Director Alejandro Springall so deftly manages to capture all the nuances of Jewish family squabbling in his second feature, “My Mexican Shivah,” that it may come as a surprise when some viewers learn that his mother isn’t a member of the aforementioned tribe. While that factor might disqualify him as a Jew according to certain stringent disciples of the faith, others will probably welcome his insight. Appropriately enough, the movie receives its American release at New York’s Quad Cinema on Friday, where its particular market is undeniable. “I think it’s the perfect city to try this movie,” Springall said in an interview with indieWIRE.
The forty-two year old Mexico City resident, an early colleague of Guillermo del Toro and close friend of John Sayles, combines the ensemble cast approach of Robert Altman with an eye for the perseverance of shtetl tradition reminiscent of Isaac Bashevis Singer. “I had to do a lot of research,” Springall said, “but I have some rabbis who are close friends of mine, and they offered religious council.”
For those unacquainted with the setting — it takes place in Mexico as a Jewish family gathers for the ritualistic seven-day mourning period following the death of an elder relative — Springall has offered a near-anthropological text. Even the Yiddish dialogue, spoken throughout the film by a pair of invisible angels in the home sent to judge the deceased man, resembles the particular style of Jews from the Galicia region of Poland. “What I really wanted to do is explore family kvetching,” he said, knowingly applying a Yiddish term. “All these human relations. Having a family together for seven days was the perfect set up for exploring the intimacy of the characters.”
Despite focusing on a subject matter that clearly lies outside of mainstream awareness (the Jewish form of a wake, following the funeral, called a “shivah”), Springall didn’t have a tough time finding the resources to make it happen. After finishing his first directorial effort, “Santitos,” Springall became involved in a variety of projects, providing production services on the set of Julie Taymor‘s “Frida” and even directing a concert at Carnegie Hall in 2004. When he got the idea for “My Mexican Shivah,” he brought it up with a knowledgeable source: Noted Latino writer Ilan Stavans, author of “The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories,” and other collections. Stavans helped Springall flesh out the plot, going as far as composing a short story version of it, and the filmmaker hired noted Argentinian playwright Jorge Goldenberg to get the script together. The result is a surprisingly well-balanced mixture of magic realism and interpersonal drama.
All of that would fall by the wayside if the strong production values didn’t succeed in broadening its appeal to audiences unaccustomed to ultra-low budget aesthetics. Springall made “My Mexican Shivah” for $1.4 million, which he cobbled together from the Mexican film industry, friends and Sayles himself. Springall first met the maverick American screenwriter and director in 1996, when Sayles worked as a script doctor on del Toro’s “Mimic.” Sayles was preparing to direct “Casa de los Babies,” and needed a Mexican local to help him out.
Once del Toro made the introduction, Sayles and Springall hit it off, and the two frequently exchanged notes while developing the script for “My Mexican Shivah.” The movie premiered at the New York Jewish Film Festival in January 2007, and has since hit similar Jewish festivals around the world, including the Jerusalem Film Festival — where screenings were packed. “It’s a movie that’s so different from other Mexican cinema,” Springall said, reflecting on its broad appeal. “On the business side of it, I think we’ll make some money. A lot of people are interested in Mexican cinema. Also, we also have all the Jewish audiences around the world.”
As a result of his optimism, Springall chose to self-distribute the film with the assistance of Emerging Pictures, which recently aided Sayles when he released “Honeydripper.” If “My Mexican Shivah” does well at the Quad, it will expand to other cities in the country. But even as American audiences get to enjoy his accomplishment (“Santitos” was not distributed in the United States), Springall continues to sing the praises of his native country. “Right now, Mexico is in a good position in world cinema,” he said. “Production has grown a lot. This year, we’re going to produce something like seventy films, which is a lot for a country like ours.” Still, he remains practical about the future. Explaining his willingness to do a commercial movie in the United States to fund his independent work, Springall admitted that he’s “not really married to the Mexican film industry. Up until now, I’ve been wanting to make stories that happen in Mexico, but I’m a filmmaker. I’m not interested in nationalities. I care about human nature more than anything else.”