most delicate part of this situation, and they are also the only hope. That’s the reason why children are the ones witnessing these acts in the film, because I wanted to show the spectator that they are the most vulnerable part and the ones we should care for.
Aguilar: How did you work with cast? I understand that for many of them this was their first time in front of the camera. Was this more difficult given their inexperience?
Escalante: It was difficult, but I think it is difficult with actors and non-actors. To elicit touching performances and hook the audience with them is hard and delicate. When I write, part of my writing process is the casting. I write while we are trying to get the money to make the film, and at the same I do the casting. Everything blends together. When I’m doing the casting I meet lots on interesting people. Also, sometimes as I walk down the street I see people that inspire me, and even if they are not actors, instead of just using them as inspiration and casting someone else to play them, I like to cast them and put them in the film. It is difficult at times because they get nervous in front of the camera, so you have to be very subtle and not lose control of the situation. You have to be aware that it is going to be hard to make the scenes believable, and there are going to be limits with non-actors, but what they bring sometimes is more than what a trained actor could.
There are actors who can contribute important things, but in general I have a hard time finding actors that convince me. Therefore sometimes I prefer to go directly to real people. The protagonist in HELI, Armando Espitia, he wants to be an actor, and I worked with him almost the same way I worked with the rest. Any director whether he directs actors or non-actors would say that it is a joined effort, and that you have to be careful. For example, in the torture scenes, those were people who had never been on screen and it was really difficult, because even though they didn’t have to do much those were complex sequences. I tried to do my best. Since I’m now filming on digital format I have the luxury to shoot many takes and experiment and improvise, I think has helped with actors.
Aguilar: Despite everything that Heli’s family endures throughout the film, there is a sense of hope at the end. They subconsciously have to move on. Was that your intention?
Escalante: That’s the feeling I think exists here in Mexico. Life goes on regardless of everything, and that’s how it is all over the world. Whatever happens to you this [life] goes on and one has to try to figure out how to keep going. The cycle of life, the hope that exists every time a new life begins is what pushes human beings to continue. We try to fix our mistakes via the new generation, that’s the sentiment I wanted to convey.
Aguilar: After winning Best Director in Cannes, and now that film is representing Mexico at the Academy Awards, is there any pressure or expectations?
Escalante: What takes a bit of the pressure off is the fact that the selection process here in Mexico was very democratic. We didn’t do any type of lobbying or anything of the sort, they trusted the film enough to send it. There is a sense of responsibility because we know there is work to do in the U.S to give the film the chance to get a nomination. We have put effort in whatever we can, but we know the rest is out of our control. We just have to wait and see. The film speaks for itself, we don’t have thousands of dollars to promote it, so we will see what happens.
Aguilar: What do you think the reaction of the Mexican community abroad, specifically in the U.S will be? Do you think they might be unaffected or disconnected because of the distance?
Escalante: My experience has been the opposite. When one is abroad, as a Mexican, you begin to idealize the country. You tell your friends there “When you have a chance we should visit my country. Yes there is violence but is not that bad” That’s also real. Sometimes when a Mexican outside of Mexico sees these types of films, they might feel sadness and anguish, perhaps more than those here. In Mexico the movie did really good, many people went to see it. They thought it was an important film that needed to be seen, and a film that tackles what Mexico is suffering right now. In that regard, I feel that outside of Mexico it could be touchier, but I think people are interested. I feel like any Mexican in any part of the world will understand.