For filmmakers, the process of getting the cultural powers that be to submit your film to contend for the Best International Feature Film Oscar varies from country to country. That Oscar can give your movie an enormous boost. Mexico has been participating in the foreign-language Oscar race since 1957, a year after the category was created. Of the 53 films submitted, nine have been nominated, including five from Arturo Ripstein, two from A.G. Iñárritu (“Amores Perros” and “Biutiful”), one from Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), and one from Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”), which was the first Mexican film to win the foreign-language Oscar. Cuarón lobbied the Academy Board of Governors to change the category name to Best International Feature Film. (His argument: for him, Spanish is not a foreign language.)
As expected this year, the selection committee from the Academia Mexicana de Artes y Ciencias Cinematográficas has picked out of six finalists Fernando Frías de la Parra’s “I’m No Longer Here” (Netflix), Mexico’s winner of ten Ariel awards including Best Picture and Director, and Mexico’s entry at Spain’s Goya Awards.
After playing several regional film festivals in 2019, Netflix picked up Frías’ second film, which went through the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and released it around the world in May and June 2020. Set in Monterrey and New York City in 2011, the movie stars a cast of non-pros lead by charismatic discovery Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño as Ulises, the leader of a gang of music-loving cumbieros who run afoul of Mexico president Felipe Calderón’s war against drug trafficking. Ulises is forced to escape to New York, where he struggles to retain his cultural identity.
“I wanted to confront the challenges that most of the people in Mexico face every day,” wrote Frías in an email. “But I wanted to do it without exploiting the tragedy or glorifying violence. I was responding also to the stigma that young people from marginalized communities face by trying to offer a window into the lives of these characters who grow up fast and without opportunities. I wanted to challenge the stereotypes reinforced by many immigration stories and popular political narratives. Ulises, my main character, uniquely represents both his community and the journey of Mexican immigrants in the USA.”
As Netflix urged Mexico to pick their film, the awards team enlisted the aid of two powerful allies, Del Toro and Cuarón, who conducted a trans-Atlantic video conversation about the film (below) from Toronto (where Del Toro is shooting “Pinocchio”) and London, respectively.
“The movie has been successful because it portrays a specific reality that exists briefly in a time and a space that are no more,” said Del Toro. “It talks about things that are evanescent, go away, both in terms of in our culture and in our identity. It’s a movie about exile, it’s a movie that by being particular has become universal and it can connect with everyone.
“The true artist has a specificity that comes from truth and this movie is all truth. It tells the story of the essential disenfranchisement of a young man in a society that changes right before his eyes. He leaves for a moment, he’s in exile for a moment, and finds himself a stranger in a stranger land, and then comes back to his country to be in exile within that country, because what it was has changed. That is rare — a movie that you find being done so early in the career of a young filmmaker that has the wisdom and the control of a medium that is formally but at the same time, very, very free narratively.”
Cuarón, for his part, fully agrees. “And because it’s a film that doesn’t really have a reference in Mexican cinema before,” he said. “It’s a film that challenges the ideas of formalism to create its own cinematic narrative that are completely supported in time and space… Because of that it’s a film about identity… and the certainty of our identities, the defense of our identities. The challenge of how supported our identities are, how much our identities are based upon an external façade. That’s a reason it’s truly universal.
“The film has played fantastically well in Mexico, it has played all around the world in certain countries. It has been as if it were their own. It’s guiding us through an ephemeral culture that we’re all very unfamiliar with — it’s as if you go to another planet but everything takes place here on planet Earth. Not only on planet Earth, but in our case, Guillermo, you and me, in our country. On one hand it feels so alien, but the human experience is what makes it so universal.”
See the entire conversation below.
Chris Lindahl contributed reporting.
The film is returning to the Cineteca theater in Mexico City on October 30 and is currently streaming on Netflix.