The war-torn history of Arturo Menéndez’s native country, El Salvador, has yet to defeat his passion for cinematic arts. One of his short films, “Parávolar,” started garnering attention for the young writer and director when it won three international prizes including best short film in the Central American Film Festival in Vienna. His first feature-length film “Malacrianza,” which translates to “The Crow’s Nest,” tells the story of Don Cleo, a humble piñata seller who lives in a small town in El Salvador. Don Cleo finds an extortion letter on his doorstep left by a gang, demanding that he pay $500 within 72 hours. If he doesn’t pay, he risks death.
How did you get the idea for this story?
This guy came to the office where I was working, and said he was looking for the producer. He saw that I had made a short film before, and said he had a story that he wanted to tell. So we came to him, and he told us: “Listen, I’ve been extorted by my family, and I’m leaving the country because I’m afraid.” And his story was kind of different from how I told it in the film. But it’s a story based on truth. This person gave it to me and said: “I think this could be a film if you guys want to do it.” And I thought, “Wow, it’s wonderful.” He really went to the gangsters and was afraid of what was going on. It was in my head for a long time, and finally I said f— it. Let’s write this down. So I wrote the script and from there I couldn’t stop.
You shot in El Salvador… what was the filming process like?
We shot in a gangster-dominated area. We had to ask for permission, and we had to promise that we were not bringing the cops inside their area. It was really funny because they were really friendly, and they said: “We want to act in the film. We want to be a part of this.” And they made us promise that we would put them in our next film. And we said: “Yeah, yeah totally.” And they were really supportive in that moment. They wanted to help. But it was like we were inside a lion’s den, and the lion was asleep, but you we knew that at any moment the lion could wake up. And it might be hungry.
How did growing up in El Salvador influence your work?
When I was a kid, my first word was “bomb.” I grew up with violence. My generation saw the war. And somehow I can say that because of my family and where I lived that it was kind of exciting. We didn’t suffer like thousands and millions of people did. For us, growing up and looking at dead bodies, looking at guns, and shootings at night — it was really normal. And then after the peace treaty was signed — I remember I was 14 years old — we had a couple of years of peace, and now we have another war. We have a social war between the gangsters. They are fighting against each other, and fighting against society and fighting against the cops and the army. So now many people are suffering over here again. And my film talks about extortion, and that’s how the gangsters finance themselves. My film is my vision of how I look at it.
What did you learn from making this first feature film?
I think that before I started shooting the film I didn’t have any idea how hard the whole process is. This is one of the hardest jobs in the world — directing and producing and writing a film at the same time. From working on this film, I learned so much. We were shooting without resources, so I had to have patience with everyone because I wasn’t paying them. So now many doors are open, and I have five feature films coming in from international production companies. And they talk to me about resources and they talk to me about budget and it’s really relieving. I think now I can be more careful with what I’m doing.
In the beginning of your film, the lead actor gets some sunglasses that keep coming up throughout the story. What do they mean?
Sometimes I think the world is too shiny and bright and painful and it’s better to have something in front of our eyes. Reality can be too bright and too cruel and raw. It’s better to have shades on because it can make you blind. Here for many people, reality can be blinding, so I think the shades help. Maybe you want to have them on all the time.
What do you want people to take away from seeing this film?
We are going through a process of violence — not only in El Salvador but in a lot of countries in the world. It’s really easy for us to judge the first person we encounter. But we don’t see what’s going on inside their house. For me, I hope people see the film as a mirror to look at and say don’t judge other people, judge yourself.