INTERVIEW Gerardo Naranjo
With Miss Bala, director Gerardo Naranjo takes a quantum leap in terms of the scale of his work. Set against the backdrop of the drug war that’s gathered deadly force in Mexico since 2006, Miss Bala stars Stephanie Sigman as Laura, a young girl who aspires to be crowned a local beauty queen, only to be hijacked into service by local drug lords.
A Kafkaesque portrait of the savagery that’s infected every level of Mexican society, Miss Bala follows Laura as she desperately seeks help in a town where everyone she encounters is in collusion with the lawless underground.
With Miss Bala released in cinemas this Friday (28th October 2011), subtitledonline.com interviews the film’s director, Gerardo Naranjo. Remember you can enter a competition to win the film’s poster by clicking here…
You were born in Salamanca, in central Mexico; what sort of childhood did you have?
It was a happy, wild life, with everything that comes with that. I had three brothers who’re still surprised I became a filmmaker – they’re all definitely money-makers – and I lived in green spaces without technology. I was a problem kid, so I was sent to a boarding school run by priests who are now being accused of sexual molestation. I was there for a year and a half, and they were supposed to take the devil out of me, but by the time I left, I truly was a devil.
There was a big element of violence in the world I lived in, too, and I never questioned it. The way women were treated in the town where I grew up was definitely wrong – in fact, Miss Bala has a lot to do with this concept of women as just tools to be used. I saw guys with guns all the time, people killing animals, hunting and fighting, and there was a lot of kidnapping, too. I assumed this violence was just the way nature worked, and never questioned it or saw it as a symptom of a sick society.
When I was 18, I moved to Mexico City to pursue the film dream, and I realised, then, that this violence was a sign of something wrong in Mexican culture. I’ve been trying to understand why we’re such an explosive society ever since.
How did you become involved with film?
My relationship with my dad revolved around the two of us going to the cinema together – that was our way of connecting. We saw lots of movies together, usually in an empty theatre, because nobody in our town wanted to see movies. Most of the time it was just my dad and me, and a projectionist. We saw Flash Gordon, James Bond, The Pink Panther – I don’t know why people didn’t want to see these movies!
Where I grew up, it was like a ghost town because it was a petroleum industry town without oil, so the people were poor and a little bit desperate.
How was your experience at film school in Mexico City?
When I began to learn about movies, I discovered an arrogance in the movie community, and I also felt they had a very impractical sense of how to do things. I didn’t understand why making a movie meant you had to bring in a truck, close the street, and fill the street with people you hired – it seemed illogical, and I thought they were cheating by putting their characters inside real people. I also found the Mexican film industry elitist. It was filled with dinosaurs who wouldn’t allow young people to make movies, because young people don’t know anything, and film is for old people and ‘artists’.
I was at film school for a year, and whether I left or was kicked out, I don’t know. I once approached a teacher who was not a good director and told him, “I want to help you;” he told me I wouldn’t be able to help him even after I’d graduated – he was like a sultan in a monarchy.
In 2000, around the time of the release of Y Tu Mama Tambien and Amores Perros, a renaissance began to take place in Mexican film. What led to this burst of creativity?
Young filmmakers discovered they didn’t have to get anyone’s permission to make a film, and we were so aggressive that the old regime began to be replaced. I was at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles when that began to take place.
After graduating from the American Film Institute in 1999, you made your first film, Malachance. What was the genesis of that film?
My first movie was a big failure because by the time I left film school I was very arrogant. I said, “I’m going to reinvent cinema and make the best movie ever!” I got a crew of ten or fifteen people together and we took a road trip to New Orleans, then to New York, filming all the way.
Working without actors was difficult, and the footage was terrible, so I never finished the film. I thought I could defy everything and make a movie without money, but I learned that I couldn’t, and it was a big hit to my ego.
Did you consider staying in America to launch your directing career, or did you feel it was important for you to be in Mexico making Mexican films?
I wasn’t interested in New Orleans culture when I was working on Malachance — I was creating my own world, and felt disconnected from anything real. I finally asked myself, “Why invent a world when there’s a real world I know already set up for me?” So, I returned to Mexico, reunited with old friends, and made new friends.
I really needed to make a movie, so I organized some friends and we created a sort of happening using concepts from the French New Wave. It was called Dramamex, and was based on improvisation. It was very ’60s – it was my ’60s – and I was happy and surprised with what I came up with. It’s a great experience for a filmmaker when your material ends up producing something better than what you’d expected.
Your last two films were produced by CANANA, the production company formed by Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal and Pablo Cruz. How did you begin working together?
That’s a funny story. I was looking everywhere for money – and being denied money – when I was preparing to make Drama/Mex. They were among the people I approached, and they were very nice. They’d just formed CANANA, and I think I was the first person who came in and said, “Listen guys, give me money, I’m gonna make a great movie, and make you rich.” They said, “Yes, we’re interested and we’ll help you, but you have to wait.” I said, “No, I can’t wait – that’s the one thing I won’t do.” I was so ready and full of energy, and I had all my friends lined up supporting me.
They got a little upset when I said I wouldn’t wait, but I went and made the movie with $30,000 and all my friends. We had great fun, even though the only thing I could pay for was drinks at night. We’d work, have a party, work, have a party – it was paradise. I couldn’t keep making movies that way, though, and I feel very lucky that Diego, Gael and Pablo care about what I’m doing. Even though they’re younger than I am, they know more about the film industry and financing than I do. My relationship with money has always been weird, partly because I come from a background that forced me to learn to make movies without a dime. When I was told I’d be given the money I needed for Miss Bala I reacted by saying, “What? Really?”
Making films with no money suggests that you launched your filmmaking career through sheer force of will. How did you become so determined?
For a long period, I was a rolling stone, and I wasted a lot of time learning about life. I didn’t get serious about filmmaking until I was 35, and when I finally committed myself to it, I felt I’d found something I could be good at, that could possibly be good for humanity. When you find something that makes you feel useful, it’s like a miracle. After having this realisation, I felt a little behind, and I was very impatient to get going.
Miss Bala is different from your last film, I’m Gonna Explode, on every level. How did one film lead to the next?
With I’m Gonna Explode, I reached a point where I was losing interest in what I was doing. That film revolved around intimate scenes and had a lot of repetition, and I was working purely from instinct. I felt I was getting a little bit lazy, and I needed a big challenge that would force me to do something I didn’t know how to do. At the same time, I was spending most of my time locked in my house reading the news. The more I read about Mexico’s drug war, the greater my disbelief became, and I began struggling to understand what was going on in my country. After a long period of research, I felt I’d finally found a subject where I could use who I am.
Obviously, I’m not a killer or a drug dealer, but you don’t have to look far to be able to observe these people. They’re in restaurants next to you, and you can see them in clubs and on the street, because they’re not in disguise. The only honest position I could take in a story about this culture was that of an outsider, so I decided to make a film about a person who gets to know this world in a very limited and specific way. I wasn’t interested in understanding these people psychologically, because I didn’t want to justify what they do or humanize them. The most important thing was to see them from outside. Regardless of your perspective, it’s a very, very violent world, and Stephanie Sigman, who stars in the film, is still recovering from making it. She’s in every scene and it’s a very difficult part.
The more I read about Mexico’s drug war, the greater my disbelief became.
Several films have been made about Mexico’s drug war, but they left me dissatisfied. Because the police can no longer protect people – the drug lords are often seen as heroes and Robin Hoods, and thus far Mexican cinema has portrayed them as not so bad. There’ve been two huge hit films set in this world; one portrayed drug lords as heroes and made apologies for them, while the other was a comedy that made them seem harmless. On the other hand, imagine that the police are thieves who want to take everything you have; the police will rob you, and the only people who can protect you are the drug dealers. The roles have been reversed, and it’s become impossible to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.
The drug war in Mexico City is very different from the one in the north, too. In Mexico City it’s more a battle between poor and rich, and I’m not sure it’s so connected to the drug problem. It’s just as cruel, though.
What led to this situation getting so out of control?
I was recently talking with the parents of some friends of mine, and I told them, “This is the fault of your generation, because you wanted a society without any controls.” Every person in Mexico thinks he or she is better and knows best, and that if they follow the rules they’ll lose. Mexicans thinks that way – we think we don’t have to stop at the red light.
Has Mexican culture always had an element of lawlessness?
There’s always been some confusion about who we are. We’re not Spanish, and the culture that was originally here was simultaneously highly developed and very savage. They had rituals of human sacrifice and ate human hearts – like it or not, this is the race that we are, and we cannot be otherwise. Nobody’s commented on the creative ways the drug lords are killing people – it’s a kind of insane creativity. They’re putting pig heads on dead bodies, and it’s as if rituals from centuries ago are resurfacing. It comes from the savage side we had before the arrival of the Spanish.
You once commented that Mexico has a revolution every 100 years, and based on that calendar, it’s due for one now. Is the volatility that now pervades the country a sign of fomenting revolution?
I think a revolution is happening slowly and in a completely new way. Mexico has the greatest disparity between rich and poor in the entire world, and that’s resulted in tremendous anger about the poverty many people live in. And, I doubt that the government will be able to correct this inequality.
Movies are the most powerful shared language we have; because it’s so persuasive, does film have a responsibility to address social issue like this? And can film bring about social change?
Mexico is a country that’s manipulated through TV, and education is based on soap opera; movies, however, operate on a higher level. I think filmmakers create tapestries that show what life is like. I don’t know how this film will be received, or if it will change anyone’s understanding of the drug war, but I do know that I made it out of love of my country, and because I want to give something back to it.
There’s an energy in Mexico that I don’t find anywhere else, and I think that energy has to do with the fact that Mexico has the best and the worst of life; there’s tremendous joy of living here, along with so much trouble.
Interview courtesy of Metrodome Distribution.
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