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Diego Luna On Why Movies Are Needed Now More Than Ever — Berlinale 2017

At a conflicted moment for the world, the "Rogue One" star explains why he has found solace by going to a film festival.

Diego Luna in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

It’s a weird time to be at a film festival. If sitting in the dark to watch a movie for two hours can feel a lot like burying your head in the sand, then devoting 10 days to doing nothing else can feel a lot like blinding yourself just so you don’t have to see what’s going on outside.

But Diego Luna doesn’t see it that way. The “Rogue One” star is deeply concerned about the state of things, but he insists that going to a festival — particularly one that gathers together artists from dozens upon dozens of countries around the world — can be an even more invaluable experience during times of crisis. So when the Berlin International Film Festival — aka the Berlinale — invited him to serve on the Competition jury at this year’s fest, Luna couldn’t have been happier to accept.

IndieWire caught up with the actor between screenings, sitting down with him in a hidden alcove on the third floor of the Berlinale’s glittering glass Palast where the Competition films screen (the jury often watches along with the press, sneaking into a roped-off section of the velvet red theater just as the lights go down). The festival was entering its last stretch, and — after watching three movies a day for the better part of a week — Luna was clearly starting to feel a bit worn down. He was also clearly electrified, galvanized by the exposure to such a wide-reaching and inclusive variety of films, as well as the pleasure of debating each of them in private with a group of people that included Maggie Gyllenhaal, artist Olafur Eliasson, producer Dora Bouchoucha Fourati, and jury president Paul Verhoeven.

Our conversation touched upon cinema’s power to tear down walls, the difference between jurying at Cannes and Berlin, and the roving film festival he started with his childhood best friend, Gael García Bernal.

When you’re on a film festival jury, does is it feel more like vacation or more like work?

I would say it’s an interesting kind of creative holiday. It really recharges the batteries and it makes you focus on your work, you know? I am now in the process where I’m starting to feel like “Shit! I so have to go home and rewrite that thing I was working on.” You see so many films, and you don’t just see them, you see and analyze them profoundly. Right now I have many answers that I didn’t when I was shooting my own films. And I have the feeling that if I don’t go shoot a film right away I might forget all of these beautiful answers that I now have through the work of others. But I think it’s that… it’s a holiday, it obligates you to stop every process you’re doing, because it’s three films a day and then you discuss each film.

And the jury discusses the films immediately after they screen?

We do, right after. And then we also have these long meetings at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the festival. So it’s a lot of work. And then also it’s a festival where I see many people I don’t see throughout the year and I want to connect and catch up, so there’s a lot to do! The only thing I’m not doing is sleeping.

Is deliberating after every film what the Berlinale jury always does, or is that just Verhoeven’s way of doing things?

I’ve been on a few juries, and every time it’s different. It depends on the team, and also on what the festival suggests and tells you. What I feel every time I come out of a film is an urge to get that first impression out and share it, but that doesn’t mean that your point of view doesn’t change. You see other films and you start to react differently to something you saw at the beginning because of something you saw in the middle.

Paul Verhoeven has quite a reputation. Did you have any preconceptions about him before you met him here?

The only preconception I had was that I very recently saw “Elle” and I loved it and I was like “Shit, how lucky am I that I’m going to be able to hear his opinions on films and compare it to mine and be next to a guy who so recently blew my mind at the cinema.”

On opening night, you said that you were here to “Investigate how to tear down walls.” Have you learned any helpful tips from the films you’ve seen thus far?

Being at a film festival reminds me of the power of film. The power that we have in our hands. Telling specific stories about personal matters can start the debate that is needed today, and that connect you with realities that you had no idea were connected. Film is a tool of change. And it has that potential. And not just in our category, but in this whole festival. There are so many films that are so pertinent, because what I felt before, the issues I had were very specific to my context. Today, that’s not real. There’s a big issue we’re all having, and we can all learn from each other and help each other get out of this situation we’re living together. Where hate, where ignorance is winning the battle. And there’s a lot cinema can do to connect those stories and make you feel in Mexico that you’re not alone.

I’ve felt a bit for spending so much time at film festivals since the inauguration, but maybe these are good places to be during such crazy times.

Exactly. I’m connected with parts of the world, a few I wasn’t even aware of, and others I wasn’t paying attention to, wasn’t paying attention to a connection the films are reestablishing somehow. I think the most dangerous thing today is to feel alone, to feel that your issues don’t matter because there’s so much shit going on on the planet. I can think, for example, of all those people who fear being deported from the States. Their voice has been taken. Everyone is being very loud about all the issues in the States, today, but this community cannot be loud anymore. They’re afraid, they’re scared, and I think that is the most dangerous part of this whole scenario.

If they don’t feel we’re here, if they don’t feel we care, if they don’t feel like we’re following their stories and there to support them and that the injustice they’re living today matters to us, if we don’t find a way for them to know this, that is what I fear. That will cause damage that will take so much to repair. All of these broken families and broken dreams. And I think film is exactly that. Film can take a very specific voice and put it in the minds of everyone. So being in this festival reminds me of that power. And I go, like, “Fuck yes, the cinema is needed more than ever!”

It’s incredible how fast history rewrites the script. As the grandson of a Holocaust survivor who fled to America, I can’t stop thinking about how strange it is that I’ve come to Germany for the same inclusive and humane experience you’ve just described. 

When I heard the speeches at the opening night here, I was like “Damn, what do we have to do in Mexico to have just one politician that thinks like that and manages to talk like that, and to engage like that.” It was a cultural minister, but everyone had something to say that was about inclusion and the power of reconnecting and the strength of culture as a weapon to fight all this ignorance. I don’t know, I was like “Are those politicians? Is that what they’re like? Is that possible?” So yes, this is a great place to be having a festival today.

You were on the jury of the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes last year. Was your experience there very different?

Very different. Both experiences were very special in many ways, I’m just becoming addicted to it. To be forced to stop my life and get invited to the work of others and be in this luxurious position of being taken to the best screening of a film — the best sound, the best image, the best time, and then being around people who admire it to talk about it… I mean, come on, it’s just perfect. It’s like I’m back to being an audience, but in the best position an audience can be. It’s addictive, and a good reminder of what we’re capable of, of what we should be aiming for.

Ambulante, the traveling film festival you created with Gael Garcia Bernal, seems like it was born out of that same ethos of opening audience perspectives.

Ambulante was exactly an effort of that. We were traveling a lot after “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” and together — Gael and I — getting a lot of attention, and seeing a lot of films that we never got to see in Mexico, and that our friends were not getting to see in the cinemas there. And we were talking about the necessity of documentary for the people, and that thing fiction wasn’t doing anymore for the audiences. It was happening somewhere else but it was just not getting there. There was a friend of ours who did a fantastic documentary, and Gael had this idea and he said “Why don’t we get behind it?”

I remember that we were in a screening of “Y Tu Mama Tambien” that Julien Schnabel presented in New York and I was thinking, “How cool is that? You have so much attention that you shift that attention to something you like even though you weren’t part of it.” So Gael had an idea of doing that for our friend’s documentary. So I saw it and I loved it and then we said “If we’re doing all this effort, why not do it for 10 films, and not just one?” And then, “Okay, why not put together a little festival that is more of a tool?” So the festival doesn’t happen in a city or a niche for certain people, it travels through Mexico for three months and stays in your city or state, and then it started evolving into what it is today which is an amazing project and the thing I feel the proudest to be part of.

When you started bringing the festival around Mexico, were you targeting specific areas, specific audiences that you wanted to make sure could see these movies? 

At the beginning it was just about reaching as many people as possible. But it was living in cinemas, and we merged with the biggest chain in Mexico, and they became partners, and we moved the festival the first year in cinemas but suddenly the festival started getting its own shape and the films moved out of the cinemas and started reaching plazas, galleries, schools, and started covering the state instead of just covering the cities. Covering different communities, more rural places where cinema wasn’t getting. Today it has its own shape. We do concerts, workshops… it has become what people asked for.

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