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Interview: In ‘Güeros’ Dir. Alonso Ruizpalacios Rediscovered Mexico City Via a Unique Road Trip

Interview: In 'Güeros' Dir. Alonso Ruizpalacios Rediscovered Mexico City Via a Unique Road Trip

Using one of the most cosmopolitan and complex cities in the
world as his canvas, Mexican filmmaker Alonso Ruizpalacios has delivered an
audaciously original story that delves into many unique aspects of Mexican
society wrapped up into a road trip adventure that helps two estrange brothers
reconnect. Set in Mexico City during the 1999 UNAM (Mexico’s National University)
protests, “Güeros” is a black-and-white sophisticated comedy that uses a
teenager’s desire to meet a washed up iconic singer as its driving force.

Sombra (Tenoch Huerta) and Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris) are two college-age slackers who lived aimlessly
in a disheveled apartment. The pair doesn’t care much for the student movement,
anything else really, until Sombra’s younger brother Tomas (Sebastián Aguirre) arrives in the city
after getting in trouble in his coastal hometown. Joined by fierce protester
and Sombra’s failed love interest, Ana (Ilse Salas), the group travels across the
beautifully chaotic metropolis in search of Epigmenio Cruz, Tomas’ musical
idol.

The title is a term that refers to light-skinned or blonde
people, but it’s also often used in Mexico as synonym for the upper class.  In the film, Ruizpalacios is clever
enough to tackle the implications of the word in a way that comments on the
Mexican society’s views on race, while remaining accessible and darkly comedic.
“Güeros” is a deeply intelligent film that blends numerous ideas in a bold and
successful fashion. It’s a revitalizing work, and one of the best Mexican films
of the last decade.

The director’s next projects include a  film titled “Mueseo,” which deals with a theft to Mexico
City’s Anthropology Museum in 1985 and another film that’s an adaptation from a play
called “The Kitchen,” which is about Mexican immigrants in New York. We had the chance to talk with Ruiz Palacios about his acclaimed debut and the city that inspired it.

“Güeros” is currently playing in NYC at the Film Forum and its being distributed by Kino Lorber

*Note this interview took place prior to the film’s release in its native Mexico.

Carlos Aguilar: Was a
making a film that highlighted Mexico City as a unique location your original
intent? If not, how did the concept for “Güeros” originated?

Alonso Ruizpalacios: The origin of the film
was the need to make a love letter to Mexico City, which is the city where I’ve
lived my whole life. Most people who grew up there spent a lot of time in their
cars. We essentially lived in our cars, we eat in our cars, we fuck there, and
we get into fights there. The city and cars are very connected. It felt
logical. Once I started making the film I also had this need to get to know the
city better, because you can’t ever get to know it fully. It’s a city that has
a lot of borders and it has places were you can’t really go. There are certain
taboos about some places within the city. Therefore, this idea of crossing
these borders, to get to know the city more, and to become one with it, was one
of the main objectives of making the film. Another thing was the memory of something
my friends used to do to kill time when they were in the 99 protests, which was
to get in one of their cars and drive without a destination as far as they
could go. This idea of driving without destination and rediscovering Mexico
City were part of the images I had in mind when making the film.

Aguilar: The film touches on a lot of issues within Mexican society, one of them is the class divide that is often tied to racial prejudices. It’s something we are all aware of, but it’s hardly ever discussed.

Alonso Ruizpalacios: That’s definitely one
of the themes, but I wouldn’t say is the central theme. I think that when
making a film about Mexico City you can’t avoid portraying the class
differences, the classism, and racism that exists. Often times this is not as
evident as in other countries or as it was in other time periods, we supposedly
have reached a certain level of acceptance or equality, but in reality there is
a lot of social tension. Dealing with this is very complex because it’s a
sensitive topic that not even we, as Mexicans, dare to accept. It’s important
to start by accepting its existence. People are still racist, in a way dark skinned
people dissociated themselves from the “güeros” [Light-skinned people], and
vice versa, the “güeros” dissociated themselves from dark-skinned people.

I feel like our works of fiction, novels or films, have not really
looked at that aspect of “Mexicaness”or Mexican identity. It’s something that’s rarely talked
about. In the U.S there is a tradition or openness to talk about racial issues,
but in Mexico we pretend like they don’t exist. When you actually show them it
becomes a sensitive topic, that’s why I think comedy is the perfect tool to
discuss anything. Comedy has “carte blanche” to deal with any subject. There
have been people that have told me the film is racist, and I react like “What?”
It’s absurd. Just because the film talks about racism doesn’t mean it’s a
racist film. 

Aguilar: What has been the Mexican audience’s reaction so far?

Alonso Ruizpalacios: The film hasn’t opened
in Mexico, so the only thermometer we had was the Morelia Film Festival where the film had its Mexican premiere. Reactions were very positive. Besides
winning Best Film we also won the Audience Award, which is very significant.
However, it’s also a film that has received impassioned negative responses.
People have sent us hate mail mostly regarding the protests, some people who
were part of those protests felt that the way the events are portrayed is
offensive or that we are poking fun at them. I don’t see it that way. Of
course, there is a hint of irony in the way we look at the events, but there
are also elements that vindicate those student movements and the idea of
being young and being revolutionary.

Aguilar: It seems like a great number of Mexican films, particularly those we get to see abroad, come from a very dark place and focus on the violent and political situation of the country. Your film touches on this in a comical manner, even making fun of itself.

Alonso Ruizpalacios: I think that’s true. Lately, Mexican cinema
has been very present at international film festivals, my film included, but I
also have to say that “Güeros” is also a self-parody regarding this. You can’t
create a parody if you don’t make fun of yourself first. The films we make in
Mexico are often made thinking on their foreign potential rather than for
Mexican people to enjoy.  In some
of these films we sell an image of Mexico, as “Sombra” says in the film, in
which we are portrayed as cheaters, atheists, “putañero” (whoremongers),
“malacopas” (bad drinkers), insecure,

Aguilar: In that sense would you say “Güeros” offers a refreshing, more optimistic, perspective?

Alonso Ruizpalacios: I do feel it’s a
luminous film in the sense that we made with the intention to allow ourselves
to be surprised by the city. To allow yourself to be surprised is very
important, it’s one of the ways in which one can get out of a rot. The
characters are trapped in this limbo of inactivity and routine because they
haven’t left their apartment in a long time. It’s only when they go out and
discover new things that their lives improve. I think the central theme is the
change from being static to being in movement. Healing through movement.

Aguilar: One of the most enjoyable and sophisticated elements of the films is the dialogue. It’s definitely hilarious and poignant at the same time. How did you manage to achieve this natural and easygoing feel while still hitting all the right emotional notes?

Alonso Ruizpalacios: I knew that I wanted a
percentage of the film to be improvised and to be fresh. We knew we wouldn’t
get something natural if we wrote it all very rigidly. I designated a few
specific scenes for the actors to improvise, but the rest of the film was very
well structured. I wrote the script with Gibran Portela, with whom I had worked
in theater before. In theater you get really involved in the dialogue, so for
the film we really worked on it for it to have a peculiar rhythm. The film is a
strange mix between very well structured sequences, very refined, and others
much more improvised to find this freshness. For example, the part where “Sombra”
and Ana do a scene from Buñuel’s 
“Los Olvidados,” was a sequence we improvised.  We gave the actors a bottle of mezcal and got them drunk. We
were shooting them as they joked around. But there were also other moments in
which I didn’t want them change any of the words from the screenplay.

Aguilar: Tell me about your thought process when deciding the visual look of the film. What inspired your choices in terms of the spectacular cinematography/

Alonso Ruizpalacios: Making a film is about
finding the right rules that work for that film specifically. In that sense, I
think among the rules we found while in the process of developing the film and
then shooting it, the first one was that we wanted the camera to be very static
at first to emphasize the guys’ inactivity, and once they leave the apartment
we wanted the camera to move more freely and to be playful. We wanted the
camera to be another character that had a life of its own and curiosity, which
for me represents Tomas’ curiosity as a teenager. The camera are his eyes
discovering things as he sees them, how he sees the city or perhaps how he sees
the events they go through as scarier than they are. What we were trying to
create was a certain subjectivity from Tomas’s point of view. He is an outsider
that comes to Mexico City, and suddenly is immersed in the entrails of the
city.

Aguilar: How difficult was it to include all these distinct thematic elements in one cohesive film: the protests, the road trip, the social commentary, among many others?

Alonso Ruizpalacios: Write the screenplay
was a long process, rewriting, and rewriting again, and then cutting. Just like
when I do theater, there are lots of ideas, but then we have to polish them.
For this film the first version was about 160 pages, extremely long, and it
took a lot of hard work to make it 100 pages and get rid off the other 60,
which was very painful but necessary. Once we shot it, it became long again,
the first cut was three hours. W had to trim and polish it a lot.

Aguilar: The singer, Epigmenio, is this almost mythical character that serves as catalyst for the story and as connecting point for the two brothers. Where did he come from?

Alonso Ruizpalacios: Epigmenio was inspired
by one of Bob Dylan’s anecdotes about going to New York to meet his idol Woody
Guthrie, a folk singer famous during the 40s and 50s. Dylan learned that
Guthrie was agonizing in a Brooklyn hospital as he suffered from Huntington’s
disease, so he decided to embark on a journey from Minnesota to NYC by hitchhiking
and by train. He wanted to get to that hospital to meet woody before he died.
This idea of a young boy traveling across the country to meet his idol always
interested me, but I knew that I would never be able to buy the rights for that
story, so I created my own with Epigmenio. It was important to me that the
encounter was disappointing because these encounters are usually that way. One
creates a dialogue with the artwork not with the person behind it.

Aguilar:  Coming from a theater background, what was your approach with the actors for this project?

Alonso Ruizpalacios: I worked a lot with
the actors, there were a lot of rehearsals, particularly with Tenoch and Sebastian, who
plays Tomas. The work we did was aimed for them to establish a brotherly relationship.
We would take Sebastian to play basketball or billiards with us so that they
would spend a lot of time together. I told Tenoch he had to really become his
brother, when we started shooting there was a lot of affection between them.
Then I asked Tenoch to treat him badly, just like older brothers do sometimes.
What you are looking for when working with actors are moments of truth,
authenticity, and situations that involve risk.

Aguilar: Shooting in a car in one of the most complex cities in the world, how much of a challenge was it?

Alonso Ruizpalacios: It was very
complicated. Shooting in a car is very uncomfortable, especially in such a
small car. It wasn’t pleasant, but I think that was part of the idea. Shooting
on digital also allowed us to shoot a few things on the fly. We could turn on
the camera somewhere and find something great to shoot. Mexico City is that way, there
are unexpected things happening all the time. The film is full of lucky
moments.

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