Director Alonso Ruizpalacios’ first feature-length film, Güeros, is part road movie, part social-historical inquiry, and part quest film that explores youth in the early days of the 1999 National University strike in Mexico City—a city shown as both a complicated character (friend and foe), and a place to drive around without purpose. A partial shout-out to French New Wave and Robert Frank, Güeros is beautifully filmed in black and white, using 4:3 aspect ratio, which embellishes it with the look and feel of a photograph that’s brought to life and infused with poetry, humor, and idleness.
I had the pleasure to sit down and speak with Ruizpalacio, whose film had its North American premier at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It’s safe to say that Ruizpalacio is a daring new voice in Mexican cinema; he dares to shoot in “artsy” black and white, break the fourth wall, and frequently submerge the narrative to allow the cinematic moments to breathe. This is the stuff that repels financiers, but it’s also the stuff that elevates the art of cinema and satisfies those of us who like a bit of meta, silence and poetry in our films.
West: There are moments in the film where you stop the narrative to allow these moments that seem to transcend the film and stand out on their own, like a visual poem. How important are these moments, and how important is poetry to your work?
Ruizpalacios: I like it when people notice that. That’s definitely one of the things I like most about cinema. It’s one of the things I’m drawn to, and I try to do in whatever I’ve done: in my shorts in my theater. I love those moments that are non-narrative. I’m a huge poetry fan as well. So, it was important to me to let the film breathe outside of the story. They are the moments that I sometimes respond to the most in films that I like. I think that film now tends to be so plot-driven that there is little space for these moments of otherness. The poems that are actually in the film are written by a friend of mine. He’s a really great poet.
West: I think I saw his name listed in the credits?
Ruizpalacios: Yes. His name is Javier Peñalosa. He actually just came back to Mexico from New York. He came here [New York City] to do an MFA in poetry, which was very strange to me—that someone would get an MFA in poetry.
West: [laughing] It’s a very practical degree.
West: That’s what I did; I got a practical, luxury degree in poetry. Where did he go?
West: Ah, ha. I went to the New School.
Ruizpalacios: He’s really great, and he wrote this book of poems recently; he published this book of poems. I read them, and I said, Can this be in the film? I always wanted poetry to appear; in the original script there was a lot more poetry. That was the way that Sombra and Ana related; they sent each other poems on tape. That didn’t make it into the final edit, because it took too long to set up. But some of that survived. Also, I was the only one who was always fighting to keep the poems in the film. Everyone said, “Just cut the poems out.” I said, “No, this is important; we need to let it breathe and have its moment.”
I was reading an interview with Alfonso Cuarón, and I was surprised to hear him say that—he’s this really big famous director now, making big Hollywood films—and the interviewer said to him, Above all, you have to follow the story, and [Cuarón] said, No! Above all, you have to be true to cinema. He said story is only one part of what is cinema.
Ruizpalacios: I agree with that. I think we place too much emphasis on story. That’s what I like about movies. They don’t have to follow a three-act structure and get to the point and find a plot point. I didn’t want to do that [kind of] film.
West: It’s true most people do expect a solid narrative. It’s hard for you as a director to resist that and be true to yourself. This is more of an artistic film and certainly less commercial.
You chose to shoot in 4:3 aspect ratio, in black and white, and you end the film with a photograph. When one looks at a photograph, they’re aware that there is more beyond the edge of the frame, there is the rest of the world that was cropped out. The viewer is present, aware that he is present and experiencing the photograph. But in a film, the viewer is not necessarily aware of the world outside of the frame; the viewer is invisible; the only world they know and care about is within the frame or on the screen. Was your intention to use the trope of still photography—your use of black and white, two freeze frame shots [Tomas in the garden and Sombra at the end], Tomas taking a photograph—as a poetic devise to tell this story?
Ruizpalacios: I think in a way it was also found subconsciously. It wasn’t a conscious decision. When prepping for the film, we watched a lot of Robert Frank’s films—the way he shot his documentaries and his documentary photography. When we approached Güerosas a road movie and what’s it going to look like, we thought of Robert Frank and [his book] The Americans and the way of the framing and the lighting and at the same time very documentary, but it has something of a set piece in it. So we did think that photography—the fact that Tomás does have a camera and he’s taking photo throughout the whole film—it does make you think about image. When we found the 4:3 aspect ratio, it seemed right. We are so unaccustomed to it, but it used to be the norm [in cinema]. But now it’s not. However, there are a lot of films now that are shot in 4:3. It makes you think about the frame, because you’re missing two-thirds of the screen, so it makes people aware and think, What am I missing? So, that’s something I like people to think about in the framing, think about what they are missing, and what these characters are missing. Originally we had planed to shoot in 4:3 only when they are in the apartment, and then when they left the apartment, we would widen the frame. But then we thought that’s too literal. We just fell in love with this framing. I thought, Why did we ever stop using this [today]? Right now, I would love to make more movies in 4:3.
West: And in black and white?
Ruizpalacios: Oh, yeah.
West: The sound is very important in this film. How did you make your sound choices?
Ruizpalacios: A lot of sound choices you make beforehand. I’m a huge music buff. Sound design is something that I pay lot of attention to. A lot of directors are not that fussy about sound, but I think it’s literally 50% of the film. So many of the sound decisions came out of the writing process. Also, you have to find the voice of the film. For this film, [shooting] in black and white took us in the direction to make it more and more silent and to have spaces. I think a film should be a space for you to experience things and get lost in the experience for two hours or whatever the length. I think that silence is something that we experience rarely now. It’s not a silent film, but it has important silent moments. I think those contrasts of having saturating sound and then having none are important, because they make you listen, and they make [you] aware that it’s an experience.
West: Also, it provides dynamics. We watch the characters listen to the Walkman, but we cannot hear the music that they are listening to.
Ruizpalacios: The decision of not hearing the music on the Walkman—originally we were going to look for that music and produce it. I was going crazy before filming it, because we were looking for the right music. It was one of those things that are written easily in the script, but when you have to go and produce it, it becomes a headache. It’s like writing [in the script] “Something really beautiful happens here,” and then you actually have to go and make something really beautiful happen. So, that was a pain in the ass. I was listening to all these old rock and folk singers from Mexico, and I said, “This doesn’t do it; it’s not that great. It has to be something amazing!” We were going to have this kid who plays music [record it], and then I thought, No he’s not going to do it, it’s not going to be enough. Then suddenly I had this idea, Let’s not listen to anything, and that makes it more powerful.
West: Yeah, it creates a negative space that allows the audience to fill in the music for themselves. Well, thank you for your time, and congratulations on a wonderful film that spoke to the poet in me.
—John David West
Güeros is playing at Film Forum
209 West Houston Street .
MAY 24 through June 2
12:45 3:00 5:20 7:40 9:50