Javier Fuentes-León's Contracorriente (Undertow, 2009) screened in Frameline34's spotlight on South American queer cinema and won that festival's Outstanding First Feature Award, having already scored the World Cinema Audience Award (Drama) at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Among its multiple awards and distinctions, Undertow has resonated with audiences in San Sebastian, Cartagena, Miami, Montreal, Nashville, Chicago, Utrecht, Madrid, Provincetown, Slovakia, Galway, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Vancouver, bespeaking its universal message of love, loss and courageous tolerance. It has since been announced as Peru's Official Submission to the 83rd Academy Awards® for Best Foreign Language Film.
As synopsized at the film's website: "Miguel (Cristian Mercado) is a handsome, young and beloved fisherman in Cabo Blanco, a small fishing village in the Northern coast of Peru, where the community has deep-rooted religious traditions. Miguel is married to the beautiful Mariela (Tatiana Astengo), who is seven months pregnant with their firstborn, but Miguel harbors a scandalous secret: He is having a love affair with another man, Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a painter who is ostracized by the townsfolk for being agnostic and open about his sexuality.
"When Santiago drowns accidentally in the ocean's strong undertow, he cannot pass peacefully to the other side. He returns after his death to ask Miguel to look for his body and bury it according to the rituals of the town. Miguel must choose between sentencing Santiago to eternal torment or doing right by him and, in turn, revealing their relationship to Mariela and the entire village. Miguel is forced to deal with the consequences of his acts and to come to terms with who he really is, even if by doing so he stands the chance of losing the people he loves the most."
After leaving behind his medical career in Peru, Javier Fuentes-León received a scholarship to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in film directing at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. His 1997 short film Rooms was recognized with an award from the National Film Board of Peru and praised as "among the best work done by a Peruvian filmmaker in the 1990s." In 1998, Javier became the head writer for U.S. TV shows on Telemundo, wrote the subtitles of films for major Hollywood studios, and edited commercials and television programs. Undertow is his first full length feature. My thanks to Frameline and Larsen Associates for arranging time for me to sit down with Javier in the Castro Theater's mezzanine to discuss his enchanting queer-inflected ghost story. [This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!]
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Michael Guillén: First of all, congratulations on winning the World Cinema Audience Award (Drama) at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Javier Fuentes-León: Thank you.
Guillén: And on having your first feature film picked up for distribution by Wolfe Video. That's quite an achievement for your first venture.
Fuentes-León: It's been amazing. It's what you hope for. When you dream about making a film and then you make the film, you hope somebody will like it and that it will get somewhere. But this has been a lot more than I thought I was going to get.
Guillén: Let's start with the title of your film. Contracorriente is being interpreted as Undertow, but wouldn't a more exact translation be Crosscurrents?
Fuentes-León: It does mean that; but, the funny thing is that I started film in the U.S. at Cal Arts. Before that, I practiced medicine in Peru. So the people who have surrounded me for a long time in the film world are English-speaking. I wrote Undertow in English first and then I translated it into Spanish so the title Undertow was the original title and then—when I was trying to find a title in Spanish that would work—the literal translation of "undertow" into Spanish would have been resaca. The problem with resaca was that in Peru it's a slang term for "hangover", which would have given the film a different meaning. So I had to look for another name in Spanish and Contracorriente seemed like a great name, which—if I'd retitled the film Crosscurrents in English—would have been a great name too; but, I actually like Undertow. Maybe because it was there from the beginning? But also because it has to do with this force that pulls you down. Literally, you have the undertow that drowns Santiago; but, metaphorically, it's a force that pulls Miguel down into hiding and fighting his true nature. Other people have told me they prefer Crosscurrents and they think it fits better.
Guillén: Killian Melloy who writes for the San Franciscan site Edge had an interesting take on it. He felt the alternate title Crosscurrents better served to explain Miguel's conflicted state of mind and the "two distinct motivations [that] are at work on Miguel. He wants to possess Santiago without giving up his wife and infant son; but he also comes to realize that he's only tormenting himself, and Santiago, by refusing to let go."
Fuentes-León: That is an interesting take and confirms why the film is called Contracorriente in Spanish; but, at the end of the day, I liked the metaphor of forces that are in conflict and Undertow speaks to that as well.
Guillén: There are some fascinating conflicting dynamics going on in Undertow. First, you've set your narrative in a conservative fishing village on the Northern coast of Peru so that one would instantly presume—and your narrative specifically addresses this—that there's going to be a high incidence of homophobia that your characters will have to deal with. However, what strikes me as the real danger is not the community's intolerance but Miguel's internalized homophobia. Can you speak to that tension between the external and internal forms of homophobia? I know you've been away from Peru for a while, but how are the attitudes currently towards homosexuality?
Fuentes-León: Although the film is not autobiographical—my life is not at all like Miguel's in the external details: I'm not a fisherman, I've never been married—I have come out as an artist and a gay man. Coming out is every step you take that brings you closer to who you really are; every step that makes you more authentic. The two major steps I've taken have been, first, deciding that practicing medicine was not for me. I knew that if I continued on that path it would take me further away from who I wanted to be. So I decided to change. After I graduated from med school and told myself, "This is not what I really want", I was afraid of the reactions I would receive from everyone around me; but—thank God!—I received a lot of support, not only from my immediate family but my friends, even those who were studying medicine with me. That was a good surprise, knowing that when you take a brave step people around you might actually admire you—even if they don't agree—if that step is honest and courageous and people see that it's something that brings you closer to who you really are. The second step was coming out as a gay man.
But as I was saying, although the film is not autobiographical, a lot of what Miguel is going through is close to how I felt. In response to your question, there are many films like Boys Don't Cry, for example, that focus on external homophobia working against the main character. When I was in the process of first coming out, and especially when I was fighting against being gay and wanting to be like the others, it was tough, especially telling my parents—I could see the pain in their eyes—but, the real enemy was me. I made it way more difficult for myself than anybody else did.
Guillén: Unfortunately, that's the way it usually works.
Fuentes-León: But that's what coming out really is. A lot of people say coming out is when they tell their family, their friends, whoever; but, I don't think that's what coming out is. That's when you announce it. You come out when you accept yourself and when you are at peace within your own skin. I wanted Undertow to be about that and not so much about the community reaction.
Guillén: You chose the seaside town of Cabo Blanco as the location for your film. I understand that your film is meant to be something of a fable with no necessary specificity to its location, let alone any specific reference to time, and this successfully lends a mythopoeic beauty to your film. As someone who has been steeped perhaps one hour too long in Jungian psychology, I couldn't help but recall C.G. Jung's suggestion that a seaside setting (especially in dreams) is where a man gets in touch with his contrasexual nature, his anima.
Fuentes-León: I've never heard of that before.
Guillén: As much as Jung's suggestion speaks to dreams, I feel it likewise speaks to cinema, particularly in your own film where this young man Miguel is coming to terms with his anima (i.e., his "feminine side") through his conflicted feelings of love both for his wife Mariela and his male lover Santiago. Aside from the psychological meaning of the seaside village of Cabo Blanco, I've read interesting reports of the physical filming of Undertow in that fishing village and how the locals reacted not only to the filmmaking process but the film's content. Can you speak to that? Originally, you didn't tell the locals that your film had a gay theme?
Fuentes-León: Not at the beginning, no. We wanted them to cooperate in so many ways and I was afraid that they wouldn't if they knew what the film was about. Cabo Blanco is extremely religious. We didn't actually film Undertow's church scenes in Cabo Blanco's church. We dressed up a bar to serve as the church. Besides, Cabo Blanco's real church was proportionally huge compared to the small size of the town, almost ridiculously so, like: "God is here, boom!" [Laughs.] First, they wouldn't allow us to film in their church. Second, even though it was a real church it was way out of proportion to the town and I didn't feel that was what I wanted. But that's just by way of example of how religion had such a stronghold on this town. My art director would jokingly comment that no one was going to believe that in many places I actually had to bring religious paraphernalia down from the walls—usually art directors create a space by putting things up—but there was so much religious paraphernalia on the walls that we had to bring them down. Again, that tells you how much a Catholic stronghold there was in Cabo Blanco.
We knew that we needed a macho fishing village with a strong Catholic tradition; but, that we were shooting something that a lot of people were not going to be happy about. So at the beginning we decided not to reveal our intentions. When we were asked about the film, we were vague and said, "It's about a fisherman who is married and has a friend that the people in the village don't like and he's trying to show the people in the village that his friend is a nice guy." That satisfied them enough in the beginning. We actually decided to shoot some of the more revealing scenes—like Miguel and Santiago walking down the street holding hands—late in the shooting. I told my assistant director who was handling the shooting schedule that I wanted to shoot that scene towards the end because it was going to be a giveaway. In this town, male friends don't hold hands. But, you know, towards the middle of the shoot the villagers started to figure it out.
Also, at one point a journalist and a photographer arrived from Lima to cover the shooting of the film. On his break, the photographer went to the cantina of that town and—when he was asked what the film was about—he told them the whole story. So they found out.
Guillén: You were busted!
Fuentes-León: [Laughs.] Yes, we were busted basically and we were not happy about it at all, primarily because it didn't come from us. We didn't even know exactly how this photographer related the story because he hadn't even read the script. The next day we had a big shoot with a lot of extras and we were worried that they wouldn't show up now knowing what the film was about. Not all of them came, but many of them came, for the scene that was the big procession at the beginning of the film where we needed a lot of people. I think we underestimated them. Granted, we also brought them a lot of work and boosted their economy while we were there. We also brought attention and glamour to the town. They were grateful for many reasons. If it had not been this glamorous experience, maybe they would have been a little more vocal about how they really felt?
Guillén: Which leads me to ask, precisely because it was such a finite temporary experience for them, do you think that helped them absorb the experience and adjust themselves to it while it was happening? And then they could return to life as normal once you left?
Fuentes-León: Yes, because they could say, "That was them; that was not us."
Guillén: Undertow bears a thematic resemblance to a film that came out of Colombia last year, Oscar Ruiz Nava's El Vuelco del Cangrejo (Crab Trap, 2009); are you familiar with Oscar's film?
Fuentes-León: Yes, of course.
Guillén: Crab Trap plays with the similar premise of an outsider, an urbanite, entering a coastal village, albeit for different motivations. But in both your films this urbanized outsider doesn't quite fit in with the coastal community.
Fuentes-León: Some of the residents of Cabo Blanco did vocalize their concerns that they were worried what people would think about the village and how the film represented them.
Guillén: Speaking of representation, as well you know Undertow has been programmed in Frameline as part of a spotlight on LGBT cinema from South America. Indeed, it is riding the crest of a wave of films from South America with LGBT content currently touring the queer film festival circuit. Do you have a sense of why all of a sudden there is this flourescence of South American film with LGBT content? Are attitudes towards homosexuality changing in South America? There are at least 10 films in Frameline's spotlight coming from Peru, Colombia and Argentina and—though not programmed into Frameline's sidebar—I'm aware of other titles from Venezuela and Uruguay. What's going on?
Fuentes-León: Why films end up being made at the time they're made is a big question mark. I started writing my film, for example, in 2001. The fact that I ended up making it in 2008 such that it timed hitting the festival circuit in 2009 is happenstance. You could say Undertow speaks to who I've been all these years; but, the need to talk about that started in 2001. Also, keep in mind that directors are of all different ages. Enrique Buchichio, the Uruguayan director of Leo's Room (2009) is near my age but I'm not sure of the ages of the other directors. But is there something about my generation that finally now at this age we can talk about being gay and that's why we needed to as filmmakers? You could say that it coincides with the fact that gay civil marriages are now possible in Buenos Aires, in Mexico City.
The same general question could be asked about whether there is a boom in Peruvian cinema since in the same year there have been four Peruvian films that have successfully achieved international visibility: mine; Claudia Llosa with La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow, 2009); Diego and Daniel Vega with Octubre (October, 2010), which just won a jury prize at Cannes; and Héctor Gálvez with Paraíso (Paradise, 2009), which competed in Venice. In one year Peru has been represented in the four major film festivals in the world, and one of them has been nominated for an Oscar®. Is that coincidence? It's hard to say. To answer your question, I'm hoping that it says something about the need to speak out about gay themes.
Guillén: Fair enough. You say you started writing Undertow in 2001: if, let's say, everything was set up just right and you had been offered the opportunity to film Undertow in 2001, could that have actually happened? Perhaps, like a fine wine, this script had to age?
Fuentes-León: I started writing Undertow in 2001 but the script only got to a mature state in 2005. There were elements I kept adding that changed it. For example, a scene that everyone seems to highlight in the film is where Miguel and Santiago walk through the village holding hands. That was actually the last scene I added to the script a mere two months before we started shooting.
Guillén: Let's talk about this maritime burial ritual portrayed in Undertow. Is this actually practiced in Cabo Blanco?
Guillén: Ah, so this is something you have imagined?
Fuentes-León: Yes, it's something I made up.
Guillén: Can you speak to why you valued that image?
Fuentes-León: It's difficult to answer your question because that image has always been there from the beginning. The seed of this whole story came out of an exercise I wrote for a screenwriting class in film school. It was the scene in the kitchen where Santiago shows up for the first time; the only scene where the three main characters are all together. Based on that scene, I wrote a play and in that play was already this idea of the burial ceremony. In that play the love triangle was between the fisherman, his wife, and the village whore (because I wasn't out yet) and it was only later that I realized this story needed to be about the fisherman's affair with another man. But at that time it was a heterosexual love triangle and it had a different tone, a different sensibility. What I mean by that is that the relationship between the fisherman and the whore was more conflicted and vengeful. In that version it was the whore who got drunk while waiting for the fisherman, drowned, and came back from the dead demanding acknowledgment of their love.
Guillén: As it played out in the film, however, I got the sense that it was Miguel who was not letting go of Santiago, rather than the other way around.
Fuentes-León: Exactly. I love how you observe that.
Guillén: And, again, in terms of internalized homophobia, this was Miguel's way of controlling his conflicted feelings for Santiago. In some ways you could say it was almost better for Miguel that Santiago had died and become a ghost because he was invisible to others, which made it more convenient for Miguel.
Fuentes-León: It was definitely more convenient.
Guillén: Which proved to be interesting in Miguel's character arc as he became gradually aware of what exactly he was demanding of Santiago. So let's turn to Santiago's death by drowning. I'm quite fond of magical realist flourishes in literature and film and am often struck by how magical realism provides narrative traction in Latin American cinema. You have used it quite delicately in Undertow. I didn't even fully realize Santiago had drowned at first and that his subsequent appearances were spectral. Can you speak to why you preferred to visualize his death with such a light touch of magical realism?
Fuentes-León: There were a couple of decisions that took me in that direction. Originally I had written a scene which showed Santiago drinking, wading into the ocean, being caught in the undertow, crushed against the rocks and drowning. Production-wise, however, that would have been hell, especially with my small budget. For practical considerations, I needed to consider whether I really needed to shoot a scene that would be hell to shoot, cost a lot of money, possibly even be dangerous. Perhaps I could have found a creative way to film it and reduce the risk; but, the fact that I had to face these production issues made me question whether I truly needed to show the scene to further the narrative? Then I realized that I was telling the story from Miguel's point of view and that—since we are seeing through his eyes—we shouldn't know that Santiago has drowned and should, instead, feel Miguel's confusion.
Guillén: Your introduction of Santiago's death by cinematic elision, though momentarily confusing, worked for me because it effectively served to thin the membrane between life and death. That inbetween realm between life and death is such a mysterious region that any effort on your part to try to depict it or explain it too literally would have been foolhardy. There was something honest in Miguel's confusion and the audience's participation in that confusion. I found how you handled it quite effective.
Fuentes-León: I'm glad, because some people have actually asked me at the end of the film: "Did Santiago die?" They thought he was still alive. Perhaps that confusion is the price I have to pay for not literally depicting his drowning?
Guillén: But to phrase that as "the price you have to pay" is akin to criticizing the poetry of your film. You can't criticize poetry. It either speaks to you or doesn't.
Fuentes-León: I agree with you. I haven't thought about it the way you put it, but this fine line between life and death is hard to picture or imagine, and especially to film.
Guillén: In your Newfest interview with Evans Forlidas, you stated: "I've always liked the idea of having two people symbolize different, complementary aspects of the ideal lover." Do you remember saying that?
Fuentes-León: Absolutely not! [Laughs.]
Guillén: Well, it's a beautiful statement and plays into the erotic triangulation that you first of all configured as a heterosexual triangle but which then matured into Undertow's bisexual triangle. What is it about that erotic triangulation that speaks to you as a filmmaker?
Fuentes-León: Wow. What a question!
Guillén: I'm sorry, I'm just the type of person that needs to know such things.
Fuentes-León: No, no, it's fine. I think an interest in erotic triangulations is very human. I made that statement in response to Evans Forlidas' own reference to Bruno Barreto's Brazilian comedy Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976). Are you familiar with that film?
Guillén: Yes, it's a favorite.
Fuentes-León: The two men in that film are particularly different, to the point that they are stereotypically different. One is the Casanova lover wild card and the other is stable but boring. I find it a romantic idea that you will find the perfect person who will embody everything you want and everything you need. That sentiment works beautifully for literature....
Guillén: But it's damn hard to find!
Fuentes-León: More, it's damn hard to be! I don't think I could be the perfect anything for anybody. The romantic resolution would be to accept the fantasy that two people could do that.
Guillén: Would you say that this is the gay male equivalent of the well-known fantasy of the madonna-whore dyad entertained by most straight males?
Fuentes-León: [Chuckling] Yes!
Guillén: Returning to the narrative domain of magical realism, which is so strong in Latin America and often the means by which socio-political truths can be articulated. Recently I asked Miguel Littin—and I pose the same question to you—what is it about the particular strain of Latin American magical realism that furthers the articulation of socio-political issues? You wanted to make a sociological point in Undertow and you made that point through a poetic and fantastic metaphysic. Why does magical realism allow that to work?
Fuentes-León: Because magical realism allows our discourse to transcend its limitations. Without elements of magical realism in my film, Undertow would be more of a kitchen sink drama. The elements of death and fantasy help the film transcend the reality of these three people. Even in cultures like the U.S. that are removed from such things, Latin American folk tales have magic. When we were kids we were told tales that included magic. By incorporating magical realism into my film it helps achieve a connection to that core oral tradition which many of us come from and allows the film to transcend its realistic limitations.
Guillén: I would add that magical realism also introduces a serviceable morality without hitting audiences over the head. I would suggest that one of the reasons Undertow is so popular among audiences is because you have the good instinct not to make the film too specific; i.e., too ideologic. From what I understand, Undertow is appealing to audiences all across the board: gay, straight, male, female, young, old and I presume that's because its story is more fable than fact.
Fuentes-León: It also follows classic Greek outlines: you have a protagonist-hero and his antagonist, which in this case you could say is both one and the same person in Miguel. Or, you could say Santiago is Miguel's mentor; but, he's also Miguel's antagonist. Or Mariela could be the antagonist. All the basic elements of a Greek tale are there, which—once again—is mythical, mystical; but, believe me, I don't look for it. When I get excited with an idea, somehow it has magic in it or at least a bit of an off element that allows me to jump out of the plain reality in which we usually live.
Guillén: I favor films that tell their stories through images. I mean, I don't mind being told a story; but, I prefer the images to hold the story. In your film, let's say, I loved the image of the candle that lights itself. No matter what your particular attitude might be—whether you identify with the wife who wants to be rid of the candle because it reminds her of Miguel's love for Santiago, or whatever—the point remains that candle is going to stay lit. I'm not sure I can explain to you the feeling I received from that image of the candle that lights itself or stays perpetually lit, but as an image it holds resonant meanings.
Fuentes-León: I discovered as I was writing the script what the candle would be. I didn't know at the beginning that it was going to become a recurrent symbol. At the beginning it was more like, "Okay, I think it would be cool if Santiago gives Mariela something."
Guillén: As a little props detail, was it difficult finding that candle? How did you know you had the right candle?
Fuentes-León: I went with the art director to a market in Lima where that style of candle is very Peruvian and you find them everywhere. They're colorful and decorated with golden or silver carvings. At first, we had decided upon a blue candle because we wanted blue objects to represent the ocean. For example, the wall of Miguel's living room is blue. But when we found the purple candle—and that was actually the color of the candle written in the script—we felt it was right. In Peru, purple is a color also associated with religious processions in Lima of the purple Christ, which happens in October. Purple is a color that is instantly recognized in Lima or throughout Peru as a religious color. So when we went to this market, we decided we wanted a candle that had both blue and purple and we asked them if they could make us 10 of them, which they did.
Guillén: I'm not sure if you know this but within the tradition of the Americas—certainly among the Mayan culture—the color purple, the actual pigment, came from sea snails and thus your candle has this ancient connection with the sea.
Fuentes-León: Really?! Wow. Thank you. I should have you be beside me each time I talk about my film; you'll make me look smart.
Guillén: [Laughs.] You trust your own instincts. So, returning to your imagery, you have these recurring images which for me are like the bass beats of jazz and which often hold conflicting meanings, and you depict that thin membrane between life and death that we discussed earlier, and yet another fantastical device you use in your film are your temporal displacements. In Undertow, you don't really let us know where anything is specifically happening or when anything is specifically happening. You get a sense it's current, but that it's in the recent past or possibly even in the near future. What are you playing with there? It's a fantastic sense of time but it's close at hand, it's intimate.
Fuentes-León: Once again, I think all those fantastic elements that you lay out fit within this fable. I wanted to create the feeling that this is a story that has been happening for centuries; but, at the same time, it could be the story that your son or your daughter would tell you tomorrow. I wanted Undertow to be one of the constant stories of humanity.
Guillén: Having explored these magical realist elements, let's now get down to earth and current. You might know that there has been a recent debate over whether gay actors can play straight roles as competently as straight actors can play gay roles?
Fuentes-León: Ah yes, the thrash about Promises, Promises?
Guillén: Exactly. Ramin Satoodeh—in a serious lapse of judgment—wrote a lightning-rod column for Newsweek arguing that gay actors could not effectively play straight romantic leads. It's nearly an equal cliché that straight actors can insure an Oscar® nod or win playing a gay role. But not so much attention is given to why gay actors are not offered those substantial gay roles that earn straight actors their statuettes? Not to put you on the spot; but, within the acting pool in Peru, was there not a single gay actor who could have played the role of Santiago?
Fuentes-León: Of the actors that I auditioned in Peru and Colombia, there were a couple that were gay and—to be honest—I would not have said no to their being cast, especially one well-known Peruvian actor who has recently come out (though, actually, he was outed). But the reason I didn't cast him—and I hope that if you publish this it doesn't hurt his feelings—was because what I needed from the character of Santiago was an angel of joy. I needed the audience to fall in love with Santiago. I was thinking particularly of the straight audience I was hoping to reach. I didn't want Santiago to be seen as the seducer who breaks up somebody's home. I've had a lot of straight friends tell me that one of the reasons they didn't like Brokeback Mountain was because they felt Jake Gyllenhaal's character was the seducer, the snake. I never felt that watching Brokeback Mountain but I could see how my straight friends blamed him. So I wanted to make sure that in Undertow Santiago would not be seen that way. This gay Peruvian actor that I mentioned who was interested in playing the role of Santiago would have brought a lot of pathos to the role but not the angelic charisma the character required.
Guillén: Fascinating. Thank you for your candor. Though I understand your decision to cast Manolo Cardona as Santiago—he, indeed, has angelic charisma to spare—I'm still intrigued that as a director you felt this need to cater to the requirements of an audience that would grant more credence to a straight actor playing that gay angel than they would to a gay actor playing that gay angel.
Fuentes-León: To be completely honest, I was looking for the best actor to play Santiago and I was looking for a necessary chemistry between the two actors.
Guillén: Don't misunderstand me, your casting works. And, again, similar to Crab Trap, the urban intruder is a white Colombiano who you might not have even thought was Colombian by contrast to the darker residents of that coastal village. You achieve somewhat the same effect in Undertow. Manolo is fair, blue-eyed, and somewhat opposite physically to Cristian, which speaks to opposites attracting, I guess.
Fuentes-León: But that's also the spectre of Latin America.
Guillén: Researching your film, I appreciated one of Manolo's comments to you. When I read about straight actors playing gay roles there's invariably the boilerplate expression of discomfort in having to fulfill the intimate physicality required of such roles and how they're challenged as actors to overcome it, blah blah blah, but I appreciated that Manolo told you he would have no problem with the gay sexuality if your focus would be on the love between the two men. That then got me wondering if two gay actors playing those roles wouldn't overemphasize the sexual as an expression of that love? That's nearly as hazardous an equation as Ramin Satoodeh's; but, it did cross my mind.
Fuentes-León: I would hope not. I was in complete agreement with Manolo. I needed the love between the two men to be the main thing. It hasn't happened yet—but, maybe it will happen—that some gay people will criticize the movie for not being more sexual. Some folks have mentioned that the sex scenes between Miguel and Mariela are more explicit....
Guillén: But you've staged that, you've explained it, there's a reason for that intensity: Miguel is trying to prove his challenged masculinity.
Fuentes-León: Exactly. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that—whether it would have been Manolo or somebody else—I knew that the love between these two men is what I wanted to show. That is what needed to be communicated. Otherwise, the film would not work. It would not be a love story. It would be more a story of passion.
Guillén: When I first saw Undertow, I wasn't sure if it was a romantic ghost story or if it was a tale of conscience that had romantic elements. I've come to feel that Undertow really isn't a ghost story; it's actually about Miguel's crisis of conscience. It's about how he has to muster the courage to face his love for Santiago within himself and then to acknowledge their love in front of the community by way of the burial ritual. This reminded me of Lino Brocka's You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting (1974).
Fuentes-León: What a great title!
Guillén: Isn't it? Perhaps one of the best. It's taken from a passage in the Bible. It's a film about the necessary confrontation between the individual and the community—where the conscience of a community is stared down by the conscience of the individual—and where the first act of integrity is to square off against an inauthentic community. It's final sequence rhymes with your's.
Fuentes-León: I love that you say that because Undertow is disguised as a ghost story and if people want to stay there, that's fine; but, I really wanted it to be about Miguel's conscience and his struggle. The ghost of Santiago is the representation of that struggle and—as I mentioned earlier—Miguel's mentor. Once Miguel gains his integrity, he has to externalize it. He can't keep it inside himself.
Guillén: This is a somewhat unfair question because I'm not sure it is fair to ask a filmmaker to continue on past their own framed narrative, but what do you think will happen to the relationship between Miguel and Mariela? Will they get back together?
Fuentes-León: I think that he will try to gain Mariela back. He says to his son, "I promise. I will see you soon." He does love her and he definitely wants to be a father. When he says to Mariela, "This is the last thing. I need to do this. In five years, neither of us will forget and—even though he might be gone forever—he will still be a ghost between us." He needed to honor Santiago's memory and put it to peace. I don't believe Miguel will become the kind of man who moves to the city and becomes an active homosexual. When people ask me, "What is Miguel? Is he bisexual? Is he gay?", I realize that one of the reasons I set the film in a rural area is because it's unlike a city where people are swamped and surrounded by labels. Especially in a country like the U.S., labels identify people: you are either a Republican or a Democrat, gay or straight or bisexual, vegetarian or a meat-eater....
Guillén: I call that the process of being hemmed in by lexical imperatives. You move to a city and you have to affiliate yourself with defined identities. I've lived in San Francisco my entire adult life and have constantly struggled with the term "gay" because, for starters, I'm consciously abstinent and have been for quite a while now so I'm no longer sexual and am not sure if I satisfy the term "homosexual" and also I feel the term "gay" has a specific historicity and applies to a particular time and politic. Its usage now is more a reference to a commodified lifestyle. So I'm not exactly sure what I am anymore; but, I have also stopped being as concerned.
Fuentes-León: Which, again, is why I set Undertow in a rural location to undermine that urban compulsion with self-identifying through labels. Rural towns in Peru are not obsessed with labels in the same way. Men do have sex with other men and they honestly do not perceive themselves as gay. Granted, that's also because society doesn't allow them to; but, I guess what I'm trying to say with this roundabout answer, is that I don't think Miguel is going to end up at the YMCA in love with Judy Garland. He'll go back to Mariela. The question is whether Mariela will take him back?
Guillén: I have a sense she will. I believe she will forgive him. My final question then revolves around the film's ending sequence where Miguel commits Santiago's body to the sea. Though with evident reluctance, the community nonetheless participates in the ritual and they don't leave Miguel to do it alone. What that made me consider is that—although the village is admittedly Catholicized and the Catholic religion stands in judgment of homosexuality—memory in and of itself serves a deeper religious impulse than institutionalized Catholicism and it is the communal participation in that religiosity of memory that ultimately unites and heals the community.
Fuentes-León: Not all the village honors the ritual and those that follow Miguel are the young, which was my way of saying that it is the youth of Latin America that will bring about change. They are bringing it. My generation, my friends (including myself) all came out in our late twenties, some haven't come out until their thirties, but I see young people in their late teens and early twenties who are already out, even in countries like Peru. Enough to provide a sense of hope that youth will bring about change.
Guillén: To wrap up here then, let's talk about your future projects. I understand you want to do a film noir piece and a rock musical? Can you talk about those?
Fuentes-León: Yeah! Actually, I have three projects I'm working on. There's a love story again with magical realist elements, this time between a man and a woman. It's about a woman who cannot go into the sunlight because she burns. The story is about a man who has been shot out of a cannon and has crashed through her roof three hours before dawn, leaving a gaping hole in her roof that will let in sunshine that will kill her. Of course, that's where the love story starts. That's actually the first story I ever wrote when I was applying to film school, when I was still practicing medicine. It was a one-act play I wrote that I've turned into a script for a feature film. I actually wrote the first draft of the script before I wrote Undertow; but, it's a bigger film, and Undertow was also a story I needed to tell first.
Guillén: Does it have a working title?
Fuentes-León: Yes, The Woman Who Feared the Sun. Basically in the love story of The Woman Who Feared the Sun, it is through her love that she's finally able to go into the sunlight and actually live her life so—like Undertow—it's a coming out story but a metaphorical one.
The rock musical is called Sinister, which in Latin means "left" but also means evil and menacing, whereas the right is associated with good.
Guillén: This is why I don't trust left-handed people.
Fuentes-León: I am left-handed!!
Guillén: I'm joking.
Fuentes-León: Sinister is basically a Romeo and Juliet kind of story; but, it's set in Suburbia, U.S.A. but at a time when—for some reason—left-handed people are considered bad, aligned with the Devil, and ghettoized in order to be reformed. So the rock musical happens in this ghetto where left-handed people are being reformed and it's a love story between a right-handed boy and a left-handed girl when such a love is not allowed.
Guillén: Are you a musician? You write music?
Fuentes-León: Yes. We haven't really formed a band yet, but I've been writing music with a friend of mine for a long time and I've written pieces on my own that are more like modern rock; but, the songs that I'm saving for the musical are songs that don't really fit with what we want our band to be. They're more earnest and stage-oriented. Sinister is the project I'm most excited about but I feel that I need a little more experience to do it justice.
Clearly, I'm using left-handedness as a metaphor because, first of all, we don't really know how people become left-handed—it's somehow genetic but we haven't found the gene—and nowadays we would find it ridiculous that someone would be discriminated against for being left-handed. But in the ancient past left-handed people were burned alive as witches and even within the time of my grandparents and parents, left-handed children had their left hands tied up so that they would be forced to use their right hands and they were hit if they used their left hands. So just as nowadays we would find it ridiculous for someone to discriminate against the left-handed, hopefully in the future it will be ridiculous for people to discriminate against those who are gay. These are things over which people cannot choose.
09/28/10 UPDATE: Per David Hudson, Raphael Minder on Undertow for The New York Times. I like how Minder characterizes the film's "nonlocal dimension."
Cross-published on Twitch.