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David Zonana Talks ‘Workforce,’ Moral Challenges, Style

MADRID  — The kernel, quality and qualities of David Zonana’s debut feature “Workforce” were already detectable in his very first short, 2014’s “Princess,” which prompted Variety to announce him as a Mexican director to track.

Four years later, he’s come good on that promise with the Wild Bunch-sold “Workforce” (“Mano de obra”), his feature debut.

Produced by regular Cannes laureate Michel Franco (“April’s Daughter,” “Chronic,” “After Lucía” ), “Workforce” won both top prizes at Los Cabos Festival’s 2018 Work in Progress, was acquired for world sales by Wild Bunch and selected for Toronto’s Platform competition, focused on bold emerging voices, before segueing to play in competition at San Sebastián.

“Princess” turned on teen Natalia, who is raped – or so she says – mopes around recovering with her mother, does HIV tests, has sex with her caring boyfriend. She then goes to a bar, meets two middle-aged strangers, has sex with them in a lavatory.

“Workforce’s” protagonist is another victim: Francisco, a construction worker, building a swanky home in Mexico City while living in a rain-leaking shack. After his brother dies in an accident on the site and his sister-in-law receives no compensation, Francisco takes justice into his own hands, occupying the home, and inviting his fellow construction workers to join him. Whether their community can be prove a more just society is another question. Variety chatted to David Zonana before the world premiere of “Workforce” at Toronto Film Festival in its Platform section. It now segues to play in main competition at San Sebastian – an impressive one-tow for a feature debut.

”Workforce” asks a disturbing question. Whether the poor, if they suddenly enjoy some of the privileges of the rich, will automatically adopt their mores as well. Could you comment?

I believe it is a moral problem, not an economical one. Regardless of your income, moral deficiencies such as voracious ambition, corruption, and the incapacity to feel empathy towards others have permeated into every economical system, at every level (blame the media, materialistic entertainment, politics or whatever you want). So regardless of each person’s income level or political views, I think it is their individual battle against this moral deficiencies, rather than a macro-economical solution, what can take us out from this loop. “Workforce” is such a loop.

One key to “Workforce” is the absence of foundations of a social democracy: State regulated work insurance; access to reliable legal advice- Workers such as Francisco seem totally helpless when appealing against injustice. Again, could you comment?

True, this kind of precarious working conditions happen all around Mexico and third world countries, where law is subjective and can be bended, via corruption, to the benefit of a few.

Your feature debut in some ways harks back to your first short “Princess.” It’s told with utter economy, unfussy direction, each scene advancing the story. With regard to direction, the key is the almost unbroken recourse to static camera shots. Why their use?

It is not a rule, and actually there are more frame movements than most of the people that have seen the film realize (twenty out of a hundred scenes or so). But yes, I’ve been inclined to make the camera a witness with none, or very subtle movement, trying not to take the attention from the spectators off from the story. I’ve never been a fan of hand-held camera, I’m too conscious about it when watching a film, but maybe it’s just my OCD (laughs).

Key events – a rape, a murder, a conspiracy – occur off-screen. Why this choice?

The films I enjoy the most are the ones that allow me to construct details in my head. I’m interested in allowing the spectator to create their own mental images. Via this interpretation, they project their own personality into the character, and the two blend in a way…

Formally the film restricts itself working mainly with wide shots even though it never looses its rhythm by a careful blocking where there’s always information all over the picture. The center of it being the main focus. What were your main guidelines when designing the blocking? 

Working mainly with non professional actors, the key was allowing them to fully understand what I needed from them in each scene in terms of tempo, tone and rhythm. Also trying to remind them to be themselves, to move as they would move in each space and make them remember they were standing in real rooms, in a real house, just doing what they would do if they were in such a situation. Then the camera would adjust to that.

You are a director with a strong auteurist voice working also at Michel Franco’s production house Teorema, and formerly at his Lucia Films, as a producer on films such as Gabriel Ripstein’s “600 Miles,” “The Heirs,” or Michel’s own “Chronic” and “April’s Daughter.” All have won significant prizes at Berlin or Cannes. Do you feel part of a generation of filmmakers in Mexico, and if so, does it have any señas de identidad? (hallmarks)

I have been very lucky to be surrounded by talented directors such as Michel, Gabriel and Lorenzo Vigas. Especially Michel has had a lot of patience with me (I started working as an assistant with him knowing absolutely cero about filmmaking, he had won Cannes Un Certain Regard by the time). Now a few years later I had the opportunity of making this film, which luckily earned attention. Although I think I have to continue directing films and in time, inspire young people the same way they inspired me.

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