Imaz and Olaizola on ‘Epitaph,’ and an Epic Conquistador Feat

Mexican filmmakers capture De Ordaz’s ascent of Popacatepetl, how Mexico was won for Spain

Courtesy of Varios Lobos Producciones

In 1519, on the verge of retreat and defeat, Cortes orders conquistador captain Diego de Ordaz to summit Popocalpetl, a 17,887-foot volcano, the second highest mountain in Mexico. His ascent turned Cortes’ campaign in the conquistadors’ favor, changing the history of Latin America. Sold by Media Luna and world premiering Sunday at the Tallinn Festival, “Epitaph,” chronicles an extraordinary feat for the age. Shot on the Pico de Orizaba – Popacalpetl was spewing ash at the time, as it was in 1519 –it captures the landscapes of Mexico. It is the conquistadors’ mental landscape and will power, particularly De Ordaz’s, however, that dominate the film, with “Epitaph” playing out like a psychological adventure film. He climbed with two soldiers. At one point, one looks at him in sheer amazement. Imaz and Olaizola fielded Variety’s questions:

The title of the film is “Epitaph.” But whose? Diego de Ordaz’s?

Emperor Charles V allowed De Ordaz to include the volcano on his coat of arms. In that way, it is a kind of epitaph. De Ordaz didn’t receive a Christian burial, his body was thrown to the sea, he had no formal epitaph. His epic achievement and his death symbolize an epitaph to humanity: Here lies humanity, which conquered but was defeated.

“Epitaph” contrasts mindsets – some would say myths and superstitions – of the Tlaxcaltectecas, the local villagers, and the Conquistadores. The first are anthropomorphic – Popacalpetl is their “grandfather” – the Conquistadors’ mentality bases actions on long-terms strategic objectives. One example. De Ordaz’s aim was to be admitted into the Order of St. James.

Climbing big mountains is like a mystical journey, a pilgrimage in silence as oxygen runs out, provoking dizziness, vomiting, deliriousness, even death. In the ancient world where everything could be called into question, these characters didn’t know what they0’d find at the end of their climb. It’s key that these three soldiers had been fighting to the point of exhaustion for three long months. Perhaps for these couple of days, they could pause, forget about armies, the indigenous population. The film is a journey of initiation, like an evening with a shaman, or a psychodelic experience.

The film also gives other reasons for the epic ascent of Popacatepetl: To open a new route to the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan; the importance of sulfur for gunpowder. Cortes supplies these reasons in his letters or De Ordaz?

Yes. Our principal sources are these texts, which mention different details of the expedition. The sulfur is a theory of historians, but you just have to read the chronicles a bit and the facts are evident. After the Night of Sorrows, the Spanish were very depleted, on the point of retreat, bit Cortes knew that if he returned to Cuba having not failed to conquer the Aztec Empire during this campaign, he’d never get the chance. Thanks to Diego de Ordaz’s expedition, the Spanish knew about the sulfur on the crater’s lip, and sent a small army to bring it down, make gunpowder and besiege the Aztec capital for eight months. Today, the pass between the volcanoes is called Cortes’ Pass, though it was De Oredaz who explored the route. Cortes got the credit. It was a strategic military play, to enter Tenochtitlan by the back door not the main route….

How did you split up direction?

We did everything together and we didn’t establish responsibilities, we were both into everything, even make up and script. Since we began the project the two of us saw the same film and we shared the same vision in the way of producing it. The rest was to emulate the conquistadors, persevering without giving in.

The film is an adventure movie with ideas. Is it also an attempt to reach a wider audience?

We make the movies we want to do. The commerciality or authorship for us is secondary. We are moved overall by the complicated search for truth. Wanting a specific audience for a film is as absurd as wanting your child to have a specific eye color. Mexico’s conquest is a shocking subject and the details are poorly known. But when you know the facts it is easy to see a big metaphor for human history. We believe that “Epitaph” can move every type of audience.

The shoot must have been a challenge, to say the least…

Every member of the crew became an mountain climber for a couple of months, we had training and preparation. It was vital in order to avoid any accident because it was indeed a very complex and dangerous shooting. Normally when one is filming one thinks the movie is above everything, in this case the security of the crew was always more important. Inside the crew there were two guides specialized in high peaks and we were accompanied by a group of porters, the Hernandez family from a town on the slopes of the Orizaba peak called Hidalgo. It’s important to note that Emiliano Fernández, the DP of the movie, is also a very experienced climber and was the main link between the world of filmmaking and climbing.

After its world premiere at Tallinn, where will the film be seen?

This is the first time that one of our movies has an international sales agents before being screened It’s up to them to program the route of the movie, they are Media Luna New Films of Germany. That’s a question is for them.

“Epitaph” pulls down Mexican Eficine 189 tax coin, has five co-producers, multiple sponsors, including the Gabriel Figueroa fund, two other producers and a services house. Is this typical for Mexican films?

We think so. Maybe the difference is the amount of sponsors, but the type of production allowed this. We needed mountaineering equipment, climbing gear for example, Marmot and Coleman supported us a great deal. Also we were sponsored Atman, Gatorade and a brand of lip balm called Galba. This may sound like advertising but it’s part of the deal we made with them. That’s how a sponsor works.