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‘X500’s’ Juan Andrés Arango on Young Migrants, Working With Non-Professionals

Set in Mexico City, Buenaventura and Montreal, three stories weave a pan-American portrait of its challenged youth

David’s father dies in green rural Michoacán, Alex’s brother in L.A., María’s mother in the Philippines. All teens, each begins a journey, which is at first physical, David to Mexico City, where he becomes a construction worker; Alex back to his native Buenaventura, Colombia’s most crime-infested city; Maria joins her grandmother in Montreal. But it is the inner journey which matters most, as all three attempt a transformation, to their own destiny in a world where gangs have replaced the family as the social nucleus and source of identity. David becomes a punk who pogoes to Colombian cumbia music and Maria a Mexican chola gang member; Alex, who wanted to be a fisherman, is coerced into his local hood gang.

World premiering at Toronto, then segueing to San Sebastian’s prestigious Horizontes Latinos, “X500” (aka “X Quinientos”) has now hit the fest circuit, playing the Zurich and Biarritz Latin American fests last week. Multiple other bookings beckon. Produced by Yanick Létourneau at Montreal-based Peripheria, Jorge Botero from Colombia’s Séptima Films and Edher Campos and Luis Salinas from Mexico City’s Machete Productions, ”X500,” Colombian Juan Andres Arango’s follow-up to Directors’ Fortnight entry “La Playa D.C.,” asks a question central to Latin American cinema today: To what extent is regeneration – social, individual – possible in the continent? It gives nuanced answers.

Variety talked to Arango about his vision of contemporary youth in the Americas:

Your first feature, which was selected for Directors’ Fortnight, “La Playa D.C.,” was set in a tough Bogota ‘hood. You return to portray teens in a violent context but in three stories, set across the Americas. Why the triptych and not one single story?

The combination of a coming-of-age story with migration is a subject that interest me deeply. It triggers a process of transformation which is at the core of my films. I approached it for the first time in “La Playa D.C.” “X500″ represents a more ambitious project. It allows me to study how this common human experience mutates when interacting with the very different urban environments in which each of the stories takes place. A dialogue is established between these versions of change. Through their similarities and contradictions, I can further explore the experience of transformation.

Facing huge social constraints, Alex, David and Maria meet with very different fates. It’s as if you didn’t want to give one verdict on the ability of young people to choose how they live in the Americas.

The three stories which interlink in the film represent three versions of what could happen when mourning, migration and adolescence meet. The main characters are living the same basic conflict but each of them is unique and has to negotiate their path in a very different environment. In this way the film is at the same time an exploration of specificity and universality.

Some parts of the film are so singular that that they take on a near-documentary air. I believe you researched the film by living in all three settings. And you drew on the actors’ own input as well.

I am personally linked to the three spaces where the film takes places. I discovered Buenaventura through the stories of the actors of “La Playa” about their hometown, and I have been visiting it and exploring its complex reality ever since. I have been an immigrant myself in Mexico and Montreal. In this sense, the film departs from personal experience, but it then adopts the very specific viewpoint of each of the characters. My intention is to make immersive cinema, making the viewer discover these spaces through the eyes of the protagonists. As was the case in “La Playa,” I worked in “X500″ entirely with first-time actors. They come from the communities where the film was shot and are very familiar with the experiences of their characters. To achieve the maximum sense of truth in their performances, I never make them read the script of the film or learn any lines. I rather worked with them on the specific situations of each scene to get their spontaneous reaction to it.

There is violence in all three stories, both in the characters and their context. Maria’s own violence is most discomfiting perhaps, since unexpected. But it echoes a sense of generational disconnect, the disorientation of the young, their disaffection now seen in many films made by young filmmakers about the young. And it produces sudden, unexpected aggression.

Maria’s story mirrors in a certain way the others. David in Mexico and Alex in Buenaventura both suffer highly hostile environments where violence becomes a matter of survival. Maria, on the other hand, arrives in Canada in an apparently welcoming environment, where her grandmother has constructed a “perfect life” for her. But Maria is deeply hurt by the death of her mother and has very mixed feelings towards Canada, as it is the country that made her mother grow up alone. This makes it impossible for her to fit in to her grandmother’s version of happiness. She starts acting in an increasingly violent way that emerges from this frustration and her radical actions make this welcoming Montreal environment become more and more hostile towards her.

What strikes the spectator is visual terms is partly just how colorful this film is, on occasions even painterly, and, of course, the format. Why so much color and why the format?

When planning the visuals of the film with cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni, we decided to embrace the natural visual differences of each country rather than imposing a common look. In this way, Buenaventura has the cool light of the Pacific jungle, while Mexico is more saturated and Montreal lower-key. The camera work acts as a unifying element as it follows the characters reacting to its emotions with the same closeness. The format of 1:33 was chosen because we felt it better portrays a certain claustrophobic sense of the stories of these character that are isolated in the middle of their crowded cities. It also has a verticality that allows us to include in the composition the vertigo of the wooden houses of Buenaventura connected by fragile wooden bridges over the sea.

This is a highly unusual production for a Latin American film. How was it financed? 

The film received tax incentive money from Mexico and Canada and direct subsidies from Colombia, Canada and Quebec.

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