Hola Mexico Film Festival Exhibits Work of Jewish Mexican Filmmakersby Alex Wehrung June 28, 2019
Every year in Los Angeles, the Hola Mexico Film Festival exhibits a colorful palette of work fashioned by Mexican filmmakers. Three of them—Isaac Cherem, Alejandro Lubezki and Sergio Umansky—are Jews, and brought their latest works to be screened in early June 2019; their latest stop in the festival circuit. Each film-maker spoke to the Journal about writing and shooting their films, which fall on a scale from light-hearted comedy to arresting drama.
Isaac Cherem described the reception to his film “Leona” as it screened at this year’s
film festival as ‘amazing’. “I didn’t think it was going to be that cool, because I’ve been
to a lot of festivals in the US, but none of them Latin, and to come back to LA—because I’ve been here for film school—and come back with a film and show it in LA, it felt amazing. The theater was full, I think people really liked the film. I heard a lot of laughs, people were very interested, they were doing a lot of questions, I guess…it felt nice. It felt good.”
Of the three filmmakers, only Isaac’s film had Jewish subject matter. “Leona,” his directorial debut, follows the story of the Jewish Mexican woman Ariela (Naian González Norvind) who finds love in gentile Iván (Christian Vazquez), much to her family’s displeasure.
Isaac got the idea for the film when he moved out of his parent’s apartment and
in with his friend who was dating a Jewish woman at the time. “I was kind of seeing
both sides of the story at the same time I was coming of age, so it was kind of like, uh, that felt natural. That felt like that was my voice. I wanted to say something; I wanted to scream.”
“Leona” was shot primarily in Mexico City, not only for its diverse locales—from the French-esque neighborhood of Roma to areas reminiscent of colonial Spain—but because “Probably more than 95% of [Mexican] Jews live in Mexico City.”
“I was brought up in a very…kind of like this Jewish bubble that is in Mexico City, but really outside in the skirts of Mexico City.”
“I think it’s very tight-knit. There’s all kinds of people, of course. But my personal experience of going to a Jewish school since kindergarten to high school, I think it’s…
how can I say it…I think…I don’t want to say there’s little liberty to do something. I want to say there’s few options on the table, for people in the community. You don’t see a broad spectrum of things going on. I think…there’s a timeline to follow, there’s this path that you can take and it’s easy, and also you don’t see other paths but one. Go study…as a guy, you go study business or administration, and as a girl, you finish high school, you study classic design, or you get married and you don’t study anything.”
“And your parents give you an apartment or a house, and you have kids, and your
kids go to the same school as you, it’s kind of a like pattern that’s repeating, and when
I came out of that pattern, I was able to see that it was actually a path that is marked for everybody, and it’s doing the standard life. And so that’s what I wanted to talk about, I wanted to talk about going out of the path, and into uncertainty, which is what I’m experiencing. And it can be scary to a lot of people, but also amazing.”
Isaac explained Mexican Jews are increasingly diverging from the paths that have been expected of them, using himself—a filmmaker living in a non-Jewish community—as an example. “When Jews arrived in Mexico they can stick together, because of course they had their own language,” he explained. “They didn’t have much money or opportunities, so they kind of stick together and that’s how they became more powerful and were able to survive. But now a hundred years later, it’s like, we don’t need to do that. At least, some of us.”
It is wrong, he said, to assume that Mexican Jews are all cut from the same cloth. “There is nothing that we all are. There’s no personality trait, there’s no marriage, there’s nothing that all Mexican Jews are. That’s basically it. And I think that’s the base of some- times racism, anti-Semitism, discrimination, thinking that all gay people are like this, that all women are like this, that all Asians are like this. It’s just people.
“There’s all kinds of people you’re gonna… yeah, it’s not like you meet a group of Mexican Jews, it’s not like you’re gonna see this film and you’re gonna know how Jews are in Mexico. This family, this family I created for a fiction film that is based on the people around me. But I don’t wanna impose that that’s the way it works in the whole community, it was just my experience growing up there, and it was my perspective of things.” Isaac hopes to release “Leona” theatrically in New York, Los Angeles, and Mexico before eventually bringing it to streaming devices.
The second director of the bunch, Sergio Umansky (or Sergio Umansky Brener, as he
is identified on IMDb) wrote and directed “Ocho de Cada Diez,” or “Eight Out of Ten” (a particularly multilayered title). The film follows Aurelio (Noé Hernández) and Citali (Daniela Schmidt), two people who unite amidst their own personal searches for justice that eventually blossoms into a mutual thirst for vengeance.
Sergio described the film as ‘giving voice to the invisibles.’ “I gave out fliers that said, ‘If you want to tell your story, come to my office.’ And for two years I was recording different stories and interviewing around 400 people, and in those interviews I had many, many people that are the reason why I decided to write ‘Eight Out of Ten.’”
These invisibles, Sergio said, are the “Eight out of ten people who live with an extreme, urgent need and no system to represent them. Not only eight of ten people in Mexico, but, in my personal opinion, the world. But here in Mexico, it’s the poor, the people that really have zero representation, have no way to achieve justice.” He elaborated, “Today, eight out of ten murders are not investigated. Today, we are still having more murders then when I made the film two years ago.”
On managing to get his actors to accurately portray the trauma and hardship the protagonists go through, Sergio attributed strenuous rehearsal to getting them to that point. “I am a big believer in serious rehearsing, so I work with my actors, every single line of dialogue, repeatedly, to make sure that we’re finding truth. In this case, in this film, I think the biggest directing note I gave them is that this story is already sad. And the situation is already sad, so they don’t need to act it. We already have it. It’s already sad. So just feel it, and not act it.”
In regards to religion, the film focuses on Catholicism as, Sergio pointed out, eight out of ten people in Mexico are Catholic. “We have a very important scene during mass, and during that scene—in my view—what the priest says is why my main character ends up doing what he does. So I think [Catholicism is] very important.”
“Eight Out of Ten” marks eleven years since Sergio went to the very first Hola
Mexico Film Festival; the film is also in the process of wrapping up its festival circuit. Afterwards, Sergio plans on playing the film commercially in Mexico come September, coinciding with Mexico’s Independence Day. The film will also be released theatrically in Iceland.
“Obviously, [a screening] in the US would be wonderful, there’s so many Mexican people that left Mexico because of the situations like the ones that I’m talking about; I think the film could really resonate with a large group. That would be a huge…something that would make me very happy and proud of,” he said.
His next film, “Fault Lines,” is a coming-of-age story about a boy in a Jewish family “who loses his father to cancer while discovering his own self in the battle between creativity and conformity.”
The final director, Alejandro Lubezki, wrote and directed “Si Yo Fuera Tu,” or “If I Were You,” a body-swap comedy in which the displaced individuals happen to be husband and wife. “It’s not just a silly comedy,” Alejandro said. “It talks about relationships and communication and things we forget about the other part of a relation.” He mentioned “Some Like it Hot” as a partial inspiration for the film.
Alejandro described making the film as, “Joyful, happy and a learning experience. Every day prepping the movie was amazing, and I had a lot of fun. Casting was incredible and shooting the film was like going to a party every day.” Like the other three films, it was shot primarily in Mexico City.
“It’s a story about a couple, so he’s like, strong guy, and she’s very lean and little, so when…when the body-switching things happens, her soul is in his body, and the opposite. So everything is more difficult to them. And that was very important, to cast actors who wouldn’t be out of their comfort zone to really play the characters…no, be the characters and not only play them.”
In order to get the actors, Sophie Alexander and Juan Manuel Bernal, to essentially swap roles, Alejandro rehearsed with them every day for a month to get their portrayals right. He described the process as playful, and “by playing a lot,” they were essentially able to develop four different characters with the two actors.
His desire to stray just a little bit differently from the tried-and-true body-swap formula lines up with Alejandro’s desire to inject diversity into his work. “For me, diversity… now, it’s particularly a good and difficult moment in history to speak about diversity. But I think diversity is not only about gender, it’s about religion, it’s about skin color, it’s about education, it’s about social classes. And I think it’s important to leave archetypes, trying not to stick to typical archetypes.”
“You can make stories about whatever you want, and not necessarily about beautiful people that we have been looking that we have been looking in the TV and the screen since the 20s. In Mexico, the classical films used to be about rancheros and that they… they were beautiful, and they were not like the real people from the countryside. So I think if you take away prejudices and look at life the way it is, you make diverse more normal. You shouldn’t be afraid of diversity.”
Like Isaac, Alejandro thinks there is little that separates Mexican Jews from non-Mexican Jews. “The cultural side of being a Jew, I think it’s amazing. Maybe what is different are the institutions. In Mexico there are not many Jews, I think they are not more than 40 or maybe 50 thousand. It’s a powerful little community.”
Curious film-buffs and general audiences can find trailers and more information on these films at holamexicoff.com.