As for quiet revelations in cinema, witness the exemplary case of Alamar (d. Pedro González-Rubio), in which a beautiful Mayan fisherman in Mexico’s Banco Chinchorro reef gets temporary custody of his 5 year-old son Natan, born to an Italian mother, and together they fish, eat, play and take notice of the natural wonders around them. Drama is in the details: the casting of fish lines by hand, and the swift recoiling of a catch; diving deep with snorkels only and coaxing lobster from the sea floor; cleaning the boat bayside while crocodiles lurk perilously close by (!); a white egret settling in their sea-shack, only to disappear in the thicket, indifferent to a child’s plaintiff call. By end credits, nothing substantial has occurred, yet one can feel the briny air commingle with a profoundly sad sense of separation between a father and son. Are they fictional or real? Is the director making this up as he goes along? Such mysteries are part of Alamar’s subtle design, graceful and direct. Deservedly this little sleeper has picked up numerous awards on the festival circuit and now gets a run at SIFF Cinema.
I spoke briefly with the director at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival, where Alamar picked up the New Director’s prize.
How did such a simple but improbable film come about?
Pedro González-Rubio: I come from a documentary background, so the way to approach this adventure in fiction was to maintain the same spirit as my previous films. So the first thing I did was to go on location, to this place, and I told myself: “I’m going to shoot a film about a man who is going to die here, he’s going to spend his last days in this place, in order to return to an origin, to this ancestral type of life. Then I met Jorge. I’m a very intuitive filmmaker, and I’m driven by my first intuition. And my first sense with Jorge was that he was a character, but this interfered with my original idea having someone who will die here in this remote place. So I started digging into Jorge’s personal life, talking with him, spending time with him where he works—he works as a eco-tourist guide. And I learned about his family, his five year-old son, Natan, born to an Italian mother. And I began to think that this story of a man who will die here in Banco Chinchorro, well, he is this five year old man. These are his last days with his father, but it is a journey of initiation towards life. So that’s the only thing that changed, really: instead of talking about death, we are talking about life, a beginning.
Of course it’s not fully apparent that this is a fiction…
Neither is it a documentary. What is it? It’s a film. It’s an experience. You sit in a movie theatre, or in front of your television, and for 73 minutes you have an experience very much related to any film experience. I don’t feel comfortable with the categorization, of this duality. The way I approach filmmaking, which is with this intuitive sense, it doesn’t matter in the end how you should view the result. Naturally I had a backbone to the story, point A to point B, the construction of particular scenes, for instance the building of the window, and the hanging of the flag, but then so much of the fictional aspect comes during the shooting. For example Blanquita, the bird: what to do when this character arrives? Her arrival and eventual departure has a direct bearing on the film, her trajectory becomes part of my character’s lives. That aspect has a metaphoric relation to Natan’s destiny, of imminent departure, as well as for his own sense of discovery, of building a relation to other living species. He realizes he has to be gentle with the bird, and he cares about her. He thinks the bird is a pet, but has to realize that she is wild. Wildlife does not belong to us, it goes where it will, at its own pace, in its own time. When she slips away, Natan discovers that he must let go. And also let go of his father…
And similarly the parents must let go of him as well…
Did you let your characters’ physical presence, their work, dictate how you literally shot? It’s an incredibly visceral film. By limiting what you show, it grounds the film in very elemental activity, such as fishing, eating, singing, sleeping. Was this your intuition as well, to keep it on a minor scale?
Exactly. And that’s why I didn’t plan any dialogue in advance. Had I written dialogue it would have been more, I don’t know, plastic. Instead I wanted to focus on basic rhythms: eating, sleeping, working. And with that, I will be threading little by little the story. Through the fishing the bond between father and son becomes stronger and stronger. And what can a five year-old learn in the reef? Scuba diving, snorkeling. And it happened, which was important. At the beginning to have a scene of him learning, and at the end to show him going it alone.
There’s a song that plays early in the film, and the words are “There’s no hurry to get there.” The fishing is about luck and patience, to a degree. As is filmmaking. You take your time, allow things to happen in their own time as well.
It is true.
And this is also such a powerful story about a father and a son. I couldn’t help but feel like there was some instructional aspect to the film on how to parent a child. The scene of Jorge early on, with his hand spread on Natan’s chest, who is clearly seasick. That’s something that’s hard to make up. Theirs is a very tender but disciplined relationship.
I think this relationship is totally idyllic, possibly utopian. It is uncommonly intimate on account of time and place. This sense of discipline in Jorge is interesting too, because he was in the military. There’s something about him physically that is so precise. But he is now so far away from that, and he’s very spiritual as well. I wanted to bring these elements together, to create a kind of energetic charge.
Since my first documentary (Toro Negro) was a film about a lack of love—the characters are born of frustration—here I wanted to do something completely different. So I wanted to focus on some of the love the father and son share, on the utopian aspect. I was aware of the risk of not representing them as emotionally rich, with all the conflicts. But any parent I think, when faced with spending what could be their last moments with their child for an indefinite time, in such a place, would want to make the most of it, to share their love. So we let that happen.
You mentioned a spiritual side to Jorge. The film itself, being so elemental, intimates something spiritual. Would you say it’s religious? The flag they hang on the palafitte, what does it represent?
It is a peace flag. And it really is the home of Matraca, the elder, who became family to Natan and Jorge on the set but also to all of us during the shoot. Jorge is native, which is evident physically, but we did not want to represent him in any exotic way. He just is beautiful in his way.
[Gonzalez-Rubio runs off to a screening of his film….]
Alamar plays SIFF Cinema December 3-9. Visit the SIFF Cinema website for more details.