When it screened at Cannes last week, the Mexican film “Heli” raised eyebrows and some hackles for its unsparing evocation of Mexico’s drug-war violence, including torture. A compelling story of one simple family who, through no real fault of their own, stumble into a nightmare, “Heli” is director Amat Escalante’s third film at Cannes, and his first in competition.
A native of Barcelona who spent several formative years in the L.A. area, and in Austin, Texas, Escalante (34) lives and shoots film in Guanajuato, Mexico. We sat down a couple of days after his film premiered, on the terrace of the Francesco Smalto store opposite the Palais, where absurdly fashionable people did absurdly fashionable things while the plain-dressed and-mannered Escalante sipped some tea and talked about his film.
There have been a lot of negative responses at Cannes to the violence in “Heli,” and with one scene in particular in which one character's penis is set afire.
Up to now, I really didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I thought no one has shown this before because it’s difficult to recreate, you know? I wanted to show a certain kind of scene, a certain kind of violence, a certain kind of feeling that I wanted the audience to have – and I could only get that by showing this shot. I could have moved the camera and then not shown it but I don’t know why, exactly. This happens, of course; everything in the movie is happening in Mexico, so...Yes, but you didn’t show the rape of the girl, which also clearly happened.
Well, because I can’t digitally do rape. And I’m not going to traumatize the 12-year-old girl [actress Andrea Vergara]. But I wouldn’t be interested in showing that even if I could.How *did* you create the fire scene?
It’s all digital, there’s no fire there. It’s colored water that they throw, then they act like their burning, but the rest is just CGI. You mentioned that this somehow comes out of Sergio Leone.
"Heli' Director Amat Escalante
Well, more or equally is the inspiration in the film not the situation in Mexico but my being a fan of Sergio Leone and western films and genre movies. A lot of it is that. I love gore films, Dario Argento, Stanley Kubrick, strong films. The drug stuff is just something I know I can make a story with. In the press conference, your co-writer Gabriel Reyes said this is just one story set in Mexico; it’s not a manifesto about Mexico. But you also said that you “want to show the way violence is affecting young people.” Isn’t that then about Mexico?
I meant affecting the young people who are in that room [where the torture takes place]. When you hear that children from 10-15 are now being contracted and paid to commit horrible acts, you think, wow, it’s really a deep, deep problem that we have. So it *is* about Mexico.
Yeah, but I think what Gabriel meant was that it’s not in every corner that they’re doing this. Yes, it’s a big problem: In the past six months, 2000 people have been killed in this situation; 7 years, 70,000 people. But there are also two realities – the richest man in the world lives in Mexico. He doesn’t worry about this, you know? The richest man and also some of the poorest people in the world are in the same country. So in a system that works like that, something is not right, and these are all consequences from that.
But I live there and nothing has ever happened to me, thank god, and many people live normal lives that are not invaded by this situation. We read about it and hear about it in the news. In that sense, it’s not *the* reality of Mexico. It hasn’t gotten to that yet. But it is *a* reality.Do you think a Mexican filmmaker *can* make a film without violence?
I’m going to try next time. (laughs) For this one, I said I’m going to make a love story and this is what came out. You know in my other movies (“Los Bastardos,” “Sangre”), there’s no love, no romance. So this time I said I’m going to make a love story. And there *is* a love story in the movie, it’s just overshadowed by so much else. But I do of course want to do very different things in the future. You spent some of your early years in the LA area.
Yes, in Long Beach. 9 years [in the States] all together. I lived two years, from 16-18, in Austin, Texas, and that was very important as far as my filmmaking goes, because of the Austin Film Society there, which Richard Linklater started. Every Tuesday they showed a movie and I would go to it and I discovered the most amazing films that I have seen so far. Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Bresson, Tarkovsky, James Benning, Chantal Akerman, etc. This was one year after that that I decided that movies were what I wanted to do, so it was really a very important moment for me. Thank you, Austin Film Society. You didn’t go on to university there?
No, I quit school at 15, because I wanted to be a filmmaker. I tried film school, in Spain, and I spent 6 months there but I really didn’t like it. I learned by myself, basically, reading many books, watching movies and playing with movie cameras. At the end of the film, Estela has become far more passive and Heli is far more aggressive.
Yes, he starts being somebody and he ends being in a way somebody else, who does something the first person we saw would never have done.