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Playing Directors’ Fortnight, Fabián Hernández’s “A Male” (“Un Varón”) underscores just how much Colombian cinema has evolved in recent years, in both technique and kind of storytelling. 

A meditation on manhood sold by Dubai-based Cercamon and seen at San Sebastian’s WIP Latin last year, it turns on 16-year-old Carlos (Dylan Felipe Ramírez Espitia), glimpses of his deep turmoil shining through a stoic facade. 

His mother in jail, his sister on the game,Carlos lives in a central Bogotá homeless shelter in central Bogotá.Over Christmas, he wanders his local streets, dominated by the ideal of the alpha male and an eye-for-an eye vengeance. Sensitivity is conspicuous by its absence. After one affront, Carlos must prove he accepts a gender model alien two his nature.

Manuel Ruiz Montealegre’s Medio de Contencion Producciones in Colombia produces with France’s In Vivo Films, Fortuna Films (Netherlands) and Black Forest Films (Germany).

Variety talked with Hernández as his debut bowed at Directors’ Fortnight.

One key aspect to the film is obviously its music: Working against tradition, it bleeds emotion . What were you looking for with this design? Did you have any references?

I tried to avoid filmic references, also in soundtracks. We found the music through a constant dialogue with musicians, whom I trusted deeply. We pushed and pulled a lot to find the right tone for it. I was determined to score the film with the music that I know from this context, the music that plays in the neighborhood, in the homes, at parties: a lot of salsa, merengue, rap and rancheras, which was a key part of the world building.

Many Latin American films are bound by a realistic fidelity to the light of places that aren’t designed to be filmed. Often locations look terribly flat, devoid of any depth due to real-life light. In your case you found with cinematographer Sofía Oggioni an immensely cinematic look for the film while embracing what the location was already giving. How did you find the right look? 

It would be easy to fall into violent hand-held camerawork emphasizing the danger the characters are in.But I wanted to create distance for the audience so that they’ll have the space and time to observe, to listen, to understand and above else to let the actors be. So our shots were mostly filmed from a tripod, making them steady.  What interested me were the sensations, the emotions that transpire, to capture what these boys wanted to say to the world. Lighting and camera wise our choices strove to always be eye to eye with the characters, never looking down on them.

This always begs the question that many Latin American filmmakers face of how to portray Latin American society, with its difficulties, absurdities and violence without fetishizing, nor re-victimizing. Any thoughts? 

Good intentions don’t always translate into accurate portrayals. I come from this neighborhood. That doesn’t mean I can portray it in a right light. But at the very least it allows me to avoid clichés. Then you find dimension, both in dialogues as characters’ internal deliberation regarding their problems. I wanted to make a film where the characters think, reflect and take decisions about their life, instead of being pushed by situations. The focus lies on emotions, fears, the will to express themselves, in more subtle attitudes rather than falling into easy, superfluous shock values.

From its title and beyond, the film is very clear and precise about the issues it’s dealing with, the major one evidently being manhood. How did you come to develop this topic.

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A Male

I grew up in this area of Bogota. The film is based on my experiences when very young and questions I could only make as an adult. I was immersed in that universe. I had to hit other boys, because that’s how you earn respect. Likewise, we stole to prove [ourselves]. Same with how I treated women. This idea of manhood isa fundamental answer to so many dilemmas we are facing. It’s not gratuitous that our country lives at constant war, [where] our social and political positions are as enclosed in correct or incorrect as manhood and femininity are trapped in a binary opposition. We often disavow these uncomfortable questions. To be comfortable, we have to address them.