By Carlos Aguilar | SydneysBuzz October 4, 2013 at 3:00PM
Following her debut feature Nora's Will, Mexican director Mariana Chenillo presents her sophomore effort Paraiso (Paradise) a love story that defies physical appearances and has plenty of heart. Read our review HERE
The film screened at this year's TIFF, and not surprisingly has been well-received by audiences and critics. Chenillo has clearly developed an original voice in the crowded field of modern Mexican cinema that has expanded in recent years, opening spaces for more original stories. Supported by production company CANANA, now Mexico's premier advocate for new auteurs, the director infuses her work with a distinctive female perspective and a peculiar vision of Mexican society. Her latest narrative deals with obesity, insecurities, the quest for the perfect self, and finding fulfillment beyond the superficial. She talked to us about developing the story, finding the right actress, and being a female director in Mexico.
Carlos Aguilar: I think 'Paraiso' is a different love story, it’s interesting to see everyday people being the protagonists, people that don’t adhere by the beauty standards we are used to see in Romantic Comedies. What inspired you to write this film?
Mariana Chenillo: The original idea came from a short story also titled Paraiso, this story was read for the first time by producer Pablo Cruz many years ago. His interest in the story has a lot of to do with the context of the Mexico City suburbs where the story takes place, and where he grew up, then he gave me the story to read. I believe it was an interesting mix because what we each liked about the story wasn’t necessarily the same thing. His urge to think “This could be a good movie” is not necessarily the same as mine. The premise is about a couple of overweight people who move from the suburbs to the city, that's what happens in the story.
In the short story the protagonist is him, the husband, when I started working on the screenplay, of which we thought could a much more literal adaptation, I realized that the protagonist had to be her, Carmen. It was a process that turned the movie into something as personal as if it hadn’t been an adaptation but an original idea, because when I decided to make her the protagonist I thought a lot about those ideas women have about their bodies. I believe there is a lot of pressure. There is always this sensation that we must first follow certain tenets and then everything else in life will follow secondarily. Tied to this there is the process of discovering what do you want to do in life, and when, and also give yourself the chance to change your mind and say “What I really like is this , not what I thought I liked before”
I feel like throughout the time we were writing this film it picked up personal stories of many people, then the actress came along. She is an actress who is overweight and who has been like that her entire life, and who also had her own story of having lived situations like those with her partner. The mix of all the very individual attachments that each person had with the story gave it the chance to exist and be original.
Aguilar: The film focuses on the issue of obesity, do you think this is a real social problem in Mexico or are the unrealistic beauty standards placed by the media what turn into a problem?
Chenillo: There are tow things: I do believe that in Mexico and many other countries this is a health issue, but I also think that movies are not necessarily the best platforms to launch health campaigns. Particularly in Mexico, people are very prone to diabetes, which affects the overweight population to a greater degree, which turns into a huge health problem for our society. However, I think that what I intended to do with the film wasn’t to launch a health campaign, because I believe that being happy is equally as important as being healthy. The social pressure affects the character from many angles, but it is more important for her to figure out where is the right place for her to be in life, than losing weight. Even though it is a health issue, the standards of beauty force many women to feel eternally unfulfilled with who they are, what they represent, and their bodies.
Aguilar: In recent years it seems like Mexican cinema has taken two roads, it either focuses on the freighting violence and cartel warfare or it puts out very commercial, generic, films. It feels like your film is in between, it is original, has social commentary, it is smart, and still very entertaining. Did you have this in mind while working on the film?
Chenillo: I think that all these films dealing with social issues are very necessary and very important, because societies question themselves when they make films about this reality. But I also think there are other things happening, there are other stories that are also part of Mexico, that also represent it. In the case of this film that is based on a short story, and also in my first film, I’m more interested in what I have closer to me. I’m interested in what I can observe in my life, in the people I know, and I feel this also represents us [Mexico]. These are also important stories to which the audience can relate.
Aguilar: Your lead actress, Daniel Rincon, she is fantastic in the film, as a director how did you work with her to create such an organic, and honest, performance?
Chenillo: The hardest thing was to fin her. In this case we needed someone that had as many similarities with the character as possible, and half of the work was done because of what she is in real life. She is a girl that studied acting, she was very talented. She had experienced many of the things the character goes through in the film. We launched a massive casting call. There were around 1000 actresses and non-actresses, we were lucky to find Daniela, there was no one better than her for this role. The work while filming had to do a lot with the actor playing her husband, Andres, there had to be chemistry between them so that the love between the characters would be the cause for everything that happens to them. Choosing him in relation to her, so that the chemistry would give the impression that these are two people that have known each other for a long time and that they love each other, that was the other half of the work.
Aguilar: The title, Paraiso (Paradise), you mentioned it came from the original short story, how do you interpret this, as a metaphorical state in which the characters find happiness or the physical location they leave?
Chenillo: The title refers to Satelite, the suburb where they are from, that’s their “paradise”. The part of the film that takes place there had to be very brief, we couldn’t spend a half hour in their lives in Satelite. We had to take the characters out of there soon, which leaves the “paradise” sort of underdeveloped. However, we did want them to plant their roots there, they plant a tree in the park there, to which they return at the end. These roots represent what preceded their expulsion from the perfect life they had there.
Aguilar: Another interesting thing is the fact that the film focuses on the Mexican middle class, which is something rarely seen in Mexican films internationally. The stories associated with Mexico are often about people fighting to survive. Do you feel your film will portray a different image of Mexico in other countries?
Chenillo: It represents the middle class. Of course Mexico is a country with enormous inequalities, but it is also a country with a big middle class. These people also have problems, and they also have stories. I think it is great to show that side of Mexico, because that is the side of the country many us have closer to us.
Aguilar: Being a female director in Mexico, how difficult is it to bring attention to your projects or to tell the stories you want to tell?
Chenillo: Seeing the numbers of how many women directors there are in comparison to how many men, I think there is still a long way to go since there are way less female directors. There is the issue of investors trusting you with a budget for your film, luckily in the last decade things have started to change. In my particular case it has been a process of which I cant complaint because in CANANA there is no machismo. My baby was born a few months before we started pre-production, but when we had raised the total money I was a week away from giving birth. The shooting and editing process I did it while taking care of the baby. I feel like that is something that couldn’t have happened a decade ago, it would have been unimaginable. Some people would have been like “You have a baby, take care of him and then later come back to work”, but now it is just a matter of organization and willingness. It means that we can have a family and still work just like men do, and I think that is a good sign.