For the third year in a row, Netflix has a film in the main competition at the Berlin Film Festival. This year, Alonso Ruizpalacios’ “A Cop Movie” follows the path first blazed by Isabel Coixet’s “Elisa Y Marcela,” which at the time was met with a letter from 160 German independent exhibitors demanding the film be removed from competition. It’s likely, particularly after 2020 saw so much film driven online, that “A Cop Movie” will receive a warmer welcome.
Ruizpalacios’ third feature, his previous efforts “Gueros” and “Museo” both enjoyed fruitful festival and awards lifespans and healthy sales, is the story of Teresa and Montoya, two officers who joined the Mexico City police force only to find have their convictions crushed by a dysfunctional and corrupt system. Their partnership and later emotional bond proved a refuge from the hostility of their superiors. Through Ruizpalacios’ experimentation with narrative and documentary storytelling, “A Cop Movie” humanizes a group which is often demonized by larger society, while not letting the larger organization off the hook at all.
The film is produced by Mexican documentary royalty in No Ficción founders Daniela Alatorre, former coordinator of the Morelia Film Festival’s documentary section, and Elena Fortes, former director of Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal’s traveling documentary festival Ambulante.
Netflix will stream the film worldwide as one of its originals, reinforcing the company’s ongoing commitment to backing the best auteur cinema that Mexico has to offer. With a massive slate of TV and film projects past and present, “A Cop Movie,” fits snuggly alongside “Roma” and this year’s Mexican Oscar submission “I’m No Longer Here” as Netflix Originals from the country with a quality that suggests awards may be in its future.
Ruizpalacios sat down with Variety to discuss “A Cop Movie” in the run-up to its Berlin premiere.
From the very first shot, first person in the backseat of a squad car as dispatch chirps and endless stream of calls from around the city, your audience is put on the side of the police, at least for a time, which is an intriguing decision given the state of relations between police and the public today in much of the world, particularly in Mexico and the United States.
That’s one of the things we set out to do with this film, to go on a journey confronting our prejudices about this very controversial group of people, this corporation. We wanted to examine everything that is institutional or learned and see these police officers not as a mass of people, but as individuals. I think our film does that in a big way. Whoever you’re portraying, even if it’s crooks or thieves like we did with my last film “Museo,” it instantly forces you to take their side and see their perspective, even if you still don’t agree with what they’re doing.
How did you get such open and unfiltered access to the police force, their training facilities and their squad cars?
We had several key advisors with us throughout the whole film who are probably the most informed people in all of Mexico on the subject. They work independently as advisors for non-government organizations. They study problems within the police and try to propose ways to address them. They guided us through the whole process, and we couldn’t have made this film without them. Importantly, they also introduced us to the right people.
And what about Teresa and Montoya? When did you hear their story and decide that would be the main narrative of your film?
We first met with Teresa because we had heard about her story and we were thinking of her as a possible character for the film. We just wanted to get her perspective on the corruption. Well, we met her, and it was like love at first sight. She has thousands of stories gathered from hours and hours in service and the way she tells them is so funny. So, while we were talking, she told us that her husband was in the force as well and we realized we had this wonderful, human story that we decided would be the center of the film.
The film’s title, its score and the way you film some of the action scenes are an obvious and fun reference to cop shows and films of decades past. What was the motivation behind this “generic cop film” approach?
There is something about me that always likes to mess with the audience a little bit, you know? To play with expectations. So, the title was something that I had in mind very early on, like as soon as we had an idea of what the film was gonna be. I had this idea in my mind of people in Mexico City talking about what film they were gonna see and saying, “Let’s go see ‘A Cop Movie.’” For the music I always go with my intuition, and I’d recently heard the music of Lalo Schifrin, this amazing Argentine composer who went to Hollywood and did so much work there, like the “Mission Impossible” theme song. Then, every day my editor Yibran Asuad and I would listen to Lalo Shifrin while working, but I never thought we would get the license for his actual music. There is something about his music that is so hard to recreate, so we were lucky to get access to the music we used in the film.
There is a wonderful scene at a protest where a partygoer witnesses a drunk man defiantly peeing right next to Montoya, and afterwards approaches the officer saying that if that happened in the U.S., the police would have killed the man. Was there an intention, knowing Netflix will stream the film worldwide, to provide moments like this that will be relatable to viewers outside of Mexico?
It’s a good question, but I think we only started thinking about that later on. I find that the best way to be “universal” is to, like the saying goes, “Think globally act locally.” I think the more specific you are, the more people will relate in some way. So no, I wouldn’t say we weren’t trying to reach out to an international audience intentionally. The scene you’re referencing was shot Mexico City’s Gay Pride festival, which was great because everyone thought we were just a normal documentary crew and we could move around quickly and shoot freely. So, we used actors for some of the staged scenes and recreations, and the guy who peed next to the cop was one of the actors. The other man, however, was just a person who thought he saw someone peeing next to a cop and felt like he needed to say something. So that comment and Raúl’s improvised response, “Yeah, well this is Mexico,” were lucky accidents that made the story relatable internationally. This film is full of those lucky accidents, and I really love that about it.