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Paul Leduc: Cinema that is full of life

Mexican director is honored at São Paulo Festival

MIGUEL BOYAYANFrida, naturaleza viva (1983) is a magnificent movie in many senses. For instance, an efficient script that entirely avoids linearity and fragments time pitilessly, but that nevertheless hurls us, fascinated, into the rich world, mental and sentimental, of Frida Kahlo, this extraordinary Mexican woman, the centenary of whose birth was celebrated on July 6 this year. It is magnificent in the strength of the images highly but delicately charged – such as those in which Frida, facing Trotsky, sadly refuses the love that he offers – or imbued with intense passion – even of a political nature, the case of a memorable scene where the moribund artist takes to the streets in a wheel chair to take part in a protest against the United States’ toppling of the Guatemala government led by Jacobo Arbenz. Also beautiful is the camera’s spanning over the artist’s very autobiographical, corporeal and painful life; equally beautiful is its recreation of the atmosphere of the relationships she experienced brought about by the actors’ performance, in particular of Ofélia Medina, who plays Frida Kahlo so intensely. It is a strong movie and also extremely sensitive to the feminine view of things.

The synopsis published in the program of the 2nd São Paulo Festival of Latin American Cinema, held from July 22 to 29 of last year, at the Memorial da América Latina auditorium (see page 16), introduced the movie as follows: “On her death bed, painter Frida Kahlo thinks back over her life. The most important characters and situations of her tormented existence go through her mind: her childhood, her illness, her political commitment, her agitated sentimental life, her friendship with Trotsky and the painter Siqueiros, the marriage with Rivera”. Let us suppose that this summary, if read a posteriori, would encourage one to see the movie immediately. This will be no easy task. It will be equally difficult to see Reed, México insurgente (1970), Etnocídio (1976), Barroco (1988) or the short features Los animales (1995) and La flauta de Bartolo (1997), all of them by Mexican director Paul Leduc and shown during the said festival in São Paulo. The difficulty lies in the fact that these movies are not normally shown in the country’s commercial circuits and are even harder to find in video rental shops, as is the case, incidentally, of a huge proportion of the Latin American cinema production, including Brazilian movies.

Things may turn out differently with regard to Cobrador – In God we trust, the director’s new movie, shown in Brazil for the first time on August 16 last, at the Gramado Film Festival, where, by the way, Leduc won the jury’s special award. Based on O cobrador e outros contos by Rubem Fonseca, filmed in New York, Mexico, Guadalajara, Buenos Aires and, primarily, the two Brazilian cities Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, one week having been spent in each of these places. The soundtrack is by Tom Zé with Lázaro Ramos playing the lead role, while Milton Gonçalves, Zezé Motta and Jonas Bloch are also in the cast. Perhaps this movie will become a foot in the door for a far larger number of Brazilians to become acquainted with the work of this Mexican director. If one takes into account, however, the critique of Luiz Carlos Merten (O Estado de São Paulo newspaper, August 17), this will not be the best example, given that Frida and Reed, to his mind, are far better movies .

Be that as it may, the important thing is that Cobrador may bring an opportunity for larger Brazilian audiences to have an initial contact with Paul Leduc, recognized as one of Mexico’s most talented movie directors, thanks to a production that invested heavily in a partnership among Latin American countries. For filmgoers, he is, of course, an acquaintance of long standing and it comes as no surprise that the author of a fine body of work “underscored by a realistic approach to the political and social situation of Mexico and Latin America” (resorting yet again to the São Paulo Festival of Latin American Cinema catalog) should have been honored in the second edition of this event.

As such, he delivered the master class that has been one of the festival’s highlights since its first year, when this task fell to Fernando Birri, an Argentinean (read Pesquisa FAPESP no. 127). Leduc, however, being against the classical lecture mode, preferred to respond to a series of questions that were sent to him by the festival’s curator, director João Batista de Andrade, by the chairman of the Memorial, Fernando Leça, and by professional colleagues and journalists, who went to hear Leduc on a chilly Saturday morning, July 28 in São Paulo. At a given point in time, responding to a question about how a movie director is trained in Mexico, he recalled that cinema for the masses during his childhood and youth has disappeared, whereas television is now the chief former of general taste – hence the fact that more superficial and linear movies are preferred these days.

“When my generation started making movies, for better or for worse, we overused a language of our own that dominated the most advanced experiences of this medium in Hungary, Japan or Latin America”, he said. In Mexico, his generation “hated the popular Mexican movies of the time”, which they saw as overly mythical reality. “Mexico had an important movie industry in the 40’s and 50’s; it had very well-known actors, such as Cantinflas and María Félix.” But once WWII ended, there came the years in which Italy produced neo-realism and influenced other filmographies around the world; the popular Mexican cinema formula fell by the wayside in a way and became a caricature of itself, he stated. In the wake of the theory of the author, that blossomed in the Hungarian and Czech cinema, and with the French nouvelle vague, “what was previously ballroom music turned into chamber music”, and except for major Hollywood production movie makers started to forget the public at large and to focus on a more refined audience. It was a very similar process to what happened in Brazil, noted João Batista, when the authors linked to the New Cinema “started turning up their noses at slapstick movies and the Vera Cruz studio; thereafter, never again were they able to overcome the dialectics of the conflict between popularity and the new, the box office and the idea.” In his rather atypical master class, Paul Leduc talked a little about the current relations between cinema and television in his country, discussing the inflexibility of the Mexican soap opera formula, which has remained unchanged for the last three or four decades. He also touched upon current audiovisual media legislation.

In brief, Leduc’s biography is as follows: he was born in Mexico City on March 11, 1942 and studied architecture at Universidade Nacional Autônoma de México (the National Autonomous University of Mexico). After graduating, he started becoming involved with movies through cinematheques (there was no cinema course in his city) and writing cinema reviews. He looked upon this as a parallel activity, but eventually awoke to the idea that he did not want to be an architect. That was when he arrived in Paris (1965), where he studied cinema until 1966 at the famous IDHEC – Institut des Hautes Études Cinematographiques (Institute of High Cinematographic Studies). Upon returning to Mexico, he founded in 1967 the Cine 70 group, together with director and editor Rafael Castañedo, photographer Aléxis Givas and producer Bertha Navarro. With his fine Reed, México insurgente, his first full feature movie and a landmark in the new Mexican cinema , he effectively embarked upon his award-winning career as a movie director. Leduc talks about this and other movies, and about the challenges of making movies in Latin America in the following interview with Pesquisa FAPESP.

Let’s start with your current views on Reed, México insurgente. In an interview with Luís Carlos Merten, from the O Estado de São Paulo newspaper, you said that you didn’t much like the movie’s timing, its pace. I’d like you to talk a little bit more about this.
Well, I hardly ever watch my movies because I soon conclude that I would change a number of things. This doesn’t apply only to Reed but to all of them. Concretely, what happened with this movie is that when it was made, in 1970, all of us Latin Americans, including Brazilians, were looking for a different language – that was our focus. I later discussed this a lot with Glauber, among other reasons because it didn’t strike me as being very appropriate to talk about a Latin American language in a continent with such major differences. Glauber, who had introduced hunger into the esthetic arena, talked, for instance, of a Bahian language, connected to tropicalism. I kept telling him that it would be false to make movies along these lines in Mexico, with the form and language Glauber employed. Mexico had more to do with what was emerging from a creator such as Juan Rulfo, a writer of the desert, of silence, of the dry valleys’ The pace is very different in countries where there were indigenous civilizations compared to those where Negroes where brought in – the music reflects this. It’s not that one is worse, the other better, it’s just that they’re different. But the fact remains that with this vision of music and language, I thought that to counter the language of US movies a bit I had to extend time – nonsense really, because things are not that simple. So when I watched Reed on other occasions I thought: “Oh, but this movie drags, I could easily cut it down with no loss?”

But I believe, even taking into account the fact that Mexico had had a flourishing movie industry in previous decades, that the way in which you filmed battle scenes, cavalcades, etc. in Reed adds something rich and different to your country’s cinema, wouldn’t you agree?
Perhaps these scenes show that Reed was a very inexpensive movie. Are they interesting? Perhaps financial limitations are good sometimes, because they stimulate the imagination, driving the search for solutions outside the box. The film had a lot of scenes that lent themselves to this quest.

John Reed’s life was the subject of an American movie with Warren Beaty in the 70’s.
The Warren Beaty one is called Reds, and the Soviet movie by Serguei Bondarchuk is called Campanadas de media noche or something like that. I never saw this last one because everybody said it was lousy. I watched Reds on TV many years later and liked it a lot. It’s a Hollywood style movie, evidently, but the mere fact that Hollywood talked about John Reed is very interesting. It virtually ignored the Mexican part of his biography, however; it was the Soviet revolution that it was interested in and, of course, it had a love story and too much personal life in it, but it was very well made, emotive and respectful of the character and his environment. Besides, it had the wonderful Diane Keaton in it.

When you started filming Reed you were a young man aged?
A boy!

Ok, a boy aged twenty-something?
26, 27, something like that

So didn’t the film seem like a major challenge to you, out of all proportion, at that point in time?
What happened is that we were a group of friends who had studied cinema abroad and we bought an auto-silent synchronic 16 mm éclair camera, which was the first of its kind in Mexico. And we had a lot of projects, all sorts of documentaries and fiction movies, but there was a serious problem at that time. An entire generation, not in terms of age, but of movie makers, was unable to make movies because the union, which was corrupt and tightly-knit, had a rule that said that one couldn’t join the union unless one had previously made a movie filmed over a minimum of five weeks and with a minimum investment of one million pesos – and naturally there were no producers that would invest one million pesos in a five-week movie to be made by non-unionized people, a movie that for this very reason could not be legally distributed’so, obviously, you couldn’t make movies – it was a vicious circle. So a bunch of us movie directors started looking for different ways to make films. I chose to make them using 16 mm, which cut costs and which, besides, was not regulated by law, because this format was regarded as amateurish. Then we thought about simple projects: stories with only a few actors in one department. But talking to friends, we found out that one could get a train virtually free of charge – that we could get horses because there was somebody from a farm that would lend them, that it was possible to get things from a friend of a friend of a friend – and so on and so forth. This complicated production somewhat, but not that much more than doing everything in one department, so Reed, México insurgente, which had been a project I had been thinking about for the future, turned out to be my first movie. We realized that one could try this and that it was necessary to try it because it was like breaking out of the ghetto in which they wanted to enclose us, shooting all films in one department and with few actors.

Why did you have a connection with Reed’s life and his story?
The Mexican Revolution continued to be a very important theme throughout all these years. It was discussed a lot, all sorts of books about it were published, analysis about the revolution. I chose John Reed, a first-hand writer of subjects, who had produced a book based on the articles that he sent. Another advantage was also that we knew what was going to happen to John Reed. When he wrote the book, he didn’t know that he would go to the Soviet Union, that he would write Ten Days that Shook the World and that he would die there – but we knew. So, beyond the revolution theme itself, we had the possibility of exploring a character as rich as John Reed, a foreigner that was observing the revolution, but also taking sides in it – and this was a highly up-to-date theme at that time, given that after 1968 and the student movement, lots people, students or otherwise, were facing the dilemma of how to take part in any social and political movement.

Yes, the general question was about new and effective ways of participation among students, intellectuals and other middle class groups in the political struggle for a deep social transformation heading toward socialism.
Exactly. And in our case, witnessing a double level of the interpretation of revolution, because there was the idea of a Mexican Revolution such as presented previously by the cinema in Mexico. It was mythical cinema , that invented a revolution, that told stories that took place during the revolution, but in which the revolution was not included, other than in a very few films that were the exception to this rule, such as El compadre Mendoza or Vámonos con Pancho Villa, both by Fernando de Fuentes.

Actually, I can remember some old films shown here in Brazil in which the character of Pancho Villa appeared, but that gave us no real idea of what the Mexican Revolution truly was.
Yes, there are dozens of movies about Pancho Villa’s women, Pancho Villa’s songs, etc. It was just a pretext for these movies.

After Reed, what films did you make before you got to the beautiful Frida, naturaleza viva?
Even though Reed did well and won a lot of awards, it caused many problems for me. In our case, we filmed it in 1970, toward the end of President Díaz Ordaz’s term [1964-1970], and we edited it during the early days of the Echeverriá government [1970-1976], which tried to acquire legitimacy when it first started by denying everything that had happened in 1968 [on October 2, 1968, incidentally, in Tlatelolco square, one of the most repressive actions of the Mexican government against the student movement took place, resulting in 32 deaths, according to official police data, or 325, according to independent surveys, including those of international press organizations]. In any event, once the 16 mm movie was ready, we did not have the right to show it in Mexico, because we hadn’t produced it under the union umbrella. So we sent it to Cannes, to the Director’s Fortnight, where it did very well; then it managed to get distribution and ended up winning the best foreign movie award in France; it later won several other awards in Mexico and abroad, which helped it a great deal. At this point in time Echeverría had installed his brother, a well-known actor, at the head of the cinema area; both of them were intelligent types, regardless of what one might think about their political ideas, and they focused on co-opting everybody to their cause. We didn’t want to join this game, but finally they proposed to legalize the movie by putting money into it for us to pay what we needed to pay the union as a fine for not having worked with them, in exchange for the distribution rights. We discussed this amongst us and finally we accepted the offer because that way the movie would be screened in Mexico. Other than that, we also had problems with other producers because the film had been made with 360 thousand pesos and around the same years a movie about [Emiliano] Zapata was made and cost about 14 million pesos. So our film, thanks to its far lower cost, showed involuntarily that it was absurd to make movies using the union system , with so many useless people in the production. So, despite Reed‘s success, I was unable to go back to filming fiction the way I wanted to. I did another documentary that is going to play here [in the 2nd Latin American Cinema Festival] these days, Etnocídio.

What about Barroco?
Barroco was made many years later. It’s a Spanish production of Spanish Television, inspired in Concerto barroco, the book by Alejo Carpentier. Let us say it’s pure fun, it doesn’t apply itself to anything. It isn’t a musical: it’s a movie about music. It has no dialogue and no script; the only thing it intends is to suggest answers to the questions that Miguel Matamoros asks in one of Cuba’s most popular songs: “Where are singers from?”

Which of your movies do you think represents you yourself best?
For better or for worse, all of them. And now I feel closer to El Cobrador, because it’s the most recent one.

A short while ago, I talked to your Brazilian colleague, João Batista de Andrade, this festival’s curator, and one of the things he thinks is that the weight of the past of Latin American cinema as a whole, despite all the differences amongst the many countries’ cinematographies, was always very great in the different meetings and forums. And in this festival he wanted to bring in new generations as the leading characters of something that must be done against the almost complete takeover of the exhibition area by the US movie industry. You talked a little about this when you introduced Reed. Could you go into more detail bout your views of this problem? And is there a clear difference between Mexico and Brazil in terms of whether or not internationally successful movie directors in our countries contribute to the development of local cinematographies?
Well, here I see two different issues. One is the weight of the past on young people. I feel this differs between the countries. Actually, when I left the recording of Roda Viva [the TV Cultura interview program] and returned to the hotel, rather giddy from answering so many questions, I kept thinking that regarding the theme of what is newest in our cinema, not much was said, for instance. But I don’t know whether this is symptomatic of anything. As for the other issue, the influence or lack thereof of successful movie directors upon our cinematography, consider the following: I feel that in the same way as Walter Salles, who gained great international renown and whose work may have helped one or two movie directors, but did not have any direct consequences upon the overall body of Brazilian cinema, something very similar happened in Mexico with Del Toro, Quarón or Iñarritu, or, earlier, with Arau or Mandoki. Not through any fault of their own, of course; it’s two different things: what happens with movie directors who make films outside Mexico with foreign productions and become renowned in the international scene, and what can really change in the local cinema production scene.

But, according to your views, is there something that one could actually do to reduce the exaggerated weight of US films being shown in our countries, or is this a lost cause?
We have to develop a sharper view of how we can change things in a different way from what we have been doing up to now. On one hand, there are the filming technology developments that have reduced costs. There are changes in the field of image dissemination: the Internet, DVD, which will bring about changes in distribution by cable or satellite to the movie theatres, etc. In reality, this is already changing. On the other hand, in some places, to present a movie project one must do it as part of a package of things that would be for television and commercial movie theatres simultaneously and, additionally, as a possible base for interactive series for the Internet, makers of marketable gadgets, etc.

When I talked to Fernando Birri, he proposed something similar; in other words, that all the talking among the different media would transform what we understand by cinema and by a movie into a way that we can only barely surmise at present. But João Batista voiced, in addition to this vision of technologically-based transformations, a strong concern about the need to do something in political terms in order to ensure the permanence of cinema in Latin American countries. Do you also believe that it will be necessary to reveal new forms of political struggle for this?
Putting pressure on governments and devising new institutions for the cinema are things that don’t invalidate each other. Additionally, there would be lots of other things. I think, for instance, that this São Paulo festival should still change, not because it’s not good, but precisely because it’s fine. In the same way as the Guadalajara festival, besides all the artistic part and the viewing of movies, one should seek more profound debate sessions, the discussion of practical things and of ideas. And I think that little by little it will change, because what we are sorely lacking, more than a festival, is a meeting place, which is what the Havana festival was for a long time, where many things were voted on, such as the Committee of Latin American Movie Directors, the New Latin American Cinema Foundation, the Three World School and the meetings didn’t take place only during the time of the festival, but on other dates as well, in order to discuss the problems of the cinema on the continent and look for proposals and solutions. For example, if in Argentina the House of Representatives was considering a an amendment to the cinema incentive law, we could hear about the experiences of others and see, retroactively, what worked and what didn’t. In sum, practical things of this nature, trying to establish distribution chains. There are more and more festivals around the world and all of them want to have 300 or 400 movies; so I think that São Paulo would be more useful if instead of holding a giant festival it fostered, above all, a meeting of young people. In Argentina alone there are currently 7,500 cinema students. When he founded the San Antonio de los Baños School, García Marquez said that this might turn out to be the most expensive way of producing unemployed people in the world. This is a latent danger everywhere.

At present, what is the project you’re working on?
Top secret. I’m very superstitious and don’t like talking about projects.