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‘Roma,’ Yalitza Aparicio, Eugenio Caballero, Enthrall IFF Panama

PANAMA CITY —  Over six months since the world premiere of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” at Venice and the intensive debate about the film – including whether it should be classified as a feature film or a TV movie – at first sight one might think that the pic’s screening at IFF Panama would offer nothing new.

But that debate has yet to play out. Picture Perfect Federation’s Patrick Wachsberger was asked about “Roma” at MipTV on Wednesday, and admitted that, when at Lionsgate, he had run the numbers on “Roma” and couldn’t see how Lionsgate could make a profit on the film through traditional distribution.

That’s nit to say that “Roma” doesn’t enthrall audiences. Its production designer, Eugenio Caballero, said that the IFF Panama screening and subsequent Q&A session with him and lead actor, Yalitza Aparicio, was particularly important.

“It was beautiful. We’re very emotional,” Caballero said. “You could feel the vibe. We have been doing a lot of Q&A sessions around the world. Sometimes it can be very cold. This was really warm. It was exciting. I often don’t see my films for years after making them. But here I enjoyed being with the audience and watching the film on this huge screen, with excellent sound. This is my baby. You always want to see your baby!”

IFF Panama’s artistic director, Diana Sanchez was also delighted with the audience reaction: “It was very moving. We’re talking about how festivals have to become more diverse. And I’m very proud and happy that we had such a big audience for this film and with so much diversity.”

She added: “I was surprised because the film is on Netflix in Panama but people wanted to see it on the big screen. The reaction in Panama to Yalitza has been incredible. She is seen as opening doors for indigenous communities. She’s so smart and intelligent and a source of real inspiration for people here.”

One of the questions during the Q&A session was by a man from a Kuno tribe who asked Aparicio about whether it is difficult to feel that so many indigenous peoples see her as a beacon of hope.

“I feel a lot of responsibility,” she replied. “I’m only 25 years old but so many communities have expressed their support for me. There’s so much diversity in the world and it’s important to show people that we can achieve things.”

She went on: “Indigenous peoples often feel they face so many constraints. Just being here in Panama can inspire people. I hope that films like ‘Roma’ can open doors for people who have to overcome obstacles in their lives and little by little we can realize our dreams.”

The painstaking attention to the detail of the sets in “Roma” was another focus of the Q & A. Aparicio explained that this was essential to her performance, since she wasn’t given a script for each day’s shoot, but instead had to react to the decor and actions of the other characters, each of whom was briefed separately by helmer Alfonso Cuaron.

“Each setting transported you to another epoch,” she said. “When we look at images from this period they’re often in black and white, as in the final film. But as actors we saw the real colors, the spaces, the furniture, the clothes, the family photographs. It all felt so real.”

“Usually I read the script beforehand and imagine each scene,” explained production designer Caballero. “But here we talked about little things: What would they eat, the brands of chocolate milk they used, the sound of people passing by in the street.”

Caballero explained that Cuaron’s key concern was to ensure that the actors’ reactions were genuine and that the audience would feel them.

A prime example was the childbirth scene that was shot in a hospital which had been abandoned after the 1985 Mexico City earthquake and was recreated for the film.

The childbirth scene was shot with a crew of less than eight people, and Aparicio said that she didn’t know what would happen during the scene. They ended up using the first take because it had the most genuine reactions.

“This was one of most important moments in my career,” admitted Caballero. “I will remember it for many years to come.”

Speaking to Variety after the event, Caballero said that Mexican cinema is enjoying a privileged moment, in stark contrast to the situation when he began working in the early 1990s, when only five-to-six films were produced per year.

“In the U.S., I always feel that they’re kind of asking what we’ll be doing next. In the last six years, Mexican filmmakers have won five best director Oscars, as well as awards for Mexican actors, sound technicians, production designers. If you add the Chileans, Argentinians and Colombians and the rest of this region, it’s a really exciting time,” he said.

He underlined the huge potential of Mexico for generating stories that can address key issues such as racial and social prejudice.

“In Mexico, your income is related to the color of your skin, which is a terrible thing. Mexico City is super modern in a certain way. You have a huge art scene, a lot of energy. But at the other end of the spectrum you have slums that don’t have basic services and that is what we wanted to show in ‘Roma.’”

“There are different layers of classism in the film. The main family somehow discriminates against the maids. They are the bosses. But even though they’re white and middle class they feel that they are looked down upon by the wealthy people, who live in the hacienda.”

“There’s one line in the film that I think is particularly strong, when the martial arts guy, Firmino, calls Cleo ‘gata,’ which means Indian maid in the most derogative way. He’s Indian as well, but because he’s male he feels that he has the right to insult her with a classist comment.”

Caballero is currently considering several film projects and is curating the exhibition that opens in Guadalajara in May of Guillermo del Toro’s collection of macabre artifacts and memorabilia, ‘At Home with Monsters.’

“We will be establishing a dialogue between movie memorabilia and high-level Mexican art. Orozco is a big influence on him. We also have religious art that reflects punishment of sins. It’s full of surprises really. The previous exhibition of Guillermo’s collection in LACMA focused on different things, like comic books. I’ve focused on his origins. It’s going to be different.”

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