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Guillermo Arriaga and World Changing Cinema

The Mexican filmmaker and screenwriter of such iconic films as Amores Perros and 21 Grams attended the Panama International Film Festival to show his latest work: Words with Gods, a film that presents nine different perspectives on the relationship between humans and religion.

Por Roberto Quintero
Fotos: Carlos E. Gómez

 

The term “socially conscious” sounds like something out of the past, it and probably is. It is nevertheless encouraging to still find filmmakers willing to make films that provoke reflection and dialogue. Such is the case of Guillermo Arriaga, famed Mexican screenwriter and author of one of the most important films in the history of Latin American cinema: Amores Perros (2000), as well as other cinematic jewels like 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006). Arriaga is the driving force behind the mega-project “Heartbeat of the World,” a four-film saga that addresses still-controversial issues such as religion, politics, sex, and drugs.

The first installment of the four-part series, Words with Gods, recently premiered at the Venice Film Festival. This choral piece, featuring nine different perspectives on the relationship between humans and religion, was directed by Arriaga and eight others including Emir Kusturica (Serbia), Álex de la Iglesia (Spain), Bahman Ghobadi (Iran), Hideo Nakata (Japan), Héctor Babenco (Brazil), Mira Nair (India), Warwick Thornton (Australia), and Amos Gitai (Israel). The artistic team is rounded out by two additional titans: Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, in charge of the story’s chronology, and British composer Peter Gabriel, who scored the film.

As part of the promotional pre-release tour, Arriaga presented the film at the recent Panama International Film Festival. We caught up with him there and asked him about his ambitious project and the polarized world he’d like to change.

How did the idea for “Heartbeat of the World” come about?

I think it’s time for a more reflective cinema, more committed to the global situation. We can’t ignore these problems, we can’t turn our backs on them; we have to face and discuss them. Although everyone discusses them on Twitter, I’ve avoided doing so because they want your opinion in 140 characters. I think we need a serious, concrete space for this dialogue. That’s why I invited so many directors to join the project. I think the people involved are extremely solid and have strong visions. I’m joined by artists ranging from two-time Palme d’Or winner Emir Kusturica to Nobel Prize for Literature winner Mario Vargas Llosa.

How did you choose the directors? I know many of them are friends whose careers you admire.

First, I talked to my close friends. The first person I spoke to was Kusturica. We know each other very well; he was in México and we went to see a movie together and I talked to him about the project and he agreed immediately. He’s a devout believer. From the moment Emir accepted, the project moved to a higher plain. Next I spoke to Bahman Ghobadi, another friend who is also an award-winning director, and he also accepted. Little by little, they all came on board. I was unfamiliar with some of the directors like Mira Nair, Hideo Nakata, and Amos Gitai.

Did you choose these last ones based on their work?

That’s right. They also had to believe in the religion they’d be dealing with, or be culturally close to it. Hector Babenco, for example, is not a believer in Umbanda, but he’s made documentaries about it and many of his friends are Umbanda. He’s had a close relationship with Santeria and understands it. I didn’t want there to be any distance.

Were you looking for very different voices? Because you have Kusturica and then Alex de la Iglesia, who are both very good, but have very different cinematic styles, different even from your own. 

I’m looking for directors with a strong author’s vision, with something to say. I don’t want directors just working on commission. And, of course, directors that I respect. Álex, in fact, did me a favor by taking the place of Paolo Sorrentino, who was going to make the short about Catholicism but had another commitment. Álex is my friend and I had originally invited him to work on the film about sex, but I called him for this and he accepted.

Did each of them develop their ideas individually or did you participate in the process?

Basically, we had several discussions about what they were going to shoot.

What were you interested in saying?

I wanted them to have their own vision of their professed religion, or the religion to which they are culturally close. Warwick Thornton, for example, is an Australian aborigine I met when I was a consultant to the Institute of Indigenous Australia. I asked him to do something on Aboriginal spirituality and he brought me something on Christianity. I had to tell him I didn’t want it and he became very angry. And Warwick is huge; you don’t want to make him mad [laughs]. But in the end he was very happy; I loved his short about Aboriginal spirituality.

And what was Vargas Llosa’s role in the film?

Once we shot the film, we showed it to Mario and asked him to choose the order in which the shorts would appear. I wanted this to be done by an intellectual, a writer, and not an editor, because it was about finding the best concept for the film, not the best rhythm.

How have audiences responded and how do you feel about the end result?

We got a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival that lasted for more than fifteen minutes. It was amazing! When you’re at a festival of that size, in a room that size, and people just won’t stop clapping, it’s really very moving. People thanked us, crying. People don’t usually react like that at festivals.

Why did you begin with the film on religion? Do you have a specific order in mind?

We started with religion because it was perhaps the most difficult film to make. Not all directors want to deal with this issue.

Do you think it’s the most difficult issue of the four addressed by the project?

It is by far the most difficult. You’re talking about something that isn’t tangible, that is an act of faith. And people are sometimes killed over something intangible. That shouldn’t happen. Religion isn’t there to kill with. I think religion is there to promote encounters, not to foster misunderstanding and hatred. I don’t understand all these religious massacres all over the world.

It’s amazing that humanity still hasn’t been able to overcome those conflicts. 

That was the idea behind the film, for you to take a look at religions from around the world and say: “This guy isn’t so different from me.”

So why do you think this distance still exists? Why can’t human beings coexist, understanding these differences?

I think humans still have a kind of herd instinct. You know, the way some people kill in the name of a soccer team, which is even more ridiculous. It’s territorial: my religion is better than yours; my ideology is better than yours. And they kill each other. The idea behind these films is that you shouldn’t be attacked or threatened because of your religious, sexual, or political preference, or for whatever you decide to put in your body. How is it possible that people are put in jail for using cocaine? It’s my body! What right do you have to control my body? If I’m at home and I’m not hurting anyone, why should I go to jail? As an athlete, why should I be suspended for smoking marijuana? I accept punishment of athletes who use drugs that enhance their performance, because it’s cheating. But marijuana at a party?

In your short, which is about atheism, you directed Demián Bichir, one of contemporary Mexican cinema’s greatest actors. Tell us a little about him and what it was like to work together.

I’d wanted to work with Demián for many years. The Bichir family is lovely, from the father down to each of his sons: Bruno, Oidseo, and Demián are all great actors. I have great respect for Demián and so I said: “This is the perfect excuse for us to work together.” I think he did a great job; I’m very happy. It was difficult. When you see the film you’ll realize how difficult it was for him.

And while we’re on the subject of the absence of God, I’d like to talk to you about one of your most beautiful characters: Jack Jordan, in 21 Grams, who is going through an interesting crisis that tests his faith. What can you tell me about this character?

I’m glad you mentioned that character. I believe 21 Grams is a fundamentally atheistic film. It’s a reflection on where you should place your values. The guy is so obsessed with God that he’s forgotten he has children and a wife who need him.

Did you also feel a need to address how we focus on faith, and the purpose it serves? 

It arose from an atheistic approach: What would happen to someone who believes fervently in God and suddenly feels betrayed by him? Everything happens because of God and suddenly the guy kills someone in an accident. Is he the killer, or is God? This explains the rage inside the character played by Benicio del Toro, who feels deeply betrayed. God was unfair to him and his whole world crumbled.

Maybe this a silly or naive question, but what does it feel like to have written Amores Perros, one of the most important films in the history of Latin American cinema?

Do you play any sports?

No.

Well, when I played basketball I used to practice sinking the ball from midfield. Actually, I even practiced shooting with my back to the net. Every day. So, it was like when you’re playing basketball and time is running out and you shoot from midfield… you hope the ball goes in. That’s what I did with Amores Perros.

Did you have a hunch from the beginning that the film would be a success? Because it made a tremendous noise!

Yes. I was working at the time with a guy named Rafael Azcona, the great Spanish language screenwriter (La última mujer, La Grande Bouffe, and Belle Époque). We were working together and I left him a copy of Amores Perros and he got really angry! He was already in his seventies and he said: “I’m a very busy man and here you’re leaving this with me. I’ll read a few pages, but I’m not promising anything. I think you’ve really overstepped your bounds by asking me to do this.” The master was furious. I went back to my hotel and at about three o’clock in the morning he calls me: “Guillermo, can you come over? I need to talk to you.” I got there and he said: “You wrote this? Do you know what’s going happen to your life? This is going to change your life. It’s the best thing I’ve ever read. Get ready, because there’s never been a movie like this. I’m very impressed; I had no idea who I was working with.” So I thought: “It seems that things go well.”

And aside from the film’s success, it had enormous impact. It influenced a lot of filmmakers. 

Yes, it’s very strange. I met a man from Finland here at this festival who said the film influenced him more than any other. Fifteen years later, film and communications students are asked to analyze and discuss it. It really makes me very happy. It makes you feel really good.