Director Yulene Olaizola might have already worked on a number of films over the course of her still young career, but nothing could prepare the Mexican filmmaker for what she would encounter with her latest, “Tragic Jungle.”
A 1920’s-set, mythology-influenced chase film set on the verdant border between Mexico and Belize, this Mexican-French-Colombian co-production, which premiered in Venice earlier this month before heading to San Sebastian and New York, marked a serious scale-up for the rising director.
“I’ve shot films with crews of only two people, so it’s totally different to do so with sixty people from different countries that speak different languages,” Olaizola tells Variety. “It is exhausting!”
“I think the director has to transmit the right energy to everybody,” she continues. “If the director is tired the rest of the crew will be tired as well. So you always have to be the first one to transmit that energy. If you want the actors to cross the river, you have to be the first one to cross, in very Werner Herzog style. You always have to go first.”
Olaizola led the charge on this allusive and narratively slippery project, which lifts as much from Western and genre film aesthetics as from as Mayan folklore as it intertwines the stories of two young Belizean girls on the run from colonialist authorities and the native chewing gum harvesters – the chicleros– who are sent to give chase.
“Reading about the history of the place, those ideas came to me,” Olaizola explains. “I could have done a very social movie, because when you read about the chewing gum industry, it’s all about exploitation, with Spanish or British bosses exploiting the indigenous people. But I didn’t want to have a film with too much dialogue between Mexicans and British, nothing with too much drama.”
“When I travel to a place I like to relate, to explore how the landscape and the weather and locations shape the lives of those who live there,” she continues. “So when I started this film, my initial idea was to focus on the jungle border between Mexico and Belize. And then reading how these Mexican authors related to the jungle, I fell in love with the idea of thinking about the jungle as a living entity.”
The story finally clicked when the director learned about the Xtabay, a figure from Yucatan Mayan legend said to live in the jungle, where it takes the shape of a beautiful woman to seduce and lure local men to their doom.
“[The jungle] has powers, and defends itself from the humans trying to steal its treasures,” the filmmaker continues. “When I found out about the Xtabay, I knew I could have a female character in a more mystic way. I could touch upon those social themes – as well as the idea of female empowerment – in a more abstract manner and have two different characters – the jungle and the female character – that would cross paths and become one.”
While writing and editing the film, Olaizola had to strike that fine balance between the mystical and mundane, working out when to tip her hand and just how much to show. Working on set, however, with a cast of mostly non-professional actors, the director had more workaday concerns.
“Cinema is made of practical decisions; Walk from here to here, smile or don’t smile,” the director says. “So you’re not thinking about concepts while making the film – especially not with non-professional actors.”
“Most of the actors are how they are in real life,” she adds with a laugh. [In terms of the seduction and attraction that make up the film’s narrative] the things that happened in the movie were actually happening behind the scenes. Just imagine ten non-professional actors from small towns in Mexico suddenly spending twelve hours a day with these beautiful girls!”
Making her film debut, Belizean actor Indira Rubie Adrewin embodies both character and myth in “Tragic Jungle.” Introduced to us as Agnes, a 20-year old woman fleeing an unwanted marriage alongside her sister, Adrewin’s character gradually transforms over the course of the feature, becoming more seductive and dominant while taking on more folkloric resonances – but the shift in focus didn’t faze the ingénue performer.
“Being a Creole woman, growing up in nature, in that environment, I related to Agnes in a lot of ways,” Andrewin explains. “It was very natural; it just felt like being myself… All my friends and family have experienced the Xtabay, it’s just a part of our culture. [So when Yulene] said I was going to be the Xtabay, it felt like sharing a part of my culture with the world.”
“I come from a country that’s super small; we have only 300,000 people, and we don’t have an acting industry or anything like that,” Anderson continues. “To come from such a small country, we represent it everywhere we go. Nobody really knows us, so to be able to share that part of Belize with people is amazing.”