Amat Escalante On ‘Heli,’ Mexican Drugs Lords, Cannes [VIDEO EXCLUSIVE]
Mexican director Amat Escalante‘s film Heli earned him the top directing prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. The movie traces the life of Heli (Armando Espitia), who lives in a small town with his family where money is tight. Heli and his father work in a car factory, while his wife adjusts to her new life as a mother. Then, Heli’s sister Estela (Andrea Vergara) lets her dubious boyfriend Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios) hide drugs in the water tank of their roof. From there, Heli’s life takes a tailspin. “This is what movies are for — to see things, no?” Escalante told uInterview. “So with that ideal, I go to the extreme to try and show as much as I can in that violence anyway.”
Escalante wanted to delve deeper than superficial news accounts to show the true costs of the war on drugs. “There is not much deepness in [the media], because also there is a lot of danger in the press, if they start to go in deep on the situation,” Escalante told uInterview.
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Well, it was a process of about four years, but it was not specifically writing. It was finding the money, the casting and location, so I was doing all of that. It took about four years, longer than usual, for the funding for it. At first I wrote it for two years. I wrote it alone and it was somewhat similar but different, it changes a lot. Then after those two years I wrote it with Gabriel Reyes, a friend screenwriter, here in Mexico. We wrote it again for another two years, until we shot. That was the process it was really not much investigating. There is nothing in the movie that anyone doesn't know here in Mexico. It is all known things and I tried to tell a story with this family and this character with these things happening to them here in Mexico.
Well a lot of it, you know there's a way we see the news and read newspapers. We just see these hanging bodies and decapitated heads. There is not much deepness in it, because also there is a lot of danger in the press, if they start to go in deep on the situation. So mostly it does the job, the cartels want it to do. These are really graphic situations in public, so they are placed in the newspaper, messages to the other gangs and that is what they do. There is some literature and other things that go more into the situation, to the human side and social side of it, but it's rare. Also even in my movie, I do not mention any names or anything like that, then it would be dangerous I think. What I was more interested in was to capture a situation, a human situation that I feel deserves to be told after one hundred thousand murders from the drug war. That is where the motivation comes from I guess, yeah everything in the movie is something I know has happened.
No, not really, you know. The main expression of the movie comes from movies it self. I think that is why it transcended to as being more than just about the violence in Mexico. I'm very inspired by western films, by crime films. The drug war is not what inspires my movie, it is movies that inspire my movie. That is why I wanted to tell this story in a very cinematically way, using the elements around me that I feel are important in Mexico. It is difficult for people to watch these images, here in Mexico. Also, there has not been many movies that deal with the subject, but even those few movies people see them as there are too many. They will only mention two more besides 'Heli.'
Well, I guess within itself, it becomes a style. I wanted to shoot those violent scenes, which are only a few in the movie. I did not want to shoot the typical way of showing the violent scenes. I was more interested in, like my other movies where the audience can't really blink or turn their heads. I like the feeling of adrenaline one gets when... it is almost like a horror film, you know? Like a Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Well, I don't know. In Cannes, someone told me, someone I respect a lot, he was surprised I was showing these things, like, this is what movies are for, to see things, no? So with that ideal, I go to the extreme to try and show as much as I can in that violence anyway - not with sex so much even though I do show some sex - but I try to search for the limits in experimenting. That is what I feel that is my strength, because you know there are so many movies made, that one needs to stand out and I try approach things in a different way than I have seen.
Well, it has been a year since that and, you know, it has not been that different since the other movies that I made, but there is much more attention to this one of course it was a very special moment in my life. One being in the competition in Cannes which was the first one in competition and to be awarded that it was a very beautiful recognition.
Well, I think it has been a few years, it has been around eight years since the war on drugs has been declared or the war on drug cartels I think we are still suffering a lot from that. There has not been a lot of what I am aware of big policy changes. They have been getting many criminals that escaped jail from a few years ago. There's also a system besides all that stuff. I'm not an expert on this stuff, but I notice theres these groups of people forming, not that I notice it is in the news but there's these groups of people forming in the country that are basically militias, because the government has not been able to take care of them. It is coming up in many different places in the country. There are self defense people and there are groups of people fighting against drug cartels because they have been held ransom, or extortion for too many years and the government has not done anything and they are taking it in their own hands, which is really a significant situation, that started to occur maybe a year ago, or less. That is something that is happening now, so I think that is important for that to happen. It means something and I hope it catches some momentum, and I hope something real happens from the government and politicians, so they can take care of the people. People have been quite abandon for many years, more than eight years. I think that scene in the torture scene with the children, I feel that is what that scene is about, the abandonment of society of people and what they can reach when they are abandoned. I think it has to do with taking care of young people at least so you know the future is a little bit better.