Phil on Film Index

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

"If you look at the news you can see what we are losing every single day" - An interview with Pedro González-Rubio

Ask Pedro González-Rubio if his new film Alamar is a documentary or a fiction, and you will receive a very simple answer: "It is a film." In fact, Alamar is much more than that. It's actually an extraordinary film in which the young Mexican director explores the bond between a father and son as they share a fishing trip together, and finds moments of great beauty and emotional resonance in their experiences together. Alamar is one of the cinematic revelations of the year, and when González-Rubio visited London earlier this summer, I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about it.

How did you first meet Jorge and Natan, and when did you decide you wanted to make a film about them?

I have been living for seven years in the Mexican Caribbean, south east of Mexico, and I have seen how the city has grown very rapidly and has destroyed a lot of the mangrove and natural areas. I wanted to talk about the fragility of things and of nature, but also the impermanence of happiness, so in the beginning it was the idea of this man going to his place of origin and through very basic activities he would go back to his ancestral nature, and then he would die. When I was location scouting I found the first location and then I found Jorge, the young father, and it was an instant decision to include Jorge in the film, but he seemed very fit for someone who was going to die [laughs]. I just focused on the meaning of what I wanted to do, why someone would be spending his last days in this specific place, and by getting to know Jorge, his background, and people around him, I found out about Natan, so the story became about Natan spending his last days with his father and having this voyage of discovery.

Because Natan has this other life in Italy, we get the sense that it's particularly important for Jorge to pass down these traditions and this culture to his son, before he leaves it behind.

Yes, that's definitely the case. I mean, it's not the real situation, Natan still lives in Mexico with his mother, but I wanted to create a story of farewell and to make that more powerful I wanted to have the mother and the kid moving to Italy.

So how did you find that balance between the real relationship and the fictional story you wanted to tell?

It was not that hard, actually. I come from a documentary background and I had previously co-directed a feature documentary, but I have also seen the process of fiction filmmaking, because I worked behind the scenes on Babel, Iñárritu's film, so I saw the whole process of constructing a fiction there, and at film school as well. But my way of developing a story is through daily activities, so I put people with real relationships into these activities – like painting a house, cleaning the boat, sleeping and eating – and it's through these activities that I created the story.

Was the story something that came together as you shot it rather than having a clear plan from the outset?

There was an outline, and I described some activities that I wanted to include so I could talk about the bond between this father and son. In the beginning, I wanted them to be distant, and instead of through dialogue, I would portray how the bond grows little by little through activities, touching and the daily routine, and then I would end the film in Italy with his mother. On paper, it was a very abrupt ending, and it still is in the film but I think it works better in the film.

Both Jorge and Natan are very natural on screen. Did you have to spend a lot of time with them before they became comfortable with your presence and your camera?

Actually, the way I approached the process of filming Alamar was that I spent six weeks in total in this location, and in those six weeks my main activity was not filming, but was actually cooking or fishing. I did all of those things that you see on camera, and it was important to create a better intimacy with the characters and the situation.

You had to become a part of this community.

Yes, I had to feel comfortable living that lifestyle. I was a sleeping in my own hammock and the sound operator was also there, it was just a crew of two. So rather than arriving to this place and manipulating things for the film, it was the other way around, so it was about how these things would affect the film and the story. The pace of the film is the same as the pace of the lifestyle there.

Was your previous feature Toro negro created in a similar fashion to Alamar?

No, that was a pure documentary. It's similar in style, but it's 100% documentary. I think my next project will be very similar to the Alamar process. There are maybe some things I would like to change but I am comfortable with filming the way I did Alamar.

There's a great contrast between the calmness of life on land and the excitement and energy of the fishing trips, what was it like to shoot those scenes on the boat?

There is a lot of emotion involved in getting fish out of the sea and it's a very exciting process, but it was very difficult to handle the camera in those elements, with the movement and water spilling over the equipment.

I was interested to see Alexis Zabe credited as part of the underwater photography unit, because he shot Silent Light, one of my favourite recent films. How did he get involved in the project?

A friend of mine is also a very good friend of Alexis, so she told me to ask Alexis because I didn't have any budget for the underwater shots. I only had enough to pay for the gas to get to the place and the food for when we were shooting, but he's a very accessible person and open to new things, and when I told him about the project he had no doubts at all. He was great to work with and he was the perfect cameraman to take to Bancho Chinchorro, because for me it was such an intimate environment and we had managed to accomplish such a familiar dynamic during the film, that I needed somebody who would be peaceful and trustworthy for the kid, you know? Alexis is a very human and very spiritual person, and because we just had the bare essentials of equipment, I also needed somebody who wouldn't judge the project, like "What are these guys doing? Just a crew of two?" [laughs] I think a good cameraman is someone with great intuition about where they're filming, the pace, the characters, the framing and so on, and he got it right away.

Does your background as a photographer have a big influence on your filmmaking style?

Yes, as a cinematographer and a director, I am interested in what the images have to say rather than the dialogue. I want to know what the images mean.

You wrote, directed, shot and edited Alamar. Did you ever feel like you were taking on too much?

Well, I just had to do it [laughs]. I don't think I could have made this film with a different structure. I think I shot in total around 35 hours, and compared to the documentaries I did before, this is not that much. As I said, I mainly focused on other things rather than filming while we were there.

There are a number of moments in the film that are clearly completely spontaneous, like the bird suddenly arriving in Jorge and Natan's hut, which then becomes part of the story. Did you have to be constantly on your toes to capture unexpected moments like that?

Yes, definitely, I always had my camera next to me. When the bird came it was sheer luck. She came because she saw the bugs in the house, and the first images I have of her are of pure curiosity, but when she came the second day I realised she was an important character or factor for the film. I knew she wouldn't come back every day, so when she flies away it's like Natan flying away, and it's a perfect metaphor for Natan's own destiny.

At the end of the film there is a message emphasising the importance of preserving these locations. Has this aspect of the film received any reaction in Mexico?

It has been screened in Mexico but just at festivals, we don't have a commercial release yet. That was a big responsibility for me because I was allowed to go there with my camera even though it is a protected area. I think there needs to be more special consideration about how to protect these fragile environments, especially now with this oil spill [this conversation took place at the height of the BP oil crisis]. Today Obama said it was like 9/11, and if you look at the news you can see what we are losing every single day.