Posts Tagged ‘Michel Franco’

In a memorable interview given to George Plimpton, Ernest Hemingway coined the “theory of the iceberg”: a writer can only show a very small part of a story – the rest must necessarily remain hidden, unwritten, and it will be up to the reader’s imagination to try to unveil and make sense of it.

Michel Franco, in Chronic, uses the very same trick, and the result is a cinematic gem. David (Tim Roth) is a fifty-something year-old in-home nurse. He works with terminally ill patients: he lives with them, washes them, feeds them and keeps them company. He performs all the above with a dedication which stands in contrast with the cold relationships they have with their own families. The people David takes care of have been left alone, their relatives do not seem able or willing to deal with their forthcoming deaths, and David ends up filling their absence, turning into the patients’ parent, friend, sibling.

But David too has a heart-breaking story of his own. We know he is hiding a terrible past, but we do not know just how terrible it is. We know he has lost the love of his life, but do not know how. We are told a child of his died very young, but do not know why. We know just as much as the strangers he confesses bits of his life to, only to then question what we are told when he talks to other people and the version changes altogether.

Franco hides the full extent of David’s pain under the drama’s surface, as if part of Hemingway’s iceberg. David’s persona is quite literally built before the audience, but only slowly and partially revealed in its full complexity, so that we are forced to question what is shown on screen and fill David’s silences with our own intuitions. We do not just watch the story unfold, we are called upon to take part in the process.

Tim Roth’s performance is outstanding. There is a memorable scene in which David catches up with his daughter (Sarah Sutherland) over coffee, and she asks him about his late partner. It’s a quasi-silent scene: both are filled with stories to share, but she is way too nervous to begin and he is still too hurt to open up, so they communicate with silences and small gestures, and David’s pauses speak louder than the words he mutters with a broken voice.

In some fundamental sense, Franco wants to do more than just showing David’s suffering – he requires our direct involvement in shaping and crafting the extent of his pain. Chronic’s drama (and David’s) is not merely what gets to be shown on the screen, but what does not, and which we can only picture in our heads.

Cannes chose to award Franco the 2015 prize for best screenplay. And for many good reasons. There are films which are happy simply showing a story on a screen without requiring much from the audience. Chronic does much more than that: it asks us to understand, imagine and shape David’s story. This is why the beauty of Franco’s latest work lingers long after the ending credits.

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Leonardo Goi sat down to talk to Mexican director Michel Franco about his powerful set of films, since his directing debut in 2009 with Daniel y Ana.

Michel Franco is a 36 year-old Mexican screenplay writer, producer and director. After his 2009 directing debut, Daniel y Ana, he won Cannes’ 2012 Un Certain Regard award for his second work, Después de Lucía and went on to win best screenplay for his 2015 Chronic, starring Tim Roth. A few weeks ago another one of Franco’s works, A Los Ojos, was finally screened for the first time across Mexico’s cinemas, a belated celebration for a movie he had presented in 2013 at Morelia’s Film Festival and co-directed with his sister Victoria.

Why did you choose to share your camera with someone else, and how was it working with your sister?

I liked the idea of combining my sister’s documentarist vision with my own, which is much more oriented towards fiction. To be sure, the idea came with a number of challenges attached, both on an aesthetic and on a content point of view. We had the privilege of working with a great actress, Mónica del Carmen, as well as with several homeless kids who had never acted before, and our goal was to make sure they would feel just as spontaneous in front of the camera as Mónica. My sister and I have a very similar film taste, and this allowed us, after long chats, to reach an agreement over how we wanted the story to be filmed. Merging together fiction with reality, so to speak.

How did you find working with non-professional actors, especially kids suffering from dire poverty as those you chose as part of A Los Ojos’ cast?

We were helped by a local organisation, Casa Alianza, with years of experience working with street kids. Casa Alianza was there to help us establish a connection with the kids, and we ended up following the social worker’s approach: we would begin talking with the kids, explain them our story and our goals, and eventually got them to be relaxed and spontaneous around the camera. This was a very long process which my sister oversaw, whilst I worked on the story’s more fictitious elements. Mónica del Carmen herself played a key role in these early stages, earning the kids’ trust and fostering the legitimacy and meaning of our presence around them

Elsewhere you mentioned that A Los Ojos’ screenplay was “created” on the spot, meaning that you did not have a set text upon which you based your scenes. Those familiar with your work and the attention you put into writing might find this a puzzling choice. Why did you choose to work with a seemingly improvised script?

We had a very clear storyline we wanted to follow, but we did not want to somehow “impose” a set of dialogues to our actors, professional or non professional. That was especially the case for Benjamin, the young drug-addict whom Mónica will take care of in the film. We did not want the boy to feel constrained when he would tell his story, we did not want his tale to follow a trajectory we had previously defined. So whenever he speaks about his own experiences and his own past he does so freely, and the same happened with the exchanges between him and Mónica’s son, Omar. The friendship that the audience sees building between the two on the screen is real – all we did was just film the chemistry which soon developed between the kids. That’s what I mean when I say we did not work with a fixed screenplay: we had four written pages, a clearly defined storyline, and nothing else.

A trade mark of your directing style is the choice to keep the camera fixed, which allows you to blur even further the boundary between documentary and fiction…

I like the technique because it allows me to leave it up to the viewer which elements of the scenes he can concentrate on. I don’t want to tell him what to focus on, I don’t want to guide his attention by constantly changing frames. Which is more or less the same reason why you’ll never hear music in my films, and very few dialogues. I look for the purest and most direct way to generate emotions in the audience, without manipulating their reactions in order to achieve this. My aim is to elicit an emotional response from the viewer in the most transparent way possible.

There’s a leitmotiv which spans from your first film, Daniel y Ana (2009) to your 2012 Cannes triumph, Después de Lucía: public shame. What is it about it that fascinates you?

I like to focus on human relations, on the intimate connections that emerge and die in our families and outside of them, the way people relate with the outside world and how they project themselves into it, especially when this is something performed by adolescents. I think these are dilemmas which concern their age group more than any other. I like to talk about the difficulties we face when we try to establish a connection with other people, regardless of our educational background or culture. Sometimes the easiest things are the most difficult ones.

In 2012 you won Cannes’ Un Certain Regard award, and it was there that you first met Tim Roth. How did you find working with him in Chronic and how did the film’s production come along?

We were very lucky to be able to work with people we were already familiar with – the Mexican crew of Lucia Films, other Mexicans in the States, and my New York-based casting director – and people we soon established a great chemistry with – Tim Roth’s own entourage. We made a movie that was co-produced between France and Mexico and spoken entirely in English, which of course presented its own challenges. And Tim Roth too was key in these first, pre-production stages.

In Chronic you show the last days of several terminally ill patients. How did you find it working on such a delicate theme, and what is it that piques your curiosity about the idea of illness and death?

I must warn you that the only actor with a real medical condition was the teenager in a wheelchair who makes his appearance towards the end of the movie, one of Roth’s last patients. Except for him, the other members of the cast were all actors, including the first terminally ill girl Roth will take care of, who accepted to lose a lot of weight just to take part in the movie. As for the theme itself, I am fascinated by the vulnerability of our human nature, and the fragility which illnesses unveil as a somewhat inescapable fate. As a director I find it impossible to escape the topic of death, and I like the idea of being able to talk about how much it can teach us about life. I believe cinema is a great means to convey these messages.

Your stories develop as icebergs, of which the audience can only see the top, and the rest is up for us to imagine and intuit, so that one must concentrate on silences as much as words. How do you go about choosing the stories that you then turn into movies, and how does your writing stage unfold?

More than a story, what really interests me is a big theme. In the case of Chronic, I wanted to come up with a character as psychologically complex as possible. And that is how I go about writing my screenplays: I first start with a theme, or a character, trying to say a great deal of things with very few words to establish a dialogue with my audience. After all, cinema is first and foremost a constant interaction between a director and his public. The most difficult part of making a film is writing it, and knowing what to do with one’s story. I normally write, direct and ultimately produce my own movies, so a screenplay is the backbone of my work. But whenever I need to decide whether or not to embark on a new project the question I must ask myself is whether or not the topic will still interest me in two or three years’ time, and whether the public too will find it a theme worth knowing more about. That’s why the stories I film are almost all universal tales – things that ultimately concern us all.

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After the accolades earned for Chronic – winner of Cannes best screenplay award last year – Michel Franco is currently busy promoting a film he co-directed with his sister Victoria, which is finally being released in Mexico: A Los Ojos. Presented at the 2013 Morelia Film Festival, A Los Ojos seems to follow the path Franco had undertaken with his first great international success and 2012 Cannes Caméra d’Or winner, Después de Lucia.

Once again, the 37-year old Mexican director draws from a widespread social malaise to conjure up a moving and crude depiction of contemporary Mexico. If bullying had been the catalyst of Después de Lucia’s drama, here the camera focuses on another, equally terrifying plague: organ trafficking.

Michel and Victoria Franco guide us through the lives of Mónica, a single mother working for a foundation helping street kids, her only child Omar, affected by a degenerative eye disease, and Benjamin, a homeless and drug addict teenager whom Mónica seeks to rescue from the streets.

Mónica is dedicated and thoroughly committed to her patients, at times even to the detriment of her own safety. Those fluent with Franco’s filmography may recognise the zealous, almost excessive dedication that would characterise Tim Roth’s character in Chronic. But Mónica’s care only goes up to a point, and that is when her son’s disease worsens and forces her to take a decision that will change their lives forever.

The Francos’ directing style is sober and minimalistic, so much so that at times the film feels more like a documentary than a work of fiction. And indeed it is, or at least partly so, for while Michel worked on the story’s fictitious elements, his sister Victoria worked closely with the street kids who turned into the drama’s protagonists, in order to focus on the reality the film sought to address. The camera stands still for most of the film, as if camouflaged in between the furniture or the slums’ debris, and the lens lingers on the scene even after the characters have gone out of frame.

The blurring of fiction and reality is a purposeful (and remarkably effective) move. The merging of the two styles manages to paint Benjamin’s universe as a crude and credible wasteland, populated by kids who simply can’t get over their past and are condemned to endlessly try to escape it – to no avail. It is telling that when Benjamin and Omar’s sight begins to deteriorate and the doctors try to cure the two, only Omar begins to show any progress. Benjamin will never truly “see” a life away from the streets.

A Los Ojos does not follow the same brutal rhythm of Después de Lucia, nor is the terrifying truth underpinning the plot as explicit as it is in other works by Franco. But if the drama develops more slowly, it does so in a way that is no less haunting. The combination of fiction and realism which permeates A Los Ojos makes it stand out as a powerful and moving cry against one of Mexico’s enduring malaises. The overarching question one is left with is not whether the two kids will ever be able to see again, but whether society will stop turning a blind eye on its horrific plagues.

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It takes a lot of courage to touch a theme as delicate as teenage bullying, and a great amount of talent to do so without fetishising the brutality behind it. After Daniel y Ana (2009) Michel Franco confronts an old leitmotiv, public shame, and does it through the story of Alejandra, a young girl who suddenly loses her mum in a car accident and is forced to move to Mexico City to begin a new life with her dad, a forty-something-year-old chef.

The film’s first twenty minutes unfold at a slow pace, as we follow Alejandra’s efforts to fit in the new environment and integrate in a new circle of friends, until the story hits a turning point: Alejandra is filmed having sex with a friend of hers, and the video is then rapidly shared with the entire student body.

What follows is a dramatic portrait of the repercussions Alejandra will suffer as a result of the moment of intimacy with a boy. Just as fast as they had accepted her within their circle, her friends will repudiate her. They will insult her, humiliate her publicly, cut her hair, force her to drink, violate her, and eventually urinate over her sleeping body – activities which, interestingly, the girls enjoy as much as the boys. Alejandra’s body is degraded and turned into an object of shame. In some fundamental sense, Franco has the teenagers de-humanise Alejandra by sexualising her instead.

There are moments in which the level of abuse she is subject to is so extreme that one wonders whether Franco may have exaggerated his story, for the sole purpose of shocking the viewer. But stories of teenage bullying and sex abuse abound, in which the level of humiliation suffered exceeds Alejandra’s and the victims often resort to suicide as the only possible way out. More than exaggerating then, perhaps Franco is only guilty of showing a social malaise to its full extent.

But even when the camera captures the most atrocious moments of Alejandra’s humiliation, it does it in a way that does not fetishize them. Franco keeps the camera still throughout the entire film, whether it is placed inside the girl’s house, a classroom, a hotel room or a car, as if to document the story.

It is this minimalist, somewhat neutral style that has helped Franco to deal with complex themes (bullying, as in here, or terminal illnesses, in Chronic, and organ trafficking, in A Los Ojos) without being smothered by their weight. Franco’s directing does not add anything to make the story more gruesome or shocking, as the camera merely registers the story for what it is, with a sense of honesty and impartiality.

This does not mean the directing style is not sophisticated – quite the contrary. It takes a great degree of work and study to make sure one sees a movie without feeling the director’s ego behind it. And this is precisely what one senses upon watching Después de Lucia.

Winner of the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes in 2012, Después de Lucia may not be an easy film to see, but it is a necessary watch – a story told with a powerful mix of empathy and ruthlessness.

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The jubilant “¡que viva Chile!” producer Patricio Escala shouted as he and director Gabriele Osorio received the Oscar for best animated short film was probably one of this year’s ceremony’s most memorable moments. The two had more than one reason to celebrate: Historia de un Oso (Bear Story) was Chile’s first ever Oscar. Yet Escala and Osorio’s was not the only Latin American country to leave a trace on last Sunday’s ceremony. Colombia made her first appearance before the Academy with Ciro Guerra’s El Abrazo de la Serpiente as best foreign language film nominee, and Mexico won big with the duo Iñárritu-Lubezki, the first now celebrating his second consecutive best director award, the latter his third as best cinematographer.

In some important ways the Oscars seem to have consolidated the spot Latin America cinema has gained over the past few years. The region’s cinema is blossoming, and the world is enjoying and rewarding its growth. A look at the most recent Academy’s decisions is telling: if Emmanuel Lubezki has become one of the Academy’s most successful habitués (and now holds a record as the only cinematographer to have won three times in a row), Mexico has also fathered the best directors of the past three editions: Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, 2014) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman, 2015 and The Revenant, 2016). But Latin America’s successes extend outside the United States too. In 2015 alone the region left an indelible mark across Europe’s most prestigious festivals. Venezuela’s Lorenzo Vigas’s Desde Allá won the Golden Lion at Venice’s 72nd International Film Festival, where Argentinian Pablo Trapero received the Silver Lion for best director for El Clan. At Cannes’s 68th Film Festival, Colombia’s César Acevedo’s was awarded the Caméra d’Or for his La Tierra y la Sombra, and Mexico’s Michel Franco’s Chronic won best screenplay.

While Latin America exports its gems abroad, Colombia is home to a festival which has historically helped developing the region’s cinematic potential. Held yearly in the Caribbean walled-city of Cartagena de Indias, the International Film Festival of Cartagena (FICCI) is Latin America’s oldest. Founded in 1960, it seeks to promote Ibero-American cinema, hosting the works of directors from Latin America, Portugal and Spain for a five-day movie feast set in Colombia’s coast. An entirely public event (entrance to all movies is free of charge), this year it will be home to some 120,000 viewers and will be screening 154 films, all of them more or less directly touching upon the region’s relationship with its often violent past.

For cinema, in the words of FICCI’s Artistic Director Diana Bustamante, turns into a mechanism that can help deconstruct a people’s history and heal collective traumas. Arguably never in the history of Latin America, and of Colombia in particular (close as it now is to sign a peace treaty and put an end to over 50 years of internal conflict with the leftist FARC guerrilla) has this calling been so urgent. The ten Ibero-American movies that will be screened in this year’s official competition look closely into the region’s past and the suffering caused by the multiple conflicts which have plagued it. From the armed conflict which Colombian Felipe Guerrero talks about in Oscuro Animal to the conflicts of gender and performativity which Gabriel Mascaro and Julio Hernández Cordón deal with in Boi Neon and Te Prometo Anarquía respectively, FICCI 56 aims to show the extent to which cinema can turn a history of violence into an opportunity to reimagine and shape an altogether different future.

From the 2nd until the 7th of March Cartagena’s Film Festival will offer a snapshot of the most recent transformations of Ibero-American cinema. FICCI, for the European as well as Latin American public, will be a unique opportunity to make sense of the renaissance which has brought the region back at the center of world cinema.

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