Becloud: Soul of a Nation?

Director Alejandro Gerber Bicecci and Rob Avila discuss Mexico and the psychology behind the filmmaker’s debut feature

Alejandro Gerber Bicecci was born in Mexico in 1977, the son of two Argentine psychoanalysts who left their country’s military dictatorship the year before for the relative freedom of Mexico City. Becloud (Vaho), Bicecci’s first feature film, is being distributed by Global Film Initiative and is part of GFI’s 2010 Global Lens series. Filmed in an unconventional and sophisticated manner that blends three distinct time periods together into a nearly seamless whole, the story concerns the coming-of-age of three teenagers, boyhood friends implicated in a violent act at their school many years before. Out of this small, neighborhood story from a marginal community—set against the backdrop of Iztapalapa’s annual Easter-week reenactment of the Passion—arises a resonant portrait of modern Mexican society.

The following interview with Bicecci took place in San Francisco just before the opening night premiere of Becloud at the 2010 Hola Mexico Film Festival, which was co-presented by the Global Film Initiative.

RA: There’s a scene in Becloud that explains the origin of the film’s Spanish title, Vaho, which turns out to be an unusual word to Mexican ears. It refers, in a literal fashion, to the misty breath we exhale when the temperature is cold enough. It also refers—more literarily—to the Popol Vuh creation myth, recounted in the film by the character of Abigail before her grade-school class. In this story, the gods create “the first fathers” of human beings in a perfect form, but immediately come to fear that their creation might unseat them, and men become gods themselves. The gods therefore blow a mist over men’s eyes, beclouding their vision and circumscribing their power.

For the world the film portrays—bounded by the poor and thirsty Mexico City borough of Iztapalapa—this myth finds meaning in the context of Mexico’s sprawling megalopolis itself, a once idyllic landscape rapidly running out of water due principally to the myopia of its Spanish planners and subsequent generations’ near-sightedness in matters of social order and environmental harmony.

But then this theme has resonance for almost any audience today, in a world conscious of running up against the limits of inexorable growth. Indeed, the power of films like Becloud.

Alejandro, do you still have family in Argentina?

AGB: There’s my grandmother, who’s in Cordoba. Her brother also, my uncle. All of my father’s family had to leave Argentina, so they’re in various places around the world. I have family in Spain, in Brazil, and in Israel.

RA: Do you travel to see them?

AGB: Yes, since I was very little I’ve had the chance to travel.

RA: Walter Salles spoke at the San Francisco International Film Festival recently about the influence on his approach to cinema of a childhood spent traveling the world as the son of a diplomat. Did traveling a lot as a child inform your approach to film, or your desire to be a filmmaker? Do you relate to that connection between cinema and travel?

AGB: More than the idea of travel, I think it’s the idea of not having this structure that having a family nearby gives you. If every Sunday you go to your grandparents’ houses, you feel you have roots in a place. I don’t have real roots in Mexico. I explain to myself part of the making of Vaho is this urgent need to search for some roots in the place I was born and where I live. And where I live I only have three family members, my parents and my sister.

RA: The film partly reflects, then, your own personal relation to Mexico?

AGB: I was raised feeling like I was born in Mexico by a political accident. Somehow that has made me very critical about Mexico. Mexico is a very nationalistic country in a lot of ways. I am very far away from being nationalistic, toward Mexico or any other place. On the other hand, this critical approach to the place where I live made me try to investigate it. Mexico City has this kind of duality: You have one of the richest cities in the world and one of the poorest cities in the world, at the same time. There are a lot of people who ignore the place where they live, who kind of live in a capsule. The higher classes in Mexico City see things like what happened in Iztapalapa and believe it’s a town on a mountain far away—and it is right under their noses. I have this curiosity to really know this place where I live.

RA: It’s right under their noses as well as intimately tied to their own lives and fate, as your film suggests. But the feeling you express, probably a lot of Americans would feel this way.

AGB: It’s a country of immigrants [the United States]. But what happens with Mexico is that Mexico is a millenarian country. There are people who can trace back their pasts through centuries. It’s very self-absorbed. It’s difficult for a Mexican to accept a stranger in a familiar way. Being the son of two immigrants, it’s a complex thing to understand that too.

RA: Both of your parents are psychoanalysts. Has that shaped your own critical approach to the world? Is there a conscious influence there?

AGB: I don’t know if it is conscious, but I suppose there may be
RA: Did you ever consider the profession yourself?

AGB: No, I am very critical about psychoanalysis. I’m basically very skeptical toward it. It’s funny, I know many sons and daughters of psychoanalysts and none of them has taken the profession of their parents. I know filmmakers, and their sons want to be filmmakers; I know doctors, and their sons want to be doctors. But it does not happen with psychoanalysts. [laughs]

RA: What drew you to filmmaking?

AGB: My parents are cinephiles. I suppose that has something to do with it. I was very good at school. I have always had a fascination for the humanities: literature, history. One day I found out that the daughter of a friend of my mother was studying cinema. I was very surprised that you could study cinema! [laughs] And that was that. I have this capacity for fixed ideas. Once I want something I can go through a wall until I get it. So when I finished high school I decided not to do the admission exam to the university—not even to do the admission exam to the other film school—only to the film training center, the center of cinematography. I was consciously closing all other ways forward.

RA: So you focused exclusively on one specific goal to the exclusion of all else.
AGB: Yes, and I was not accepted. [laughs]

RA: So what did you do then?

AGB: I got to know some of the students and started to work as a production assistant for student short films in the school. The school every year produces a feature film, and I worked as a production assistant in that feature film. The school also organizes a school film festival and I was part of the staff. So I spent one year—it was a really important year in my formation—working to prove to the people in the school that I was worthy of being accepted. The next year I was accepted.

RA: Did that end up being a good approach to filmmaking for you?

AGB: I think it was. I learned a lot. I really didn’t know that much about film production.

RA: It’s quite structured…

AGB: Quite military. It’s very hierarchical. [As a PA] you are the lowest of the low. [laughs]

RA: Do you rely on a rigid, hierarchical structure as a director? How did you structure the production on Becloud?

AGB: Most of the people who worked on the film were [beginners]. It was my first film as a director, the producer’s first film as a producer, my assistant director’s first film as an assistant director, the location manager’s first film as a location manager—and a lot of other people. So what we had was a lot of enthusiasm. The production became something important. It was not just one more film; it was the first film for most of us, and also for a lot of the actors. On the other hand, during the shooting I found that things could get out of control very easily. So I came to be very strict. Maybe it was a kind of defense for my own insecurities—that’s something I can say now; three years ago, I don’t know. However, the average age was around 30, so it was a very young crew.

RA: You get very good performances from a cast of both professional and non-professional actors, including child actors. Had you worked with children before?

AGB: When I made my thesis film, Pedestrian, I worked with a 12-year-old child and I found it really fun. I think that character divided itself in three and became the three characters in Vaho. The main idea came [from there]; there are some points in common. What I did with the kids was to start by rehearsing the duel with the swords—and the two little girls, they were like cheerleaders. That was the key to getting to know them well and start working, because they realized that it was going to be a fun thing to make the film. They became very close friends, the three of them. When we started to rehearse all the other scenes, what I did was to rehearse all the kids’ episodes as if it were a [complete] play, so the five kids understand the whole dramatic arc of the kids’ episode in the film. When we started shooting, by fragments, they knew exactly in what part of the dramatic arc they were. They understood perfectly the story.

RA: Sounds like a shrewd strategy.

AGB: It was very intuitive. It was not something planned. I didn’t know how to do it. I said, “Let’s start with the duel, because it’s going to be complex. We need to make the choreography—we don’t have a choreographer, so we’re going to invent it ourselves.”

RA: How did you cast the other parts?

AGB: I wanted new faces. So me and my assistant director—who should have a credit as a casting director in the film, something I realized later—we started to go to all the actors’ workshops, like recreational workshops in houses and schools. I was in five or six different classes, in different places, and we started to take pictures of the kids there. Everyone I thought could fit into the idea of some of the characters, I asked him to go to the office—we had made a small casting office.

Then we talked to Fermín Martinez—the actor who plays the role of Romualdo, the alcoholic father of Andrès. Fermín and his partner have a little school south of Mexico City. They have a small group of young actors. It’s a very independent school. We talked with him. I offered him the role of Romualdo. And I asked him to help me to organize a workshop to perfect the performances of the actors. What we did was, one day every week for two months we mixed it up: Fermín’s students with all the kids I cast. We made a group of between 15 and 18 young actors. This workshop lasted for two months. The first month was mainly dramatic exercises. When this month ended, we did a reading of the script and then started to improvise. Only the three leads knew they were going to play Andrès, José and Felipe. All the others didn’t know if they were going to be in the film or not. We started to play: The kids who are parking cars in the street in [the] Coyoacan [district of Mexico City] [contributed to the characters of] Andres and José; and the adolescent on the internet [contributed to] Felipe. In the end, every single one of them got a role in the film, even if it was very tiny.

What happened with this workshop is that they all became part of the same story. I think that’s the thing that works with the actors. They are all in the same film. There’s not one that’s at another level of performance or a lower one. We built a lot of confidence between them, and with me.

RA: This sounds like an unconventional as well as complex process for casting a film. It wouldn’t normally be so intense would it?

AGB: No. It was something that I insisted a lot on doing. And that workshop process, even beyond the film, was worthwhile. It was a huge learning experience.

RA: How did you develop the script?

AGB: It was a very long process. I started to write it in 2005 and the last treatment was written in December 2007. There were seven versions of the script in the process.

RA: What was the seed of the story?

AGB: There are a lot of seeds in the film. I think the process of writing it was that long because I was trying to find out: “How do I make all of these ideas a part of the same story?” And I think you can tell that by watching the film. [laughs]

RA: The film, in turn, becomes about the deep interconnection of different stories.

AGB: And of a lot of ideas. I was thinking of making a documentary about the concheros, who are the Aztec dancers; I was thinking about making a documentary about the passion of Iztapalapa; I was thinking of making a movie about teenagers facing their fathers, and trying to grow; I wanted to make something with kids, like playing. The prologue of the film, the first ten minutes: It’s the story of La Difunta Correa, a saint in Argentina [from] the 19th century. In the desert of San Juan some farmers, I think, found that lady with a healthy baby in her arms, sucking milk from her breast, and she became immediately a saint. To this day, people take her bottles filled with water to ease her thirst and ask her for favors, or as a form of gratitude for something. When I read that story, I kept thinking, “What happened to the kid? OK, the lady’s dead and becomes a saint, but what about the kid?” For a moment, I thought maybe the kid would become a killer or something like that.

RA: An ironic contrast of some kind.

AGB: Yeah, some ironic comment on this saint. But when I was writing the script, I found a book by a French anthropologist, René Girard, called Job, the Victim of His People. He has this theory about a sacrificial cycle in every civilization. He says that every civilization is constructed over the sacrifice of one man. This man was born like a saint, was admired by the crowd, and then at some point in his life fell in disgrace. He comes to be hated by the people, the people kill him violently, and once he’s dead he becomes a saint again. When I read this book I said, “This is perfect for the son of La Difunta Correa. I’m going to steal it from Argentina and plant it in Mexico.”

RA: Taking Argentine roots to plant some roots in Mexico, and making a larger social tableau from it.

AGB: Like a mural painting. It became like that. The film became like a mural painting of a social moment in Mexico’s history.

RA: A palimpsest, too, in the sense of something with layers of images and history bleeding through…

AGB: You can read exactly what was behind, but you can only read a part of what was there.

RA: One of the things I find impressive in the film is the way you translate that idea into a specific aesthetic, a cinematic idea, most notably in the long, time-spanning pans in the opening and closing scenes. There we follow the camera across the dry lakebed from one time period to another—the ’60s to present day—and then back again, back through time, at the end of the film. The single, seamless panning shot evokes that kind of idea: The past and the present are in contact and in conversation, not strictly divided. In general, how did you develop the visual language for this story? Did you know how you wanted to film it from the first?

AGB: The film is divided into three parts, aesthetically, and those are the three time periods in the story: The present, the kids’ episode, and the part in the ’60s. What I decided was that every time [period] had to be filmed in a specific way. The ’60s [section] has these slow, big movements. We had a crane [for the camera] to do those two moments [at the beginning and end of the film]. We tried to explode the landscape and make it oppressive by being open. The kids [section], for me, was an adventure movie. I tried to film it like it was an adventure movie, with the camera very close to the characters. It’s a bit more dynamic but also a little bit more academic. With the present day [section], I wanted something uncomfortable with the camera. The camera is never in the place it should be (if you were being rigid and academic). You never saw the faces of the elders, the parents of the kids. The camera is always close to Andrès, José and Felipe.

That was the beginning [concept]. Then we started to discuss it with the cinematographer. We made a very detailed storyboard. It was the first time I made a storyboard. It was a very good idea, because we got to every one of the sets with the exact idea [in mind] for portraying that scene.

For the long sequence, the long shot, we spent days and days and days discussing it and designing it. For me, it was very important to make a time transition without making a cut. An ellipsis without a cut. You know the classical, academic ellipsis is [something like]: Camera pans to the helmet, cut, and three hours pass—the sun has set and now it’s night. I wanted to make that without cutting the image.

However, there are two moments [elsewhere in the film] when I couldn’t do it. There are five time transitions in the film. I would have liked to have made a similar transition [with each] but I didn’t find a way. I spent days and days on [one], until I said, “Well, okay, I’m not going to be able to do it.” The main idea was that the five time transitions would [be made without a cut].

RA: The footage of the Passion play in Iztapalapa is actual documentary footage of the event. Was this especially challenging to shoot?

AGB: I did a lot of research, so I knew exactly the kind of [crowd] movement that happens in the Passion of Iztapalapa. I knew exactly what was possible to do and adapted myself to those possibilities. I was there in 2006, taking photographs and trying to learn how it works. It’s really mayhem. I was with my ex-girlfriend and we got lost, we didn’t get to the hill where Christ was crucified—it was very complex. In 2007, we went with a small camera and made some of the documentary footage—the horse that falls down and that sort of thing. And in 2008, when we shot [the scene], we went with two cameras. One camera was with me and the cinematographer. We made all the scenes with the actors. I knew the places where we could have some kind of liberty. So we stayed in those places and sent the second camera unit to the crowd, where all the kicking and the punches were. All the footage of the people fighting is from that second camera.

The trouble that we had was that the Passion of Iztapalapa is organized by a civil committee, and the civil committee is very jealous of the representation. They don’t want strangers to shoot there. So the first Sunday—you have the Sunday of Domingo de Ramos [Palm Sunday], then Holy Thursday and Holy Friday, the crucifixion. We went there on the Sunday and they kicked us out. They saw us with a big camera and they freaked out. So we had two or three days to negotiate. We managed to negotiate with them and they let us film what we wanted to film.

RA: The film has screened fairly widely by now. Can you talk about the reception of the film?

AGB: I’m starting to think that you can never know the reception of a film. I tend not to believe very much the people I know because their opinion is filtered by how they know me, that sort of thing. Then I have another hundred opinions of strangers, and they are so different one to another that you get this feeling—sometimes it’s very liberating—the film is not mine anymore. That’s very good. When somebody really likes the film, or somebody hates the film, you feel like, “OK, keep it!” [laughs]

RA: You were talking at the beginning about how the film is at one level a very personal search for meaning and roots. But the other half of it is, of course, that the people who see the film are going to bring other things to it and possibly have a very different dialogue with it. It seems you’re finding both sides of that equation amounting to a worthwhile journey.

AGB: Yes, undoubtedly. It’s funny because when I was a teenager, I grew up in Mexico with this strong wish of one day leaving Mexico and living in another place. And everything that has happened since I started to write the film—that was five years ago—has kept me digging in Mexico. Exactly the contrary of what I wished when I was a teenager.

As for the reception of the film, in April we had the first screening of the film in Iztapalapa. It was the opening of the cultural festival of the Passion of Iztapalapa. There were 300 people in the screening room, 100 of them from the civil committee.

RA: Tough audience?

AGB: Very tough. [laughs] When I got to the theater, one of the members of the civil committee told me, “Don’t worry, Alejandro, we have talked to security. If anybody wants to beat you up, they will protect you.” I looked at him, trying to figure out if he was bluffing or something, and I never knew. I told him, “Promise me that the security people are not going to watch the film!” [laughs]

The civil committee was very polite in the end. They stood up and clapped to me and the actors who were there. But this man who was not part of the committee stood up and said, “I am proud to see this film. I am proud of being from Iztapalapa. I’m proud of who I am and my troubles.” So there are people who feel very sympathetic with the portrait that the film makes of the people of Iztapalapa. On the other side, there are thousands of people who have told me that the film is very long and that I should edit it again, and so on. [laughs]

RA: The man from Iztapalapa who stood up brings us back to the theme of place.

AGB: I do want it to be a portrait of Mexico City and not just Iztapalapa. I have this fascination for the theme of water in Mexico City. Mexico City 500 years ago was like Venice and right now it’s a sea of concrete! That’s a decision that Spanish people made in the 1600s because the city flooded a lot and they started to drain the lakes. I wanted to shoot in that dry lakebed since my first short film. I had the image in my head, of a lady crossing that desert, for 17 years. And this was the time to have that image make some sense—some sense in the history of Mexico City. It is a city with few idyllic places. Almost every city has this park or this mountain or this hill or this lake or this river, where you can go and sit and only see the landscape. Mexico City, you can count such places with one hand. I wanted to portray that, and portray it in an opposite way, trying to make idyllic what was not idyllic in the first place, or in the first view.

RA: How did your relationship with Global Film Initiative come about?

AGB: We didn’t have money to finish the film. I sent them a DVD with a rough cut for the fund—the support they give out for postproduction [GFI’s twice-annual feature-film Production Grant program http://www.globalfilm.org/programs.htm]. They answered back saying that we didn’t get the grant but they were interested in distributing the film. I said, “Where do I sign?” [laughs] They didn’t answer back. [laughs] Two months later there was another grant in Mexico City we were going to apply for and we needed letters of support. So I said, “I’m going to write back to those guys that said they wanted to distribute the film.” I tried. They didn’t answer. Then suddenly one day a letter from Santhosh came saying, “I think there’s been a miscommunication. We are still interested in distributing your film.” We thought it was a very good opportunity for the film. I think it was something very good for the film, for me, and for Abril [Schmucler], the producer.

RA: Did having a distributor onboard help with finding support for the film in general?

AGB: It was very good for getting the funds in Mexico to finish the film. And the screenings are another world. You don’t expect to have a chance to screen your film at the MoMA [New York Museum of Modern Art]. Right now, I think the film has been seen more in the U.S. than in Mexico. In Mexico, it’s going to be theatrically released in June.

RA: Mexican cinema is enjoying a lot of worldwide attention these days. How do you see your film in the context of Mexican cinema today?

AGB: There is a new wave of young filmmakers in Mexico making their way. I feel part of that generation. I don’t think I’m making exactly the same kinds of films they are, but we all get some feedback between us. Since three years ago, Mexican cinema is producing around 60 or 70 films a year. Before that we were between 12 and about 50. A lot of people [in the past] who wanted to be filmmakers couldn’t make it, so there is this gap. You have some very classical filmmakers—Arturo Ripstein, Felipe Cazals, etc. There’s this generation that struggled a lot to make films, producing a very few number of filmmakers. And there’s this new mob [laughs]—a real mob of young filmmakers.

RA: Part of the reason for the expansion in the number of filmmakers working now has to do with technological changes that make it easier. Are there other reasons it has become easier to be a filmmaker in Mexico?

AGB: The funds. The funding in Mexico became easier to obtain. That has something to do with the three Mexican filmmakers that are world-renowned today, and the three Mexican actors that have this [international] weight. They [helped] to make the funds available to all of us. There is a big mix of ideas and confrontations: This new generation of filmmakers has a minimalistic approach (although Vaho is a long way away from being a minimalistic film). Older filmmakers accuse young filmmakers of being artsy-fartsy, copying films that have a lot of resonance in international festivals. Young filmmakers accuse older filmmakers of being too commercial and of getting all the money. Vaho doesn’t quite fit into either category, however I feel nearer to my own generation.

RA: What project do you have coming next?

AGB: I have a new script; it’s called “Viento Aparte.” It’s a road movie. It’s about a brother and a sister. The brother is 15, the sister 12. They are Mexican middle-class. They are on a beach with their parents in Oaxaca, south of Mexico City. The mother becomes ill, and the father decides to send the two kids to their grandmother’s house in Chihuahua [in northern Mexico], like 1500 miles away. It’s a long, long trip. As in any road movie, they meet strange characters. The first thing that happens, they are on a bus and after two hours or so some campesinos have blocked the road because there was a killing in the town and they’re not letting any cars pass because they’re asking for justice. So it also [like Vaho] has this intention of making a social portrait, and it also has teenagers as characters. The structure is easier, six different episodes, each one centered on a character the children meet. I want to make it very cheap, a very low-budget film, so I’m thinking 15 or 20 people maximum. In Vaho we had 70. I never wanted to have so many people behind me. [laughs]

RA: With that small a crew, I guess it really will be a road trip for all of you.

AGB: Exactly.

Rob Avila is a San Francisco-based writer, and film and stage critic. He is a regular contributor to SF360 and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and has worked with the Global Film Initiative on a range of projects and programs, including production of GFI educational resources and the Initiative’s Granting Program.

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