“25 New Face” Rodrigo Reyes on Purgatorio (+ Trailer Premiere)
There’s no lack of films and TV shows focusing on Mexican-American relationships mediated by the border, their focus most commonly on the never-ending drug wars. On TV, The Bridge and Breaking Bad criss-cross between the two countries, mapping out mayhem and violence, as do recent documentaries like 2010’s El Sicario, Room 164, 2011’s El Velador and this year’s Narco Cultura. 2013 “25 New Face” Rodrigo Reyes’ Purgatorio is a different kind of border movie, beginning with footage of rural Mexico as the director urges us, in voiceover, to “try to imagine what the world was like, many, many years ago. Try to imagine when borders did not exist.” The film ends by visualizing that idea with an epilogue shot in Morocco, emphasizing a brotherhood of man transcending national barriers.
In between, Reyes follows migrants, talks to relatives of those who died crossing deserts, coroners who try to pin down a cause of death and the border patrol. It took over a year to prepare for a four-week shoot, then almost another year to come up with a final cut. More traditionally recognizable as a documentary than Reyes’ previous films (like 2011’s Memories Of The Future, which filtered present-day Mexico through a fictional narrator and sci-fi apocalypses), it’s an intensely personal take on international relations. In an email interview conducted recently, Reyes talked about the “dysfunctional marriage” between Mexico and the United States, the difficult shooting process, and how his day job as an interpreter at California’s Merced Superior Court helped make him a better documentarian.
In the coming months, Purgatorio will be hitting the road and playing at the following festivals: Oakland Underground Film Festival, Vancouver International Film Festival, Woodstock Film Festival, New Orleans Film Festival, Warsaw Film Festival and Morelia International Film Festival. Below is an exclusive premiere of the film’s new trailer.
Filmmaker: Where did you grow up in Mexico? When did you immigrate, and what was your personal experience of the immigration process?
Reyes: I grew up in Mexico City. I was solidly middle class. I would go to the theatre, the zoo, museums and of course, the movies. All of that changed when I was six and found myself in a small, agricultural corner of California called Merced. Life changed: I stopped going to the movies and instead, it was a celebration every time we could afford to rent a film to watch on our VHS at home.
The experience was incredibly immediate and intense, with no room to step back from it. I did well in school, but I fumbled about trying to make friends and connect to a new world full of a myriad of cultures. I’d never met African-Americans, Sikhs, Hmongs or Laotians, let alone go to school with them. I never even met white people. But this was actually very stimulating.
The hardest part was coming to terms with realizing that for many people, being Mexican was not exactly considered a good thing. Ironically, by the time we moved back to Mexico towards the end of elementary, there was a part of me that was solidly American and did not fit in back home either.
In short, what this amounts to in terms of filmmaking is that I’ve focused on trying to sort out my own identity through my films in different ways. It is a constant source of inspiration. In fact, I am finally stepping into a completely autobiographical vein with a new documentary I’m preparing. This project follows my life together with the life of a Mexican migrant who was convicted for a gang-related murder.
Filmmaker: How long have you acted as a court interpreter? Is this still your job, and how much time do you have a year to work on your films? How long does it take you to drive down to the border from where you are?
Reyes: The best advice I’ve heard for artists is the classic: don’t quit your day job. This July will mark 2 years and 2 months for me at the Merced Superior Court. I wholeheartedly embrace the truth that it is incredibly rare for someone to be dedicated completely to his or her work. We all have to compromise and handle all sorts of things to cover the basics in life—food, shelter, entertainment—for ourselves and our loved ones.
When I am active, interpreting is incredibly mentally taxing. But truth be told, being an interpreter gives me a lot of time to prepare for my films. Most of the books I read to prepare for and edit Purgatorio, I read during my down time at the court. I would even venture to say that in a way, interpreting is good practice for filmmaking. You meet a wide array of individuals from all walks of life, you are constantly in a unique position to observe them, and you are committed to respecting their story and their right to understand.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the shooting process, both timeline wise and the difficulties in gaining trust, dealing with the heat, driving in a conversion truck and so on? How long did post-production take you?
Reyes: I had more than a year to prepare the shoot. It was my money on the line and that fueled my imagination. I actually imagined my characters and placed them in a script. All of the interviews in the film were there in some form. Either they were people I had contacted, such as the director of the Pima County Morgue, or I knew I would be looking for them on site, with the help of fixers and friends. Of course, on paper they were just archetypes answering basic, cosmic questions: What does life mean for you? What do you think about violence? What do you think about the border?
I trusted that once I got out on the road, the characters would come to life. I had to prepare extensively in order to leave room for the experience of reality, and still finish the film in 4 weeks. Otherwise, it would have taken 4 months!
As the trip got closer, I knew that I needed a small team of hardcore guys who could work independently. I was incredibly lucky to find Justin Chin from Oakland to photograph the film, and José Inerzia, a Spanish ex-pat living in Tijuana, to do the sound. I was very upfront with them in terms of letting them know I would make a poor assistant.
Considering that none of us worked together ever before, and that they put up with my driving for the entire trip, I would say that our team cohesion was surprisingly strong. Long, hot days running around all kinds of desert, chasing stray dogs or watching the old west come to life were offset by generous, lengthy lunches with a beer or two. I tended to skimp a lot on good hotels, but never on good food. Because psychologically, a great meal goes a lot further than a nice room.
Once the trip was over, I was so wound up that I managed to edit a 90-minute rough-cut in little over a month. But the devil was in the details, and I spent the better part of 2012 re-working all the pieces, polishing them over and over, writing the voice over and taking a detour to shoot a new ending in Morocco. I got lucky during the spring, was accepted to the NALIP Media Market and the fantastic IFP Filmmaker Lab. In the summer, the Mexican Ministry of Film IMCINE, awarded us with a generous post-production grant and we were guaranteed a finished film.
Filmmaker: Wait a minute, did you film in Morocco for Purgatorio?
Reyes: It’s not blatantly stated in the film itself, but the epilogue takes place almost entirely in the northwest of Morocco, around Tangiers and Tétouan. I actually have interviews with children, a farmer and a local painter, which will probably end up in a special edition DVD of the film.
I felt very strongly that the film had to end in a new place, different but the same. In a sense, borders are all brothers, part of the same monstrous and vain species.
Filmmaker: You touched on this a bit in an interview with NBC Latino, but would you care to expand on your thoughts on the most recent developments in “immigration reform,” overheated rhetoric etc.? You’ve spoken about the importance of migrant labor to the American economy, but fresh quotes are really what we’re looking for here.
Reyes: Mexico and the United States are a dysfunctional marriage, like most, only here there is no possibility of divorce. But there is a difference between a dignified struggle and a petty, soul-crushing one. In America, we have to ask ourselves: Do we believe in the spirit of freedom in our constitution or don’t we? Are we a capitalist economy within a democracy or not?
Of course, the same questions apply for Mexico: it has to take responsibility for its failures in social policy that have driven generations of migrants.
It is very ironic for me, having made a film about the actual physical border between the two countries, to see the division manifesting itself so intensely in the hearts and minds of people all over Mexico and the US. How do you even begin to address that without creating other categories and divisions? My answer, from the standpoint of art and film, is to give people a human experience—to go for the gut and the roots, to restart the conversation with a basic exposure to our human nature, which can be so merciless and hypocritical and blind.
Filmmaker: You’ve traveled the festival circuit extensively. Can you talk about some particular festivals that have strongly impressed you and your experiences there? If you want to note any weaknesses you see in how festivals work right now, feel free; whatever your comfort level is.
Reyes: Actually, my festival experience is limited. Personally I have only been to festivals in Mexico and the US, with Purgatorio playing at Guadalajara and Los Angeles. What I tend to respect the most, after all the parties and nice lodgings and so forth, is how well festivals connect you to a) other filmmakers and b) audiences.
I realize that as filmmakers, we have a limited opportunity to create a rapport with audiences, and festivals are pretty much the only place to engage them directly. To be blunt, I’ve rediscovered my own film in my interaction with the public. Sure, director’s are architects of narrative and form, but we do not fully control how people exist and move through the stories we tell. I have been amazed and humbled by audience reactions.
Anytime they take away from this experience, festivals fail their mandate. They’re not elected officials, but they still have a very basic mandate to connect filmmakers and audiences. In this sense, I have been fortunate as both Guadalajara and Los Angeles did a fantastic job and were incredible hosts for Purgatorio.
Filmmaker: This isn’t your first film; could you speak about your evolution as a filmmaker? Are you entirely self-taught?
Reyes: Although I took a few courses in Communications and Film History, my major was really International Relations at UC San Diego, with a couple of stints abroad in Madrid and Mexico City. But I never felt drawn to a career in that path. I wanted to be a filmmaker and my solution was to simply buy camera and start shooting.
I ran into a lot of walls. I bashed my head many times. Planning, producing, editing, releasing, I messed up in all of these areas in countless ways. After several frustrating results, it dawned on me that stubborn enthusiasm was not enough. I saved for over a year so that I could take the production of Purgatorio to another level of quality. Luckily, I had made several friends along the way who proved to be crucial to help me take this step.
Filmmaker: You’ve identified Rashomon, Kubrick and Herzog as inspirations, Can you talk about your approach to master-shot composition, especially when shooting on the fly? Are there moments when composition must be sacrificed for expediency’s sake?
Reyes: Look at the contrast between hand-held vérité vs. static shots. The illusion of immediacy created by vérité is still very powerful. But at the end of the day, the camera is acting, it is a technique, and the mantra it preaches is: this is real, this is real, this is real.
Using hand-held for Purgatorio would only have helped me to hide behind the flaws and idiosyncrasies of the camera-work. I wanted to challenge myself to see reality with a different sense of clarity. Sometimes you have to pull away to actually get closer.
With this in mind, I worked with cinematographer Justin Chin to set up strict ground rules for how to approach every scene. We created a toolbox that would help us capture the epic and poetic beauty we were aiming for: cinema lenses, tripod or dolly shots. In other words, we forced ourselves to make choices.
And at the end of the day, that’s what directing should be all about. Sometimes those choices do not pay off as well as you’d hoped, but you have to stick to your guns. A great example in Purgatorio is the scene of the funeral for the murdered police officers. Everything is composed and it flows together pretty well, but we were scrambling like crazy to capture everything while following our rules.
Perhaps in making documentaries, we feel that we are constantly running out of time. But in reality, if you step back, you’ll find that there is indeed enough time to consider and compose.
Filmmaker: Documentary film is undergoing a kind of sea change in prominence, the amount of financing available and the ways documentaries are thought of; any thoughts on the “hybrid documentary’? You’re obviously comfortable with inserting a certain element of fiction, since you made Memories of the Future.
Reyes: Style is the seed of fiction. Whether you are Michael Moore or Ken Burns, documentaries are always a perspective, a point of view. Some filmmakers may acknowledge this more than others. Documentaries now fully wield the double-edged sword of being grounded in reality, yet deeply personal and auteur-driven at the same time.
Personally, I watch more fictions than I do documentaries. Perhaps that is why I feel that reality in documentaries is as much about ideas it presents as it is about hard facts. What’s the difference between a documentary and a work of journalism? Simply, style and point of view.