Every day through the end of the Sundance Film Festival, including weekends, indieWIRE will be publishing two interviews with Sundance ’06 competition filmmakers. Sixty filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview and each was sent the same questions.
Mexican filmmaker Juan Carlos Rulfo directed “In The Pit,” screening in the World Cinema Competition: Documentary section. His film, according to Sundance, chronicles the daily lives of the workers building a second deck to Mexico City’s Periferico freeway with their hopes, dreams and struggles for survival highlighted against the backdrop of a Mexican legend that says whenever a bridge is built, the devil asks for one soul. Rulfo won awards at the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Havana Film Festival as well as two Ariels (Mexico’s Oscar equivalent) for best editing and best first work for “Del olvido al no me acuerdo.”
Please tell us about yourself.
My full name is Juan Nepomuceno Carlos Perez Rulfo Aparicio, but as you could imagine it’s a little difficult to use it. That’s why I opted by Juan Carlos Rulfo. I was born in January 24, 1964, in Mexico City. My father was a writer and my mother has always liked plants and dogs. I like the combination of the two life experiences. The results is something like “waiting peacefully for the rainy days.”
I grew up in Mexico City but every weekend we went to our farm a few miles away, while all my friends spent their weekends at the movies or with some other friends. I was with my plants, my dogs, and with the time passing by.
The city was ‘always over there.’ Mexico City is a huge city, but I couldn’t see it, because most of the time I was looking outside. One day my father died. That day was the beginning of something very important in my life. I don’t wish that kind of experience on anyone, but it is indeed a very deep one. From that very moment, I started to look out for what else could disappear: stories, persons, pictures, and all that sort of phenomenon that includes time and memories. At the same time everything means language with a point of view.
Did you go to film school, and/or how did you get into filmmaking?
I studied what we call communication sciences because I didn’t really know what to study. Later I decided to go to film school because I liked the camera. All my life I was trying to get a camera and work with it. At the same time I spent long hours listening to music. I spent a lot of time waiting for the rainy days in order to listen to music looking for a nice way to [view where I was]. [I think] everything somehow helps us know how to see things from different point of view. That’s what I think [anyway].
I started with documentary films because it was easier for me. At the cinema school I never could imagine a story to write or anything of that sort. I started to talk to some older people who spoke about the days of the Mexican Revolution as the glorious Golden Age. It was nice to meet them. They were all people that [were from my father’s hometown]. A lot of blood and loneliness. Sun and desert made these people very special storytellers — and that’s what I liked. Later I understood that that was precisely what I was looking for — the way to express [ideas] and to [learn] the cinematographic [means] to [express] their stories and their rhythm of time.
I started with my Grandfather and it became the thesis I presented at film school, “Grandfather Cheno and other stories,” a short film (1995), which received a nomination from the Student Academy Awards, and screened in Venice, Fipa, San Francisco, Sundance 1996 and many others). Later I continued with my first long feature documentary film,” “Juan, I forgot, I don’t remember” (35 & Super 16mm, 70 minutes), which played in Toronto, Montreal, Biarritz, Havana, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sundance 2000, Cinemax, and Arte. This film was about the people who tried to talk about my father but didn’t remember at all. In this film as well as in the short, the main point is language and the landscape [as] a way to express the feeling or perception of time and memories.
How did you conceive the idea for your current film?
My latest film is about the city, called “In the Pit” (En el hoyo). This film is my second long feature documentary film and is based on the time I spent with a few construction workers who were building the biggest bridge of the city, with a fantastic landscape and background. I focused on the peculiar language they use, like slang plus the popular songs and… words with a “double sense.” But what I liked about this experience is the chance to work with people that are not easy to get along with. At the same time there was a beauty about them as well as a powerful attitude, representing something special. [They didn’t choose an obvious way in which] to talk about their misery, or the injustice they live [with] in their working conditions. I [tried] to be near them in their every day life, including the risks they took and [all of] the absurdity. [These are] things that could [seem] unimportant in a dramatic film, but become meaningful in this kind of film. The main idea is based on a Mexican legend, which says that in order for a bridge to be safe, and never [collapse], the devil asks or demands a soul. That is the price of safety.
How did you finance your film? what were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the film and/or making it?
I got the financial resources from the Sundance Documentary Fund, Mexican Film Institute and many others private instances. In Mexico it is not easy to get money for documentary films. Everybody [eventually asks to you when you’re working on a documentary], “Hey man when are you going to make a film? A “real” film? At those moment I never knew what to say.
I believe documentary filmmaking is the best thing. And I say that because I didn’t start to make a narrative fiction film, but it doesn’t matter. I believe this is the way to make movies because I’ve learned to do it this way. Filmmaking is the combination of all the opportunities you can find to change the world [through] a cinematic [experience]. It doesn’t matter if it is a doc or fiction. This genre, [however] has given me the chance to experiment, because nothing is planned and the scenes aren’t set up. [It is] a direct, spontaneous relationship that is established, which really puts your creativity to the test. Life’s characters are much more powerful than any I could ever create myself.
Who or what are some of your biggest creative influences?
My most important influence is the time I’ve spent with the people. I love the time in Tarkovsky and the risk and [obsessiveness] in [Werner] Herzog. At the same time I love the power of Buster Keaton, Lumiere and Melies as well as Keith Jarret’s music and big mountains.
What were some other challenges you faced in developing the film and/or making it?
To produce this film I spent a lot… Some times I felt destroyed because there wasn’t money to finish the film, [and other times] I didn’t even know if I could finish it because of its complexity. I’ve gone through terrible experiences. But now I feel I’ve made the best narrative [decisions].
Describe the moment you found out you were accepted into Sundance.
I attended the Sundance Lab, which was a great and amazing experience. But at the same time we didn’t believe we could [finsih the film] for the festival because of all that was left to do… Finally we submitted a rough-cut version with very bad subtitles. We were feeling bad because [it’s not our usual] way of working. But this film couldn’t exist without dead lines. One day we received the news we were accepted at Sundance in the World Cinema Competition.
What do you hope to get out of the festival?
I hope the audience will enjoy the [film’s concept]. We believe it is not an ordinary doc. It is a film with [many] crazy ideas [such as] the devil [and] lovers in the middle of traffic jams. Anyway, now it’s your turn to see and to give the last word.
What is your definition of “independent film”?
I love Sundance, but at the same time independent films are not necessarily the best reference. I mean, I’m afraid that many of the films that are going to be shown at Sundance will be commercial, [or at least done in] a parallel way to Hollywood. I’m not sure if “In The Pit” is a Hollywood Doc film. I like [the film] a lot, [but] I know it is not a typical film.
Sundance promotes “Risk-taking, diversity, and aesthetic innovation,” but what is happening with the commercial agents? I don’t know what is going to happen with “In The Pit,” [but] of course, I would like to sell it…
What is one or two of your New Year’s resolutions? What would you do if you were given $10 million to go toward movie making? And finally, if you took President Bush’s job, who would you hire/fire and why?
My New Year’s wish and resolution is to get $10 million to make several docs in Mexico and in the world, because the world needs doc films now more that ever. I feel that if I [did] achieve this I would have the power to convince many American people to fire President Bush and his entire regime, and many [other] regimes like that. I still believe there is hope for a sense of justice to endure. I’ll be waiting for that day just as when I waited for the rain [when I was young] watching the landscape of the world.