Cinematographic Hyperrealism: interview with Gabriel Ripstein

Interview by Jaqueline Avila

In “600 Millas” (600 Miles) by Gabriel Ripstein, Arnulfo Rubio, a young Mexican fellow, and a gringo that is a little older than he is, are employed by a family business that smuggles weapons from Arizona into Mexico. Weapons, borders, and destinies become interwoven when Arnulfo crosses paths with agent Hank Harris. The youthful Mexican arms dealer kidnaps the "gringo" cop, who had lost his way while on the Mexican side of the border, somewhere along a 600 mile stretch, between Arizona and Culiacan. A twist of fate and a rapid series of events kick in and they find themselves in the midst of out-of-control violence which shears away their personally held differences, while annihilating their ambivalences whereupon their lives become unavoidably linked.

Following its showing at the Berlin International Film Festival as the opening film of the Panorama Special section, “600 Millas”, Ripstein’s very first career production, arrived at the Guadalajara International Film Festival. The maker of this film himself is on hand in this interview, to speak of the creative processes behind his first begotten film, to open to us the narrative intentions of this story, along with sharing about his filming crew, reactions to his award for Best First Film at the Berlinale and what lies ahead in his future film directing.

It strikes me that perhaps the first thing that people see in your film is the selling of illegal weapons and how they are brought into Mexico, which could be controversial to a certain extent. However, it seems to me that the movie is much more focused on your two main characters, and in developing these two lives that are very different in some ways but very much alike in others.

I really appreciate that you caught this key point and I never tire of letting folks know that what inspired me the most to make this movie is telling the stories about the lives of these two individuals. I don’t want to make a film that just deals exclusively with arms trafficking between two countries. What interests me is portraying the way that a very improbable relationship can unfold between people that are just so unalike, as you have clearly perceived and pointed out. I’m not fooling myself either though - this relationship is symbolic, it speaks of great and mighty things. You could possibly read into it, as a type of microcosm of what the relationship is between two countries.

Without falling into flowery language, politics, or lengthy commentaries, they are both very different characters with a brutal urge to survive. That's the story I was interested in telling.

Could you tell me about how the characters were conceived and brought into being; I'm interested in Arnulfo’s (Kristyan Ferrer) problems of identity. Would you talk to me about the making of the two characters, but especially about him? Although Tim Roth is "Tim Roth," the work of designing Kristyan was very well done and they are two characters that act and counteract with one another very well.

Without a doubt, Kristyan’s character has this complexity to it, in terms of….. complexity, I don’t know if that is the right word. The key to his character was finding a guy that is totally out of place. He is the guy that you would least expect to be doing what he is doing, in the place that he is doing it, with the people that he is doing it with. He’s a naïve, young whippersnapper who has a desperate need to fit in, to be respected, to be loved. It’s a search that I think is quite universal. We all want to be loved and he needs it urgently, that recognition, that approval, all that sort of adds up to his sentencing. This urgency to belong somewhere and to be accepted leads him to make mistakes that become increasingly more complicated throughout the film. He’s a character who, even in his sexuality, is at odds with the world that he lives in, which thereby makes him adverse. I seek to illustrate all of this with an artist’s stroke of a very fine brush, I have no need to comment on the totally obvious, nor to paint with a sweeping wide brush, or add things, or put frosting on an adornment and then a ribbon on top, I look for a subtlety that generates a sense of realism, Tim's character is a very gray character, at least to the point where his life interacts with that of Kristyan’s, both are mediocre within their organization, both are expendable.

Could you talk about the use of violence, in the sense that it seems that in your film the acrimoniousness of it is flagrant, you have a story line, a rhythm, and then there is a sudden peak of violence and a return to the "quiet," but it also strikes me that you have scenes where you can hear the shots outside, in a way violence is never dealt with upfront. How did you build these parts that are needed into the film to give more context regarding the story of your characters, even though they are not the protagonists?

The film, as you point out, is a film that takes place in a violent, aggressive, hostile world, but the intention of the film is that violence not only has a strong repercussion on the narrative, the story and the fate of the characters but also on the viewer. You see a lot of weapons but you don’t see a lot of shooting. That's by design. For me that tension often takes place during contention because if you hold at the moment that it happens, it’s much more uncomfortable. I sought to deliver an accurate portrayal, of the real nastiness and discomfort and pain of what violence really is. When someone shoots a bullet at you it scares you to death, it’s horrifying filthiness, it’s nothing to glamorize, it’s not sexy or anything. For me effectiveness is not measured by quantity but rather by the quality of the moment or those couple of moments of violence meant to be as horrific as possible.

Starting with your film crew, you work with a team of people who are directors, your producer Michel Franco (Despues de Lucia/After Lucia) is a director, Natalia Beristain (No quiero dormer sola/ I don’t want to sleep alone) who did the casting is also a director, Tim Roth (The War Zone) is a director, what’s it like to work with a team that has so much experience?

It is a privilege, there is a version of this reality in which you might say that “too many cooks spoil the broth,” but no. Instead, when you work with a casting director like Natalia who has the eye of a director and this level of sensitivity, obviously what she brings to the table is invaluable. The same with Tim, there he is, building a scene and the comments and questions that he throws out ... he's watching the movie in his own head, he is not just some actor living in isolation, "ah what I have to do is to sit down and say this and then I'm going home," not at all, he is engaged on a much more sophisticated level. And not to mention Michel, he is a creative accomplice that I can take apart the script with and then put it back together again because we share sensitivities, because we share a vision concerning what making movies is about, and about how a series of stories needs to be told. So it's a privilege.

Why did you choose not to have music in your film?

It’s a quest for realism, the film has the intention of hyperrealism. I could say it’s quasi-documentary, in terms of start-camera, acting tone, production design, there are no cuts within the scenes, they are practically a sequence of scenes in its totality; so when you put an element like music into it, it puts the heart and the essence completely at odds with what I propose to do.

Could you tell me how you felt having been at the Berlinale, whereas not many debut films make it to the big festivals, but yours did and it also received an award?

Well, it’s a dream, it’s a luxury, it is a tremendous success. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have gotten the recognition that we have received, and I don’t say it with false humility. Just the fact that we were there is entirely satisfactory in itself, that the film was selected as the opener of the panorama section, to go there, to present it with the team that I work with, that the film begins to connect with people and to close that experience with a prize is a delight, it is a privilege.

In closing, perhaps it is too early because your movie is just coming out in the theaters, it has to make its presence known in more festivals, be commercially released, but what projects do you have to on hand or where is your filmmaking going?

Look, I have many projects, not only as a director and writer, I'm a producer also, I work with Michel in the Lucia films, we are developing projects, we are finishing the film that he did last year, we are beginning to move projects with other Mexican filmmakers who we greatly respect and whose work we really like and we want to team up with them; there is a flow of interesting work, as a director I have an idea that I want to write, it’s an idea that has been floating around in my head for some time now and well the filmmaking I want to keep doing is a cinema with creative freedom. I was fortunate to make this film with that freedom. That's what I aspire to, to be able to do those things that move my very bowels of compassion.