Mexico City native Fernando Frías was a graduate film student at Columbia University when he agreed to teach documentary workshops to teenagers in the border town of Monterrey, Mexico. He took the gig in order to pay off one of his scholarships, but the experience provided a crash course in the fragile lives of his students in a region torn apart by cartel and gang violence.
“One of the kids told me that by my age he would be dead,” Frías said in a recent interview over Zoom from his Brooklyn apartment. “It shocked me, but I understood. He and his friends had wrapped their heads around the idea of not living long, but being able to experiment with the pleasures of life.”
As street life in Monterrey started to fade and immigration laws tightened their grip on the border, Frías developed a story about the lives of young men in Monterrey and the dangerous conditions that inform their everyday existence. In the process, he helped one young local navigate perilous immigration laws and find his way to a new life. However, Frias said he doesn’t pass judgment on those who embrace the ethos of live fast and die young.
“I thought, ‘Who am I to judge this decision? Here there are generations that have had to deal with systematic oppression, marginalization, and violence,” he said. “The lack of social mobility creates all these misconceptions and pre-judgments of young people.”
By the time Frías shot “I’m No Longer Here” in 2017, it had morphed into a touching paean to the “Kolombia” scene, a punk-infused counterculture steeped in the art of “cumbia rebajada,” which takes traditional Colombian folk music and slows it down to funkier, meditative rhythms. At its center is 17-year-old Ulises (Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño), a popular cumbia dancer and leader of an exuberant gang called Los Terkos, who flees to Jackson Heights, Queens, after a rival gang threatens him and his family.
Stuck in an alien culture where he doesn’t speak the language or fit in, Ulises grapples with the disconnect between memories of the world he knew and the cold, alien environment supposedly keeping him safe. Frías’ neorealist style involves real locations and non-professional actors that lend constant credibility to Ulises’ circumstances, even as the movie lingers in the eerie uncertainty of his predicament: How can he miss a home that tried to kill him?
“I was interested in the resistance aspect of young people gathering in gangs,” Frías said. “I saw this culture literally fading out, slipping through my fingers.”
As the war on drugs intensified and Mexican president Felipe Calderón sent troops into Monterrey, nightly curfews tamped down on the prevalence of cumbia on the streets and alleyways, while many young locals allied themselves with cartels. By setting his story in 2011, Frías captures this existential dilemma in progress. The filmmaker read up on anthropological studies of cumbia to better understand its societal context; in particular, he was drawn to the work of Colombian researcher Dario Blanco Arboleda, whose “Cumbia as the Sound Matrix of Latin America” provided a cultural foundation for developing the film’s narrative.
Arboleda, who watched an early cut of the movie, said it provided an accurate snapshot of cumbia’s historical significance. “The life of ‘Los Kolombias’ is very well-represented in the film,” he said, noting the prevalence of cumbia music and dancing among working-class families that immigrated from the countryside to the city. “In this displacement, they must no longer rebuild as peasant farmers, but as urbanities, without totally losing their roots,” he said. “When listening to cumbia, they symbolically travel to their rural past. … That helps them endure the harsh reality of their daily lives, as this film shows.”
Frías had to infiltrate Monterrey’s youth culture to populate his cast with people who understood the world at its center. His star, Treviño, came to him through one of countless videos sent his way by a casting director. A young musician and professional welder, Treviño said he was intimated at his audition when he saw some of the actors there who were more accomplished cumbia dancers. But he won over the director with an embellished backstory that drew from the lives of other Monterrey locals.
“I put together thousands of stories and said they were mine,” Treviño, who still lives in Monterrey, said in an interview in Spanish over Zoom. “I didn’t live through this myself, I didn’t dress like this, but I’ve heard these stories.” Still, he was astonished when he scored the lead. “Working as an actor was something I never imagined in my life I’d be able to do. I always thought I was a nobody.”
When it came time to shoot in the U.S., however, Treviño’s involvement became an open question. On his first two visits to the American embassy to request a visa, he was denied. Because he was a minor, he was initially accompanied by his father — whose prior illegal border crossing resulted in an immediate dismissal. The next time, Frías said, Treviño was tricked by questions about his involvement in the production.
“It was honestly very discriminatory,” said Frías, who saw a transcript of the second interview when their immigration lawyer requested it. “Things like that, ‘Besides acting, will you help with other labor on the film?’ And he was like, ‘Well, if they ask me to throw a hand, since it’s a small independent film, why not?’ So he was denied because of that.”
Treviño had one more shot to secure his work visa for the production; if it didn’t go through, it would be four years before he could reapply. “Like the character in the film, I didn’t understand what was going on, what terminology they were using,” Treviño said. “Every time they refused me, I’d just go pull my hair out and cry.” On the third occasion, Treviño came with extensive paperwork documenting his plans. Frías gathered letters of support from every possible source, from a congressman in New York to the Sundance Institute where he workshopped the script, as well as financiers like Cinereach and the Mexican Film Institute.
“I told him, ‘It doesn’t matter what they tell you, just push these letters on them,’” Frías said. “He goes and shows them the letters, and he’s rejected again.”
Treviño was wandering toward the exit, dejected, when one of the women working at the embassy called out to him. “So far, I had only met with all these brusque men,” Treviño said. “When this woman asked me why they refused me, my voice started breaking up, and it does again now as I remember all this.” He looked away as his eyes welled up. “I told her that I didn’t plan on going out there and staying there, I just want to go there for a movie and then come back.”
After further conversations, it was determined that Treviño’s visa had actually been approved prior to his arrival and only needed the official stamp, which was provided on the spot. “When he finally made it to New York, he was very emotional,” Frías said. “In our heads, this stamp was a minor piece of paperwork, but it was actually much more than that.” They never figured out the specific reason for the delay.
Treviño radiates the intensity of a young Brando as he befriends a young Chinese-American woman (Angelina Chen) in Queens despite their language barrier, while attempting to maintain his tough-guy posturing. It’s a bittersweet performance rich in quiet desperation and creative desire that finds the character’s dancing obsession defining his values. While developing the script with Treviño and other Mexican actors who play supporting roles, Frías organized a sophisticated set of acting workshops.
“We assigned colors to emotions — sadness, anger, joy,” he said. “What happens if we combine two colors? Is it possible to be happy and sad? That’s nostalgia: You’re sad because you miss something, but happy because you’re remembering it.” They also created short films to teach the actors how to hit their marks and taught them how to improvise while staying in character. “That provided the script with a lot of accents, these beautiful details in certain scenes,” Frías said.
Treviño is not quite the same generation as his character, but the actor learned much about Kolombia from his older brothers. He still contends with the perilous nature of life in Monterrey.
“I continue going through this. I think I may always be going through this because I live in the same place,” Treviño said. “It’s not that I’m afraid. Ever since you’re a little kid, you learn not to be afraid. I live through this every single day. But this movie changed my life.”
The 22-year-old has been sifting through offers, and though his English is limited, remains interested in future U.S. acting gigs. “As a human being, I’ve been improving myself, but working as an actor was something I never imagined in my life I’d be able to do, and I want to continue developing it,” he said. As a young father to two daughters, he added, “I’ve learned how to better myself for them.”
Frías, meanwhile, continues to diversify his career. After he completed production on “I’m No Longer Here,” he directed the entire first season of HBO’s “Los Espookys,” just in time for his movie to hit the festival circuit and secure distribution with Netflix. It ultimately won 10 Ariel awards and became Mexico’s entry at the Goyas. Eventually, Mexican film heavyweights Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro came on board as advocates, participating in a video conversation about it to heighten its Oscar season prospects. “It’s a film about identity… and the certainty of our identities, the defense of our identities,” Cuarón said at the time. “That’s a reason why it’s truly universal.”
Frías, who spent nearly a decade developing his movie and gathering resources in piecemeal, said he never expected such high-profile support. “This film has written its own story,” he said. “The process is what will live forever with us. Sometimes you don’t control the results. Working with these kids was the part that I treasure the most. Behind each of them is a story.”
“I’m No Longer Here” is now streaming on Netflix.