Interview: with cast and creative team for Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, Stephanie Sigman, Diego Luna)

Interview originally published at Picktainment:

Miss Bala is Mexico’s official entry for consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It has stirred up controversy for its unflattering portrayal of a country on the brink of collapse due to the rampant violence of the drug cartels that have seized the nation. Set in Mexican border town Baja, California, the film tells the story of Laura, portrayed by Stephanie Sigman – a young woman who wants to be a beauty queen only to find herself unwillingly involved in Mexico’s violent drug war. Although she wins the pageant, her experience at the hands of a gang that is terrorizing northern Mexico leaves her shaken and transformed.

Stephanie Sigman, director Gerardo Naranjo, and Executive Producer Diego Luna discuss the dangers, the process, and the impact of such a film on audiences around the world at a recent press junket.

Gerardo Naranjo believes there is a revolution going on in Mexico. There is a great disparity between the rich and the poor, which has resulted in tremendous anger about the poverty many people live in. It is in this world that he sets his film, Miss Bala.

Were there risks involved in shooting this film? Did you feel you were in any danger?
It’s wishful thinking that we are not in danger. We didn’t attack anyone specifically. The movie is done from the point of view of this person. We didn’t do it from the point of view of the criminals. Even the criminals don’t come out in such bad light in this film. They’re portrayed as workers of crime. One of the first things that the movie tries to say is that the crime world is not glamorous as other media projects paint it out to be with the gold chains, the girls, the parties. These guys are truly living a pathetic life. The glory is not there.

How did you keep all this under the radar when shooting on location?
We were lucky. We used the knowledge of more experienced people in our unit. We also went under the title of Beautiful Maria, a romantic comedy, nothing to do at all with crime. It was how it was presented to the people in town. We were very careful… and lucky. I think they knew what we were doing but they didn’t feel threatened.

The film portrays the main character as unemotional. Can you talk about that choice?
Melodrama in Latin America is like a virus. It infects movies and all artistic things we do. My theory is to give dignity to the character. The melodrama is very controlled. In a typical Mexican film, our heroine would be crying on the floor, asking God why she’s being punished.

And she never fights back.
Mexican society is frozen and not acting against the fear they fear. That’s depicted in the character of Laura. It makes the audience react with frustration. But I truly felt that everything we depicted in the film has been passed through a logic filter where logic dictates that she has no military training, no knowledge on weaponry. Obviously, if this was a Hollywood film, she would take the gun and kill everyone. But this is not that kind of film. It is a film based on experiences we hear in the media and found in research. One of the things we found is that when someone is put through these types of situations, their reaction is to freeze, to become unemotional.

So she’s a metaphor for Mexico.
Certainly.

It seems as if it’s hopeless. Rather than fight back, the country must wait it out. You get the feeling that this is almost too overwhelming for a country, despite its history of revolution.
I do believe so. This generation of Mexicans won’t be able to fix it. I think it’s for future generations to fix it. So, yes, it does appear hopeless. The biggest challenge for me and for Mexico is to recognize the problems today and to acknowledge them. The biggest problem, however, is that there is still a big portion of people living in Mexico who refuse to see there is a problem. They refuse to believe that this exists. That it’s the work of over imagination, that we’re betraying the country. I disagree. I believe that we should talk about it and come together as a society – something that we have never done. This is one of the things that the movie attacks.

What was your experience working with Stephanie Sigman in this film?
Stephanie and me found a language to communicate with each other. She understood what I wanted from each shot. The film was constructed in 130 shots that were very specific and with a very clear choreography. She knew how to approach her character. She was chosen for this part specifically because she didn’t have that much experience. I felt that her inexperience, those emotions she portrayed would be real. Also, I told her, she would go crazy eventually. Rightly so, one day she was very confused and we dealt with it the best way we could.

Can you talk a little bit about the politics of this being the official Oscar entry? Some people don’t want this to be representative of Mexico. How were you able to overcome that?
It reflects the feelings of a community. We’re here as an entry because the Mexican academy voted for our film to represent it. Somehow, they’re sending us so I feel that they have a strong support for this film. The film has been attacked in Mexico – the government has been trying to… they haven’t censored us… but they haven’t been supporting the film, either. They feel that the film is not true.

Your previous films have been influenced by the French New Wave, especially your last film Voy A Explotar (I’m Going to Explode). What were some of the cinematic influences and what were some of the influences for the look and style of this film?
We approached it by not being influenced by any movie. It was forbidden to talk about shots seen in movies. I think the biggest guideline was to ask ourselves how would we feel? How does it happen? In this film, we did something I had never done before – lets make a movie that is very controlled, planned, not based on improve. This is what came out. Something very different from what I’ve done before.

Do you think it is an artist’s responsibility to use these projects and films to put a mirror up to the country and say, “Look, this is what you have created. What are you going to do about it?”
It’s not my role to do that. My role is to say ‘this is how I feel.’ In the way I understood it, what is the best way to express my feelings. That’s what I think we need to do.

I don’t remember any conversations in the film about drugs and we never actually see any drugs either. Was that something intentional?
Certainly. When we were planning the film, we asked that very question. At the beginning we wanted to show everything, the beheadings, the torture, the dead bodies – all the bad stuff. Then afterwards, we decided to do the opposite and not show any of that. Instead we focused on the experiences of the innocent people. There are no images of drugs. There are no allusions to drugs. We can infer that it has to do with drugs.

According to Naranjo, Stephanie Sigman was his first choice to play Laura in Miss Bala. However, Naranjo auditioned thousands of hopefuls in order to be sure that she was the one. In the end, he admits, “I knew it would be Stephanie.”

Did you audition with a scene from the film?
I think the first one I did was a monologue that Penelope Cruz did in one of her films. Then, I started with the scenes that were given to me by Gerardo Naranjo from the film.

This is a very dangerous world depicted in Miss Bala. How dangerous is it for you as an artist to approach this subject in the film?
I want to think that it’s safe because it’s art. It’s a movie, but also, because the movie doesn’t point a finger at anyone it just shows what we are feeling as a society. I don’t like to think that way.

This is your first feature film and it’s a pretty serious subject. How did you manage with the responsibility of creating a convincing portrayal?
I love a challenge! It’s not only because of my work, it’s because we’re all supportive working together and Gerardo is such a great director. It’s a combination of different things working together. It wasn’t just the emotional aspect, but also the physical. It was very tiring and at times I got hurt, but I always trust the process and we were working on a good movie.

Was there ever any doubt in your mind about the role you were playing during this process?
Yes, a lot of times, actually. Not just in the beginning. Yes, I got lost. I questioned what I was doing. This role demands a lot of contained emotion and there were times when I wanted to explode and say more and do more, but I think that’s when I talked to Gerardo. I tried to understand what he wanted. I didn’t want that melodramatic acting.

Many people have asked why she never fights back at any point during the movie – because there are plenty of opportunities in the film where she could. Do you think she could do that?
I don’t think so. I think that if she had tried anything she would end up dead. I’m sure about that. She has no choice or time to be a genius and come up with a strategy – like the Hollywood action movies. This film takes on a different point of view: a more human portrayal. It’s more realistic.

Diego Luna’s role in Miss Bala is that of Executive Producer for CANANA, the film production company he founded with fellow actor and childhood friend, Gael Garcia Bernal and producer Pablo Cruz.

What’s your take on this film being used as the official entry for Oscar consideration? I know you’ve made many films that depict many aspects of life in Mexico. This may not be the best image that you would expect the country to say, “this represents us.” Is there a disconnect there or is there a quality to the film that stands out?
I think we can complain a lot about many decisions the Mexican Academy has made today, but the only thing we can say is that it’s the filmmakers who are making the choices. Sometimes that can be a problem, in fact. But in this case, it’s not politicians trying to sell the country. It’s filmmakers and the community. The process is tricky and we would love to change it, but this time we have to believe in what we’re doing. I have a feeling that the film achieves something that rarely happens in film: the connection between reality is so intense that there’s no way that you can say that there is a better film out there that represents what the country is feeling right now.

Do you think cinema has the power to change people’s ideologies about a country’s state of corruption?
Cinema has that power and should be used more often. It’s a tool of change and can be used as a mirror. You can get frustrated and angry by what you see and suddenly realize that there is something that you can do.

What is your reaction to the film?
I believe this film is a part of something bigger in Mexico. Film should be about that. We’re just so happy to be a part of this. It’s a tough time to say “happy.”

Do you think you’ll be making more films like this with your production company CANANA?
As a production company, we’ve done just these types of films. They all come from an honest point. It’s the type of film we would want to see as an audience. We want those directors to be shooting these types of films.

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Film Review: Miss Bala

Review originally published at Picktainment:

There is a scene late in the film where Laura (Stephanie Sigman) is crowned Miss Bala. It is her only goal and nothing will stand in her way. It is, perhaps, a way to get out of poverty and a bleak existence in a border town. But at this moment, she is crowned the winner and the look on her face tells a whole different kind of story. She has rehearsed her speech: “My name is Laura Guerrero and I am 23 years old. My dream is to represent the beautiful women of my state,” but the words won’t come. She looks out at the audience, hoping to be rescued from her ordeal at the hands of a kingpin named Lino (Noe Hernandez), who is responsible for rigging the pageant in her favor. Of course, there is no help for Laura. Her ultimate coronation at the hands of Lino is an empty triumph. She knows that everything that had any meaning in her life – her hopes and dreams, her father and her younger brother, her friends, and her freedom – have all but vanished.

There is little joy in director Gerardo Naranjo’s epic metaphor for a country on the brink of collapse at the hands of the drug cartels that infest the border towns between Mexico and the U.S. There is a lawlessness here that has quickly spread like an infection throughout the country and there doesn’t seem to be any glimmer of hope. This is the setting for Miss Bala, Naranjo’s visceral look at the drug war raging just a few miles from our border. It is the kind of film that angers an audience that is all too aware of the injustices that it brings – a war where, clearly, there are no winners. It is also a film that can spark action towards reform. Is there any hope? The film does not say.

What it does say, however, is explosive. It is an action thriller devoid of the usual Hollywood clichés of bigger-than-life heroes and improbable endings. Instead, we see the world through Laura, forced to withhold emotions as she is coerced to carry out the dirty deeds of her captor. For Lino, his attraction to Laura is less physical, as he is perhaps, attracted to her innocence and strong will to survive, for he knows that in his own line of work, a drug warlord’s life is unglamorous and finite. This isn’t a film about who is the good guy and who is the bad one – all of that is implied. The director holds a mirror to his own country asking, “What are you going to do about it?” References to drugs are merely implied and it is the product that drives these wars.

It is a tightly written script with a breakout performance for Sigman. It’s not necessarily a popcorn movie for everyone, but then again, it’s not trying to be.

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