Mark Becker's Romántico—which opens this weekend in Bay Area Landmark theaters (the Lumiere in San Franciso and the Shattuck in Berkeley)—had its premiere at Sundance and screened at several festivals, including Los Angeles, San Sebastian and Venice, among others. The documentary won a Special Jury Recognition at Silverdocs and was nominated last year for two Independent Spirit awards. A.O. Scott from The New York Times has written that Romántico—Mark Becker's study of Carmelo Muñiz Sánchez—is "a lovely, touching, moving portrait. This man talks about his own life—his own struggles—and you get a real sense of his dignity and that he is a genuine artist." Jon Anderson from New York Newsday describes Becker's film as "visual poetry on the run and, as any work of art does when it's successful, improves our perceptions of the world: No one who sees Romántico for what it is will likely ever again brush off a strolling musician, bypass a handbill or lobby for a border wall."
Along with being a documentary filmmaker and cinematographer, Becker also works as an editor. He co-edited Lost Boys of Sudan, which won an Independent Spirit award, as well as the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. He's worked as an editor for Lucasfilm, PBS, and on various independent productions. Formerly a resident of San Francisco for seven years, he now resides in New York City.
Becker agreed to speak with me and we met in the offices of Larsen Associates where we drank some dynamite French press coffee and talked about his current documentary. During the course of our conversation, Becker described his subject Carmelo Muñiz Sánchez's face as being full of life. I could say the same about Becker himself. His countenance is genuine and his eyes are kind.
* * *
Michael Guillén: Mark, I heard about Romántico when it was at the Film Foundation's festival. Michael Hawley, who frequently contributes to The Evening Class, was enthused about the film, encouraged me to see it, and so I'm glad I've had the opportunity. I live in the Mission myself and I'm sure I've seen Carmelo and Arturo. It's quite possible I even hired them through La Rondalla to play mariachi music at my home for a party I gave my Mom some years back when she was visiting San Francisco. Thus, it was great to see your in-depth portrait.
It's my understanding that this particular project Romántico started out because you wanted to do a study of the "bachelor culture" of musicians in the Mission? But then it actually ended up being a poignant tribute to family and marriage. How did that come about?
Mark Becker: As part of the process of making a documentary, it's a virtue of the filmmaker if they can keep open-minded—as far as what the film will be about—through the process. I had a vague notion of what the film was about. I was sure I liked elements of these two guys, their lives, and I could see how it could be cinematic and I could see how there could be contradictions. For example, it was an obvious interest of mine that they were Mexicans singing love songs to gringos and knowing that they were thousands of miles away from their loved ones. I knew I was interested in the fact that they created surrogate families for each other. When I talk about the "bachelor culture", what I mean is often the musicians would live in the same apartments, they'd cook together, they were each others' surrogate families here in the U.S., despite the fact that they had wives and children in Mexico. All those elements were interesting to me and I knew that they may come together in an interesting way, but I didn't know how. The reality of Romántico—and I think this may be the case for a lot of borderline sort of verité films (I hesitate to call my film verité but it's somewhat verité)—is that things happen and evolve. Things happen to the characters during the course of filming a movie. I found myself more interested and more compelled by the drama that Carmelo kept giving me than I was by my initial preconceived notions of what the film would be about. At a certain point I thought it was important for me to give in to the story that Carmelo was giving me, which was a very personal story. It was a story about the juncture between work and family and how the two don't necessarily work hand in hand always. Carmelo [thought] he was doing such a better job of taking care of his family when he wasn't with them, when he was a thousand miles away from them in San Francisco, and so my process was to let the story evolve and to not impose in too strong of a way my original preconceived notion of the film and try as hard as I could to channel what I thought was compelling about what Carmelo was giving me.
Guillén: Well, I'm really glad you didn't replace him with Antonio Banderas!
Becker: [Laughs.] I pride myself on being very communicative about the process with film subjects because I don't like the idea that you just show up with a camera on your shoulder and shoot without explaining a little bit about how documentary filmmaking works. From the get-go I talked to Carmelo about how the film was being financed because I wanted him to be comfortable with the fact that this was … y'know, it's always an odd situation that you're spending money on a film when you're making films about people who don't have any money. I was honest about that. I talked to him about how the filmmaking worked, how we spend a lot of time with any given person, and you end up choosing small moments from all of your footage and I thought he really got it, that this was a documentary about him, I'd be spending a lot of time with it, and that I'd be culling it down to an hour and a half film. It was so shocking to me, two years into the project we were just sitting around having a chat, myself and my crew members eating lunch in Mexico and he asked one of my friends, "When are you going to be replacing me with the actor?" Two years and he thought he was research. [Chuckles.]
Guillén: That brings up an interesting point. You describe financing a film about someone without money, but was Carmelo reimbursed in any way for his participation in the film? Or was the fact that you chronicled his story for his family sufficient compensation for him?
Becker: My understanding with him from the beginning before I got to know him and became what I guess you'd call friends with him [was] that I had a certain budget for the film that was from grants and the film was being funded by those grants. That's how I explained to him that—despite the fact that it might look like I had a bunch of money—it's really this borrowed money that's paying for this film about him. I also explained to him that you can't—I mean I'm just upfront, maybe I shouldn't be, but I was just upfront—I said, "Y'know, you really can't pay documentary film subjects because that would turn you into an actor and I don't want you doing anything for me. I want to be able to capture as much reality as possible." He's always wanted to tell the story of his life. That's the way he understood it from the beginning. That being said, I think there's this dynamic [that's] really bizarre, which is how diametrically opposed this documentary ethos is—never pay your film subjects—from the human relationships which are, like, okay, you've now grown familiar and you have some affection for your film subject and they're suffering in myriad ways and can you help them in any way without interfering with the documentary that you're making, which is supposed to capture truth?
Guillén: Yes. It's like the major imperative in Star Trek.
Becker: You've lost me there.
Guillén: That you're not supposed to affect history even if you go back in time. You're to remain non-intrusive.
Becker: Oh right. I see. So I should say—I don't know if it's worth noting—but when I would go down to Mexico, my family at the end of a shoot would give him what I call "the gift." It was made clear it wasn't payment for services but it would be like—I interrupted your life, you fed me, here's some money, we're so grateful sort of thing—and so there was that. Within my modest means—obviously, they're not modest like Carmelo's—but, it was money that I was sure could help them for a couple of months. Then there's this whole notion—which I am so looking forward to—[of] helping his family now that the filmmaking process is over and there are none of the conflict of interests. The film will eventually make a profit. I'm still in debt to Romántico, but in the course of a few months I assume, I'm hoping, when it hits dvd, I'm going to be able to make a modest amount of money. After 7-8 years the film might make $10,000 or something and if I could split that in half and give Carmelo half of it, if it makes $20,000 and he can make $10,000 on the film, that would be enormous for his family.
Guillén: And would truly be generous on your part. I certainly didn't mean to make you defensive about how you've compensated Carmelo for his participation in the film; what I meant more to illustrate was how a documentarian cannot intrude upon the circumstances of what he's portraying; in your case, Carmelo's poverty and his struggle to survive. By way of separate example, I recently interviewed Rainer Hoffmann, the cinematographer for the documentary The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierrez, and in that film there's an arduous train sequence involving Guatemaltecos journeying North to the United States where in the back of my mind I kept wondering why Hoffmann didn't just offer to drive his subjects North? To help them out? But, of course, he couldn't do that. That would interfere with the truth of the situation and—in order to film that truth—Hoffmann had to actually ride the train with these immigrants.
Becker: I just worked on a film as an editor where there's so many back seat interviews with the film subjects. You're looking at this character sitting in the back seat and you're wondering (as an editor), "Why is he in the back seat?" The camera turns and you see it's the producer who's driving the car and then I'm thinking, "How am I going to use this? Why's he sitting in the back seat? What could justify this in the movie? Will you notice? Will you think, 'Who's driving him?' " So it's that thing. I would probably rather that guy—if he didn't have a car—to figure out how to be with him on that journey. Would he have to walk to a bus?
Guillén: So when you say that you don't think of Romántico as verité filmmaking, why do you say that?
Becker: I'm speaking of it in the purist sense. There's a lot of verité footage [in Romántico], total fly-on-the-wall footage, waiting for things to happen and I'm just filming as it happens, but there's also an element to the film … where there are poetic scenes where the film is bringing you to an emotional place that has to do with Carmelo's past, images inspired by Carmelo's memories, revisiting places he's been in his youth, and as cinematically as possible capturing those places, joining his voice to those images. That's all highly constructed stuff.
Guillén: Memory as narrative structure?
Guillén: It's my understanding that Carmelo was the last of the Mission musicians that you were interviewing for your film project and that—once you met him—you decided he was the one because he was "cinematic." What was it about Carmelo that you saw as cinematic? Both in him and his story that brought you to the point of developing the script to be a "reverse immigration story"?
Becker: First of all, there's two things that inspired me about him at the very beginning. At the very beginning it's sort of guess work but you're working on instinct. One thing that inspired me was that he, I thought, had a very—people may disagree—but, I thought he had a very charming face. I felt like I saw a life in his face. The way in which he communicated with me was expressive and I loved something about his stature. I almost immediately saw him—and this sounds horrible—but I almost immediately saw him in this iconic way, him with his gut and his diminutive stature. I saw him in a wide shot, this small, almost cute, old man. I don't know how to say it properly.
Guillén: Almost like an archetype?
Becker: Yeah, like an archetype. Yeah. He belied the notion of somebody who crossed the border. He's an older guy. He just has nothing to do with the conventional notion of a young, hungry migrant worker. He seemed like a guy who'd been through it a bit. He had those creases in his face, but, there was something I found very charming about his face and his physical look. The real thing was his manner of speaking. He was candid. He was compulsively honest. He was speaking from his heart almost immediately and that's something you don't always find. It was obvious that he had lived an examined life. There's almost a cultural arrogance—I was talking to someone about this at a Q&A in L.A. a couple of days ago—there's this cultural arrogance that people who live hand-to-mouth existences, just working to be able to make money for the family, to get by, don't necessarily live an examined life, one in which they're self-reflective. This guy, Carmelo, immediately I realized he'd lived a reflective life. He thought about his place in the world.
Guillén: That especially came through for me when you were showing scenes of him with his nieve cart. It reminded me of something Joe Campbell taught me: that it's in the performance of our everyday tasks that our radiance shines through. The fullbodiedness of his experience is radiant in those sequences and there's something quite magnificent in his trying to provide for his family however he can.
Becker: It's so hard to not sympathize with a guy who—in order to make money—hits the streets selling ice cream to poor children.
Guillén: And often actually giving it away, remembering how he as a poor child could not afford ice cream.
Becker: And often giving it away. There's a crazy irony. He's this avuncular character. The ways he makes a living are either by singing love songs at weddings or funerals or in bars to prostitutes, or he's selling ice cream to little children. There's something about a person who earns a living like that.
Guillén: There's also a philosophical tension to his life story that captured my attention. Here is someone who lived in San Francisco, making relatively good money to send home, who returned home because his mother is sick, and is then in a situation once he's returned home where he can't earn as much money as he was earning in the States. That's when he begins doing these other things—like pushing the nieve cart—to make ends meet, though he never quite accomplishes it, and nonetheless elects to stay.
Becker: The circumstance with regard to Carmelo's return home was completely unknown at the beginning of filming. Carmelo had been in California for three years at the time that I started filming. I chose one shooting week—I'm shooting on film so I was really particular about choosing the right shooting week in which I could get a lot of stuff and minimize the economic impact of the shooting because shooting on film's expensive—so I choose my one shooting week and Carmelo, as far as I know on day one, is in San Francisco for the duration. On day three I find out he decides to leave and on day five I'm in the airport and he's going home. The film—in many ways—came to me. It became what it was because Carmelo gave me the gift of a story and a plot. That's what Carmelo provided the film in terms of dramatic structure. But then there's the surprise, which was Carmelo's gift of his—I hesitate to say "soul"—but his sensibility. I asked him on that first audio interview if he had any questions for me, if I had not addressed something that I might have in my interview, and he said, "Well you know, Mark, I've been waiting a long time to tell the story of my life and I think that this is it." I never imagined that he, on his side, would have felt that he was waiting for me and waiting for this opportunity. Between that and his sudden need to depart and go home to Mexico, I feel Carmelo led me to Romántico.