For a rookie with one film out of the gate, Mexican director Jorge Michel Grau has had quite year. His feature film debut, “We Are What We Are” (“Somos lo que hay”), a grisly cannibal family melodrama and horror mashup, began its journey in March at the Guadalajara International Film Festival, went on to land a coveted spot in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in May, and got subsequently nabbed by IFC Films for U.S. distribution. Since then Grau’s film has gone on to play at the New York Film Festival (NYFF) and at Fantastic Fest where the film won Best Film and Best Screenplay in the ‘Next Wave’ Spotlight Competition.
“One always dreams of going to Cannes,” said a warm and engaging Grau via a translator while in New York for NYFF. “Thanks to Cannes, the film is where it is now.”
Set in an impoverished and labyrinthine Mexico City neighborhood, “We Are What We Are” tracks the downfall of a family of rabid cannibals after their patriarch goes missing. Forced to fend for themselves, the tight knit group of flesh eaters take matters into their own hands, and incur the wrath of a band of prostitutes who become aware of their evil doings.
“I’ve always been interested in working with horror,” said Grau. “I’m really fond of horror films from the 1970’s. I’m not really interested in paranormal types of horror but in horror that we find in daily life, at least in Mexico. Right now we have this major war going on with the drug traffickers, and it’s not that uncommon currently in this situation for these guys to cut a person’s head off, substitute it for a pig’s head, and sit him out on the street with a sign on him. That sense of horror that permeates is something I wanted to explore.”
Given the nature of the atrocities his protagonists commit, Grau’s film is notable for the way in which he depicts the family with a surprising amount empathy. Grau (who also penned the script) revealed the reason behind this observation; the nuclear unit (consisting of two feuding brothers, their sister, and bereaved mother) portrayed in “We Are What We Are” is very much similar to his own, and Grau himself grew up in the neighborhood depicted in the film.
“My father was absent for most of my childhood,” Grau said on the film’s ties to his own upbringing. “He went to work at 6:00 AM, and didn’t come home till nine in the evening. My closest relationship was with my mother and grandmother who lived nearby. And the relationship between the two brothers in my film is actually quite similar to the relationship I had with my brother. There’s a certain degree of tension and rivalry but also a lot of love.”
Despite his father not being around for much of his young upbringing, Grau credits his father as the reason behind his venture into filmmaking.
“My father had a video rental store,” Grau explained. “What happened is that a big Blockbuster type chain came in, and my father’s store went under. So he brought all these films home, and my brother and I would just watch two films a day.”
Grau didn’t pick up on the directing bug from the outset. Instead he went on to study communication science at university, and landed a job as a documentary and television producer. It wasn’t until after aiding a friend in their film thesis project, that Grau acknowledged his burgeoning passion and enrolled into film school.
“It was a big choice because I quit my job, and had to move back in with my parents,” Grau said. “I was 27 years old at the time, and all of my fellow students were 18. But ten years have passed, and looking at this film, I feel like what I did was the right decision.”
As for what he planned next, Grau has ambitions to make two more horror films that delve into the nature of violence, and thereby create a full trilogy.
“This film explored the myth or legends of vampires via cannibalism. I would like to continue with this trilogy in my more immediate projects but I have to be very careful with my next step, because the violence poses a problem in terms of getting financing. So I don’t know how it’s all going to turn out.”