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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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