“My grandfather was a real asshole so I had to make a film about him”. Colombian filmmaker Rubén Mendoza @ Havana Film Festival 2014

Colombian filmmaker Rubén Mendoza talks about his latest film Tierra en la lengua that was part of the official selection at Havana Film Fest 2014 and was awarded with a Special Jury Mention for Best Film.

Ruben Mendoza

Rubén Mendoza

Rubén Mendoza graduated from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia’s Film and Television Directing School. He also studied in the Concordia University’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, of Montreal, and had taken several courses in Cuba, China, Argentina. Mendoza is part of Día Fragma Fábrica de Películas where he has developed his work as writer, director and editor, with the producer Daniel García who has been involved in all his films as General Producer.

Filmography: ‘Statues!’, ‘The Fence’ (selection Cinefondation Cannes 2005), ‘Animal Kingdom’ (best short film in Toulouse Film Festival 2010), ‘Bringing down the house’ and ‘The Heart of La Mancha’. His first feature film ‘The Stoplight Society’ was part of L’atelier at the Cannes Film Festival and other cathedrals of “film charity”. Between 2010 and 2014, Mendoza completed three other feature-length projects. More about these in the interview below.

This interview took place on December 14, 2014 at Hotel National de Cuba.

Could you please introduce yourself and tell us a few things about your film trajectory so far.

My name is Ruben Mendoza, I’m from Colombia, Third World, Third Earth and I do films. Or I try to do films! I made three features so far: La sociedad del semáforo (The Stoplight Society), Tierra en la lengua  (Dust on the Tongue), and Memorias del Calavero (Memories of a Vagabound). I did a lot of shorts also, I was born in the 80’s and my films have been selected and awarded in several film festivals, including Cannes, Berlin, etc. I also have won a lot of developing prizes, “cinematography charity”, as I call it, because for the nature of my projects, and the spirit of my films, it is completely impossible to find finance in my own country, they don’t care at all of course about my job and I don’t like their attitude either so I have to do entirely without any help from any power person or company.

You’re a truly independent filmmaker!

 It’s impossible to be anything else but independent there. But we should say that independent films are the most “dependent” films of all. Because you depend on everything and everyone to be able to make your film. And as long as you don’t “sell” the spirit of the film, it’s ok.

At Havana Film Festival you are presenting Tierra en la lengua. This is a beautiful, evocative film with lots of surprising scenes and humorous moments. How did this project come about?

It is the story my grandfather, or at least it is inspired by him. In the film an old guy, a wonderful asshole, tries to convince his grandchildren to kill him before death or illness takes over. The setting is a very dramatic Colombian landscape: Los Llanos Orientales.

And this grandfather is a real “character”…

This grandfather is a real asshole! A wonderful monster that I was quite close to. And I shot the film in their own house, on their own land, that are kind of mine too, morally. I always loved those places so much, since I was very little. So that’s what I think the movie is about. At least you don’t feel I’m a tourist of the topic or of the land. And it is full of truth: the love and hate I felt for that man.

I loved the way in which you introduced the film, the documentary-style sequence at the beginning, you really grabbed our attention. 

Yes. Actually the first shot is a shot I made when I was 10. So it’s been 22 years that I’ve been making this film without knowing. It was with a borrowed camera from my aunt. The shot of my grandmother passing by the little bridge. The film is inspired by real characters but of course I took a distance from reality and plunged into fiction. The first part is kind of a documentary because the voice is from a dead grandma (Aurora) but my other grandmother (Rosa Elena) was the one who voiced it over, she’s still alive. It has real footage and false footage that I produced during the shooting of the film.  But it’s also a matter of what was true in my grandfather’s life. The other film is a little bit about that, I’m obsessed with that. Sometimes with several lies you can tell a big and profound truth.

Your grandfather, at least the character in the film, has an almost mythical aura about him…

Yes it’s true, he was a legend. For example, the stories they tell in the film about kidnapping attempts, it was true for him. And you could feel you were in the presence of someone magnetic and with a magical aura. Who also at any moment could break into a fit of rage. It was very stressful to be around him. He had a lot of misadventures.

How did you go about turning your real father into a “character”? How did the screenwriting process unfold?

I started writing when I was 21 but after three years of writing and working on the film I rejected what I wrote. I felt it was too teenage-like, like a teenage revenge. And I started to immerse myself into the other feature and forgot about this film.[…] I was so hurt by media in my country, not serious and real critics, but mainstream media, which has the monopoly of information there.  So I sent a text, like a poem rejecting my own script to Cannes Film Festival and they chose me for the Residence programme in the Cinefondation. And I started writing again there. Actually I didn’t write too much there but I saw a lot of films and made a lot of beautiful friends there, and thought about what I wanted the film to be.

And at the end there was a contest involving 12 scripts and the prize was a scholarship for a year. And my film won the prize, that was actually the fist money I got for the film. Then I got the National Fund and some other prizes and funds. Although it was very little money, at least by American standards, it was enough for me because I got the solidarity of a region I’m part of in a way, and of my family also.

I’m curious how much the budget was.

The budget in the end came up to $400,000. But the film could cost easily $2 million. But as we were from that place, I got a lot of generosity on the way. For instance, my grandmother helped me with the casting in a crucial way, not only with the logistics of the project. When I got really desperate after auditioning more than a hundred men for the lead role, she was the one who recommended Jairo, who really carries the film and gives it its power, along with the landscape that is also one of the main characters.

TIERRA actors

Did you work with any professional actors on this film?

No, not at all. Only the girl. For the role of my grandfather I was a month away from the shooting and I was far away. This place is the entrance to the Amazon, so it is very hard to produce there, there are no hotels or any filmmaking facilities. The most comfortable people there are not comfortable at all. You have another kind of comfort there: the air and the water and the contact with the animals, the beauty of the place and the quality of the light. Most of the actors are non professionals: the old guy, Silvio, was interpreted by Jairo Salcedo. I’ve known Jairo since I was four. He was like my James Coburn: magnetic despite being a total asshole. As I told you it was my grandma how brought his name up again and again. He is a great friend to have around and he also put his life, family and humble possessions in the film.

Your whole life is in this film!

Almost, yes. We were four people looking for actors in four different parts of Colombia and in the end we found our main actor very close to the main location.

Did they welcome the idea of being in the film immediately?

No but I knew immediately that I wanted them in the film! Until then I put some ads in the media and the casting websites that I was looking for someone like James Coburn, the actor in Sam Peckinpath’s films. He was very magnetic, he was like a bad kid. But even if he plays such bad characters, he is so beautiful and has such magnetism that it was difficult to hate him, that’s what I wanted. And I got the same feeling with this guy, he was very handsome but tough-looking as well. He has been rehearsing for 65 years without knowing!

What acting instructions did you give him?

A lot of stuff. When you don’t work with professional actors, in my country they call them “natural actors”. I don’t believe in natural or artificial because everyone who is in front of a microphone or camera is acting in some way. So I try everything when I’m working because I also work with professionals. My decisions are purely instinctive in deciding whom to work with. And then I mixed classical school techniques with personal experiences and methods, or the actors’ as well. For me to search is also to rehearse. That’s why I take so long deciding who is gonna be who. Then we go deep, for months, and I try really extreme stuff with them. I love the months of experimentation. For my short films, even the simplest, I took sometimes half a year to rehearse in some cases. In some other cases, or with some other actors, in the first rehearsal I realise that rehearsing is the mistake: no rehearsal at all is what could give me the best out of someone, sometimes, also.

This is very interesting because the acting in this film seems very even, you can’t tell who is a professional actor and who isn’t.

Yes, that’s true. But only the girl is a professional actor, she is from Colombia and this is her first feature film. Her name is Alma Rodriguez. She’s 30 but she looks younger.

How long did it take you to make this film?

You mean the shoot or the whole process? Because I see myself as a filmmaker, as an author, rewriting permanently: with my brains and the ideas, then rewrite with the letters and the paper, then rewriting with the rehearsing, then rewriting in each shot and take with the camera, then rewriting in the montage; for me thinking about the film and writing is part of the filmmaking process, part of the technical stuff. Then you just change the support.

What other film festivals are you taking this film to?

The film has been in over 30 festivals, I just came from Chicago and Oslo, so this is the last stop on the festival circuit.

A few words about your other film that is playing at Havana Film Festival.

Memorias del Calavero is also a good-bye from an old guy. The film tries to be a documentary but it keeps us out. It’s about a very old guy, he’s 65.  I wanted to celebrate uselessness, it’s a very difficult value to practice these days! I wanted to celebrate him and share his experience with the audience. It was a nice experiment, I never thought anything would come of it, but people gave me such beautiful words when I presented the film.

Rubén Mendoza links:


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