It has been a year since Amat Escalante won the Best Director award at Cannes for his film Heli. Finally released in the UK, it has been a long wait, but well worth it. Heli will surely be remembered as one of the most powerful films released this year. We went to talk to the director about the Mexican Drug War, neo-realism and his search for intimacy with his characters and the audience.
Escalante has previously said that he is initially drawn to the atmospheres before he comes to the story. He explains: “The subject wasn’t there so clearly at the beginning, I had more of the location. I wanted to make the movie about a family who lived near to an assembly plant, I wanted to see what happened to them if they followed all the rules and somehow even though they followed the rules and were a proper family, the situation around them took them and tried to destroy them, and to see how they would try to come back together again as a family.”
Mexico’s drug war which has claimed up to 125,000 lives between 2006 and 2012 (according to the Trans-Border Institute) is an obvious subject matter. Although his next film will look at something else, he says “it is difficult sometimes to see what else I can do when one is bombarded with images and you see all these situations around you.” Despite this, he didn’t start out wanting to make a film about drugs or corruption, rather it gradually evolved into this.
Heli is set in Guanajuato state in central Mexico, where Escalante grew up. Although his home was a different, more peaceful, part of the state, he says it is impossible to avoid seeing these stories in the media. They fed into the story, “when I was writing the script I put in these situations that I would see in the news – that every Mexican has seen – I just put them together and tried to go beyond the image, beyond the superficial side of it.” The film does indeed take us beyond the gory spectacle into the despair of an ordinary family who are only momentarily caught up in this maelstrom of violence.
Although Escalante has previously said that he is not trying to convey a message, audiences will probably conclude that America’s appetite for drugs has a negative effect on Mexico. Still, he maintains that he doesn’t have an agenda. “It is difficult not to be political when you’re exploring situations from real life that you think are unfair or unjust,” he explains “but I don’t feel that you have to put out a message too clearly.”
Despite the fact that drugs are central to Heli, we don’t see anyone taking drugs. “There’s no drug dealers and there’s no drug cartels in the movie. There’s just the army, police and vulnerable young men. In Mexico the problem isn’t the consumption of drugs, the problem is drug trafficking to the United States mostly. I wasn’t interested in making a movie about drug consumption, not interested at all.”
With the exception of British social realist director Alan Clarke’s film Christine (1987), about a teenage heroin addict, Escalante doesn’t like drug films. One particular bugbear is Requiem for a Dream which he finds moralistic. The problem he reckons isn’t necessarily the drugs themselves, but the prohibition and drug wars. It seems that the Mexican government know keeping this ongoing war going is good business. Ultimately he believes the solution is to legalise drugs, as it can’t make the situation any worse.
Social realism has also influenced Escalante’s casting process. Like the Italian social realists, he has cast largely non-professionals – only the actor portraying Heli’s father has ever been in a film before. He says “I’m inspired by people in the street just the same as I’m inspired by locations”. Although he admits he did also cast professional actors, about 300 compared to 3,000 non-actors, and Armando Espitia, who plays the title character, was studying in a theatre school when they found him. Escalante says that he not only finds more interesting faces and personalities out on the street, but also enjoys the process of working with non-professionals. “I want to put them in front of the camera and see what happens. I like to experiment with their mistakes, the way that they are not ready to be in front of the camera and that they are nervous sometimes.”
In Armando Espitia, Escalante felt he had found “the right balance of fragility and innocence that I thought would work for that character, for the audience to be able to see the movie through him.” This marks a change in his filmmaking. Rather than his previous more conceptual approach which put greater distance between the audience and the characters, he now focuses on trying to tell the story through the characters, their situation and emotional states. “I’m trying to be closer to the characters, to really explore more their love life, their needs, all that stuff that I wasn’t so sure about doing before. I hope in the next movie I can get closer, more intimate let’s say.”
This search for intimacy, with the characters, extends to the audience too. Escalante uses only one piece of music in the film, “I wanted to create the feeling that there’s no manipulation of the audience.” Although he admits right away that this is another ploy. Instead he’d rather play with sounds, which are a more subtle way of creating atmosphere. “You put some thunder in the background or a bird, the wind, all these things that are there but are invisible. I like to design that rather than just see what music I can put over a scene.”
From the subtlety of birdsong to the the horror of torture and murder. This brings us to Heli’s violence, which has been remarked on by all critics and put off a few. Firstly Escalante allays our fears that both the puppy and the lighter fluid scenes were the product of – highly effective – CGI. When asked if it is the filmmaker’s duty to show the consequences of violence, he responds that “I don’t feel like there’s any duties or responsibilities or anything, when one is doing creative stuff.”
Instead Escalante asks if the audience can be open to seeing violence in different a way. “I tried to shoot those scenes anti-cinematically. When they play out without the audience being able to blink and without the camera moving, somehow it gives another meaning that it is not there in other films. You can see a movie in which a hundred people get killed, and that is a very different feeling to what you see in Heli which is more like real life – not pleasant, not something you want to enjoy.”
It is hard to disagree that in Heli violence is not glamorised in the slightest and that this is the most appropriate approach for a serious film maker, especially one looking at the horror of the Mexican drug war. It has been a long journey from the first images that drifted into Escalante’s mind to the final product, one that has left us with something that will stand as a vivid testament to the suffering of the Mexican people.
Read our review of Heli here