Monday, January 22, 2007

Part I: Director Alejandro Springall on Judaism, Mexico, Filmmaking, and “My Mexican Shivah"

As a producer, Alejandro Springall’s films have been nominated for an Oscar, and as a director he has won various awards, including Sundance’s Latin American Cinema Award and the Grand Prix de la Découverte for his 1999 “Santitos.”

Alejandro bought me some chamomile tea and told me about Judaism, Mexico, filmmaking, and “My Mexican Shivah”…

-Interview by Jon Robbins

How does your film fit into today’s Mexican cinema?
Right now there’s a lot of expectation from Mexican cinema and Mexican filmmakers. For the moment, I am exempt since my film is completely out of any Mexican canon. Still, it reflects the rainbow of themes there is right now in Mexico cinema. For instance Judaism in Mexico and other topics that weren’t touched before are starting to emerge. For the NYJFF at Lincoln Center we sold out every screening, they had to return people! This is a good sign for Mexico. I was really happy to see such large turnout at the New York Jewish Film Festival.

“My Mexican Shivah” is Chekhovian comedy where there’s comedy and there’s drama. So it’s unique on this count alone. In fact, it is only the second Jewish-themed film from Mexico--the first being “Like a Bride”--“My Mexican Shivah” is the very first about Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim. The one private screening we had in Mexico City already created a lot of talk, and Jews talk a lot, thankfully.

Is there a consciousness of European history in Mexico from a Jewish perspective?
Absolutely. Most of the Ashkenazic immigration was Polish, Lithuanian, Russian; it’s people who came from the Shtetl, fleeing pogroms as early as the 19th century and into the 1920s and 30s, and then certainly after the war, but that was the smallest part.

We have a Museum of Tolerance, focused on the Holocaust and genocides throughout the world, and also on the different kinds of intolerance in Mexican history, discrimination against indigenous peoples, especially. It’s opening late this year in downtown Mexico City.

Jews in Mexico can have a very good life because it’s a country that supports liberty. Former president Vicente Fox had four ministers of Jewish descent; The head of the Federal Electoral Institute, which acts like a fourth branch in Mexican government, an architect of democracy in Mexico, is Jewish. The Jewish presence is respected and active in public life.

At one point there was the idea of creating the Jewish state in Baja, and there were discussions with Mexican government. Also, the Jewish community in Mexico has supported the state of Israel. And Mexico was one of the first countries to recognize Israel, and Mexico was the only Latin American Country that openly declared war on the 3rd Reich and who opened its doors to immigration from Jews fleeing Europe, and that is something the Jewish community in Mexico appreciates. And in turn, the Mexican government is appreciative of the Jewish community, and guarantees free Jewish life and pursues any act of anti Semitism.

There is hardly any overt anti-Semitism in Mexico; that’s very controlled. But remember that Mexico has a history of immigration different from other Latin American countries and from the US. Since its independence in 1821, slavery was outlawed and religious freedom was guaranteed.

What drew you to make a film about Jews and a film about a Shivah?
My first motivation was to make a family drama that took place in one location. Now I've always had a fascination for Jewish rituals…

I have a Jewish grandmother, and though I didn’t grow up as a Jew, I have one foot in the community. Of course I’ve been to a lot of Shivot in my life, and it occurred to me that the Shivah was a great ritual that had an incredible dramatic engine. For me, the purpose of the ritual is to find some spiritual well-being, and to decontaminate from death in order to mourn and thus continue with life. People who sit Shivah, the Avelim start in one emotional state, and after the seven days there has been a radical change.

I said to myself it was time to make a film about the Jewish community; that Mexico has developed enough and has become ever more present internationally, and that a lot of eyes are turning to Mexican cinema. All these ingredients made me want to do it.

We were talking casually the other day, and you remarked how different “My Mexican Shivah” was from your previous film, “Santitos” [Traveling Saints]…
Santitos was the opposite of “My Mexican Shivah”: the conflict rages because there is no ritual; there is death, but there is no means for resolution. There is no process for the loss. With “My Mexican Shivah” it is the opposite: the conflict arises because of a strictly regimented ritual. Also, I used 82 sets for "Santitos"! "My Mexican Shivah"mostly takes place in one apartment.

But in both films we have extremely Mexican characters: “Santitos” is not a religious movie either; it’s about the devotion of a woman to her saints, not Catholicism per se; in Mexico we inherited this devotion to saints from the early polytheistic religions. And with Judaism I wanted to add a third religion, to connote Mexico, really, where you see religious sites with all kinds of motifs—pre-Hispanic stuff, Judaism--where there is true religious syncretism.

The country allows what I call the “religious Paella,” but there is always a way to find a logic, and a fundament; Mexico is the blend of cultures: pre-Columbian, Spanish, but in the 19th century, French, and then the influences of commerce with China, Japan, and India. So we have that heritage. After all, the New Spain was the most important colony on the continent.

And also we should recall that the first Jews who arrived in Cuba and Mexico were fleeing Spain; Yes, the first Jews arrived with Cortez in 1521. Mexico City has the second oldest synagogue in the Americas! And since 1821 it has been recognized and open: the pogroms STARTED in 1860! Mexico has always been an extremely free country. No, I think the problems here are not about freedom but about social and economic differences.

When I spoke to Ilan Stavans, who wrote the short story on which “My Mexican Shivah” is based, he commented that Jews live freely in Mexico but are not “protagonists in the history of their country, the way they are in the U.S.” What do you think?
I believe that Jews are. Before now no, but there wasn’t that interest in it either.

They’ve always been protagonists in the sense that great lawyers and doctors are, but you don’t become a protagonist until you become a politician and Jews have become politicians only in the last 12 years. That’s what I think. You see, there were only ever a few cases where being Jewish prohibited you from being X; One cannot say this was ever part of the Jewish experience in Mexico.

Never has a Jewish temple been closed in Mexico, and despite the constitutional law that the government owns all temples, synagogues are NOT owned by the government; they respect the synagogues, and hillels and midrashes. And despite the law that education must be secular, Jews were always able to maintain religious schools. This is the first article in our constitution: no slavery, and full religious freedom.

Although in society, I can tell you, there is some anti-Semitism but it is a religious anti-Semitism. It comes from the horrible Catholic tradition of the Theocide. There is of course the type of anti-Semitism you have where people say “Oh you’re half Jewish Alejandro, I like Jews. I fact some of my best friends are Jews!” They don’t even know how deep this problem runs. But in the press you don’t see comments like that because of the Jewish Central Committee, which really works to educate and to keep anti-Semitic discourse out of public discourse.

No, there is no big difference between Jews and Mexicans like there is in the US, which is very anti-Semitic outside the large cities. I myself have investigated anti-Semitism on the Internet, and have found many chat rooms to be full of anti-Semitic discourse. I feel that American Jewry is in deep crisis, and not just because of intermarriage. To be a true American, you have to get rid of your past, this is part of the American dream: "We don’t look back we look forward,” which, I believe, makes younger Jews care a lot less about their religious background. However, in Mexico there is a lot of effort in the Jewish community to preserve their culture, and there is a lot less intermarriage. 80% of Jewish children in Mexico attend Jewish schools, in fact.

“My Mexican Shivah” has a unique visual style. The camera is an outsider, an “eavesdropper,” as you put it. Would you talk about this approach? How much of it is a product of the excellent acting?
I rehearsed a lot with the actors so they would really have the characters in their skin. The film wasn’t acted for takes. This allowed me to spend all set-time creating a naturalistic life for “Shivah” and to have the camera move with a lot more freedom. This way, I would catch bits and pieces of something that was actually happening.

Many times I used two cameras. I would run the entire scene knowing how I wanted to fragment it, so I would cover it in full takes. There was no performing for a certain cut. I just picked it all up with a very close camera and a POV, depending on what I thought of the scene. In some scenes we have to be very close to the character, we are their intimate, and then when it comes time to follow up on the general action, I switch to the POV.

Would you give an example of this technique?
For example, when Ari arrives with the kids: we are part of the turmoil, and it’s handheld and it’s brisk cutting. Like any Jewish family, everyone’s speaking at the same time. The camera is in the epicenter of the turmoil, so that the audience would be there and that would strengthen their emotional relationship with the whole Shivah.

The important thing was to be close or distant enough, and then to jump into the middle of the scene as that other characters, the camera. 85% of the movie takes place in one apartment so I had to avoid this feeling of claustrophobia, but also to go in and out in a certain way so the audience somehow feels it, too. To me it wasn’t very mise-en-scene but more documentary.

What about the music by the Klezmatics, wasn’t that mise-en-scene?
But the music helps with the atmosphere. It’s very specific, at certain transitions, in certain scenes, it keeps us attached to the Shivah and Jewishness.

Was that a concern?
I made this movie for Mexican audiences, non-Jewish audiences; I think non-Jews relate to the movie by way of these elements. I tried to communicate how this Shivah smells, sounds, and tastes by way of certain elements. How are the nights, how are the days, what do you eat? How’s the light? I had to give the most I could, I had to introduce Jewishness to the Mexican audience, and of course Jews who watch the movie pick up on many of these elements.

There is an aspect to the film that only Jews can understand, and there are a few elements that only very observant Jews notice and appreciate, like when the son and father recite the Kaddish. I had great council: two rabbi friends of mine helped me to plan the details.

We had one screening in Mexico City, but the World Premiere was here at the NYJFF. The non-Jewish audiences find it to be funnier; there is less time spent identifying and comparing. You see, that’s why I killed a grandfather distant to his family, and not a young boy. I’ve been to the worst and most tragic Shivot, and it was awful; that would have been inappropriate for my film. I wanted to open the door to a Jewish ritual which otherwise you cannot see, so people could watch and say a Jewish family is like any other. This is important to me because most prejudice is based on ignorance. Which was the thing my dad, who is Jewish, appreciated the most; that "My Mexiican Shivah" shows there is nothing cryptic about the Jewish experience.

Like Ilan Stavans says, ‘Jews are like any other human being, just a little bit more.’ Jewish rituals are very intense, and I wanted to communicate this. Look how beautiful, how wise, how old this ritual is, but also how right it is, how efficient. Everybody should have Shivot in their families, with their own prayers, their own religions; those seven days, man, they’re magical!

Maybe my next movie will be about a Bris: people think it’s a horrible thing to do, but I always show off my own Bris photos—that was one thing my father would not negotiate on. It’s one of the happiest rituals of them all. Men especially get very happy.

Please check back in the next few days for Part II of my interview with Alejandro Springall.

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