Monday, July 12, 2010

Pedro González-Rubio's ALAMAR is a watery, elemental, one-of-a-kind delight; Q&A with the filmmaker

Such a pleasant, unusual surprise (in so many ways), ALAMAR (which means "to the sea") is a near-impossible movie not to recommend: an odd combination of documentary and narrative in which the story is "made-up" yet almost everything we see is real, happening in real time and as it would in real life. Plus, the "actors" play their real-life counterparts.  The creator of all this, Pedro González-Rubio, has made only two other movies -- a dark, unreleased documentary called Toro Negro (more about this in the interview below) and The Making of BABEL (yes: one of those "making of" movies about that Brad Pitt film).  With this new work, the filmmaker has delivered a neither-fish-nor-fowl film that manages to both swim and soar.

A couple has recently split in a town near the Mexican coast.  He's a native, she's European.  Before the mother and son leave the country, perhaps for good, the boy, who appears to be somewhere between 6 and 8 years old is taken by his father (with mom's permission) to spend some time in his grandfather's shack on the sea and learn how gramps makes a living and how life is lived quite differently in this unusual environment.  That's it.  The film is 73 minutes long, there's not a wasted moment, yet so much life, love, symbolism, change and possibility is packed into its short running time so beautifully and well that González-Rubio (shown above) has created a sui generis movie.  A wonderfully generous one, too.

The director's style is definitely documentary.  Featuring almost no exposition, the camera tracks moment-to-moment activities so well that we sometimes grow concerned.  The little boy is meandering in waters that contain not just fish but crocodiles, above, and he's often warned to stay out of their way. Likewise, a fabulous white bird, below, whom dad calls "Blanquita," comes into their life and is coaxed, haltingly, into a kind of relationship.

The grandfather, Nestór Marín (below), is a man of few words (whom does he usually have to talk to?) but proves a good, loving teacher to both his son and grandson.  And the father, a remarkably photogenic and exotic-looking man, proves someone the camera clearly loves (the audience will, too). Mom gets short-shrifted, but then, she's not part of this male-bonding trip.

The location itself -- the sea (see the color of that water, below!) and surrounding land with all the flora and fauna -- could not be more beautiful.  When, early on, after the arrival of father and son, some building, painting and refurbishing takes place on the boathouse that will be home for the three, a small window is constructed that opens out onto the sea.  At the moment that tiny portal first swings wide, the word ALAMAR appears in the center of its ocean view, presenting us with, not only the film's title but a gentle reminder that "this is just a movie."  Yet before this moment, and after, for the rest of its running time, this film is so much more.

Alamar, released in the U.S. by Film Movement, opens for a one-week-only run in New York City at Film Forum.  You can find other playdates here (click and scroll down).  Once word gets out about this remarkable movie, I should think there will be many more venues added.
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TrustMovies met with Pedro González-Rubio a few months back in the Manhattan offices of the film's U.S. distributor Film Movement. Exceedingly friendly and happy to talk about many different things, the filmmaker proved as delightful an interview as his film is a movie. His answers appear in standard typeface below, while our questions are in boldface.

There’s a scene in the movie where someone mentions “rubio.” Were they taking about the little boy, who looks sort of "blond" at that moment in the movie? Or were they talking about you?

Rubio…? I don’t know…
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It happens on the boat, I think…

Oh! Yes, Rubia! They are talking about a fish. That is how they name a fish. A Rubia is like a “snapper”.

Ah. Now I get it. So, how many hours of film did you actually shoot for this movie?

About 35 hours.

That’s not that much?  Is it?

Not compared to previous work. I remember that I did one where I shot 200 hours. It was The Making of Babel.

The Brad Pitt movie. You did the “making of” part?

Yes, and it was feature-length: one hour and a half. So there were 200 hours because we had to be on the set every day.

So 35 hours was all you shot on Alamar!  And you dedicated it to your grandfather....

Yes, because my grandfather was a filmmaker.  He even worked here in the States and directed Anthony Perkins. It is not easy to get hold of that film – it is called The Fool Killer.  More than a western. It was sort of a… Midwestern.

Do you remember the young woman who was in it? 

I just remember it about the guy and the boy. This was when Anthony Perkins was really …  it was after he had done Psycho.

He was really on top of his career back then.  What was your grandfather’s name?

Servando González. Gonzales-Rubio is from my father‘s sirname. My grandfather had done his first feature film, Yanco, about an old man who plays the violin, which he passes on to a kid. The townspeople have never heard this sound before, and when they do, they hear it in the night, so they think it is the devil.

This was his first film?

Yes, his first, and it was very difficult for him to get the film out, for people to see it, and he had very few resources. At that time there were very strong syndicates – one for the film making crew -- and the director’s syndicate. Because he did not belong to the director’s syndicate, they did not want him to show this film. They wanted to burn it. It is similar to what happened to the boy in the film.

The Fool Killer was not a big success over here, I think.

No, but my grandfather did not speak English.

Then how did he get to make the film?

His Amercian producer has seen Yanco. He was from New York. He said, "I want this director to do this film."

So things like that happened way back then, too.

Yes! It’s crazy but his producer insisted that he do it, even though he did not speak English. But now his grandson does speak English!

And is making movies -- and very well, too! Where are you actually from?

From Mexico City. But then I did, like, two trips in total to make the film -- to this second biggest coral reef in the world and the biggest one in Mexico. But, you know, this place is in danger of physically disappearing. Because of all the different interests that are present in this area.

(We talk a bit about Margot Benacerraf's Araya with its stunning photography – which González-Rubio has not seen -- and I Am Cuba – which he says has the most stunning photography ever -- from the same director of photography, Sergei Urusevsky, who did The Cranes Are Flying. I have not seen that one, and so we both agree to watch each film.) 

Your leading man is one of the most beautiful, strange, stunning and interesting men I have seen on film. Like a force of nature. Almost otherworldy, at least from a different world that any of us here in the city would have seen.

Yes.

And your film, which almost seems like a documentary, it not at all a doc. But rather a narrative film. It seems to constantly fudge the line between the two. Where did you get the idea for this film?  And does a situation like we see here actually exist wthin a couple – where the two people are SO very different?

Yes, their situation does exist and quite often. In Playa del Campo there is this mix of races.

The racial mix might be a little unusual, but these two people: How did they meet, how did they bond? We don’t see any of that.

They met because she was a tourist there, and then she stayed to live there. This often happens in this area.  She still lives there in Playa del Campo, but they separated and so she lives further down in the south.

Is that where we see her with the boy at the end?

No, we see her in Rome.

Ah… So he may never see his father again. So this is important for the father to pass on his knowledge, like a blueprint for the kid so he will know who he is when he grows up.

There are different levels. With the father it is not like he lives in that location, but he comes there sometimes. So this is voyage for the young man to remember, the kid to learn and the older man, the grandfather, to pass it on. It is like the three generations, three stages of man.

You give us almost no expostion, and you must have done this deliberately, so we must watch and learn as we go along.

Rather than giving any conventional narrative, I wanted this film to be able to be experienced via the sensations. To be more organic and to focus on the characters rather than on a story. But the problems… The problems, the crises are in us, after we walk out of the theater, so for the hour and fifteen minutes, we live with them and learn. In a kind of utopia.

Yes, it is a utopia. Kind of.

I wanted to do something that would transport us back to the senations that we had, the sense of discovery, when we were younger.

And you succeeded in that, I think.  What else have you done before this?

I did a documentary called Toro Negro. It was screened here in NYC at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater.

Yes! Which is not here anymore.

Really?

Yes. It’s gone now. It was such a charming little theater. And I loved that name!

Too bad.  And I also did The Making of Babel – which took two years to complete.  I co-directed both of the other two, but this one is all my direction. So here in this one I also did the editing, as I did in the other ones.

So you did the writing, directing, editing and cinematography?!

Yes – except the underwater cinematography. The crew was just two of us: boom operation and myself and that was it. It was a very organic film, and we did all the activites with the characters. I did the cooking; we were like a family. The location you see in the movie was also our five-star hotrel. And it was our catering facility, too!

What did this whole thing cost?

Very little to film. I could finance it myself. But for post-production, that is whre the cost comes – like any film. To do the color correction, sound design, music and then bring it up to 35mm, We shot it on HDV and then blew it up to 35.

Where did you find the actor who plays the father?

He lives in Touloon which is south of Playa del Carmen, where I live. And he is a bird-watching guy – a self-made ornothologist. That is why, when the bird arrived, he already had the touch. His passion is birds. Even the man’s features – he is like an eagle in a way – his eyes!

Does this guy want to act again, to do another film?

I don't know, but he should!

Did you pay your actors?

Yes. We paid some while we were filming, then something when we finished, but I still have more to pay them.

What festivals have you been to?

The Rotterdam and the Berlinale -- in the Generation Section – which is for children's films.  So this movie seems very universal and with a broad range of audience.

I would not call it just a children's film because it makes such as impression on adults, too. Has it been picked up for release by other countries?

Yes, and this took us by surprise.  All the territories have been sold. And all this happened because of the sale agency that took it on: MK2.

Martin Karmitz?!  That means France picked it up.  

Yes and the UK and Poland and Spain... 

Well, your movie does not compare closely to anything else I can think of.  It fuses documentary style and narrative, and it does this in such a way that it honors both formats.  And it doesn't make you feel queasy, uneasy, about the truthfulness there.  The way that some filmmakers handle their subjects.

They're going in and interfereing and not being respectful.  That was the trouble with my first film, Toro Negro.  it was about a young 21-year-old, alcoholoic bullfight who has no success at all. He comes from the streets and was abandonded at age 11.

Very depressing.

Yes, and it is not like anything that has been seen about bullfighting. 



Is that maybe why it did not get any distribution?

Maybe. This is what happened with Toro Negro, my first film: It was a very harsh documentary. Too harsh.. Not like what you know from the usual bullfighting movie.  No big arena, where the bullfighters are considered like rock stars. This is the real, harsh, ramshackle bullfighting. It takes place in very poor area. And the documentary explored the inner life of the protagonist, with all the domestic violence – and not talking heads but the real thing. For me as a filmmaker, I did not feel any identification with my subject.  So this time I wanted to explore the other side of the coin – love. 
So Alamar, instead of being about frustration and hatred is about freedom and love. The ying and yang.

How old are you, Pedro?

33.

Oh-- you look so much younger than that! Are you married? Family? 


No.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that you have not covered here today?

Oooh, yeah –plenty! Many, many things! But that will be for next time. Actually it is all there in the film. There are even many symbols that are there and that reflect my philosophy.

It’s amazing: You really have packed so much into this 73 minute film.  Oh—I do have a last question: What are you doing next?

I know it is going to be a combination of both universes: the good and the devil, the loving and hating – and then this purifying voyage of self-discovery.

Do you have a title yet?

No, but my leading character is Russian. So he is very intense.


Yes, very intense and troubled, I'll bet. Russia is such a strange country. I've never been there -- but just looking at its history. Constantly being under the thumb of, first the Czars, and then the Commusnists, and now the Captialists.

And the Mafia. It is crazy!


We get the high sign to end the conversation, 
so we thank each other for the time -- 
and for such an interesting interview.

2 comments:

Waltraud said...

We'll show Alamar during our "Ciné-Festival en Pays de Fayence".
Would it be possible to publish some of the photos of this blog in our brochure ?
Please reply to contact@cine-festival.org.
Tnak you

James van Maanen, said...

Hi, Waltraud--
I have contacted ALAMAR's distributor Film Movement, and I imagine that someone there will be able to help you out. I'd say, sure, go ahead and publish the photos in your brochure, but since they are low-res, they will look pretty awful, and also I do not own the rights to them, so cannot actually give you that permission. But I'm sure sure you will hear from Film Movement. If you do not hear back from anyone very soon, please advise me.