We Want Things To Change In Mexico: An Interview With Amat Escalante

By 28 May, 2014

This time almost exactly one year ago, journalists at Cannes were still reeling from the screening of Amat Escalante’s gut-wrenching Heli, which premièred on the opening night of the festival. The film examines the impact of the drug war on an innocent family living in the barren landscape of an unnamed Mexican town, who become unwittingly embroiled in the terrible violence and corruption which surrounds them. The film is explicit, brutal and bleak. However, failing to look beyond the violence means missing the intimate stories and compassion which make Heli such a fascinating film. Escalante approaches the theme of drug violence in Mexico from a new angle, intertwining the fear and pressure of living side-by-side with criminals and drug cartels in the very particular climate of crime-ridden rural Mexico with the fears and pressures experienced by families all over the world. This intimate and agonising portrait of family life is something that’s not to be missed.

Despite eventually winning the coveted Best Director prize at Cannes, Escalante found his film heavily criticised by the press for its explicit violence, specifically the extended and unflinching torture scene which has unfortunately come to define the film for many people. Like explicitly grisly films before it, the Cannes buzz involved the obligatory tales of walk-outs, with the Hollywood Reporter going as far as to label it “misery porn”. However, as Escalante explains, while the instinct to flinch or to turn away from the shocking images is understandable, to become so preoccupied with these images that you fail to examine the story behind them is to miss the point entirely; Heli is not a film about violence. I spoke with Escalante about his film, the press reaction to the violence, and what lies beyond it.

Heli combines the story of drug-related violence in Mexico with a very intimate look at a family and their personal struggles. Where did your initial inspiration for the film come from? Did you intend to make a social commentary about drug violence in Mexico, to tell the story of a family, or were the two ideas intertwined from the start?

One of the first ideas that came to me was the image of a father and son walking together in the desert. A lot of my ideas come from singular images. Another thing I had to start with was the name, a name I got from a news report. There was a young kid, about thirteen years old, who was caught by the police. He was a criminal, a hit man. He was very young so it stuck in my mind. His name was Heli. From there I started to get these ideas about a father and son living together, which later involved them getting lost together in the wilderness. That’s how the beginning came about. A lot of the other stuff came from the location, which was very inspirational and greatly affected the story. I filmed around where I used to live, in Guanajuato. There’s a car company, an assembly car plant, which arrived in the area about thirty years ago. A lot of families and houses were built around there because a great number of workers and developers arrived very quickly to work at the factory. A town grew from nothing. I wanted to film one of these houses and to examine one of these families; to see how they could be affected by the corrupt situation in Mexico and how they would fall apart and eventually come back together. That’s why the movie starts with a census, to highlight the importance of the family. It took about four years for me to write Heli; two years alone and two years writing with my colleague, Gabriel Reyes. It was difficult to know what else we could write about. We were basically writing about things that everybody already knew were happening in Mexico, and trying to build a story around this character who has to live through those things.

You chose to start the film with a very striking image of a body being hung from a bridge and then to go back and explore the events leading up to this. What were your intentions starting the film in this way?

I wanted to start the film with a striking image, an image which we are used to seeing in the press in Mexico. You see these images all the time but you never know anything about the person and never find out why that happened to them. I wanted the audience to see this image in the way they are presented in the news, and then to go back and show the story behind the image. That’s part of it. Another reason for starting the film in this way is that I wanted to quickly set tone, to tell the audience what kind of movie Heli is, so if they want to leave, they can leave at the beginning before sitting through the 45 minutes leading up to the torture scene. I always think very visually when I’m working, and I was imagining a strong shot. I wanted a scene which would be compelling and which would show the potential of the movie if you do choose to stay and watch it.

In the aftermath of the film’s screening at Cannes, you described the criticism of the violent scenes as ‘cowardly’. Do you think people have a moral responsibility to confront these violent images?

When Heli was shown at Cannes it was the first movie shown on the first day of the festival, and it was the first time my movie had been seen by anyone. I was a bit taken aback by the reaction of the press and the critics. It was a bit surprising that they were so preoccupied with the violence, and so distracted by it. That’s why I made that comment at the time about them being cowardly. Later on I was pleasantly surprised by the reception of the movie in Mexico. It was very well received. And at Cannes the jury liked it enough to give it an award. I didn’t make those comments because people need to see the violence; it came from a place of frustration that the whole movie was being perceived as violent when it isn’t. It’s about something more than that; it’s about a country, and about an individual family’s situation. Of course, the violence is a big part of what’s happening in Mexico, but I didn’t make a movie just to shock people with images of torture. It seemed like the critics were obsessed with it; everybody was complaining about it. But these critics are working as journalists, so they have to watch the whole movie. A normal audience doesn’t have to do that, and they don’t need to see it. There’s no responsibility there. That’s why it’s good that people know what to expect from the movie before they see it. But at the same time, the public should know it’s a movie about family, love, young romance, first kisses… it’s not just about violence.

How did you cast Armando Espitia as Heli?

I found Armando in Mexico City and I had to make sure he blended in. When I met him he was very pale and skinny with long hair, but I saw something in him somehow. So I cut his hair very short, put a fake scar on his eye. and took him away from Mexico City to somewhere with very strong sun. I wanted him to understand the environment portrayed in the film, outside the city; there’s more wildness there. He stayed there for about ten days before we started shooting, to get a tan and to listen to how people speak. These things help to make the character more authentic, I think. But he did suffer a bit during the filming. He’s a city boy really, so in many ways it was difficult for him to adapt. But his personality showed a kind of delicacy and sensitivity which was perfect for the role.

There seems to be a theme of loss of innocence in the film with the inclusion of very young characters who are exposed to this bleak world of drug violence. One example is the presence of the young boys in the torture scene, but also Estela’s situation at the end of the film. What was the reason behind this focus on the younger generation?

I think the main problem lies there, with the very young people. If we want things to change in Mexico, those changes will have to start with the way the young people are being taken care of in our country. Young people are abandoned. In Mexico you have very young girls having babies, and those babies are going to grow up in a situation which is very different from how they would grow up if they had parents who were older, who could raise them properly. I think that’s why people are doing extreme things, because there’s no moral code when you don’t have parents as examples. The problem comes from these young people not being educated, not being taken care of. For example, the baby in the film, a 6 month old baby, his mother had to be on set, and she was just 14 years old, 13 years old when she gave birth. That’s a common situation for many people where I live, and in many parts of Mexico. I’m not a journalist or an investigator, but it’s obvious to me that that’s not right, and that it’s not an isolated problem, but means that other things are not going to be right later on. I think that’s part of the reason why society in many parts of Mexico has lost a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. Thousands of young men and women live in situations like this, so it was important for me to explore that. The movie is about a family which is not involved directly in drug crime to begin with, a family that is ‘pure’ somehow. I wanted to show how even the innocent are not safe because of what surrounds them, and the society they grow up in. It’s very easy to fall into. Estela is young and she easily falls into it. She wants to escape with her boyfriend because she’s young, naive and in love. Beto wants to escape with her because he can’t take any more of the abuse that he’s receiving at his police-cadet training. So it’s a chain of events. In the end, childhood is lost.

You mentioned finding the name Heli in a newspaper article about a young boy who is involved in drug crime. Are stories like this involving such young people commonplace?

Not everybody involved in drug violence is young of course, but it was important for me to show that side of things. I wasn’t interested in showing the stereotypical fat guy with a moustache and sombrero: ‘the drug guy; it was far more interesting to look at the people who are involved in that kind of life because of their vulnerability, because they were vulnerable and society didn’t take care of them. I wanted to look at the young people who were abandoned by society and consequently ended up in a dark room torturing people for money. That is something that’s really happening in Mexico, so I’m trying to examine that, and to explore that, visually, with this story.

There is a theme of religion which is evident in the film, particularly in regards to the issue of abortion. Was this something you intended to explore from the beginning, or did this happen naturally?

Mexico is a very Catholic country, and in many ways religion goes hand-in-hand with ignorance. I live in the most religious state in the whole of Mexico, which is where the movie is shot, and during the shooting the Pope visited the town and we had to put everything on hold. In many scenes in the movie, you see a mountain with a statue of Christ on it in the background. Without even noticing I was filming it, it was there. When I was watching the movie back, I began counting how many times that statue of Jesus Christ appeared; it’s all over the film. Of course everything is mixed together and so many aspects of society are strongly influenced by religion. For example, sexual education in schools, the availability of abortion and the use of condoms. For me, the consequences are apparent. Of course, not every child who has a baby ends up involved with crime, but you can clearly see how that kind of thing impacts society. I believe that’s a very big part of the problem.

The final scene seems to indicate the possibility of new life for Heli’s family. Did you intend for there to be a sense of optimism at the end of the film despite its bleak nature?

The last scene of the movie was not in the screenplay. That happened there in that moment; I saw it and thought that it would be interesting as an ending. We shot the last scripted scene afterwards, and it did feel like much more of a closed ending, but somehow this scene said much more for me. The audience sees a young girl who is holding a young baby in her arms, and she is pregnant, carrying another baby. There is a sense of new life and a sense that the only hope for the future lies with the young. That’s why Heli focuses on young people. I suppose if you’re an optimist, there’s hope to be found in that scene, and if you’re a pessimist, there’s not. In that way it’s ambiguous. But this ending spoke to me personally; after watching it, I felt a sense of hope.

Heli explores the stories behind the violent images as a way of humanising the effects of the ongoing drug war in Mexico, and for those who can make it past the brutal torture scenes, it works. The lasting impression is of a family living under terrible circumstances who nevertheless remain optimistic out of an obligation to each other and an unfaltering familial love. The violence is, after all, a reality experienced by families like Heli’s across Mexico every day. And that is what should make an audience truly uneasy.

Heli is director Amat Escalante’s third feature film and is screening at The Curzon, Soho this week.

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