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Alfonso Cuarón: ‘As a Cineast, You Can Only Make Personal Films’

Mexican filmmaker delivers a masterclass at Lyon’s Lumière Festival

LYON, France – Alfonso Cuarón’s inspiration for his award-winning drama “Roma” was none other than Cannes topper Thierry Frémaux, the Mexican director revealed during a masterclass at the 10th Lumière Film Festival in Lyon on Tuesday.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Frémaux, who serves as director of the Institut Lumière, Cuarón recalled how he had been previously working on a completely different project – a pre-historic drama set 50,000 to 100,000 years ago that centered on early humans, when the two met at the Morelia Film Festival in Mexico. Frémaux was unimpressed after hearing about it and instead urged the filmmaker to return to his native Mexico and make another Spanish-language film.

“I tried to explain the project to Thierry. It’s a really good project. It wasn’t an adventure film; it’s more of an intimate story. I was doing a lot of anthropological and archeological research, talking to many experts and I was very enthusiastic.”

Cuarón still intends to make the film, which he describes as “Adam and Eve but Darwinian, a kind of family drama about early humans, about discovery and the birth of ideologies.”

At the time however, Frémaux was not impressed. “He kept saying, ‘This is your moment to return to Mexico, to make a film in your country. You haven’t been back since ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien.’”

Despite his exasperation with Frémaux, Cuarón soon realized he was right. “It was in fact the right moment. The truth of the matter is I was drying up. There is an arrogant, cosmopolitan pretension that we are citizens of the world. That is partly true, but even a citizen of the world has roots.”

Cuarón saw it as the right time to embark on such an endeavor under his own rules and using what he calls the “technical tools of great spectacle” – such as state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos sound technology and 65mm format – to make an intimate, black and white Mexican film in Spanish and Mixtec.

Commenting on the film’s distribution via Netflix, Cuarón said the decision was ultimately made due to the SVOD giant’s worldwide reach. “With the complexities that exist today for the distribution of non-English films and art cinema, it’s very difficult, and more so for a Mexican film that is in Spanish and Mixtec, with unknown actors and in black and white. And of course I hope that the majority of people will be able to see this film in big theaters. …

“It’s frustrating that the French audiences won’t be able to see the film in cinemas,” Cuarón said. In France, a required three-year window between theatrical and SVOD release means it won’t be shown in theaters. “That’s not the case in other parts of the world, where it will show in cinemas.”

Describing himself as a cineaste filmmaker, Cuarón noted that even his big international productions, such as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Gravity” were intimate, personal films.

As a cineast, you can only make personal films, he added, pointing out that “Y Tu Mama Tambien” was about the transition of adolescents into adulthood, while his next film, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” was about the transition of children into adolescents.

“Although it doesn’t seem like it because it’s a film about outer space with big stars, ‘Gravity’ is also a very personal film for me because it was a film that was born out of necessity. The film came about after a project I had been preparing fell through and I was at a moment in my life in which I was experiencing one adversity after another.”

He added: “And that film is all about adversity. Everything that happens in the film is a metaphor for those adversities. During that time in my life, all I wanted was to put my feet on the ground; I needed an anchor.”

Commenting on Hollywood, Cuarón pointed out that the U.S. film industry has been an industry of immigrants since its earliest days. He nevertheless cautioned young cineaste filmmakers from other cultures of viewing Hollywood as the “holy grail” and of losing their individuality and unique voice in trying to adapt to the industry’s constraints.

“Having to adapt their language, to homogenize their language in order to adapt to Hollywood, that for me is a danger. If there is anything marvelous about cinema it is language.”

Turning to his native Mexico, Cuarón expressed concern for the extreme violence in the country but also hope in the “exuberant new generations of young people who are reclaiming their place in the world” despite the country’s continuing problems. Indeed, the social inequalities portrayed in “Roma,” which takes place in 1970s Mexico City, have only gotten worse over the years, he said. The misery and violence in the country, he added, are connected to a tendency among Mexicans “to accept the country’s immense racism.”

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