Filmaker Amat Escalante on Life beyond the bloodshed

A still from the film Heli

MEXICAN film Heli divided the critics at Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Most of the discussion centred on the film’s graphic depiction of violence.

Yet, there is far more to Amat Escalante’s provocative movie than the disturbing scenes of bloodshed and torture that occur midway through. The film offers a poetic but also very socially conscious account of a rural Mexico steeped in turmoil as the drugs war — which has accounted for an estimated 90,000 lives — rages on around it.

“It is necessary to talk about the violence in Heli,” says Escalante, “but maybe a little too much has been said about it. When people see the film they always feel that it doesn’t seem that violent or that they don’t understand the uproar. But I’ve been very happy that Mexican audiences in particular have been able to see beyond that and understand why the violence is shown the way it is.”

Heli — Escalante’s third feature film — earned him the Best Director prize at Cannes and the film has been selected as Mexico’s entry for foreign film category of the Academy Awards. It screens as part of the Cork Film Festival this evening (Nov 11).

The young Mexican is part of a rising independent filmmaking scene in the country and he has worked closely with this movement’s spiritual leader, Carlos Reygadas (director of Post Tenebras Lux). In Heli, Escalante initially offers the viewer a quasi-documentary glimpse of poor but dignified family life in rural Mexico. The film’s titular hero is a young man who works in the same car-manufacturing plant as his father.

Heli is himself a father and his young wife and baby share their home with Heli’s dad and younger sister. However, as the audience follow the family members through their everyday lives, Escalante dramatically changes tone and plunges these people into the oppressive violence of the drugs war.

“The basis of the film was to show something like the Mexican government’s ideal of a family,” says Escalante. “They have a job. They have running water. And that’s why the movie starts with a census scene, which basically registers the family as if they have the government’s seal of approval — only to see that being destroyed in the film. And then we see if they can manage to come together again and keep on going.

Each death that has occurred from this war on drugs, each statistic, has a family behind it. So it’s not just the deaths but also their impact on the families and the community, and that was something I had in mind when I was thinking of the type of family I wanted to show — who are basically a family of people who follows the rules.”

Filmaker Amat Escalante on Life beyond the bloodshed

Amat Escalante after winning the best director award at Cannes. Pic: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Things go wrong for this family when Heli’s 12-year-old sister gets mixed up with a young police cadet who has stolen confiscated drugs. The fallout paints an unflattering depiction of a Mexico at the mercy of both vicious gangland machismo and police corruption. Notably, Escalante further roots this hard narrative into a meditation on more lyrical themes like sex, death, and birth. The subject of human reproduction, in particular, is given a charged and complex treatment within the film, and is especially provocative given the high rates of teen pregnancy in Mexico. The latter enables Escalante to make the image of rebirth in the film seem at once hopeful and ominous.

“That’s very particular to Mexico and to the way I see Mexico,” says Escalante. “The fact is a lot of very young people are having babies. A lot of this has to do with education because at school they’re not educating kids about safe sex. That is lacking in most of Mexico. Heli’s son in the film was a six-month-old baby and we had to have his mother there on the set, and she was 14 years old. She gave birth to him when she was 13. It’s very common. So, if you know Mexico and you know the situation with the vulnerability of young people, there’s something in the film that is not so hopeful.”

One wonders if, as an artist dealing with the problems of modern Mexico, Escalante feels a responsibility to suggest at least the hope of social change and a future beyond the bloodshed.

“I can’t invent solutions,” he says. “I don’t have the authority to say this is solvable in this way or that way. That’s the job of the politicians — at least in theory. But what I do think is that the people who are the most vulnerable, and who need to be taken care of, if the future is to be better, are all the young people. These are the people that I filled the film with — young mothers, their babies, and all these kids who are involved in this very unpleasant war.”

“So it’s difficult to find hope, but then, of course, there is hope for everything. And the feeling I have had in making the movie is hopeful because when one can criticise oneself and one’s own community, that is important. It is somehow itself a sign of healthiness. For example, some years ago in Brazil there were some very popular movies that were dealing with social violence, the most famous one being City of God. People could say that those films spoke badly about their country but now — and I’m not saying this is because of the movies — Brazil is a little bit better. I think the fact that movies like this can come out of a place that is suffering is a good sign.”

*Heli screens this evening at Cork Opera House as part of Cork Film Festival 2013. www.corkfilmfest.org

FILM FEST: MONDAY

Wagner (COH 10:30)

“A full presentation, with meal breaks, of the 7-hour, 46-minute, 1984 masterpiece dramatisation of the composer’s life, with Richard Burton (‘in the role I was born to play’), Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, introduced by the filmmaker, Tony Palmer.”

Here One Day (Gate 10:45)

“New Yorker Kathy Leichter’s touching and exquisitely composed portrait of her mother, who killed herself a decade before. A beautiful meditation on life, suicide and depression”.

Milius (Gate 14:45)

“A hilarious telling of the uproarious life of the ‘fourth horseman of the Hollywood apocalypse’ — John Milius collaborated with Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas. As well as writing and directing Conan the Barbarian — thus ‘creating’ Arnold Schwarzenegger — he wrote Apocalypse Now.

Heli (COH 21:30)

“Amat Escalante won best director at Cannes this year, for this subtle and confronting portrayal of a young man striving to keep himself, and his young family, out of the cross-fire between Mexican law enforcement and drug cartels.

Nocturne (Triskel 21:30)

“To celebrate Benjamin Britten’s (above) 100th birthday, filmmaker Tony Palmer returns to his favourite subject with a new film exploring the composer’s life.”

*Recommendations by James Mullighan, creative director of the 58th Cork Film Festival


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