Billy Gil graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and has worked for People and Daily Variety. He is the editor of the Pipeline section and IndieFile, both of which highlight independent films on DVD. For IndieFile tips and inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For inclusion on IndieFile's Feedroom channel, contact Renee Rosado (email@example.com). Follow IndieFile on Twitter, at Twitter.com/IndieFile.
‘Undertow’ Director Creates Sweeping Ghost Story13 Apr, 2011 By: Billy Gil
Javier Fuentes-León didn’t know how his first film as writer and director, Undertow (Contracorriente), would play to a Spanish audience when it opened. He didn’t expect the standing ovation he got — nor did he expect to win an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, or to be submitted as Peru’s official best foreign language Oscar submission.
Wolfe Video releases the film June 1 on DVD ($29.95) and Blu-ray Disc ($29.95). Special features include deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes and a Spanish-language PSA for GLAAD with Sofia Vergara (“Modern Family”).
“It was amazing to get that close [to an Oscar nomination] with my first film,” Fuentes-León said. “It's been a beautiful trip.”
Fuentes-León’s journey into filmmaking began in Peru, where he was born, raised and studied medicine for eight years. He knew he always wanted to do something related to the arts, but that wasn’t something that seemed like an option in Peru.
So he moved to Los Angeles and attended the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where he created the seedling for Undertow in the form of a short called “Mariela’s Kitchen,” based on a play he wrote, in which a fisherman walks into his home to find his wife and his lover, only his lover is a ghost and cannot be seen by his wife. In the play and short, the lover was a female prostitute; it was only later, when Fuentes-León himself came out as gay, that he changed the gender of the lover to male.
In Undertow, the same scene appears and serves as the lynchpin for the story — fisherman Miguel (Cristian Mercado) has been carrying on with painter Santiago (Manolo Cardona) in a small Peruvian fishing town in which Miguel is married to beautiful Mariela (Tatiana Astengo) and is a leader in his community, while Santiago is shunned for being openly gay. Mariela wakes up from a nap to find Miguel pallid as Santiago tells him he has been pulled under the sea by the undertow and has died, leaving him a ghost that only Miguel can see.
“My aim was first of all to make a personal movie,” he said. “It's not my autobiography, In my life there's nothing similar to the main characters, but I also had to struggle with the same dilemmas of coming out and the fear of losing the love of people around you.”
The film then follows as Miguel deals with the rumors that surround him and Santiago, with Mariela’s pregnancy and the birth of their son, and with his own sexual orientation and what it means to be a man. It’s a stunning film, both emotionally and visually, with wide, spectral shots of the Peruvian seaside and the sand blowing in the wind.
“Of course, I wanted a gay audience to be proud of it, to embrace it,” he said. “But at the same time, I didn't want it to just stay there. I wanted it to be seen by people like my parents and their friends, to have them enjoy the story, be moved by it and hopefully in the process of watching the movie, humanize this dilemma, people who have a sexual orientation that is different than the one most people have.”
Besides crossing over to a wider audience globally, Fuentes-León hoped it would play well in Latin America.
“Except for in cities like São Paulo and Buenos Aires, you don't go to other cities and see an open gay community — there's not a gay niche like there is in the U.S. or Europe,” he said. “A lot of gay people in Latin America are not out — they're afraid to be seen in a movie theater that evidently has a movie with a gay relationship.”
He said that while he finds the comparison “lazy and limiting,” he doesn’t mind if people call his film a Latin American Brokeback Mountain, in that it’s a love story between two men that live in a rural area.
“There's a function that all gay love stories are the same, so if a film told it already than another film is just the same,” he said. “But how many ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl’ stories do we see? But at least they are not comparing me to a terrible film.”
The Undertow discs include 24 minutes of deleted scenes with additional explanation and foreshadowing that Fuentes-León cut for pacing, including one scene that deals more in depth with the religious undertones of the film.
“When we wrote it and shot it, it seemed like an important scene, but when we edited it, it seemed like it stopped the story for the writer to talk about religion,” he said. “It worked as a scene but it seemed like it stopped the story.”
Fuentes-León said one man in a Colombian focus group summed up his film best: “I think it is a movie about being faithful to yourself. No matter how big the obstacles may be, being faithful to yourself is worth it.”