After a long journey full of festivals and international awards, Samuel Kishi’s film from Guadalajara finally arrives in Mexico.
The apartment is small and the children know very well that they cannot go out. That is one of the rules. They also know that every time they fight they must reconcile with a hug. That is another. The progress of the day is sensed in the natural light that passes through the curtains, one of the only accessories that dress the room. Never mind. The lack of furniture facilitates games and the expansion of imagination: the two brothers run, play, argue, become superheroes. They paint themselves on the walls as cartoon wolves. They howl. They take care of their home like a herd would. They play the portable recorder to listen to the voices of their mother and grandfather immortalized on the cassette and practice over and over the phrase in English that will fulfill their greatest dream: «I want to go Disney!«.
In Los lobos , unlike what happens in other dramas about migration, childhood and tenderness remain at the center of the story. They are keys to survival in unknown and adverse territory. A double award winner at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, the film follows a mother who, along with her two young children, settles in a hostile and underserved California neighborhood to start a new life. But the beginning is hard and the working hours are long. The siblings are left alone in a tiny apartment during the day, taking care of each other and watching the strange world from the window, with the voices of the tape recorder and the characters of their imaginations as only company. In this way, the fiction of the Guadalajara filmmaker Samuel Kishi is also acoming of age , a rite of passage for the little protagonists, Max and Leo Nájar, who are brothers in real life.
“It’s what their mother needs from them,” Kishi tells us, “for them to be a little more independent so they can team up and survive. That is also part of resilience.
The director had already put both feet in the Berlin festival six years ago with his debut feature Somos Mari Pepa , another fresh and organic fiction about youth and the ultimate end of childhood, which was nominated for four Ariel Awards. Since then the idea of Los lobos haunted his mind, although at first it was going to be called Los vientos de Santa Ana . The early title has a lot to do with his own childhood memories, of when his mother left him and his brother Kenji – now a composer of his films – in an apartment in Santa Ana, California, while he went to work. Wolves sprouted from these memories to become a treatise on the strength of childhood.
“Sometimes we do not give it the weight that children have in the family,” tells us Martha Reyes Arias, who, to embody Lucía, the mother, spoke with migrant women during the scouting process in the United States (the film was filmed in Albuquerque, New Mexico). «They were single moms, most of them. They began to tell me about their situation, why they left, what their adaptation process was like and how children influence that process. Whether they accept it or not, whether they adapt or not. That also helps or hurts survival.
It all started with a memory game and the threat of a blank page. Samuel Kishi decided to follow the example of Joe Brainard and his book I Remember,published in 1970, where the American artist lists a collection of memories and reflections. All the notes begin with the phrase “I remember that” and together they form a portrait of his life and its context. Impressed by the book and the simplicity of its principles, the filmmaker emulated the exercise with his own memories and his imagination was captured by one of them: the image of his mother renting a small apartment in a tough and inhospitable neighborhood in California. “In a very clever way he left us a cassette recorder to entertain us while he went to work. He recorded stories, stories, house rules, English lessons and he told us: ‘if you miss me, put it on play ‘ ».
However, Samuel Kishi knew that having an anecdote is not the same as having a story. Although the film has autobiographical overtones, the images of the past had to be “wallowed” by fiction. Los lobos is the result of an intense and continuous work of rewriting, one in which his role as director and writer, according to what he tells us, was to observe, investigate, let the characters breathe, listen to the rest of the team and accept the change. throughout the entire filming process – and even afterward. It’s not that he’s already 100% honest. It still has a lot of scratchy parts, ”he shares.
An example of elements to be polished was the character of Lucia, whom Samuel had a bit idealized. «In several of the script treatments, the co-writers [ Luis Briones and Sofía Gómez Córdova ] and I, very talented by the way, weren’t able to write a real Lucia. A real mother. I had an idealization of my mother, with certain clichés and many things that did not allow me to have that distance that I needed ”, confesses the filmmaker.
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Martha’s participation in the construction of the character, therefore, was key to achieving an authentic portrait of motherhood in the rewriting. The actress was not originally considered to act in the film, as she looked too young for the role. In fact, she was initially invited by Samuel to give an acting workshop to the finalist children in the casting process and to read the replica of dialogues with them. Finally, the filmmaker suggested that he test to be able to select it. Once all the actors were chosen, Martha spent time in her own apartment with Max and Leo to build bonds and trust. His experience and gaze found the real Lucia.
“I was talking with Kishi about wanting the mother to be someone real”, tells us the actress from Guadalajara, who makes her leading role in feature film with this film, “I wanted them to see what I experienced while having them on them! (laughs). I left the water running, I forgot to turn things off. Children occupy all your attention and it is very difficult to do it alone, to be the only person in charge. I have not seen that this is portrayed like this in our cinema and in our collective imagination. There is always this mother who sacrifices herself, even though she is very tired, she makes you dinner and smiles at you and all that. I wanted to add those other moments that also exist, and that does not mean that you do not love your children, it means that you are also a person and that you feel.
The story also fed on the adventures of the smaller protagonists. Maximiliano Nájar, nine years old at the time, was chosen from among 900 children along with another actor who would play the youngest brother, but who decided not to participate in the end. That’s when Leo Najar, Max’s five-year-old brother, came into action. “As they were brothers in real life, the magic happened by itself,” says Martha. “The confidence for those hugs and tugs had already five years of experience (laughs).”
To achieve the natural and fresh tone, close to the documentary, that characterizes Kishi’s cinema, the finalist children went through acting workshops. First the one taught by Martha herself and then one with Fátima Toledo , a coach and director of actors who has worked in films such as Ciudad de Dios , and recently also in the Mexican films Vuelven and Noche de fuego. When Leo joined the cast, the director and Martha repeated the exercises. Preparation was key to making the most of time and igniting the spark of spontaneity, since children can only spend six hours a day on a set, about half of what adults work.“We needed the children to be able to repeat takes without losing freshness and that they could also improvise,” explains the actress.
The presence of the children brought, in turn, new rewritings and adaptations. Leo Nájar, for example, lived during the filming a rite of passage that Samuel ended up including in the story: the milestone that consists of learning to fasten his shoelaces. “It was an everyday problem,” says the filmmaker, laughing. Leo and his shoes. He came and it was chaos because when it came time to put them on, he always fought with Martha and Max to get the straps fastened. I thought it was a very nice metaphor, so I went back to writing. His dramatic arc is that he is going to learn to fasten them, both on film and in real life. ”
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With a way of working that opposes verticality on film sets – and the exaggerated repetition of takes as a sign of “genius” – Samuel emphasizes constant communication and collaboration to get a story forward. He especially remembers the work with the photographer Octavio Arauz , and the joint decision to study and use the natural light of the location, due to budget limitations. Community decisions to write and face the challenges of a work of compressed hours.
«Part of this game also has to do with the figure of the director, whom we see as this being on a pedestal, demigod, in this imaginary that we have built. That of the tax administration and that everything comes out of his genius mind. That is a lie, at least to me. Cinema has to be alive. And every living being is immersed in change.
Kishi looks for the vitality and naturalness of events in the way he conceives (and limits) the shots of the same scene, and in how they are woven at the time of editing. “I believe in three core takes,” he explains, “the first is the most scripted, the one that follows what is written the most. In the second we work on the rhythm, by compressing the scene. In the third, improvisation comes, we start to play. When we get to the editing room we mix the three takes. The third, for example, refreshes. And that generates something organic and alive, nothing stiff ».
The movie of the wolves with laces
Initially, Samuel Kishi planned to film Los lobos in the same neighborhood in California where he lived with his mother and brother; However, during the search for locations, he realized that everything had changed in that place. The harsh and paralyzed environment was gone, so he decided to go to Albuquerque, where he finally found what he was looking for: “a place trapped in time,” as he told us during the premiere at the Berlinale.
Today, the world is emerging from a pandemic that trapped us in a limbo of space and time. Although the film is about a migration story, the filmmaker believes that the resistance efforts of Lucía, Max and Leo (and their experiences within that tiny department) can now find different readings, two years after their story began. crossing by festivals of the world. The pandemic also meant even more “rewriting” of plans for the team. «It was such a long journey. The film premiered at festivals at the end of 2019, and we had to go through this adaptation process. We were lucky to reach the last great festivals, with an audience. In Berlin we did not know that it was going to be the last show with that many masses. The first screening there was of a thousand people, something would be unheard of right now ”, shares Kishi.
Since then, the film has received close to 20 international awards, including the highest awards at the last Guadalajara International Film Festival and the 2020 Guanajuato International Film Festival.. The reception of audiences and critics from different latitudes, according to the filmmaker, “opened his eyes” to the universality of his own story and the connection it generates. From Busan to Havana, for adults and children. At a screening in Berlin, children in the audience even clapped when Leo managed to fasten his shoelaces. «To be able to premiere in our country. Being able to reach a more general audience is an impressive gift, “says Kishi,” I was already a bit pessimistic. He said, well, we are not going to release it until 2023. So it has been very nice to be able to get there “, says the filmmaker.
For a film that grew out of a small memory so situated and personal, about two children who experience change from their apartment, the journey has been enormous. When asked how he works to trust those intimate and non-bombastic tendernesses, the filmmaker replies that his secret is to try to be very honest when writing. «And that would seem to be very simple but it is complicated. It is a matter of emotionally stripping. To dare to be honest and say, this is what I feel. This is who I am, ”he explains. In his testimony about how he approached his idea, a bit of the recklessness of the narrators can be seen who, as archaeologists – and as the writer Gabriela Damián Miravete says-, they believe in internal and tiny clues to exhume stories. “But no. Let’s see. Let’s start small.