The Winners at the 15th FICM: Interview with Marcelo TobarBy: Gabriela Martínez @GabbMartivel
When he realized that a school reunion was the key to developing his third feature film, Marcelo Tobar did not imagine that he would have the opportunity to participate in the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM) and, much less, to win the Ojo for Best Feature Film.
The director of Polar Bear, tells us about his experience filming with a cell phone and what the 15th FICM has meant for his career.
Where did the idea of Polar Bear come from?
The premise of the film came from a school reunion I went to. I had an idealization of what had happened in childhood, but when I saw my classmates in elementary school, I realized that neither they nor the school was as I believed them to be when I was a child. Each one has a selective memory, so when we got together, everyone remembered one thing. I began to understand how things really were with everyone’s point of view.
It was very dramatic to see how the same dynamics that we had as children began to replicate and people of almost 40 years felt abused and uncomfortable. I myself felt uncomfortable with people who began to treat me with some indifference.
One day, in a dream I said to myself: “This has to be your next movie”, and then I thought that this was a good project to do with the cell phone because of nostalgia, because of our relationship with reality through the phones, because we all are potential filmmakers now, we all have saved small scenes of our lives.
It was hard for me to tell that story in another genre that was not a tragedy. I think the history of school reunions is always told from a comedic standpoint because it is funny, but there is a part that is not so much so. I decided they should travel through the city in the film because I wanted to tell about this chain of hostility and violence that Mexicans live, and surely Latin Americans. My thesis is that we all partake of violence, we cannot proclaim ourselves victims because we also violate others, and I wanted to explore this step among the three social strata of Mexico City and see them interact with the characters. Only we can stop the violence that we generate.
How did the idea of filming with a cell phone come about?
I have a Mexican-French project and I wanted to do a teaser for the pitchings, so I started recording images when I went to Auvergne, France. I stopped the car to have references to the sky, the cows, houses. The phone gave us the ease to record whatever we wanted. With that material, I edited the teaser. I thought we would see it on a computer, but no: it turned out that it was in a movie theater in Yucatan and they projected the teaser on one of the largest screens in the complex. I just thought “God bless us, because you’re going to see everything pixelated”, however, we won the pitching and people approached -we are talking about people attending festivals with a sophisticated eye- who congratulated us. No one mentioned that it was made with a telephone, everyone talked about how beautiful the images were.
I asked Elsa Reyes, the producer of Polar Bear, if she had seen the images and she said: “Yes, they look raw, but no one asked what cameras they were made with”. It was when I realized that there was something here, because if we can excite people with raw images, taken from the phone, if we make a film designed to get the best out of the phone and then ask for money to finish it professionally, that will change things, the possibilities, of film production.
What were the advantages of using a phone instead of a camera?
Making a movie with a phone will lower costs and reduce the size of the crew. For the first time, I was able to get the characters out of a house, because like all my films have been independent, taking people out with a big camera involved asking for permits and extras. Everyone realizes that you are making a movie. In this case, nobody realized that we were making a movie. We did not have tripods, we were filming through the streets, in the subway, Calzada de Tlalpan. It changes everything.
The phone allows you to go into places in the City that you would not get a camera with, either for fear of being robbed or because you will kill the place with a big camera. People change when they see it, they know that you are filming them. When you go in with a phone, they don’t know that you are making a movie, so there is a different relationship with reality. The Mexico City you see in Polar Bear is not what you see in the movies.
The scene with Verónica Toussaint and Christian Magaloni in the middle of the subway stations Villa de Cortés is totally real. I put them in a situation, they had certain dialogues scripted, but then I said, “look for how to get there, there is no money to pay for the taxi”. Then Veronica asked the quesadillas seller, the people in the stalls and nobody looked at the camera because the soundman was hiding the microphone next to them, as if he were one more friend, and the photographer had the phone. I imagine that people thought, “how strange, who knows what these people are doing here”. The reactions are real just because of that. If this had been done with a normal camera, Polar Bear would be another movie.
There is an author’s camera that has an anamorphic lens that is cinemascope. Bruno Zaca, from Cine Tonalá, told me, “that’s what Brecht said. If you change the format for people, they immediately enter another narrative.” But this was not done because of Brecht, but because of common sense. It was important to make the distinction between the author’s camera and the camera that is the content of the characters’ phones.
How did Tangerine (directed by Sean Baker, 2015), also filmed with smartphones, influence Polar Bear?
When we decided to make the film with cell phones was in September 2014. Tangerine debuted at Sundance in 2015, when I was finishing the Polar Bear script. It premiered and I told Elsa: “We are not so wrong, it won the audience prize”. As a result of that, what I did was to study what Sean Baker did technically to get the best out of the phone camera.
I copied his technique, the gadgets, but both films are very different even though the two have to do with sexual diversity.
What was your experience competing with Polar Bear at the 15th FICM?
We distributed the film ourselves and we had decided the premiere would be on November 10 for many months, thinking that we were going to try to enter Morelia and that if we made it, we should leave the space for the festival and that this would complement the premiere. It was a pipe dream because when you make a movie with a cell phone, your expectations are not very high, you think if it looks good and if it causes excitement, it’s good enough. We knew that Morelia is the most prestigious festival and no other festival has a jury like it. It opens doors, gives you an impressive visibility and we also know that the curatorship is done with love of cinema, not just for red carpets or to have stars.
We did not expect anything, they chose us and we jumped with happiness. I had that, with a premiere in Morelia we already had a backing of people we admire. That gave us a chance to tell the new filmmakers, the people and the audience: it’s really a movie. Yes, we made it with a phone but it’s a movie and you can make movies this way.
What did it mean to win the 15th FICM?
The press was happy, the reviews were good, the audience responded well. Then we won the Ojo for Best Feature Film and that was, as the gringos say, overkill. I would never in my life have imagined winning Morelia. Ever. It’s hard to win Morelia. There are good movies that have not won because it was not their time, and here many things came together to make this happen.
Then, Béla Tarr, the president of the jury, had the delicacy of giving us a hug in the photo of the gala, it was his way of making a statement. He who is a sacred cow of cinema, who has only filmed on celluloid and has defended it fiercely. That doesn’t mean that he is against what we are doing with new technologies and digital media, unlike Pedro Almodóvar or Cristopher Nolan who go for the jugular. That was his way of saying he hadn’t given us the award only because it was filmed on a smartphone, he said: “I liked the movie”.
What is your best memory of the 15th FICM?
Winning. I do not believe much in the best movies. I do not feel that mine is better than Gabriel Mariño’s (Yesterday Wonder I was) or Natalia Beristain’s (The Eternal Feminine), they are different. The truth is, I’ve been making independent films for twelve years, I’ve always felt a little bit on the side of things and I’ve had to knock on doors. The fact of having been in Morelia and then winning was like going from agony to ecstasy. Now people call me to ask for the film, I do not have to call them and not only that, I honestly feel part of a community with independent filmmakers from Mexico and everywhere. This award opened doors not only for me but for independent filmmakers.
I feel that it was a recognition of the work of many people, not just the people of Polar Bear. I’ll take that until I die because I’ve always tried to inspire this community and continue doing independent films, because of independent cinema, by logic, is more experimental cinema, because the voice of the author is the only wind vane.
Going to FICM is being surrounded all the time by people who love cinema, it makes us feel that our vocation makes sense. That fills my soul and gives me the energy to continue.
According to your experience, what is the trend of independent cinema in Mexico?
It’s making movies of all kinds outside the city. The simple fact of telling the stories outside of Mexico City totally changes the perspective, you totally immerse yourself in another reality. That is the trend of independent cinema and that’s why I think it’s fundamental to film in Mérida, Cholula, from where they see things, to have to pass the filter of Mexican cinema and have to change their way of seeing life and cinema so that they can get the resources.
A tip for the new filmmakers?
Fortunately, after winning Morelia, premiering in cinemas and now Cinépolis deciding to release it, I no longer have to give advice. The advice is there, already made, there are no excuses.