As previously reported, Amat Escalante's Heli opens in Mexico on Friday, August 9. So the director and his cast are here supporting their film and getting ready for the Mexico City premiere, to be celebrated at the Cinematheque (Cineteca Nacional) on August 6.
Escalante, Armando Espitia (Heli), Andrea Vergara (Heli's sister Estela), Eduardo Palacios (Estela's boyfriend Beto), Linda González (Heli's wife Sabrina), Ramón Álvarez (Heli's father) and Reina Torres (Detective Maribel) already met with the press for a conference. Many topics were discussed, including violence in Mexico, Escalante's relationship with Carlos Reygadas, and, of course, the Cannes 2013 Best Director award. "Even if you don't like this type of cinema, you should give Heli an opportunity. Even (Steven) Spielberg liked it!" said Escalante.
Here I bring you the entire conference and photos. I only omitted few quotes from the actors with really no substance (not great talkers for sure). Warning, there are some Heli spoilers.
Amat Escalante (AE): We could talk a little bit about the casting process. It was a diverse casting; we looked in drama schools and in the street. We made casting calls that were attended by thousands of people. Reina (Torres) was one of the persons that responded to those calls, for example.
Reina Torres (RT): I went through a casting with other 1,200 persons at the University of Guanajuato. I was number 916, and Amat gave me the role of Maribel, the detective. I'm proud to be in his film, despite not being an actress. I'm grateful for the opportunity Amat gave us. He was always with us, supporting us at every moment.
Eduardo Palacios (EP): My casting process was different. I was working at the Secretariat of Public Education and they suddenly arrived. They interviewed me and later they called me. I didn't trust them much, as I didn't know what it was all about. I'm also a beginner and I'm grateful.
Andrea Vergara (AV): I went out one day with my mom and my two nephews, and Amat's brother Martín came and said to my mom that I was perfect for the role of Estela. Later I met Amat and that's how they chose me.
Armando Espitia (E): Mine is the most boring as I did a normal casting! I was studying theater and this is my first film.
Linda González (LG): I also had a great experience; they found me in the street and took me a photo for an upcoming movie. I went to the casting as well but it was a long process. After a year they called me again for another test and that's when I got the role of Sabrina.
Ramón Alvarez (RA): I did the casting in Mexico City. Months later I was accepted, feeling really lucky.
Q. Can the cast tell us an anecdote about the filming?
RT: For me it wasn't easy to get undressed, because at the time I was breastfeeding my child. It was ultimately a very beautiful experience.
EP: For me it was similar with the part where I get burned. A difficult task but luckily we could make it.
AV: There's a scene I really like, in which I'm sleeping with the baby (Heli's child). During the filming of that scene I was very tired, pretending to be asleep in the couch and I ended up sleeping for real!
E: The day we were working in the car scene (with Reina Torres), at 5 AM, we had to do it over and over again, with her undressed. That was the day we had most fun! We became friends, but really no fun things happened to me while filming.
RA: I live in Mexico City and going to another place, Guanajuato, to make a film was just an adventure!
Q. To the cast, what did you learn with this powerful film that shows Mexico's reality?
E: The viewers may feel or understand something while watching the film. I feel luckier as our job was to live it, to reproduce it. None of the actors had the chance to analyze the story. Facing the situations that the characters live made me think in the privileged position I had as a student, as a family son. Also in the reality that I feel really close, it can happen to anyone. And that's deplorable.
LG: I think many people can connect with the story, since the characters come from a poor family. The film shows how the criminals hide. It's not as notorious as the stuff we see on the newspapers but it's a real demonstration of what's happening in Mexico. We can see the reality but also change it.
Q. I can see a story about an abandoned society. That's the speech of the film?
AE: Yes, exactly.
We were surprised by the first reactions in Cannes; I think it had to do with the fact that the people who watched the film first were not Mexicans. The film is about people in a vulnerable position, young vulnerable people who doesn't have education nor opportunities, the corruption that surrounds them and the loss of humanity that comes as a consequence.
Q. Why the Star of David in the film?
AE: I can't really explain why. It wasn't there and I had desire to put it.
Q. Can you share us your experience of working with non-professional actors? As sometimes the actors' guild complains about that.
AE: I'm working with actors, people who wanted to act before the film, Armando and Ramón. Linda was also interested in acting. I see no big difference between them and the guild.
I would feel very sad and frustrated if I could only find my actors in the drama schools. With many interesting people in the world, it would be a very bad idea to me only to focus in those from the schools. I make my films in Guanajuato and there are so many interesting characters in the street, and that's part of what I do. The people I see in the street inspires me very much.
The guild can't complain, as the main performer is someone who came out of a Mexican drama school.
Q. Amat, can you make a reflection on the torture scene with children present?
AE: I wanted to film that scene because the people exploited, those who are used to do these types of jobs, are sometimes children. Nobody can say that's not really happening. I had never seen that in a film. Hope and future is being ruined in that room, with these kids and the situation showed.
LG: One of the children from that scene didn't want that to happen. But he is obligated to do it. That's the injustice.
Q. How much of the film is fiction?
AE: The story is completely fiction, Gabriel Reyes and I wrote it. Many elements came from the news, images that we all have seen. When the character Beto is being trained, that's taken from the news. There's a video on Youtube with the police of Leon, Guanajuato doing exactly that. We had the video on set while we were filming.
We haven't had any inconvenience with the Mexican army. There are many films with the army and the police, and in the majority they are showed in a non-favorable way. So I hope Heli doesn't get much attention in that sense. We don't mention any names; it is fiction. In the film there aren't drug dealers, it is the army and vulnerable youngsters. The film focuses on the young people because they still have hope.
Q. Does the film has a message?
AE: It's difficult to express here what message I wanted to say. The film is very visual, I try to transmit my feelings visually. I never think in the message, I just want to be honest with myself and with my point of view of what's happening in Mexico. I'm motivated by injustice.
Q. Any Mexican governmental authority reached you after the Cannes prize, showed interest for the film?
AE: After Cannes, the government of Guanajuato. Now they are supporting us with publicity. Before filming, we asked support from the University of Guanajuato but it didn't work. But they (the government) always support, one way or another, through film commissions.
Q. Is the film pro-abortion?
AE: When I was writing the film there were seven women in prison for abortion. They went to the same doctor, who denounced them with the police. They had been in jail for seven years, now they are free. The film refers to the abortion situation in Guanajuato.
Q. Recently we have seen many films about violence, particularly related to drug trafficking and corruption. What's the contribution of HELI?
AE: Maybe there are not even many films with these themes. There are the direct-to-video movies about drug trafficking, but not counting those, there are like five films that reflect the reality. Many more touch the theme as a narrative support. That's good too. In a way, my film is like that; I wanted to tell an exciting story for the public. I used what's going on in Mexico as a excuse to show other things.
I saw some of the other films to be sure I wasn't making something similar. Aside of that, I didn't think in what Heli was going to contribute with. For me films are to show everything I can.
Q. Why do you like these long shots?
AE: I always try to make normal films but later in the filming or editing I see I don't need many shots to tell the thing.
Q. What's your take on the drug legalization debate?
AE: It sounds interesting (to legalize marijuana in Mexico). Why not? Things couldn't be worse. And I don't see as bad the countries where marijuana is legal. I'm not really informed about Vicente Fox's drug legalization campaign. I would not like to see Marlboro distributing marijuana, maybe another way.
Worse than the drug trafficking is the Coca-Cola and Bimbo trafficking that is also infecting the population. There are many legal things that are worse than marijuana.
Q. What are your strategies now that HELI will be distributed in Mexico?
AE: We are trying to promote it as much as possible. We have the team of Mantarraya, we are distributing the film by ourselves, like we did with Los Bastardos, Post Tenebras Lux and Silent Light. It's a handmade thing, as we don't have big budgets or a city full of promotional posters and TV spots. It's a great challenge. We believe in the film, that's exciting, and we hope people don't easily forget it. The main goal is the first weekend. It's going to be released with 30 copies in Mexico City, Toluca, Cuernavaca, Puebla, Queretaro, Leon, Guanajuato, Merida, Monterrey, Guadalajara and Jalapa. I'm very excited and curious to see the reaction of the people.
Q. Amat, what did the Cannes 2013 Best Director award meant for you?
AE: It feels like when you receive a diploma for finishing school. I don't have children but I guess it's like having your kid receiving an award or getting a good school grade. I don't know, it was a very special feeling. In Cannes you are surrounded by scandal so it's intense. It's difficult to analyze what happens with the prize, is better not to expect anything and try to keep making personal films. I hope the award helps the film and helps me in order to get funds more quickly for my next movie. We spent five years trying to get all the funds for Heli, more than the usual two years.
Q. Did you expect the reaction in Cannes?
AE: Many reactions were exactly what I expected. As you make more films you learn what works, what scares people and what makes them laugh.
Q. Do you think HELI gives Mexico a bad image?
AE: You shouldn't be asking me that, you should ask those responsible for making the country like this. I'm inspired by what I see, and I see people who are suffering as well as people who are not, but that's not as dramatic for a movie. I feel good because I'm not exaggerating anything, nobody can say "why do you exaggerate what's happening in Mexico?" Not even with the children, and that's the sad thing and that's why the film exists. Mexico has a pretty good image and it would be sad to be censoring myself. Fortunately, the government hasn't impeded this film.
Q. What's the influence Carlos Reygadas has on Amat Escalante?
AE: Carlos Reygadas began supporting me since Sangre, my first feature film. I worked with him in Battle in Heaven as part of the direction team. I edited Heli in his studios for five months, working with his wife. We got together because we were inspired with the same things. His influence? I met him when I was 23 years old, but since I was 15 I watched a new film per day. I learned a lot in the Battle in Heaven filming, that's the only thing I have worked on beside my own films. I didn't learn the long shots from Reygadas.