Li Cheng, screen writer and film director born in China, migrated to the U.S., is now a world nomad. "José" is his second feature film. The film just won the Queer Lion Award at Venice Festival. We met Li Cheng at the Venice Days.
The section Giornate degli Autori (also known as Venice Days) emerges at the Venice Film Festival to broaden perspectives, considering also gender aspects. For the 15th edition of the Venice Days the following titles were selected:
Graves without a name by Rithy Panh (Cambodia, France)
Keep going by Joachim Lafosse (Belgium, France)
Love by Claire Burger (France)
Screwdriver by Bassam Jarbawi (Palestine, U.S., Qatar)
Pearl by Elsa Amiel (France, Switzerland)
Joy by Sudabeh Mortezai (Austria)
Domingo by Clara Linhart y Fellipe Barbosa (Brazil, France)
Ricordi? by Valerio Mieli (Italy, France)
Three adventures of Brooke by Yuan Qing (China, Malaysia)
Ville Neuve by Felix Dufour-Laperriere (Canada)
Emma Peeters by Nicole Palo (Belgium, Canada)
and José by Li Cheng (Guatemala, U.S.).
Li, your film made it to the Venice Film Festival. To me, as a Latin American looking for new trans-cultural ties built through art, your film José is an outstanding piece. The love story is universal, but the context, the social conditions are specifically Latin American. Therefore I would like to talk about the intentions and conditions that led you to make and that allowed this film. How many countries and places did you visit before you finally decided to produce José in Guatemala?
We researched in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Ecuador, El Salvador, Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala - 12 countries, and about 20 of the most populated cities. Central America struck us the most, so it became the most urgent. Actually Guatemala was the last one, and I knew right away I wanted to make a film here.
Film-making among communities is risky and a labor intensive approach. But building up ties, finding actors is also enriching and nurtures the creative process. While in Joshua Tree (2014) you treated with the effects of the economic crisis of 2008 among a group of U.S.-citizens –your friends and relatives were affected–, you did interviews, built a set and casted actors, in JOSÉ you have a rather neo-realist approach: Many outdoor scenes and each character seems to play himself in a familiar surrounding. This leads me to believe that, after writing the script, casting might be the other 60% of work to ensure the desired quality. Could you describe your approach?
Much time and effort went into casting, but approaching the percentage you cite would only begin to be true if the locations are considered as cast also (which I do). We filmed in well over 100 locations, and in three completely different regions of the country: cool breezy big city in the highlands, the hot, sunny rural Pacific coast, and the rainforest on the Caribbean coast.
How did you feel about being a foreign film-maker?
It is difficult and challenging: excitement and discovery, yet filled with sense of great responsibility. It gets easier once I have the story firmly in mind, and I feel such a great urgency to bring it to the screen. We started from ground zero, when we arrived in Guatemala we knew no one. As the script neared completion, we started to search for collaborators through social media - as we started to meet some people and build some trust and shared commitment, then the snowball starts rolling and grows layer by layer.
Financing a film between countries is hard, but even harder if no institutional backing can be expected, since most funds obey national interests and industries. Did you try to apply for funds?
No, we didn't apply for any fund during any stage of the production. The application takes time and effort with low chance for success and can require a lot of negotiation and compromise to the funders - we prefer to work more quickly and without such restrictions. After the research and story were prepared I felt we had a strong proposal, so I sold my condo in USA to have the money. We trust the model of careful budget, small crew and real locations. I hope José will justify this model.
The photography and visual approach to the urban reality contains lots of visual poetry, enforced by repetitions that emphasize the way the characters feel. Avoiding appealing ethnic or locally flavored visuals can be challenging to a film-maker that comes from abroad. José, in its bare Latin American mega urban beauty, addresses a spectator of the subtle. Do you feel that there is a growing audience for films that demand a keen eye to what is a rather rough urban reality?
I went searching for an urban story - the cities of the world are growing very fast and the cities is where most of humanity is being innovated and negotiated, whereas the rural areas are much more stagnant. Is there a growing audience? I do not know, but I hope there is ... I have more stories in mind that will use this style.
Family bonds in Latin America is something important and the traditional hetero family model is strong as an ideal on one hand, but in reality patchwork families and single mothers raising children as well as hidden homosexuality is common. Is your film a call for tolerance and about accepting and confronting realities, instead of idealizing?
The story is based on hundreds of interviews in 12 countries. We heard a lot of stories. We heard about moms who physically injure their sons because they are gay, others are more open-minded. In Guatemala, it seems more dramatic and difficult, as something approaching 90% can be considered socially conservative / homophobic. Moms are usually already suspecting things about the son's sexuality, but acceptance comes more slowly. I hope Moms are more understanding of their sons after seeing this movie.
The main character is put at a crossroads that some of the actors may have experienced too. But film is often considered a space of evasion or a territory of possibilities. Did you notice the same tension the main character José undergoes among the involved cast? Were some reluctant to accept your ending?
I choose this ending to give possibilities and hope for José. He's still learning and experiencing (like me), and he goes off into the world to see and feel all that life has to offer, and anything could happen.
Some movies make it to register in the legacy of a countries tradition by musical references, for instance. The composed score for José uses chamber orchestra instruments to provide an atmosphere, but what about prominent local folk songs. Did you consider choosing Guatemalan poetry too?
I use little score, five score cues total (plus end credit score). I tried many ideas and finally new music written in more classic style seems right to reach back and forward, and to up and out and beyond.
José (2018) by Li Cheng, Guatemala/US., 85 min
World Premiere was on Thursday 06 September 2018, 11:30 h at Sala Perla and Friday 07 September 2018, 20:00 h at Sala Perla 2.
More about the movie at the Venice Days.