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Music, an Art that Goes Beyond Language: Interview with Enrique M. Rizo

Marco A. Sánchez 

Translator, Emilio Cervantes

Enrique M. Rizo is a Mexican filmmaker known for participating in different films by renowned directors. Manager of the production unit of La región salvaje (2016), a film by Amat Escalante; production chief in Tempestad (2016), a film by Tania Huezo; and first assistant of production at the set of Roma (2018), a film by Alfonso Cuarón, are some of his most outstanding jobs.

His directorial debut was with the documentary called Un lugar llamado música (2022), that focuses on the life of Daniel Medina, a Wixárika musician, who is reached out by new yorker composer and musician Philip Glass with the intention of performing music together. Through the music, they will form a bond that breaks the language barrier to create a place of encounter and understanding. The movie will premiere in Mexican cinemas next November 17th.

Un lugar llamado música
Un lugar llamado música (2022, dir. Enrique M. Rizo)

Competing as part of the Mexican Documentary Section during the 20th edition of the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM), the feature film has also been part of the Ambulante Documentary Tour, the 8th edition of the cycle of Emerging Talent of the Cineteca Nacional, and the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2023.

In this interview, Enrique M. Rizo tells us how his experience was in the making of Un lugar llamado música and the importance that music has in the film and in his life

FICM: What impressed you most about the Wixárika community?

Enrique M. Rizo: I think that the first thing that impressed me was the distance, it is really far away, deep in the Sierra Madre. It is a commitment to get there. You get there and since no one goes without reason, you feel like a foreigner. It was really impressive feeling like a foreigner in your own country. In the city you always see how indigenous outsiders feel out of place, thus it was very interesting to be on the other side. As a mixed race person, if you go to the community, people look at you like “What is this gringo doing here?” That was the first shock, but it was beautiful starting to talk with them and beginning to understand us; realizing how cultural complex they are and the legacy that they have, because the Wixárika community is one of the cultures that can provide us with a better understanding of what a tradition was like before the times of miscegenation. Those were the initial impressions; it is a community that offers so much and always gives you a lot to think about.

FICM: Did you have trouble adapting to the environment of the Wixárika community?

EMR: We have already had experience working with remote communities and it is something you have to do with patience and a lot of respect. It was difficult because they questioned us; at the beginning there was an atmosphere of frustration, because their interest in the project was not immediate, so there was a lot of work to convince them and to begin to understand us, since at the beginning they did not understand what we wanted to do. That was most of the work, learning to communicate, understanding that their times and priorities are not the same as ours.

FICM: What was the process of creating the narrative of a documentary having a linguistic barrier with the protagonist?

EMR: It was a long process full of trial and error. At the beginning, the documentary work gets done, we interview the characters. The first one we interviewed in Spanish was Daniel, but his Spanish is not that great, that's why he gave 20 second long answers, which lead nowhere, and with those answers we felt like he was ignoring us. Then we urged him to respond in Wixárika and he gave 15 minute long answers. We will find a way to translate that later.

We met a wonderful couple from the University of Guadalajara in Colotlán, Jalisco, that helped us to translate, and when we figured out what Daniel was saying, it was like “wow! It's wonderful.” From there we could direct him in a certain way, but what happened was that there was no further interaction when I asked in Spanish and he answered me in Wixárika, because I didn't understand what he was saying. I couldn't refute it or give continuity, so the next time we went to the community, they helped us to direct everything in Wixárika, and we gave them the tools. It was very important for us that there wasn't only our portrait of the Wixárika, but a more internal portrait. It was quite a journey and that's why it took us 5 years to do it, it has to be slow, translating a little piece of an interview took a week.

FICM: In the film, we get to see how the linguistic barrier between Daniel Medina and Philip Glass shatters through music. Do you consider this to be a characteristic that can be applied to any art form?

EMR: I think it is, it goes beyond music. It also is something that is developed in the thesis (of the film): the capacity to listen that we have, not just through our ears, but through our inner self, the one that comes from the heart. In Daniel's case to listen to his gods, to nature, and in the musicians' case to listen to each other. They manage to overcome the problem of language by listening to each other. Art helps you learn how to listen, but suddenly art can be more visual, so then you need to learn how to observe. I believe that when the audience has the patience and conviction to give a work the time it needs, wonderful things happen. Of course the written work has to be in a language you speak, there are certain rules, but, as long as you are committed to doing things with attention, you can make it.

Un lugar llamado música
Daniel Medina 

FICM: Did you connect with Wixárika music even though you didn't understand what the lyrics were about?

EMR: It didn't happen immediately. It wasn't love at first sight either, because of what Wixárika music demands from you. Their music has a great legacy and history, but it is different from the music we grew up with in the city. We are really used to the melody and regional stuff and to suddenly listen to something that is outside the norms of what you think it should be, that is what their music beautifully demands from you. I know that music is not for everyone and that there are people that don't understand it, that's okay, but the ones that appreciate it for what it is and not so much for its melodic qualities, are the ones who make music grow. I have heard many comments that at the beginning they didn't like the documentary, but when they finished it they started to like it. The last song they play in the film you hear it differently than the first one they play, you don't understand them in the same way, and that's the beauty of cinema. That is what I would like audiences to take from the documentary.

FICM: Philip Glass mentions in the documentary that the most important way of learning from a certain culture is through music. Do you agree with that?

EMR: Yes, totally. The music of the places will always remind you of the people and the geography of these places, the instruments they use, the political moment they are going through, etc. For example, if you listen to Jazz in Ethiope, it tells you a lot about the culture region while also gives you an insight to the economic power of the place. In the end, the way the music is recorded is a referent of the tools they have or not to record it, it definitely says a lot about a place. It is a blessing to be able to travel all around the world and to be able to connect with musicians, with their songs. I adore that.

FICM: And in this community, what do you consider to be the important role of music?

EMR:The role of music in the Wixárika community is deeply rooted in the sense that for them music is not a consumable good; they don't say “Oh, I'm going to a concert and I'll have a drink and that's fine”, which is perfectly valid. For the Wixárika community that is different, for them music is a way of connecting with nature and the traditions in their pilgrimages. Daniel speaks on the holiness of his instruments, on the wood from which they come and he says that he is the bearer of his music, in the way that the wind whispers the music to his ears or he gets it in his dreams and then he translates it. Daniel does not write his music, but the gods do. Thus, how do you copyright it? “Who composed the songs? Daniel, his gods or the wind?” It's quite an issue, but it's nice because it's a different concept than what we're used to.

FICM: What is the biggest learning you got from this production?

EMR: It was learning to listen, in the sense of not only listening to sounds, but listening to yourself, listening to others, listening to music, listening to art. That's what I learn the most. Learning to listen is not something that happens overnight, because you have to commit yourself to take that journey, but it does become a different way of life. It is a more fulfilling way of life, because in the end you find more connection with other people and with nature. It is realizing that nature also speaks. It's learning that language, and that was beautiful. Our characters spoke with "grandfather fire." If you come from the city you think at first glance that "this is kind of hippie," but for people who really want to know and really get involved, they will see that the fire does talk to you and listens to you. It was a turning point for me.