interview by ALEPH MOLINARI and OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM
the renaissance of mexican cinema was dominated in the late ’90s by three major filmmakers, alfonso cuarón, guillermo del toro, and alejandro gonzález iñárritu, who all made it to hollywood without losing their strong sense of collaboration and friendly rivalry. a highly creative generation of directors is now emerging and exploring violence, social contrasts, and the bizarre facets of the country’s baroque cultural fabric.
amat escalante won best director at the cannes film festival (2013) for his controversial narcothriller “heli” and the silver lion at the venice film festival (2016) for the sci-fi drama “the untamed”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s start with Mexican cinema. Are there any cult Mexican filmmakers that we should know of? In France, we know Sam Peckinpah [who made many of his films in Mexico] and Alejandro Jodorowsky, who is also not technically Mexican. Are they important
references for your filmmaking?
AMAT ESCALANTE — Yes, for sure, Jodorowsky was very important when I discovered his films. Santa Sangre [Holy Blood] was the first one I saw. When I shot my first short film [Amarrados], at 17, I was very excited because it featured Zonia Rangel, the actress who starred in La Montaña Sagrada [The Holy Mountain] and Santa Sangre.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you wanted to be a filmmaker from a very early age. Was it because of your family?
AMAT ESCALANTE — No, they’re not in the film industry, although they are quite artistic and liberal. My father is a painter, and my mother was a musician. They took me to see many movies; the first one I remember was Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. I was very impressed. We saw it at the Diego Rivera Museum, which is in the house in which Rivera was born, in Guanajuato. There’s also a festival called El Cervantino that has opera, painting, cinema, theater, music, everything. We’d go every year, and these experiences impacted me from a young age.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, Jodorowsky and Sam Peckinpah are pioneers of Mexican cult cinema?
AMAT ESCALANTE — Well, I never thought of Peckinpah as Mexican, although he did greatly influence Mexican cinema. The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia were, of course, shot in Mexico. But the movie of his that influenced me most is Straw Dogs. Jodorowsky — I would watch his movies often and learned about being free. There’s something that’s not conventional in his storytelling. His obsessions and fetishes — to see those come so directly from a person onto the screen was a revelation. When I realized I wanted to make movies, one of my main influences was Stanley Kubrick. Later, Jodorowsky and Luis Buñuel became very important references for me. There’s also Rubén Gámez, from the same generation as Buñuel and Jodorowsky. He did a movie that was quite a revelation at the time, called La Fórmula Secreta [The Secret Formula]. Originally the movie was called Coca-Cola en la Sangre [Coca-Cola in the Veins] [laughs], but he had to change the title because he couldn’t use “Coca-Cola.” It’s a 40-minute short film that had a big influence on me — and maybe Jodorowsky and Carlos Reygadas, too.
ALEPH MOLINARI — With whom you worked.
AMAT ESCALANTE — Yes, Carlos was quite involved with my first feature film, and I worked with him on his film Batalla en el Cielo [Battle in Heaven]. When we first met, I showed him my short film, Sangre, and he liked it very much and hired me that day to work with him.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What did this generation bring to Mexican cinema?
AMAT ESCALANTE — There was a time when they called it the New Mexican Cinema. That was the official title given in the early ’90s. Sólo con tu Pareja [Love in the Time of Hysteria] by Alfonso Cuarón and Cronos by Guillermo del Toro were part of this. At the time, there were about 20 or 30 movies being produced a year, compared with more than 200 movies per year today, thanks to new funds and tax incentives that made that jump possible.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, there’s a real cinema industry? Because in France, it used to be around 500 movies a year, and now it’s shrunk to around 300 in 2019.
AMAT ESCALANTE — Well, I’m not sure what that number will be after the pandemic, but normally it has been between 170 and 200 since 2006. In the early 2000s, Amores Perros signaled a change. After that, more movies began taking risks. Amores Perros was made outside of the normal path. Normally you would have to apply to the government and to cultural institutes, but [director Alejandro González] Iñárritu came from the world of advertising and was able to get private financing and make a different movie all the way through. Then Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro left for the US after making their first movies. Cuarón came back and did Y Tu Mamá También [And Your Mother Too]. So, there was camaraderie, but also a friendly rivalry that helped them and the whole industry. And it showed something to the rest of the world about Mexico.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Is there something in those films that’s particularly Mexican? Are there elements of Mexican literature or mythology or even the history of characters like Hernán Cortés or Moctezuma II that make Mexican cinema intriguing to foreigners?
AMAT ESCALANTE — Mexico is a country that has so many contrasts — and contrasts that can be very violent as well. And I don’t mean just directly violent. The difference in social classes is quite violent, and many filmmakers underline this — Michel Franco and Carlos Reygadas, for sure. I think there’s freedom, and people are taking risks with the elements to play around… This is an aspect that is very dramatic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The street, the energy, the violence, the physicality.
AMAT ESCALANTE — Yeah. You can go eat somewhere, and while you’re eating delicate food, you’re looking at something rough in front of you. It’s not particular to Mexico, but it brings an element of contrast for artists to explore. It’s very visual and cinematic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a very visual country and culture. The colors, the light, the landscape.
AMAT ESCALANTE — And there’s a tradition from when Sergei Eisenstein came to Mexico to film ¡Que viva México! [Long Live Mexico!] — he was assisted by Gabriel Figueroa, a cinematographer and photographer who had a strong cinematic language and who was very adept at filming the sky and landscapes. It’s not a coincidence that so many interesting cinematographers have become successful in the US, like El Chivo Lubezki, Rodrigo Prieto, or Guillermo Navarro.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you feel part of a newer generation, compared with the one from the early 2000s?
AMAT ESCALANTE — I think we’re the next generation. Iñárritu and Cuarón and del Toro, all three of them were supportive of Carlos Reygadas and myself, as well as other filmmakers. My first screenplay, Sangre, was read by both Iñárritu and Cuarón. They didn’t even know me before. But Carlos told them there’s a guy from Guanajuato who wants to make a movie that he’s writing. So, I had phone conversations with both of them. That’s also a point: that we have helped each other. In Mexico, I feel solidarity. Not everything is positive, of course. But, in general, I do feel that everybody wants to help each other.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The goal is still to take over Hollywood?
AMAT ESCALANTE — Not openly, no. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — In France, there’s French cinema, and then there’s Hollywood. If you go to Hollywood, it’s seen as betraying French cinema, in a way. What’s it like here?
AMAT ESCALANTE — I think it’s different here. I don’t see Carlos Reygadas going to Hollywood, although the big actors come looking for him. My mother is from Long Beach in Los Angeles. In 1992, I went to live there for three years. Then I lived in Austin, Texas. Living in the US, I was exposed to many movies and books that became my education in cinema. I didn’t go to film school here in Mexico, and I was quite isolated from the industry in Guanajuato, so I feel fortunate that I was able to go.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What is your most recent project?
AMAT ESCALANTE — I did eight episodes for the series Narcos, which quickly became very popular. Thirty-four million people saw it on the first day it came out. It’s a different perspective and very far from my films.
ALEPH MOLINARI — And you also did a movie on the same theme in the north?
AMAT ESCALANTE — Yes. Heli, in 2013. That’s why they called me to do the series. I shot it in Guanajuato, which, at the time, was one of the safest states in the country. Now it’s the most deadly.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you think that these films about drug trafficking glamorize violence?
AMAT ESCALANTE — No, I don’t think so. One of the first movies ever made was about a bank robbery. There’s an appeal in seeing people doing criminal things and getting away with them. The US has so many mafia and crime movies, but nobody asks that question there. The Godfather didn’t encourage more crime in the US. I don’t think it’s like that here. To me, it just shows a bit of Mexico’s low self-esteem because some think a movie is actually going to affect culture and society. I wouldn’t put those two together so closely. Do movies affect people being violent? I think they’ve already proven that’s probably not the case.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But violence is definitely very cinematographic. Maybe even more so than sex? [Laughs]
AMAT ESCALANTE — It’s cathartic, for sure. I think sex and violence are very similar, yes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Quentin Tarantino is the master of that. But it’s a big topic in Mexican cinema.
AMAT ESCALANTE — What’s happening in Mexico is that many people are being directly affected by violence, collectively and individually. Young people are tempted to get involved in drug trafficking and crime. Most people in Mexico know somebody who has been kidnapped or killed. It’s different from making a violent movie in Denmark or Sweden — here, you have to be more diplomatic in the way you film it. In my movies, I try to show violence in a way that you wouldn’t want to see it because I wouldn’t want to see somebody being killed. And that feeling is very mysterious to me. So, I want to film things in a way that makes you want to close your eyes instead of having fun. One of my earlier influences is Dario Argento. The blood, the suspense, the gore, and the mystery of what’s inside of us. There’s something very cinematic about that. Have you noticed the tabloids sold in the newsstands with pictures of dead bodies on the covers?
ALEPH MOLINARI — Yes, sex and violence.
AMAT ESCALANTE — There’s a semi-naked girl, showing her body parts next to a graphic crime scene. That’s a mix that I grew up with… It’s not hidden. Every kid who stops at a stoplight can see that. This explicit violence is there because there’s a closeness to death in Mexico that’s not as present in other places. It’s common to see dead dogs on the road or, in some places, even dead bodies. There’s a different approach to death here. It is, in some ways, attractive to me and for people who are not from Mexico to encounter death.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s interesting. I have a feeling that, in Mexican cinema, there’s a magical or surreal approach to reality. Maybe it’s something specific to your films, which are very modern. Right now, the question is: what’s real? What’s not real? What’s possible? What’s not possible? Is the pandemic real or a new form of biological warfare? We start to question the status of reality. Mexican cinema has this ambiguity.
AMAT ESCALANTE — Most filmmakers are very observant. This country has a lot of contradictory and absurd and strange things that… I wouldn’t really call them “surreal” because they’re actually happening, but they’re very strange visually.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Like in your film La Región Salvaje [The Untamed]. It mixes elements of sci-fi with the mystique of the Mexican countryside.
AMAT ESCALANTE — For sure. When you’re growing up in Guanajuato, there are many legends. They’re part of the ambiance. Children are told stories when they’re young, and many people grow up thinking they’re real. Like the Chupacabra [a mythical “goat-sucker” that drinks the blood of animals], for example — there are even news reports claiming that they have found it and have pictures of it. Collectively there are a lot of beliefs like that. People in Mexico see horror movies thinking they’re factual, like The Conjuring.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The border between fiction and reality is blurred?
AMAT ESCALANTE — If you were to look at an X-ray of the country, there are countless beliefs in strange things. I personally don’t believe as much, but when I do castings… One time, I saw about 1,000 people for a casting in the space of three days. I would photograph them and then ask them, “Do you believe in or have you had experiences with paranormal things?” A few said no, but most of them did have stories of paranormal experiences. They told me about their encounters with trolls, ghosts, and aliens. All these crazy things. I have an accumulation of them on the casting videos.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Is that where the alien in The Untamed came from?
AMAT ESCALANTE — In part, yes. In the local newspaper in Guanajuato, there was a story about a lizard monster living in the Santa Rosa Mountains, which is where I filmed The Untamed. It was a badly written trying-to-be-serious article about sightings of this creature. These stories are definitely in the air.
ALEPH MOLINARI — And so, in the film, the alien becomes an alternative way of loving because all the characters are involved in disastrous relationships?
AMAT ESCALANTE — Well, for me, the creature in The Untamed was more about a mysterious and unknown entity that people can’t deal with inside. I think it’s pretty Mexican. And Guanajuato is a very conservative state. The city is very religious, and there’s a church on every corner. At the same time, it’s violent. There’s a lot of death and imaginary monsters. In Mexico, there are so many monstrosities happening. Horrific things that you hear of, that you know are happening, and you question how they can happen. It’s quite difficult to explain it, and so there starts to be a kind of monster in the air for me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The frustration and fear create these monsters.
AMAT ESCALANTE — Exactly. I think there’s a frustration — a sexual frustration — and many people are not able to be free. For example, in The Untamed, there’s a homosexual subject, but people are not allowed to be homosexual. What happens? A creature starts to appear. For me, that’s what the creature was: a thing they’re afraid of inside.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Is that also a critique of macho culture, a deconstruction of the duality of the macho who is closed and hard and who cannot process things?
AMAT ESCALANTE — Yeah, for sure, there’s that. But I don’t usually establish the metaphors so directly before I make a movie. It’s more intuitive — playing around and experimenting, seeing what happens, seeing if it makes any sense having this monster there. And maybe it doesn’t work. But then, it’s good if you take a risk in that way. It’s important to not be afraid of making a fool of yourself as far as making movies or art goes. And it’s a delicate thing because you’re making it for other people to judge and to see.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You can’t think too much or be too politically correct because then you wouldn’t make art anymore.
AMAT ESCALANTE — Yeah. That’s another big subject that one has to be careful with. I haven’t made a movie since the movement toward political correctness peaked, and that has happened mostly on the Internet. This has affected storytelling and careers, everything. The fact remains that on the Internet, people can lynch others for doing something that’s ambiguous. And ambiguity is also very important.
OLIVIER ZAHM — For a movie.
AMAT ESCALANTE — In art, in general. Otherwise, it becomes like a pamphlet or some message that you want to give. I was recently rewatching Taste of Cherry by Abbas Kiarostami, and it’s very ambiguous. For the first 30 minutes, you don’t know what he wants to do. You think maybe he wants to pick up guys for prostitution because he’s in his car, asking men on the side of the road: “Hey, do you want some easy money? Come with me.” But they don’t want to. Iran is a very conservative place. You think maybe he’s a homosexual who is looking for something. And then, you find out that the guy wants to kill himself. It plays with ambiguity all throughout the movie, and it’s very beautiful. Ambiguity is pure because it allows the audience to understand things better and put their ideas there…
ALEPH MOLINARI — Instead of spoon-feeding them.
AMAT ESCALANTE — Yeah, and what would be interesting about that? But I think it’s becoming harder because people don’t like ambiguity. They will question what it was that you really wanted to say. And maybe it’s not exactly like that. I’m trying to show something the way I see it. When you see a situation in the street, the situation is not telling you something right away or giving you a message. It’s just happening. If ambiguity leaves cinema or art in general, it will be a very sad thing. Hopefully it’s just a time that is shifting, and it will come back. If you see any Hollywood movie, there’s no ambiguity anywhere.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Everything is black and white.
AMAT ESCALANTE — And there are many filters that make sure that ambiguity is taken away before it even arrives. Maybe there were some ambiguous things in the script, but it’s removed in the process of producing a film. Look at Buñuel’s Belle de Jour. You don’t know why she does the things she does. There are so many ambiguous elements, and there’s something beautiful about that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — This is why we still watch the film — to try to understand what’s going on.
AMAT ESCALANTE — That’s why films that are more ambiguous don’t become dated. They stay, they endure.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Even the interpretation will change over time.
AMAT ESCALANTE — Yes, because they leave it open enough for that, because humans are very ambiguous.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you love most in Mexico, as an American?
AMAT ESCALANTE — I always felt much freer here because in the US, they sell the idea of a free country. Even when I was young, I would find it so strange that they sell it as the land of the free, yet I would only feel free in Mexico. Although there are other ways of paying for that freedom in Mexico. It’s complex, of course. I think now that saying I feel free here could also be seen as wrong because many people aren’t free in Mexico — they are chained.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It could be seen as a statement by someone privileged?
AMAT ESCALANTE — Exactly. That’s why so many people are leaving for the US. I’m saying it as somebody who grew up between two countries. But yes, it could be a privileged statement to say that I feel free in this country when really, it’s not the case. If you ask a Mexican who suffered crossing the border and who now lives in the US what feelings they have of the time when they lived in Mexico, many would say, “Freedom.” And I’m not talking, of course, about financial freedom. There is an invisible oppression in the US. This is what Los Bastardos, my second movie, is about. A group of guys leaves Mexico for the US to look for opportunities and for money, but they feel extremely oppressed. They left Mexico because they felt oppressed, but found themselves in a similar situation, just different.
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