Winners of the 15th FICM: Interview with Daniel Nájera BetancourtBy: Berenice Andrade
Daniel Nájera Betancourt tells that the story of Back to Me, winning film of the Ojo for Mexican Fiction Short Film at the 15th Morelia International Film Festival (FICM), jumped to him during a trip to the market in search of beef broth. The Chihuahuan director found in this market the neglected opportunity to look at the lives of those who nobody thinks of, at the daily tragedies that happen, especially and as if they were nothing, in the marginalized areas of the country.
With the support of the Program to Encourage the Creation of Artistic Development (PECDA) and his friends, Daniel managed to complete the story of Rosita and Josué, a pair of siblings who arrive in the city of Chihuahua to work in a market. There, Rosita meets Eulalio, a crook who begins to tear them apart until one day she disappears without a trace.
In an interview, Daniel Nájera Betancourt details the intentions and symbolism of his short film and talks about what it meant for him to be part of FICM.
Where did the idea of Back to Me come from?
This short is, in a way, my attempt to tell people that although we have parted ways, I will always remember them; even when I have had to learn that the hard way. And it’s what happens to the kid, he has to learn the hard way.
The story is not inspired by real events, but at the same time, it is because Chihuahua has a fame for disappearances. I thought, “What if I flip the house around. It seems quiet: a couple of siblings who are alone in the city, like all those who come from out of town because their families sent them.” And what I wanted was to see their life. I dare say that there is no “misery porn” in the film. It is not like “oh, they have a hard time because they don’t have money”. No, it’s their life until they are separated. It is something that can happen to anyone.
The main characters, the siblings, don’t speak, but all the others around them, those who abuse them, do. Are these silences a way to symbolically show the muted voice of the unprotected? What does silence mean in Back to Me?
People from the ranges are very quiet. The “sierreños”, especially the Tarahumara people, believe that when they interact with the “chabochi”, or white man, they are corrupted. So, they aren’t very fond of talking. But I thought: “The fact that they do not speak doesn’t mean that they don’t resent the things that happen to them.”
I have almost nothing in common with these characters, but I am not the most articulate person. We always look for a bridge – sometimes one that’s super fragile or destroyed – to connect, to tell someone that we love them without having to say it. “I miss you, but I can’t say it. You left me, but I’m always going to love you.” There are people to whom you always want to say something, but it doesn’t come out.
So, we see these siblings who say things without speaking them. How does a sister tell a child “I’ll take care of you” without actually saying “Hey, I’ll take care of you”? She just does it. She’s there, watching over him. This short is about that permanent attempt to say things that don’t come out. This short is to listen to those quiet voices when something happens.
There is a shot that happens after the violent scene: one of a mountain that lasts for a while. What I wanted to say was: “What you see, that violence, is happening behind a mountain, back there, in another neighborhood, and who knows that? No one. Who does something? No one. They are voices that remain silent in the peripheries. Probably something bad is happening to a girl in the north of the city, and far away, in a place where there’s music playing. Who knows what is happening elsewhere? Surely, nobody is going to do anything about it.
The film does not show violence scandalously or stridently, in fact, the disappearance of the girl is perceived as something commonplace, natural. How did you manage to show the tragedy as something mundane, without any type of emotional blackmail?
How to portray a disappearance? Well, as they happen in life: How was the last time someone saw someone who disappeared? Surely, it happened in a common, everyday situation. It’s not like “meanwhile, somewhere else…” and the girl appears in a trash can, in a bag.
What I wanted to do was a short film based on life as a child sees it, from their perspective. A teacher used to say they are like mosaics of time: “I remember the road to Chihuahua, damn long road, there were heaven and my sister. Then I remember that when we arrived, it was already late night and I was sleepy. Then I remember that I was in the market, walking, and the cheeses, the ranchero cheese with jalapeño was very good, the fat lady who was gossiping around. I remember they invited us to play, and there was a guy who was with my sister, and suddenly my sister came out crying, and I remember the last time I saw my sister.” They are all like fragments of memory, that’s why they don’t have music. In life, his or ours, we do not have a soundtrack. Everything is raw. The sum of this memory plus another.
My character is probably going to remember all this time in which he came to the city and lost his sister as shown in the short: no music, noisy, the dust, and a sister who seems to have been swallowed by it. It’s more like an evocation: how I felt life beyond how I saw it. I tried to make a feeling, there is nothing gimmicky, there are no parts that say, “cry here”.
Why tell the story this way?
Everything was to experiment. I don’t think I have a style yet, so I’m going to try this voice. The next short could be a reggaetón musical, to say something. That is, something I haven’t done before. But, in the end, the search will nourish me. Maybe nobody will like it, and how cool if nobody likes it because then nobody is going to tell me how to do something different.
It would be very easy to say that I found a little formula which I am going to follow. No, I’m 28 years old, I’m too young to say that I already have my voice. I see it as my favorite directors: they see the short film as a place to experiment. Wes Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola, Julián Hernández do in their shorts what they do not allow themselves in their feature films; they test. The short film is the place I want to go back to test voices, to satisfy that urge to express things differently.
When seeing Back to Me, although it feels complete as a short film, it also seems that it could be told in a more extended and detailed way. Did you ever consider it?
Yes, we had material for over an hour, but the story felt loose when made longer. For example, there were very long shots, suddenly it felt fake. Like I went, “I’m going to leave the camera there for a while because I’m an ‘artist’, and only I understand my intentions”. No, you see what you need to see, which allows the idea to be understood.
What did being part of FICM mean to you?
I didn’t know what it was like to weep with joy until I knew I was in the Official Selection, even if it sounds corny. This year wasn’t a good one. One day, I looked my dad and I said, “Maybe you’re right, this isn’t my thing. I don’t feel that I belong in this world. I don’t have direction in life right now”.
At the awards, I thought maybe I didn’t deserve to be there, but they were giving me a hand. The ugliest thing in had happened. Maybe something worse would come along, but I spent 28 years being a failure.
Now, I know why everyone is dying to be at the Morelia Festival.
Do you have any special memories of your experience at FICM?
I always wanted to meet the four I met one night: Alfonso Cuarón, whom I said hello to on the red carpet, like a groupie; Guillermo del Toro, who went to say hello to everyone; and Amat Escalante and Carlos Reygadas were also there. The funny thing is that everyone was in line waiting for del Toro and when Reygadas passed by, I was the one who ran behind him. I said: “I’m almost completely here because of what you’ve done, what a joy it is being able to tell you in person. It’s a good day.” That was awesome.
In the paradise known as the hospitality, I ran into Elisa Miller, who I am a big fan of. I saw her, I turned pale and said: “I really like what you do, can I take a picture with you? I’m a fan.” I look super happy in the photo.
What I felt most strongly about was to see who has won the previous years. I have thought that I don’t deserve to be among them, but I am and that brings me a lot of joy.