By Yun-hua Chen.
That’s what we aimed to do, to make a protest. In Mexico it’s been very hard for some years. This is a cry for justice.”
A dreamy, yet political directorial debut by the Mexican director José Pablo Escamilla, Mostro is set in an undetermined dystopian time, but tells a contemporary story of corruption and separation. Alexandra and Lucas, teenagers who work for local factories, walks through a long bridge to their secret shack to consume chemical substances. Their psychedelic experience was portrayed with flickering images of transforming patterns, hyper-ecliptic montages, and frenzy colors. Right after their trip, Alexandra is chased by policemen in front of the shack and disappears. That’s when the aspect ratio shrinks and shrinks, from 1.66:1 till 1:1. Lucas’ search is in vain, and he is left alone to deal with a corrupt and bureaucratic world without her. Drifting between film diegesis, memories, hallucinations, dreams, and a poetic monologue, it is a Mexican boy’s coming-of-age, as well as his loss of innocence while struggling in the jungle of social reality.
It is selected in the section of “Concorso Cineasti del presente” of the Locarno International Film Festival.
How was the audience’s response in Locarno?
I was surprised that everyone who talked about the film with us understood it and felt connected with the film. It’s a very weird film in some way, without an average narrative and with a lot of abstraction and loose ends.
Where did the idea come from?
It was a very free process. We knew we wanted to make a film about forced disappearances. I am always interested in exploring adolescence and coming-of-age stories. For me, I wanted to talk to this part of the population, people who are going to be in a position of power in the future. I wanted to inspire them to reflect upon these themes. Maybe they would have the answer about how to change things, but we are just making a protest. That’s what we aimed to do, to make a protest. In Mexico it’s been very hard for some years. This is a cry for justice. We are not satisfied with how things are in Mexico, especially for working-class women and women in general, who are the most vulnerable and who produce our everyday products which are available in stores and consumed by everyone daily. I was trying to reflect upon this: what is the true cost of capitalism? Not in terms of money but in terms of human life, what are the costs and what are the consequences of capitalism?
You mentioned that you are interested in coming-age stories. In fact, your previous shorts El Dolor Fantasma (2012) and Libélula (2016) are also about children or young adults. What attracts you most at this in-between stage of pre-adult life?
The actor Salvador de la Garza, who played the role of Lucas in Mostro, was also in my short Libélula. I saw him when he was about 13 years old. When we started shooting Mostro, he was about 18. I have always been interested in coming-of-age films. Adolescence is a defining moment in human life. I am always trying to understand how we are shaped by our contexts and circumstance to become who we are. I suffered a lot but also enjoyed a lot during this period of my life. It is a period when you cannot fully comprehend the world around you but yet you are reacting to it. We wanted to make a film about a teenage boy waking up and realizing where he is living and under what conditions. The film ends at the starting point of his life, which is the beginning of the rest of his life. And the question is, what is he going to do after what happens in the past 48 hours which changes his life and Alexandra’s life?
The film’s backdrop feels post-apocalyptic and dystopian, with rundown houses, in an abandoned rural area, a wasteland. Why did you choose such a space for your debut film?
These are spaces which I have been in touch with since my childhood. I grew up around this area in Mexico, an industrial city called Lerma. There is some beauty in all these sceneries. When industry and nature are combined, there is something in the scenery. The kids would see these gigantic transmission towers and think of them as gods. I wanted to mystify the space and at the same time show the harsh reality from which they cannot break free. That’s why they walk and walk and walk until they get to this tiny little shack which is like a snail house. That’s where they can be free and where they can share with each other and develop their personality and sensitivity as human beings. It’s their safe place.
It’s crazy how human beings have changed the environment, the scenery, and the PH value of water. Every river around this area is polluted. You don’t get to see that in the film, but when we were filming around certain areas, the smell was really bad. There was a take in the film during which the actress couldn’t move because of the awful smell. She was almost throwing up. How have we reached that state? We are at a point of our existence as human beings when we need to reflect upon these things and think where we are going with all this consumerism. I have been in touch with this reality since childhood. I used to work in these factories when I was 15 years old in summer and became really sensitive to these realities, and I have been very interested in reflecting on these themes in my works. Mexicans are one of the most hard-working people in the world, and I don’t say this with pride, but with certain feelings of injustice. Working conditions are not great. Everyone has to work triple shifts to be able to pay for everyday life; not a luxurious life but just everyday life, in order to meet basic needs and for their kids to go to school. This is very problematic. There is not enough time to be yourself or develop your personality if you commute two hours or four hours each day to work. You work until exhaustion and then go back home. Under this circumstance, you don’t have time to think about anything revolutionary. You wouldn’t be able to go against the system. All you could do is little action. When you leave the production line, this is anti-system already. This is their weapon, just to be away for a short amount of time. The whole system is eating them alive.
You talked about the harsh reality as factory workers. In the film, we also see bureaucratic attitudes at the police station. At the same time, the film is also very much about non-reality, set in a fantasy-like undetermined time and space. How was the script developed and how did you balance between the reality and the non-reality, and external and internal worlds?
It’s improvised, but not in a jazz way. We knew we wanted to portray the world of being awake and that of subconsciousness. I have been obsessed with this since I started dreaming. Is there another world which we cannot fully grasp but which is always there? How are we connected to this other world? How can we get there? That’s why they consume chemical drug and keep reflecting upon their dreams. I want to make the spectator observe Lucas’ psyche after Alexandra’s disappearance. When I was researching on capitalism, I came to this idea that the subconscious is the most intimate and private place to shield yourself from capitalism. I was like, what if capitalism gets into your subconscious and your dream too? What would happen? I wanted to portray how Lucas cannot escape the reality even in his subconscious. Even his subconscious is chasing him.
When Lucas realizes that Alexandra disappears, the aspect ratio shrinks…
Indeed, in each scene, the screen becomes narrower and narrower. We had this idea, and we were trying it out. Then we started to realize how important the empty space on the screen is. You can see it, but you cannot see it at the same time because you are not paying attention. It’s imprisoning the characters, and at the same time constantly reminding you that something is missing. This happens also with the minutes of silence in the factory when everyone gathers. This is very important for me in filmmaking and in life, to have these moments of reflection. Like in music, silence is very important. It is this space of empty audio, the offscreen. Not just what is shown, but also what is not shown, which is our main goal since the beginning.
There were some memorable sequences, like the long tracking shot in the beginning, and the 360-degree shot around Alexandra. How did you choose your cinematic language to tell this story?
These shots came into being from the symbols of snail and spiral, like the Japanese “Uzumaki”. Alexandra and Lucas’ shack is like a snail house. We call the circular shots “snail shots” because they are in spiral that is coming closer with each turn. It was really hypnotic and that’s what we wanted to portray in the film. There is an evolution in the cinematic language. It’s a two-part film, the dreamy and the realistic, naturalistic. Each one has its own language. In the first part, we use long sequences in a naturalistic way, but in the dreamy part, everything becomes harsh, the camera moves a lot and is always handheld, and we were running behind the character. For the second part of the film, we wanted to achieve a certain physicality. You are feeling the same kind of sensation as the main character is feeling. I think people react a lot to this. They feel really anxious and tense about what’s going on on the screen.
Can you talk about the title “Mostro”?
In Mexico it is a cute way of calling someone. I used this nickname with my brothers. We called ourselves “mostro” when we were young. It came really natural. “Mostro” is also a big city in Mexico; “mostro” is also the situation, the violent context, capitalism, the police and the. Everything is a monster that is trying to gain something from our life. Work is also “mostro”. “Mostro” is this feeling of seeing something really big and ominous. This importance of watching an enormous thing that is bigger than you and bigger than me. How can we stop it, this really big monster?
Speaking of capitalism being this big monster, I was wondering how you approach the fact that your film is critical of the system, but film as a product is ingrained in the capitalist system.
I’ve been reflecting on this a lot, but not from a guilty perspective. I was reading Mark Fischer’ Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? a lot during the filmmaking process. One of the things he said is that capitalism doesn’t work if we don’t help it. We are all in the capitalist scheme, whether we like it or not. It is the starting point. I see filmmaking as a way of expression more than business. Our collective came together to make this film. We invested everything we have in the making of this. It has a lot to do with privilege. We are very privileged people in the world. Whenever you have a camera in your hands, you are privileged because not everyone can do this. For me, the question is, what do you do with this privilege? What do you do in order for these things to change? We are living in a consumerist society, and we can make a film about anti-consumption, but I think this type of films which are anti-system are mostros themselves. I am looking into the mirror and observing this really bad reality. It’s really problematic for me. How can you throw a stone with one hand and with the other hand receive something from the system? I am still discovering these thoughts. We are putting a lot of efforts to make this protest. Film has this empathetic component. That’s our field of action. With a film, we can touch people’s mind. It’s very powerful and means a lot of responsibility. In Mexico, mainstream media outlets cover news in a very exploitative way. I think we need a different angle and be conscious that we are living in a consumerist society, and we can avoid it. What we can do is to be more conscious about how we are consuming, where our money is going.
You are the founding member of Colectivo Colmena. How does it work? Do you take up different roles in one another’s projects?
It’s almost like a band. I think of ourselves in music terms. That’s how I grew up, playing in bands with my friends. The bands that I like the most are the ones where band members change roles constantly. We are a group of friends who come together to do film projects in the most horizontal way possible. Film is always hierarchical and there are certain roles, but we switch between different roles. I wrote the script, but I wrote in a lab that we have each week. Since the beginning, we keep adding questions and do not ask for answers. Everyone has full creative input, and everyone can make a suggestion. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have any answers at all. It’s all about communications and trust in one another’s work and perspective. It’s like a collective collage. There are a lot of limitations when we start shooting, such as renting cameras. We have been doing this for almost ten years, working as a beehive, that’s how we are called (Colmena). Everything we do is for the group. This comes naturally. I am very fortunate to have these people in my life.
The film goes from brightness when Alexandra and Lucas are together to darkness when Lucas is alone. This sense of darkness, does it continue in your second feature Godspeed Satan which is under development?
I think so. We have very dark minds. We have been developing this style, and I like it a lot. I am more of a shadow person, and I am really interested in this duality of light and shadow. Darkness is a very important aspect of our life, but also light. One does not exist without the other. Godspeed Satan is about this, two people coming together, one is bright and luminous, and the other one is very dark. The cinematographer used to play in a heavy metal band. I used to play in a punk band. This is our perspective of the world, from the point of view of destruction, dark feelings, dark matter. We will continue to explore this in the future, but I would also like to make more positive and optimistic films in the future.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and her contribution to the edited volume titled A Darker Greece: Film Noir and Greek Cinema will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021.