Interview with Javier Fuentes-León, Director of “Contracorriente”

February 8, 2010 9:34 am 8 comments
Javier

Javier Fuentes-León, director of "Contracorriente"

As the Sundance film festival concluded last week, Javier Fuentes-León took home the Audience Award for World Cinema Drama for his first feature-length film. “Contracorriente” tells the story of Miguel (Cristian Mercado), a fisherman who is expecting his first child with wife Mariela (Tatiana Astengo). At the same time, he has been having a secret affair with a man, Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a visiting painter renting a house in the village. When Santiago drowns, he returns to Miguel as a ghost, and for the first time they are free to express their love without fear. Yet Santiago’s ghost remains trapped in the village until his body is found and properly buried, forcing Miguel to choose between the lies he has told and confronting open homophobia.

Unlike most stories of gay love and openness about one’s sexuality, “Contracorriente” takes place far away from an urban setting. Shot in a remote fishing village in his native Peru, Fuentes-León’s project uses religion and magical realism to create a work that is much more than the sum of premeditated parts. It tackles the complicated issues of honesty about oneself, of machismo and what it means to be masculine in Latin America.

The Latin America News Dispatch had a chance to talk by telephone with Fuentes-León in his home in Los Angeles.

In the past year gay marriage has been legalized in Mexico City and Argentina. In Colombia big steps have been taken in terms of civil union rights. Obviously, when you finish a movie you want to put it out, but is the present a better, more receptive context to release “Contracorriente”? What is your view on the relationship of art to social change?

Fuentes-León: I think cinema can help — art in general — can help change people’s minds. I do think though what will really change people’s minds will always be having somebody else next to them say, “hey, I’m gay.” Somebody they love or admire or respect. And seeing them live their lives as who they are. I don’t want to diminish the power of cinema and art, but I don’t want to overstate it either. This is an issue that we’ve been dealing with for a long, long time. At some points it has been something that’s more accepted, then definitely not, then back again. I’m happy about a lot of the things that are happening in Mexico and Argentina and Colombia and hopefully people will see this film as something they can relate to as a love story and that will help be part of that movement that is making people change their minds. Because I think it’s about time.

We are going to release it in Peru, we are going to release it in Colombia, and we want to release it all over Latin America. We’ll see what the reaction is, but getting into Sundance and winning [the audience award] has already made a big splash of news in Peru and in Colombia. To have that kind of stamp, it’s great, because it says to people “this is a movie you should see.”

You shot “Contracorriente” in a small fishing village in Peru, Cabo Blanco. Do you think that brings an added authenticity?

Fuentes-León: My intention was not to talk about the political context of Cabo Blanco, of a man in this particular town in Peru that deals with being gay or with a homosexual relationship. I don’t even mention that it’s Cabo Blanco — you see it on a few boats, some of them say Cabo Blanco, but I don’t even say it’s Peru. There was even a line that was taken out that talked about Lima, because I wanted it to be an archetype of a town, more than the political and social context of a specific town and country. I guess that’s what helps people connect from other cultures, because it looks like a small town that could be set in South Africa, or Italy, or Colombia, or Thailand, or even maybe Louisiana you could find something like this.

contracorriente

Still from the film "Contracorriente"

Fuentes-León: The guy who plays the painter — the Colombian actor, Manolo [Cardona] — is a huge star in Colombia, but also in Latin America. He was the male lead in Beverly Hills Chihuahua. So there’s an interest on his part in crossing over and coming to the United States. Whereas Christian [Mercado], who is also a very good actor, and very well-known in Bolivia, he’s not actually that known outside his own country. He has an important role in Steven Soderbergh’s Che Guevara movie, in the second film about Bolivia. I think Christian’s aspirations are not to be this big star. For him the pressure was a little less because he didn’t really have this big following of fans. That doesn’t mean it was easier. I think for both of them they were challenging roles, and not just because of the physical aspect.

But for Manolo it was definitely a bigger risk, and people told him not to take it, that this was a career suicide and blah blah blah. But he’s always wanted to be a serious actor and in order to be that he needed to take roles that were not just going to perpetrate the idea that he is a hot, macho guy. Which is what he’s done in the past quite a bit. He’s always been the lover, the mafia guy, the cool detective, you know. He wanted something challenging — which the physical aspect was — but he also has to be vulnerable in this film, be sensitive, he has to be loved and show it. So for him it was a big risk, career-wise. But he’s very proud and has been wanting to support this film and go wherever it’s being shown. So we’re very happy.

In the film, the heterosexual sex scene was shot very differently than those with Miguel and Santiago. Was there a conscious effort to portray these differently because the two male leads are heterosexual?

Fuentes-León: I had in mind the audience that was going to see this film, mainly a Latin American audience. I made this film for as many people as can get to see it, but I had the Latin American audience in mind, and I wanted to highlight the romance and the love between the two men, and be a little bit careful about how much to push that envelope. I didn’t want to lose [the audience], especially because [scenes with Miguel and Santiago] come early in the movie. That’s one side, but on the other hand, in terms of story, when Miguel and his wife have sex, it’s really Miguel trying to prove to his wife and to himself that he is a “man” that he wants to be and she needs him to be. It is a make-up sex, but a “proving that I am a man” sex. It’s not only that I was afraid that one sex needs to be more intense than the other, but storywise it makes sense that Miguel would be more intense with his wife, at that moment in their relationship. That is when he is trying to prove “I have forgotten the other one and I am not gay.”

You told audiences at Sundance that you could not find funding in the United States for a film which dealt overtly with homosexuality and was also in Spanish. Can you talk a bit about how you did get the funding?

Fuentes-León: Some governments — especially in Germany and in France — have some money for project that are not shot in their own country, to help developing countries with their film industries. We got that first funding in Germany because of [the Berlin Film Festival/Berlin Talent Campus]. Which is amazing, because this is Germany, and this German producer is interested in a story in Peru. And I lived in L.A., so there was no connection to Germany whatsoever. And it was through them that we got our first funding. This other company in France heard about it and came to us to read [the script]. They really liked it and applied to this government funding from France which is for industries of developing countries. We got that one too. Ironically, the governments of countries that had nothing to do with Peru were the first ones to support this film.

After that, when you start having a bit more money, people start paying more attention to you. The next chunk of money came from Colombia and Peru around the same time. Peru also has a government fund, and funds five films a year — not completely, but you get like $150,000. Which is how most films are made around the world except in the U.S. and in India. There are some films made with European money that are not dependent on the government, but even then they get benefits for taxes and incentives. Pretty much all the other film industries in the world depend on the governments a lot.

Do you think it’s easier to get a hearing for new voices or ideas when financing comes through the government?

Fuentes-León: Well I think that what is good about all this government funding is that directors have final cut. And in most cases you don’t have to return the money. It’s basically a gift in most cases. In Hollywood if you have private money that is invested in your film, those people need that money returned. And hopefully they gain some money also. So there’s more of a pressure to perform, for these films to connect with an audience and therefore there’s this whole obsession with “Ok, this thing worked, this formula works, this actor works, this genre works. Repeat it.” Where as film makers in France that very much funded by their own government and don’t have to return that money, they have more freedom to fuck it up. Therefore they can do whatever they want.

I’m generalizing of course, but that’s what the French government wants. They take pride in the fact that they’re creating auteurs. Films are made in France with the intention of being commercial successes, but definitely when you have a government that doesn’t ask you to return the money and leaves you alone to make the film you want to make, you are allowed to tell stories that are more out of the norm. I even have a bit of private money from Colombia — quite a chunk of our money came from Colombia — but I was always allowed to do what I wanted. Which was great, and I don’t know if this would have been the case if it had been made — well it would not have been made — under a Hollywood studio. I would not have had that freedom, especially being a first time film maker.

I read that you finished medical school and then decided to pursue film.

Fuentes-León: I had always wanted to be in film. It’s just that when I came out of high school and had to choose a career, that was not an option really. And not because my parents didn’t want me to, but because there wasn’t really any place to study film or even practice. And also in the society in which I grew up, all the men, all the boys would choose the typical five or seven conventional careers. Out of those I chose medicine. I enjoyed studying it, but as I grew older and more mature I realized this is not what I really want to do. So by the time I graduated from medical school, which I had decided I needed to do, I had been accepted into Cal Art [California Institute of the Arts]. I graduated from med school in April 1994 and by September of that same year I was already here studying film. So it wasn’t like I finished medical school and just decided to become a film maker. I had wanted to, but the decision to actually do it took me awhile.

What is your next project going to be?

Fuentes-León: Well it depends on which one gets financed. I have another one that is a love story, this time between a man and a woman. It’s not a forbidden love, but it’s not a love that people understand. The other one I’m about to finish is a film noir, a psychological thriller, that takes place in L.A. I live here so I also want to make films here, but I also want to continue making films in Peru or wherever I can.

View the trailer for Fuentes-León’s “Contracorriente.”

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm1-tDY-esU[/youtube]

Image: TV Cultura @ Flickr.

8 Comments

  • Nice commentary. Last Month I found this site and wanted to let you know that I have been gratified, going through your site’s posts. I shall be signing up to your RSS feed and might wait for your next post. Have a good day, Lisa

  • Richard Gibson

    Thanks for the interview! I loved this movie and have had difficulty finding out much about the director or the actors. This was really a very wonderful amount of information.

  • I would love to see more pieces in LAND dealing with the Latin cinema which is so wonderfully authentic compared to Hollywood glossy products.

  • Jaime Castillo

    I have nnot seen the movie only parts of it, but these were so tender and well done, that move me deeply. I am peruvian and I understand very well de point o view of the director. Miguel (Mercado) acted to me better in his double paper of husband and defience of the town tradition

  • just finished watching Undertow & felt it was an exceptional movie, well made, well written, well directed, I’d like to contact Javier Fuentes-Leon to tell him what a great movie he has made. It’s a heart felt film with it content that needed to be told to educate the world of close minded individuals in the hope that one day there will be less hate and more acceptance of everyone. Every human being has the right to live a happy life with out prejudice.

  • I loved this movie, wel directed. Well acted

Leave a Reply


Other News

  • Mexico North America Today in Latin America Crisis in Guerrero Continues as Peña Nieto Meets with Families of Missing Students

    Crisis in Guerrero Continues as Peña Nieto Meets with Families of Missing Students

    Top Story – Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto  met for the first time with family members of the 43 missing students from Guerrero state on Wednesday in Mexico City. Before the meeting, family members said they were prepared to voice their “indignation” over the country’s fruitless search for their missing loved ones and to demand the president do more. Since the 43 students went missing after being attacked by police on Sept. 26, the search for them has been marked […]

    Read more →
  • Mexico North America Today in Latin America Despite New Leads, No Answers in Search For Missing Students

    Despite New Leads, No Answers in Search For Missing Students

    Top Story — The search continues for Mexico’s 43 missing students in Guerrero state as authorities have not been able to confirm that new mass graves contain the students’ remains. Sunday marked one month since the students from the rural Ayotzinapa Normal School went missing after being arrested in the town of Iguala after commandeering several busses to use them in a protest. According to Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam, local police turned the students over to members of […]

    Read more →
  • Andes Colombia Dispatches United States Activists and Journalists Struggle to Make Colombia’s War Visible in the U.S.

    Activists and Journalists Struggle to Make Colombia’s War Visible in the U.S.

    NEW YORK CITY — Diana Gómez and Shaira Rivera, two young women from Colombia, visited several U.S. universities this month to raise awareness about Colombia’s current peace negotiations to end decades of armed conflict. Both their fathers were killed in the war. Their fathers, congressional aide Jaime Gómez and union worker Guillermo Rivera, were killed in Colombia in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Although their cases have not been resolved in court, the young Gómez and Rivera accuse Colombian state forces […]

    Read more →
  • Caribbean Cuba Today in Latin America Cuba to Allow Construction of First New Catholic Church in 55 Years

    Cuba to Allow Construction of First New Catholic Church in 55 Years

    Top Story — Cuba’s government has sanctioned the construction of the first Catholic church to be built in the country in 55 years, the latest development in a continued trend of growing acceptance of religion on the island. The church, to be funded by members of the U.S.-based exile community in Tampa, Florida, will be constructed in Sandino, a town located in the province of Piñar del Rio on the island’s western coast. The church’s construction indicates a growing connection […]

    Read more →
  • Brazil North America Southern Cone Today in Latin America Brazil Re-elects Dilma Rousseff as President

    Brazil Re-elects Dilma Rousseff as President

    Top Story — Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff won her re-election bid in the closest race in the country’s history, taking just over 51 percent of the vote to beat her opponent Aécio Neves. The tight victory marks the end of a campaign cycle that stunned observers for the atypically vicious attacks from both sides. Rousseff, of the left-populist Workers’ Party, opened her victory speech by saluting fellow party member and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose two-term tenure […]

    Read more →
  • Mexico North America Today in Latin America Governor of Mexican State Steps Down Over Student Disappearances

    Governor of Mexican State Steps Down Over Student Disappearances

    Top Story — The governor of the Mexican state of Guerrero stepped down from his position on Thursday as the disappearance of 43 students there late last month continues to reverberate across the country. Ángel Aguirre, 58, is barred by law from resigning his post, but said that he is taking a leave of absence. Aguirre has faced widespread anger over his handling of the students’ disappearance, and many have called for his resignation during protests in Guerrero’s capital city […]

    Read more →
  • Southern Cone Today in Latin America Uruguay Uruguayan Presidential Candidate Would Roll Back Historic Marijuana Law

    Uruguayan Presidential Candidate Would Roll Back Historic Marijuana Law

    Top Story — Days ahead of Uruguay’s presidential election Sunday, the country’s top opposition candidate on Wednesday vowed to repeal the country’s historic marijuana law, which legalizes the commercial production and sale of the drug. Centrist National Party candidate Luis Lacalle Pou had not previously specified what actions he would take against the law. Lacalle Pou told Reuters that he would keep the articles permitting personal marijuana use and cultivation, but would repeal the rest, including the provisions for commercialization […]

    Read more →
  • Mexico North America Today in Latin America Mexican Troops Executed Victims in June Slayings, Rights Body Finds

    Mexican Troops Executed Victims in June Slayings, Rights Body Finds

    Top Story — Mexican troops executed up to 15 of the 22 suspected gang members killed in June in the small town of San Pedro Limón, according to an investigation by the government’s human rights agency. The account by Raúl Plascencia, president of the commission, contradicted several prior versions of a murky story offered at various stages by the military, the Attorney General’s office and an eyewitness. Plascencia called for prosecutors to investigate a potential cover-up by military officials. At […]

    Read more →
  • Caribbean News Briefs North America As World Series Begins, So Does ‘Latin American Pipeline’ to MLB

    As World Series Begins, So Does ‘Latin American Pipeline’ to MLB

    When the opening pitch is thrown Tuesday night in game one of the World Series, a number of Latin American players will be front and center under the bright stadium floodlights. What won’t be on display, however, are some of the darker stories behind how many Latin Americans make it to play in Major League Baseball in the first place. This season, Latin American players made up close to a quarter of all MLB players — a staggering 86 percent of […]

    Read more →
  • Chile Southern Cone Today in Latin America Pinochet Bodyguard and Ex-Mayor Arrested in Santiago

    Pinochet Bodyguard and Ex-Mayor Arrested in Santiago

    Top Story — Chilean authorities have arrested a former aide to Gen. Augusto Pinochet, accusing him of committing various atrocities under the 1973-1990 military dictatorship. A judge on Monday ordered the arrest of retired military colonel Cristian Labbe on charges of “unlawful association” with a group that ultimately became the DINA secret police force. Labbe was allegedly involved in the murder of 13 people under Pinochet’s dictatorship. Those 13 people, investigators found, were tortured and executed at the notorious Tejas […]

    Read more →