La jaula de oro The Golden
Courtesy of PRETTY PICTURES

Political thriller reps a step-up in scale for Mexican director

Director of Guatemala-U.S. road movie-thriller “La jaula de oro” (The Golden Dream), a standout Latin American debut, Spain-born Mexican Diego Quemada-Diez is readying political thriller “Operacion Atlas” as he launches an Academy Award campaign for his first feature.

Winner of a Cannes Un Certain Talent Award, “Jaula” tracks three teens, one a young Tzxotzil native, from Guatemala across the length of Mexico as they dodge migration cops, clash with gangs and travel on train-tops to a white-knuckle climax on the U.S.-Mexico border.

After immigration, “Operacion Atlas” takes another hot-button issue: Civil resistance to multinational corporation development projects backed by local governments – hydroelectric dams, massive deforestation and various fossil-fuel programs (oil, mining, fracking) – which is a recurrent narrative throughout Latin America.

As he made his own shorts – such as American Film Institute graduation film “A Table is a Table” which won an ASC Best Cinematography award, Quemada-Diez cut his teeth as a camera assistant on Ken Loach’s “Land and Freedom.” Based out of Los Angeles, he worked as a camera operator with Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu (“21 Grams”), Tony Scott (“Man on Fire”), Spike Lee (“She Hate Me”) and Fernando Meirelles (“The Constant Gardener”).

That mixed industry background shines through in “Jaula” and now “Operacion Atlas.” Like the films of a growing new breed of filmmakers in Latin America, rather than hard-core arthouse, they leverage a crossover style that mixes more mainstream Hollywood tropes with the social and political sub-texts that have traditionally distinguished international Latin American filmmaking.

Written by Quemada-Diez, Gilbran Portela and Lucia Carreras, the co-scribe of “Leap Year,” “another standout Mexican debut, “Jaula’s” screenplay was based on interviews with hundreds of Mexican and Central American emigrants. 600 extras in the film are played by real emigrants; the leads by non-pros.

But “Jaula”’s opening hour builds a large Hollywood-style empathy with the three teens as they jump the Mexican border, board their first train, dally in the countryside, get work in the fields. Though the film is shot in 16mm, this suggests it could go the way of a feel-good triumph-over-adversity immigration drama. But in “Jaula’s” mid-to-final stretches, these wishful assumptions are brutally and memorably shattered, as the film’s sobering bedrock realism sets in.

In “Operacion Atlas,” Quemada-Diez looks set to take this crossover style to another level. “In some ways a continuation of ‘Jaula,’” he said, it is again being based on scores of interviews and journalistic investigation, the director said. “I want to analyze and go deeper into political and geo-strategies behind the control of territories and resources.”

Talking by phone from Mexico, Quemada-Diez says he’s been stydying movies by Gillo Pontecorvo – “The Battle of Algiers,” and “Burn!” starring Marlon Brando – and Costa Gavras, whose 1969 “Z” and 1972 “State of Siege” both toplined Yves Montand, then on of France’s biggest marquee draws, as well Francesco Rosi’s work.

“Burn!” co-starred Colombia’s Evaristo Marquez, who had never seen a film when Pontecorvo cast him. In “Operacion Atlas” Quemada-Diez aims “to shoot with people from real villages in Latin America” and feature a Hollywood or English-speaking star with some knowledge of Spanish for its lead: a foreigner who gradually acquires a conscience of the impact of their actions– and the methods used to push such macro-projects through – on the local community and nature at large.

“It’s as important to have an inner journey as an outer one. ‘La jaula de oro’ is a road movie and adventure film, set in a migration context, the story of the hero’s initiation and he and the other kids’ overcoming obstacles,” he said.

“Operacion Atlas” will be spoken in Spanish and English, While “Jaula” was produced by Mexico’s Animal de Luz and Machete Producciones, whose credits include “Leap Year,” Quemada-Diez aims to structure “Operacion Atlas” as an international co-production, he said, adding that the film is “in some ways a hope-filled tragedy about our relationship with Nature.”

For the Oscar campaign for “La Jaula de Oro,” which Quemada-Diez is putting up for all category consideration, the director will hold early January screenings in Los Angeles and most probably New York. Scooping nine Ariels – Mexico’s Oscars – and the top award of Best Ibero-American Film at the first Fenix Awards, a pan-regional kudofest for movies from Latin America, Spain and Portugal, “La jaula de oro” has already won 80-plus awards, which makes it most certainly one of the most laurelled in recent Latin American history.

Chosen by Cinepolis, Mexico’s biggest exhibition circuit, to test the waters for the launch of a Cinepolis distribution operation, “Jaula” grossed $1 million in Mexico.  HBO has acquired U.S. rights. Movie is sold to iTunes, Google Play and Amazon for the U.S. and Canada. Handled by Films Boutique, “La jaula de oro” has also closed the U.K. (Peccadillo), France (Pretty Pictures), Spain (Golem), Italy (Parthenos), Brazil (CAFCO/Cicurel Aart Film) and Latin America (HBO Latin America) of major territories. Other sales deals include to Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, Norway, Taiwan, Greece, Hungary, Colombia, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Central America, Portugal, Hong Kong, Iran, Macedonia and Romania.

Opening “La jaula de oro” up to Oscar recognition it “an attempt to reach a wider audience and give migrants a voice,” said Quemada-Diez. And he added: “We should be building bridges, not walls.”

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