Juan Pablo González is a Mexican film director, writer and cinematographer whose work includes documentary, fiction, and advertising. His most recent short film, The Solitude of Memory, was an Official Selection of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and the Morelia International Film Festival in 2014. The film will also play as an Official Selection of the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival and continues to tour the international festival circuit. Mr. González spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about returning to his childhood home, the traumatic subject of The Solitude of Memory, and his upcoming projects from around the world. This interview has been transcribed, edited, and condensed from audio for publication.
Sean Malin: The subject of The Solitude of Memory is something that actually happened in your life. When did you get the idea to make it into this documentary?
Juan Pablo González: The film is about a Mexican farmer, José, who had a son and who had worked with that son since he was six or seven years old…
SM: At the professional level, they worked together? Like they were farmers together?
JPG: Well, yes, they farmed together but their main job was to take care of horses. In Mexico – especially in small or rural towns – children work; that’s just what happens. That’s beginning to change now as people with a little more money are choosing to send their children to school, but that’s just how it was a few years ago. So José and his son Fernando had worked together since Nando was very young. I had met the whole family when I was about ten because I used to ride horses into their town, Milpillas. And then José started working for my father when I was twelve or so.
SM: So José, the main character in your film, used to wrangle and train horses for your father.
JPG: Yes. Me and my brother became quite close with another of his sons, José. And when he was about fourteen, that José went to cross the border.
SM: How did that impact your family’s relationship with their family? Was there support for the boy’s decision to head to America, or was this a betrayal of trust?
JPG: I was very young at the time, so in my mind he was a friend that I was going to miss. I didn’t understand the danger that he would be exposed to. I don’t think that for his father or mine it ever felt like a betrayal. I’m sure that everyone understood what he was after. They must have been very worried about him. A trip like that is always dangerous, so just imagine making it when you’re fourteen. In fact, José’s father didn’t want him to go [across the border.] It’s not something that I think would happen easily now, but at the time, it didn’t seem so dangerous…not that it seems safe or acceptable now for a fourteen-year-old to cross the border, but he lived alone in a border town for four months trying to cross.
SM: And of course, no one thought to check in with you or your brother about this event even though you were José’s friend and he was your age. No one asked you if it was traumatic or intense.
JPG: No, of course not, I was just told, “José’s gone.” In that time, José’s father and Fernando continued working until Nando was old enough to work officially. Then he went off to a factory in Atotonilco where they made tequila, so I would see him every weekend and I got very close with him. And then Nando committed suicide, just out of the blue.
SM: You had known this person for more than a decade by that point. You know the family’s situation – I don’t know them and I don’t want to call it poverty, but they were obviously not well off, they had kids working with them wrangling horses, and one of the sons had already fled Mexico for the border. Yet even given this kind of trauma, no one expected what happened with Nando?
JPG: Mexico is a very different country from the U.S. in many ways –
SM: I know what you’re saying. In our social relationships to psychology, for example.
JPG: Exactly, and in the relationship to death. Some of my friends from Mexico, people I know well, people my age and people younger, have died. I’m not saying that it hurts any less – it hurts awfully, just as it does for Americans and for people of other cultures – but when Nando’s suicide happened, it was unexpected but not as if people said, “How could this have happened? It seemed impossible.”
It was more like, for me at least, “This is a horrible, terrible tragedy, but he had his problems.” And I could understand why this happened to him because I can understand how it might have happened to me, you know? His wife had left him, taken his child, and gone to the U.S. Even years before that, when he was only seventeen, he had tried to cross the border in order to come work with his brother. But he was incarcerated for a month or two in Calexico. Well, actually, not incarcerated but held in a youth facility.
SM: So was he extradited to Milpillas immediately after he turned eighteen?
JPG: He was sent back after a couple months, which was terrible for him. Being in Mexico when things aren’t going well gives you a very deep feeling of desperation. So I understand how he must have felt when his wife had left – he wasn’t making enough money at that time really to provide for her and the child – and said that if Nando didn’t come to the U.S., she was not coming back. Crossing the border by that time was very, very dangerous; he’d already been incarcerated once; and he was much shyer than his brother. It was a real mess. In a situation like his, it’s impossible to make sense of what’s going on.
SM: What were you doing around this time? Had you already begun making films?
JPG: This was 2010. I was doing advertising and photography. I remember that two years before that, a close friend that I had really loved had been killed in Mexico. So by the time of [Nando’s suicide] I think I had suffered so much already in that first tragedy that the suffering over it didn’t seem unreal to me. That first tragedy felt like I was in a bad dream trying to wake up. But because the second situation felt more real to me, I had thought over the years about going back to [Milpillas] for a few reasons. I wasn’t able to go to Nando’s funeral. I hadn’t gone back to visit, I hadn’t kept in touch with the family, and I’d kind of blocked the event from my head. I hadn’t really known what to do but I knew I wanted to go back.
SM: So you wanted to return to that spot but you didn’t know if you wanted to make a film. You knew that returning to that place might make a good concept. Basically, you had the impulse to get back in touch with the family, not necessarily to make a fiction or documentary about a person committing suicide.
JPG: That’s right – more than anything, I just wanted to see them and see how they were. Then I came to Austin and for the first year I was here, I just kept thinking about calling the younger José.
SM: You were planning to call him without any sort of plan except to reconnect. Had you started moving towards filmmaking when you got in touch?
JPG: I made a couple of short films for the University of Texas in that first year, but I never made that call. He had not gone back for his brother’s funeral, either, because the border had become so dangerous and militarized by then and he couldn’t imagine trying to go to the funeral and getting back. And he’d had two children as well.
In the summer of 2013, I started writing a script for a film that I was hoping to make this year. After three months of work on it, however, the funding dropped out and I had a short amount of time to find another project [the previous project, however, will begin production in February 2015.] I went to shoot a film in Minnesota and on the plane home, the idea for The Solitude of Memory just came to me. I landed in the Denver airport on my way back to Austin and called the older José – the main character of the film – right there. I called his cell phone. He answered even though I hadn’t talked to him in three years or so, and he knew it was me immediately. We talked for a while and I asked him how the younger José was. It turns out that two years after Nando’s suicide – and after fourteen years living and doing construction work in the U.S. – José had been deported for driving with an expired license plate, and he was living in Milpillas. Two months in prison, after which he and four other guys had been literally dropped off on the border. His two daughters still in the U.S.…It’s crazy.
SM: After you heard that both Josés were in Milpillas, did you tell them from the Denver airport that you wanted to make your film about them? Did they start getting emotional over the phone? It had been so many years since you’d talked to them.
JPG: As you can tell from watching the film, older José is not an outwardly emotional person. My original interest was in making a film about immigration more than just making a film about this father and son. I wanted to talk about immigration in a human way from the perspective of the family; usually when you hear about immigration, it’s in these broad strokes, about the economy or politics or bureaucracy or jobs. But immigration is not about that – it’s very complex, and every single person has a different story.
SM: You knew already when you made that call that you only had two weeks to start getting the film together. If someone had asked you in Denver, would you have said your idea at the time was an immigration story from the perspective of the younger José?
JPG: I wrote an ambitious treatment for a documentary about a family of three men. There was the father who had come to the U.S. in the 1950s with the bracero program, which lent an important historical context to the idea. Then his son comes to the U.S. in another iconic moment: the northward exodus in the middle of the 1990s of people who had worked the land in Mexico.
SM: I grew up in that period in Southern California. NAFTA, the Tortilla Curtain, and the growth of the Minutemen had people pretty freaked out. I remember hearing discussions on the news about immigration quotas and the changes being made to Mex-American border states. There was a kind of ethnic terror that became an integral part of my own experience as a Californian in the ‘90s.
JPG: As crazy as that [period] was, the youngest son came in yet another historical moment: post-9/11 immigration. The post-9/11 period has been by far the deadliest, most dangerous time for immigrants, thousands of them dying every year. And sure enough, the youngest son was unable to cross because it was so treacherous and expensive. So that was my film: a story about three men each caught in an iconic moment in immigration and racial history.
SM: You sought to make that film when you went into production?
JPG: Yes, that’s the film I shot, but not the film I edited.
SM: When did you get the interviews with the family and the footage?
JPG: I shot the footage in December of 2013. I asked a lot of questions. I was alone with them for three days, then with one cinematographer for a few days and another for the next three days. I interviewed the younger José, the mother, and the father about everything: immigration, Nando, José. But as I was editing, I just found the older José’s thoughts about his son very powerful and right for a short.
SM: Give me a run-down of how you chose to make the film at the formal level.
JPG: My cinematographers, Jim Hickox and Adrian S. Bara, and I had some strict rules about how we worked. The camera was completely static throughout shooting. There are almost no close-ups, one or two in the entire thing; the rest are medium or wide shots.
SM: The editing is unique to a short film: you have divided the film into three “chapters.” What inspired that choice?
JPG: That comes from the lack of a traditional narrative in the Aristotelian sense. I felt in the end that I needed to define that structure in a certain way. I don’t want to call it “artificial,” exactly…
SM: Artificial normally has a bad connotation, like false or dishonest, but I think it describes your process well. It represents your presence and your authorship in the film’s narrative even though you never appear onscreen. Your editorial hand is evidence of your character within the story, I think, and audiences can feel that because it isn’t typical for contemporary documentarians to be so intimately related to their subjects.
JPG: That’s true.
SM: It’s a significant departure from alleged “realism” or “naturalism” in the way most popular documentaries.
JPG: Exactly. It’s easy to give in to the notion that documentaries need to be made a certain way. The rules of Hollywood-centered documentary filmmaking feel arbitrary to me. I’m more interested in other forms.
SM: I imagine that you didn’t collect this footage with the expectation that something so personal and shot so quickly would be seen by wide audiences. But here you are showing the film at major international festivals. Does the film’s acceptance surprise you at all?
JPG: When I first started making films, I thought my work would only get attention if they got into a select few festivals. But then I started seeing how many Mexican filmmakers that I really respect had started by getting their films into festivals in Mexico and going on a different trajectory.
SM: Documentary filmmakers, exclusively?
JPG: Documentary filmmakers, yes, and Mexican filmmakers in general. Some of them made the jump to international film festivals early on, but they started by exhibiting widely at Mexican film festivals. So that led me to submit to [the Festival Internacional de Cine en] Morelia and to have it [World] Premiere there after I had completed the film. I finished color-correcting it on a Thursday, did the sound mix on a Friday, and put everything together for a Blu-ray package that weekend. Morelia accepts Blu-ray submissions, which is really great for filmmakers – if you shoot a film in HD, it simply looks better on Blu-ray.
I had never imagined just how important it was for us to get into Morelia. People have been so excited since then because of how important that festival is for Mexico and Latin America in general. My film [played] with a lot of films by people I admire greatly.
SM: Since getting into Morelia, your film has had the opportunity to play in venues around the world. The Solitude of Memory is really about the elder José’s trauma and his emotional state when you made the film. Now that the film is gaining audiences and acclaim, how does your subject feel about being involved with it?
JPG: I think he’s happy with it. I went to see his family in the summer of 2014 – we had a big lunch together, them and me and my wife [executive producer Ana Isabel Fernandez.] They had seen the film and seemed to really like it. It’s a very personal film, just like you’re saying, and they are happy about that.
SM: I saw the film at an early screening at the University of Texas at Austin [where Mr. González is a Master’s student in the Department of Radio-Television-Film], and there were complete strangers crying. What’s profound about the project is that it’s one of those films where the incredible personal specificity becomes universal.
JPG: This particular story is very specific, and for me that kind of lens for this story is perfect. If I had thought in advance about what would have best served the story, or if it had to get into the biggest film festivals, it would inevitably have been a ten or fifteen minute short. But it ended up being around twenty minutes, and I think that is exactly the length that it should have been.