Sergio Arau: Filmmaker, musician, band leader, song writer and visual artist.
I met him recently at the terrific Loft Film Festival in Tucson AZ along with his wonderful charming and smart wife Yareli Arizmendi.
To get this out of the way, his dad is the famous Director Alfonso Arau. In addition to directing “Like Water for Chocolate”/ “Como agua para chocolate” (1992), his directing credits include “A Walk in the Clouds” (1995) with Keanu Reeves and “Picking Up the Pieces” (2000) with Woody Allen.
Sergio the son was born in Mexico City. His wife — they met on the set of “Like Water For Chocolate” — is the amazing Yareli Arizmendi. They are partners in “life and film”.
Their first production was a cabaret show in Mexico. “Penny Envy” was the name of it and it satirized the US-Mexico “free trade agreement” of 1992. Yareli wrote and performed the monologues while Sergio wrote the songs, sang and played the music. The show played both in the Mexico and the United States through the Performance Art Network. The show was in universities in California, NYC and Boulder.
Sergio attended CUEC Film School from 1976 to 1980. There he directed short films, one of which went to the Film Festival in Havana. He graduated with a feature script about kids in San Luis Potosi who kidnap the Virgin of Guadalupe. He was going to make it but then in 1982 the US $ vs the MX Peso had a 20 times increase and his budget went away.
His “day job” during film school was as a political cartoonist for two papers, La Jornada and Uno Mas Uno.
He stopped playing music all together after the infamous mass government killings of students in 1968 when the Mexican government tried to stop all protest rock n roll, so the music went underground. In 1983 he formed the band, Botellita de Jerez.
In 1985 the band opened Rockotitlan which to this date is recognized as the breaking ground and breathing room for the 80’s rock scene and important contemporary Mexican bands such as Cafe Tacvba and Caifanes amongst others. The club had two unalienable rules: Music played must be original and compositions must be in Spanish.
He began in 1990 to make music videos of his songs. He did the concept, the visuals and music. He then began to direct for other groups and other genres.
In 1998 MTV awarded him best rock video award for the Cafe Tacvba version of “Alarmala de Tos” one of Sergio’s original songs.
In 1992 he moved to San Diego and by 1994 was disconcerted by the the anti-immigrant sentiment whipped up by Governor Wilson’s Proposition 187.
Yareli, as a way to deal with California’s blind spot, came up with “A Day Without a Mexican.” The idea that if California or the nation experienced one day without a single Latino, the reality of the valuable contribution and interdependence of all would sink in.
He and Yareli were financially backed in 1997 by the Fine Arts Center Museum of Chicago to secure the premiere of the short film “A Day Without a Mexican” in 1998.
At the Guadalajara Film Fest 1998, the short won the Audience Award. It was there that Alta Vista Films (producer of Iñarritu’s “Amores Perros”) approached the team to work on the feature-length version. Written by both, directed by Sergio and starring Yareli, the film, with a US $2 million budget, was released in the U.S. May 14, 2004 and six months later in Mexico. It was Mexico’s highest box office for that year. The film was Televisa’s first distribution experience it in the U.S., where a limited release in California, Texas, Chicago yielded US $4.5 million in theaters, and more than 500,000 DVD were sold.
Their teaser campaign consisted of a billboard in the heart of Hollywood that read: “On May 14 there will be no Mexicans in California.” People reacted strongly to the message calling radio and TV stations. Viacom, owner of the billboard space, took it down after 3 hours fearing riots. As a result there was huge U.S. national press coverage including the Wall Street Journal featured story on page one and Dan Rather Evening news.
In 2007 he shot “Naco es Chido”/ “Kitsch is Cool”, a Mexican “Spinal Tap” featuring his band, Botellita de Jerez. As a distribution strategy, he took the film on the road, screening it and following it up with a live concert with the band. This lasted for 3 years, 2010-2012.
He is currently working on the sequel: “Another Day Without a Mexican: This Time It’s Personal.”