In Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce,1080 Bruxelles , a pot of overcooked potatoes throws the world into disarray. Routine is lost, structure overthrown; the monotonous safety of repetition faces a critical rupture. In the films of Amat Escalante, whose upbringing was divided between Mexico and the United States, such ruptures to routine are somewhat more alarming – the arrival of a troubled daughter in his debut feature Sangre (2005), the home invasion of an American mother in Los Bastardos (2008) or the discovery of a poorly hidden package of cocaine in Heli (2013). For Escalante, a filmmaker concerned with daily life in Mexico amid corruption and violence, these occurrences take on as much of a quotidian quality as Akerman’s potatoes. Escalante’s quotidian, however, is unflinching, even numb. His characters sing proudly ‘La Vida No Vale Nada’ (‘life is worth nothing’) as they drink the hours away at their local bar. Violence erupts on television, ambient background imagery that occupies the domestic space with news of the exterior city. Protagonists cook food, slowly, plainly and have sex, with little fanfare or hyperbole. Where other filmmakers would deem these acts of neutral living uncinematic, Escalante revels in their awkward, simple beauty.
His fourth feature film, The Untamed (2016), marked somewhat of an escalation of these filmmaking ideals. A genre-bending fable about a mythic creature hidden in the woods, able to inflict the greatest sexual pleasure and the deepest pain on those it encounters, the film questions what extremes are needed to fill the voids left by the repression of the individual. While the film’s science-fiction leanings differentiate it from its predecessors, it explores many of the same humdrum realities and has its own Jeanne Dielman similarities too – in this film, a sexual encounter also ends in a murder. Escalante’s work is heavily indebted to the people and places he has known, paying homage to these locales in a method that perhaps, on the surface, feels twisted or unflattering, but that ultimately reflects the damage done to such communities and the hope that life may be worth something, some day.
Caitlin Quinlan: I’m curious about your thoughts on your own filmmaking trajectory and how your ideas have changed across your films?
Amat Escalante: It’s always kind of a strange exercise to do that because you’re looking and trying to analyse yourself and you’re not sure sometimes how impartial that would be. What I feel is that I’ve always tried as much as possible to maintain a certain sense of not explaining things to myself, of letting things happen. I let myself be drawn to things and to explore them without questioning too much, and I feel I did that in my first films. After the first two movies, I had that feeling of just seeing what intrigues me, what moves me, what I have a curiosity for. But then I also have to create a world to show these things, and I feel perhaps in those first films, it was easier, or more direct because they were very grounded in the worlds that I knew and that I had very much in front of me. For example, my first film, Sangre, is a very simple story. My neighbour was the main actor and I shot everything very near to my house – nothing went very far away from the perimeter of my house in Guanajuato, which is where I usually shoot my movies. That gave me the ability to really look at things with patience and to trust what I was looking at because I found it interesting. I wasn’t sure if anyone else would but I wanted to look at it.
I feel like Sangre and Los Bastardos came out of me very organically. I always felt I had them in me. When I was imagining and building up my idea of making movies, those films were very much there. They were very logical for me to approach because these were places and people that I was very intrigued by. Then for Heli I became, I think naturally, more ambitious. Again, I started off wanting to show what was around me and in that case it was also very much inspired by the General Motors assembly plant that installed itself near my home and how that affected the area. Injustice, corruption were also things I wanted to talk about. Looking at the whole thing, it’s kind of difficult for me. I just feel I have been lucky to be able to freely express and explore things without anybody limiting me. As my career has progressed, I have appreciated that I was able to do this and didn’t have to convince anybody. And I’m always trying to get more people to watch my films so sometimes I try to tell a story that’s a little bit more engaging, hopefully, and explores characters more deeply. It’s something I’ve been naturally trying in each film.
Caitlin: Your first three films all contain a recurring image of a character slumped on a sofa, watching violence erupt in different forms on television. What is the meaning behind this image for you?
Amat: It’s a few things but one main idea is that I did watch a lot of television, I did sit on the couch a lot and have that feeling of watching things that are far away but right there in front of you. It’s kind of an illusion that makes you feel involved. Sometimes it’s a good way to make you feel like you’re not just sitting on the couch if you’re watching something. But the fact of it, that you’re actually just sitting there as a body that’s not really doing anything,
was something that I was drawn to. I grew up partly in Mexico without electricity for many years – I think we had electricity when I was seven or eight. I remember when we would come to the United States, I would watch a lot of television. I was very obsessed with it and that probably had to do with why I got into filmmaking.
Another thing was when visiting friends in Mexico, I would see that when they were having dinner, they would be watching television. They wouldn’t be in silence, but the television was always a big way of interacting for many people. It makes the ambience easier.
Caitlin: How have your thoughts on Mexican society changed over the course of your career?
Amat: Because I grew up in the two countries, I have seen, or perceived as it was happening, this United States way of life selling itself to Mexico, specifically in 1994 when the Free Trade Agreement started. A lot of the big corporations that shaped the modern United States – I’m thinking of Kmart, Walmart, McDonalds, even the car factories, all of these things that are very much American – once they started to merge with Mexico, it affected the country a lot. It’s not a coincidence, I think, in those years when those factories went to Ciudad Juarez, the town bordering El Paso, Texas, it became a very violent city. A lot of maquiladoras appeared and that is a huge business, and when that happened so did a lot of violence. I don’t feel in our general society it’s really understood what the extreme rise in violence in Mexico had to do with the United States, and I myself can’t really say it exactly, but I don’t think it’s such a coincidence
that those things came together somehow. In Sangre, I tried to explore some of that through the consumption of the fast food and the television.
In Mexico, many people are very frustrated because of injustice. I think the way that religion was implanted in Mexico by the Spanish 500 years ago is still very much affecting and dictating a lot of ideas and a lot of laws. Of course, abortion is illegal, sex education is very minimal, and the consequences of that, if you walk in the street, are very obvious. You see very young girls with babies. In Heli, that’s at the heart of the situation. Actually, we did some casting for babies in that film and then when we chose one the baby came in and the mother was a young teenager, she was fifteen, I think.
When I was growing up, I was very intrigued by horror movies and gore films. There’s something there that I’m drawn to and sometimes with these ideas about Mexico I’m mentioning, I like to mix the two. That’s what I did with The Untamed – the creature came later, and the subjects were from local headlines. As I kept going over the script and not being fully inspired, then the creature kind of appeared and represented in a visual way what I was trying to say about the mystery and power and danger of sexuality inside the human brain in a place that’s oppressed and has these pre-judged rules. In the city of Guanajuato, two men would never be seen in the street holding hands.
Caitlin: In your films the domestic space seems to carry more significance than external spaces, which, although often pertinent to the action, feel more like non-places, places lacking identity. You pay close attention to domestic action, whether it’s sexual intimacy or the preparation of food.
Amat: The places and the people that I was wanting to explore, in a way, were difficult on purpose. In my first movie I didn’t want to show any exteriors, any of the nice parts of where I live, which is a very nice place. I very much like where I live, visually and physically, but I really limited myself and I didn’t want to show any of that. It was a rule, almost for me to try to go beyond that, even if it was unpleasant. I knew that the place was visually very beautiful and rich and attractive, but in my movie, I had to focus. I didn’t want to deviate and for that to affect it, so I took that all away.
My father is a painter and he painted a lot of bodies, nude women and men. I grew up looking at those, and they weren’t sensual let’s say, they were quite raw. He painted a lot of surreal dreamscapes, I guess, with body parts and skin that isn’t perfect, compared to what magazines would show. He would paint in the kitchen and that process was very present in my life. A movie that I rediscovered, because I had seen it when I was sixteen and it was quite difficult for me to see, was Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. When I was sixteen, I was living in Austin, Texas, and every Tuesday the Austin Film Society would show a free film in the university. That was really my film school. I saw this film and I had never seen something like it. I went ahead in my life and kind of forgot about it, and then when I was writing Sangre I came back to it somehow and got obsessed with finding it again and watching it. I think there is something there that influenced Sangre especially, but all of my movies. I was happy when Sangre premiered in Festival de Cannes in 2005 because the first headline about it read ‘Jeanne Dielman Makes Tacos.’ Whenever we shoot a film, there’s always a shot that we say, ‘oh this is the Jeanne Dielman shot,’ because there’s always someone at the sink washing dishes. It’s a sad anecdote but when we were shooting The Untamed, there’s a scene of a woman washing the dishes and we were filming her from behind. The day after that, I read on the news that Chantal Akerman had died. The day she died, we were shooting and said, ‘this is the Jeanne Dielman shot.’
Caitlin: I was primed for my next question to be about the ways in which I was reminded of Jeanne Dielman in your films actually. I found that, structurally, your films all revolve around a kind of critical interruption in the lives of your characters, something that happens in Akerman’s film and throws a set routine destructively off course.
Amat: The domestic situation is so, in theory, insignificant in the ways that people interact through such minor things, but that actually make up most of our lives at the end of the day. I remember for Sangre, one of the most important scenes for me was a very long shot of the guy making his eggs and then eating them. Without wanting to sound pretentious, that part reflected the meaning of the whole movie. That scene was very much about feeling a void – seeing this guy, knowing what he’s going through and the things he’s not able to do as far as loving someone in the proper way, etc. But watching him eating. And in Jeanne Dielman, that movie works with that a lot I feel. It’s not meaningless, it’s not for you to look away, its meaning and its weight have to do with all of those scenes. That’s why I get that they are not such easy movies and they’re not super popular but if you choose to be there and to look at it and live it and experience it, it’s really rewarding.
Another filmmaker I discovered in Austin was James Benning. I feel very fortunate to have been able to see these movies, and Benning’s Landscape Suicide (1987) was also very influential. It has the patience of trusting the image and the sound of things, something that is very much in Sangre and Los Bastardos I think as well. And I have moved somewhat from that, but the foundations are very much there. Those types of filmmakers that sometimes are exploring different ways of looking at things and moments of life and that actually go back sometimes much more to the beginnings of cinema.
…I’m very drawn to things I find mysterious and sex is one thing, death is another and then there is violence…
Caitlin: The cultural theorist Thomas Elsaesser wrote about a ‘cinema of abjection,’ and from my reading I noticed that he pays particular attention to corpses as something that ‘above all exemplifies the abject.’1 There are quite a lot of corpses in your films, but I think Elsaesser’s idea begs the question of how we see life in the face of death and abjection. Are your films life-affirming or hopeful?
Amat: I’m very drawn to things I find mysterious and sex is one thing, death is another and then there is violence. They’re very mysterious to me and to many people. Hopefully they’re mysterious for people instead of them actually living and knowing it too much. For me, violence and death are not necessarily as negative as maybe it would be perceived, in a Mexican sense culturally. Here in the US I’ve never seen a dead dog in the street. In Mexico, it’s very very common, that’s just one example. So when you’re growing up you start to see these things quickly and then in the corner of every news stand, and this is up to now, basically, you see the images of dead people in a very graphic way, violent deaths, you know, and this is not censored and it’s in the news stands and any child that is walking around will see this. And I remember seeing that. And that maybe is kind of particular to countries like Mexico where, I’m not sure why it’s more allowed or not allowed, or not looked well upon, in other countries but in Mexico it’s there, and one grows up with death being more present. And then you notice and become aware that life in Mexico is valued less, I feel. The most popular song of the state of Guanajuato is ‘La Vida No Vale Nada,’ ‘life is worth nothing.’ So it’s literally very present and life is worthless, but in a fun way. It’s like ‘you only live once.’
I’m not going to say they’re hopeful films, I’m not consciously there, but I think the sexual elements do suggest a beginning of life. It’s a beautiful thing. Just because we’re very used to it and take it for granted, you know, but it’s actually quite a beautiful, beginning-of-the-universe type thing. There’s a mystery and beauty to it and I’m intrigued by it. Then the opposite of that is wanting to show the proximity to violence we experience every day, not so much in a scandalous or a shocking way, maybe shocking yes, but in the sense that it’s just the reality of it. I always, even when showing the food or showing people watching TV, want to try to approach reality somehow in a very straightforward way. That maybe is also how I show some sex scenes, and also try to consciously get away from other ways I’ve seen sex and violence shown on film. That’s why I show the violence in Heli and Los Bastardos in a very uncomfortable way I think, without cutting, without flinching, to feel like it’s not a fun situation. Maybe in another film it would be, and it’s not to give a lecture or anything, mostly it’s about showing it in a different way and getting a different feeling from something we’ve seen many times. In Los Bastardos, the way the first death is shown is very surprising, shocking, and you don’t want to see that, which is the way violence should be. Just because a movie manages to do it in a fun or digestible way – that’s one way to do it and advances a narrative perhaps, but I wanted to see what happens when it is used to advance the narrative also but you show it in a way that is not fun and it’s as sharp as in real life I think. So that’s the approach I have, not just with violence and death, but with everything, even seeing
Caitlin: And this is perhaps the same with the sex scenes you depict, which aren’t glamourised or paced differently through editing?
Amat: Yes because I think especially with sex it’s very much how one lives it, and how one feels it towards the other person. And maybe if I started to edit like that in a movie, I would feel very fake and disingenuous because that’s not the way that I would be looking at that scene. I’ve decided I’ll just show it as plainly and as direct as possible and see what happens, because maybe that’s the way sex actually looks, I think. But maybe it’s about trying to be, as with other things in my films, trying to be direct and plain and leaving the audience to decide more than me making them up. But at the same time, I don’t feel completely ingenuous in saying that because it is a movie, I am manipulating a lot, but I’m just manipulating towards a different thing that maybe sometimes is not so used to being shown.
Caitlin: I wanted to ask one final question about a specific scene in Heli, where Beto lifts Estela up in front of the car to show off his strength. The moment of humour reminded me of the tone of Sangre. What does that scene represent to you?
Amat: That scene is very innocent and pure in a way. They are kissing inside the car and he wants to do more with Estela but she’s not ready, so he takes away some of that energy he’s maintained by lifting her up. I wrote it and some people told me ‘oh that’s too much of a goof, it breaks the rhythm,’ but I didn’t listen to that because I really like it. It’s a counterpoint scene – it makes things much sadder. Again it’s trying to approach what I think real life feels like more. Even with whatever tragedy one might suffer. Somebody dies and it’s very sad, but it’s sad because it was happy, no? There were jokes, there was laughter, there was love, so that’s why it’s sad. If the whole movie was very serious and sad, it would be a failure for me. So I try as much as I can to put those points in that kind of slap the movie back away from being too depressing. Sometimes it’s too easy to just be negative, especially with the subjects that I’m drawn to, but for me it’s important to have counterbalance and that scene embodies that.