Back in the early 2000s, Mexican cinema was riding a wave with films such as Amores Perros and Y tu mamá también impressing audiences and critics alike. By 2006, writer Jason Wood had taken the opportunity to speak directly to a number of the scene’s prime movers for The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema. In the years since, many of those filmmakers have gone on to win awards and acclaim. Consider Guillermo del Toro with Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, Alejandro González Iñárritu with Birdman and The Revenant, and Alfonso Cuarón with Gravity and Roma.
Now based in Manchester in his capacity as Creative Director: Film & Culture at HOME, Wood has revised and expanded his book for Faber, complete with a fresh batch of interviews. They may have Oscars lining their mantelpieces now, but the directors in question remain keen to help celebrate their national cinema and shine a spotlight on their peers.
Wood says: “The great thing about Mexican directors is that no matter how famous they are, they’re very proud of their country and of being Mexican film-makers. When I went to do the second edition, getting hold of Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón, who are kind of the big three, wasn’t difficult. They all responded straight away. I said, ‘if I was to do a second book, would you take part?’ and they all said yes. But they all said yes on the condition that Carlos Reygadas was in.”
Reygadas, writer/director of Luz Silenciosa and Post Tenebras Lux, has long beguiled and occasionally perplexed film critics. But while his fellows have dabbled in the American mainstream (del Toro made multiplex-friendly monster movie Pacific Rim, Cuarón was the rather unlikely helmer of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Reygadas has stayed true to his art and to Mexico.
Wood says: “The big secret of Mexican cinema is that del Toro, Iñárritu, Cuarón, they’ve all won multiple Academy Awards, but the filmmaker they really admire is Carlos Reygadas. He’s the one that hasn’t had that same international success. He’s won prizes at Cannes and Venice, but he hasn’t had the kind of crossover success that they’ve had. He’s the eternal outsider, but he’s the altar that del Toro, Iñárritu and Cuarón worship at.”
The new, updated Faber Book of Mexican Cinema revisits all four directors to talk to them at length about their work, as well as a number of younger Mexican filmmakers such as Lila Avilés (The Chambermaid), Amat Escalante (The Untamed), Michel Franco (New Order) and Alonso Ruizpalacios (A Cop Movie) who have all made their mark since the first edition.
“There’s been some really interesting new voices coming through,” Wood says. “Also, I really wanted to try and look at including more female filmmakers and more documentary makers and artist-film makers, to try and show that there was real scope and depth and diversity in Mexican cinema. I wanted to get a real cross-section.”
Ringing the changes in a different way is the manner in which the interviews for the book were conducted. “Before, if you wanted to get hold of someone, you’d have to get a mobile number for them, the signal might be an issue. Now, you just Zoom them. With the first book, I was lucky. I got to go to Mexico and spend time in Mexico City. But with this one, I was able to Zoom them.
“In some ways that made it easier, because it meant I could get to some of the directors that would be harder to meet, that didn’t travel as much, that weren’t going to be in England. I started this book just before the first lockdown, but it all came together during lockdown. It was super quick.”
The finished book is a wide-ranging, illuminating insight into an entire, thriving national cinema. What it isn’t, perhaps surprisingly, is a dense textbook or a series of academic essays. The emphasis is very much on the horse’s-mouth words of the filmmakers, with the original 2006 interviews included, too.
In his role at Manchester’s HOME, Wood regularly conducts on-stage interviews with directors and, indeed, he started his career making documentaries on Krzysztof Kieślowski, Atom Egoyan and Hal Hartley. Evidently, he feels that the way to unlock a filmmaker’s work is to let them speak about it for themselves, and this approach is carried through into his books.
“A lot of times when I read interviews with directors, it just seems that it becomes about the interviewer. There’s always this comment like, ‘we’d already reached our allotted 45 minutes, but the director was so clear that we connected that he waved away his PA’. I just think that’s completely extraneous. That’s purely about the ego of the journalist and I have no interest in that.
“I like interview transcripts, because you’re really getting the words of the director undiluted. I try and take as much of myself out of the interview as possible. People don’t want to hear me, they want to hear the filmmaker. Sometimes there needs to be a little bit of context setting, but you can do that quite economically with the questions. If you buy the Faber Book of Mexican Cinema, you don’t want to read loads of comments about how much Guillermo del Toro likes me. I would find that sickening. If anybody’s interested in this book, I think they’re going to want to hear what the directors have to say. I mean, I’m not even Mexican. They’re going to want to hear from the Mexicans.”
Broadly, then, is it possible to say what defines the work of Mexican filmmakers?
“Often when you see some filmmakers from another country go to America, you see their message being diluted, you see them maybe having less of a personal, authorial signature. I wouldn’t necessarily say that with the films of any of these directors. I think they all have a depth and strength of vision, an ambition. Most of their American films are shot with the Mexican crew that they worked with when they were in Mexico. They’ve always been very supportive of each other and very, very pro-Mexico.”
He continues: “I think that they’re quietly political filmmakers. I say that because I don’t think people would necessarily think of del Toro as being political, but I think he’s a very political filmmaker. The thing that binds a lot of these films in this book is that they’re about Mexican society, particularly the underclass. In this country, we’d probably call them the working class, but in Mexico there’s almost like a sub-class of people who are just not seen. These are the figures in films like The Chambermaid, the hotel workers, the menial staff. A lot of these films are about those people that are not seen by society or by the Government.”
Wood’s book has plenty to engross Mexican cinema devotees but it’s also a handy roadmap for newcomers hoping to explore the subject. His next book will focus specifically on Guillermo del Toro – “hopefully I’ll be able to do books on all of them” – but, for the absolutely beginner, which Mexican film would he recommend as a gateway to the whole area?
“If I was going to pick one film, I would probably pick Roma by Alfonso Cuarón. I think it’s a film which is very much about Mexico and Mexican society. Again, it’s about the substructure of society. It’s also about an indigenous people that someone new to Mexico cinema may not know of. I think that film has a real technical bravado to it. It’s shot in black and white. It was also a game-changer in that it was the first Netflix film to really seriously challenge award ceremonies. So, I think that would be a really good gateway film.
“I don’t think that cinema, Mexican or otherwise, should be purely about entertainment. Cinema can be many things. It can be about entertainment and escapism, but I don’t necessarily think it should only be that. I happen to think that Roma is quite an entertaining and accessible film, but it is also a film which has a lot to say, socially and politically. So yeah, I think Roma would be the one I would pick.”
He adds: “If I was allowed to pick two films, though, I’d probably pick Japón, the first film by Carlos Reygadas, which I still think remains one of the most incredible pieces of modern cinema. I don’t think you could describe the films of Carlos Reygadas as accessible or entertaining and I don’t think he’d mind me saying that. But they go to that other spectrum, where you’re watching something that is in some way extending the art form and the possibilities of the medium.”
By Andy Murray, Film Editor
Main image: Jason Wood. Photo credit: Rebecca Lupton.
The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema is published by Faber and available to buy now.