My thanks goes out to Yulene Olaizola, who has kindly agreed to this brief email interview. Her film Fogo (2012) is a fascinating portrait of a fading landscape and its people. Especially her accounts on how she met the people on the island reminds me of my own experience while making the short documentary A Bunch of Gentlemen (2011). A real pleasure. This interview is a nice insight into filmmaking again. Thank you, Yulene.
First of all, Fogo is set in Canada, quite far away from your native Mexico. How did you come across the subject matter?
I was looking for an escape from my daily life in Mexico city, some kind of an artistic adventure. A close friend sent me the info about the new Residency Program from the Fogo Island Arts Corporation. I had only one day to apply. I sent a brief description of my intentions on doing a film in the Island during the 3 moths period of the residency. It was a very vague idea. I just said that I was going to mix documentary and fiction, and that I was going to work with non professional actors, people from the Island.
Three or four months later I received news from the Fogo Island Arts Corporation. They accepted my application and invited me to go there and work. I decided to go there from September – December 2012.
Was it difficult to convince the people on the island to make this film? Have they actually seen the finished product?
It was not difficult to convince them. The complicated part was to find the characters, but once I did that, somehow I knew they would accept. The main character Norman Foley is retired, so I knew he would have the time to participate in the film. I met him at some point during my second month living in Fogo. I was already worried about what I was going to do with the film. I did not have any ideas yet. But I met Norman at a partridge berry festival and he offered me to show me the woods. The very next day we went for a walk trough the woods. Very quickly we became friends and I knew he could be the main character. Soon he introduced me to his friend Ron, and his dogs Patch and Thunder, and together we went to a cabin in the woods; that day I decided to do a film where Norm, Ron and the dogs would go to a cabin. That was the first idea that detonated the simple story of Fogo.
When I watched the film, it was difficult to establish whether your film is fiction or documentary. This appears to be quite common in films that are nowadays termed “Slow Cinema”. What exactly is your film, fact or fiction?
The storyline is fiction, the idea of the Island having to be abandoned is something that I came up with after doing some research on the History on Newfoundland. I read about the resettlement program. It was an organized approach to centralize the population into growth areas. The Government of Canada did three attempts of resettlement between 1954 and 975, which resulted in the abandonment of 300 communities and nearly 30,000 people were moved.
I wanted to portray Fogo Island as if a new resettlement program was happening, without explaining the cause, which can be because economical reasons or something more apocalyptic where the life in the Island is simply dying. In order to achieve this fiction idea, I had to shoot only in abandoned houses, avoiding to see the real Fogo, the modern houses or highways.
Even though the actors where pretending to be living in a fictional situation, all the dialogs where improvised and the shooting was made with a documentary approach, with only two members in the crew, Diego García, the cinematographer, and me. Most of the situations are fiction but based on true events that we experienced while living in the island. For example, going to the cabin with the dogs, drinking a rum bottle in a tiny cabin lit up only by a kerosene lamp, cutting a tree in the middle of the woods all alone, spending time contemplating nature with the only company of two dogs, etc.
Some seconds where made by documenting real situation, like Ron playing with the dogs in the grass, Norm and Ron trying to get warm near a bonfire while is snowing, etc.
I am not sure if the right term to call this movie or other similar approaches to cinema is the term slow. I rather consider this film as a minimalistic bet. Where you have minimum resources and you have to make the most of averting, so in order to work with non-professional actors, you use aspects of their real life to nourish the story and the atmosphere. Where the script is made of contributions from everyone, the actors, the cinematographer and the director.
There is this overwhelming aspect of solitude apparent in your film. Is this a topic that came with the subject matter, or did it, in fact, coincide with a general interest in the aspects of loneliness and man’s coping mechanisms?
When I am thinking about a new project, I never think about what subjects I would like to work with. In this case solitude, melancholy, abandonment, are ideas that came to me while living there. But these subjects or ideas are not what you would see if you travel to Fogo Island for a week. The people from Fogo is usually very warm, happy people, and the place is simply beautiful. But once I started talking deeply with the people, especially with the older ones, I discovered a huge nostalgic feeling about the past, when life in the island was different. People have a strong connection with their roots, a feeling of belonging to a place, that you don’t longer find in people who live in the city for example. Somehow I wanted to relate my film to all this ideas but with a fictional pretext.
What I found particularly strong was your exploration of people’s attachment to home. Even though this is set in Canada, is this something that resonates with yourself?
It not a subject matter that I have considered before in my films, or at least not consciously. When a film is born because of a place, I think that the first thing you want to do as a filmmaker is to document the beauties or interesting things about the place, in order to share that with other people. And that is exactly what I wanted to do, but beauty for me is not exactly the nice photo that you see in a truistic image.
I have already mentioned the term “Slow Cinema”. Your film is contemplative in many respects. It invites us to dwell in the surrounding as well as on the fate of the characters who decide to remain on the island. Do you think that your film is slow? Where does this contemplative aesthetic have its roots?
I enjoy the cinema that does not rush to take you to one place. I feel as a spectator, that I need time to transport my self from the cinema theater to the reality presented in a movie. In Hollywood style, in 4 or 5 shots of only a few second each, suddenly you are in the antique Pompei, or in another planet. They gave you the basic information about these universes, but they never give you the time to explore them or to feel them.
What I try to do is to give time to enjoy and discover all those details that can be found after living there for almost 4 months. I always try to do that in my films, and in each occasion, the concept of time is different. In this case, the time that passes in a slow way, or the contemplative mood, is related to how the people live there, always in a close relationship with nature, with weather. And of course time in places like Fogo seems to occur slower that in a city for a example.
I found your film highly photographic. Do you have a background in photography? What is your background in general?
Before I decided to study cinema I did a workshop in photography during high school. I thought I wanted to be a cinematographer, but when I entered film school I realized I wanted to direct. I do like to contribute as much as I can in all the different aspects of making a film, cinematography, sound, editing, production, etc. That is something you have to do if you don´t have the resources. I have produced all my films myself. In this case it was the first time I worked with Diego, the cinematographer. We went to film school together. It was a very close and special collaboration.
You are one of several emerging directors from Mexico, who astonish with their strong works. Do you think there is a certain “New Wave” of Mexican Cinema? I’m speaking in particular of Pereda, Gonzales-Rubio, Vargas as slow-film directors.
It is always difficult to define what is a new wave, or who is part of it. I think there are many new filmmakers from the past 10 years that have won recognition at film festivals, but that are still almost unknown for the Mexican audiences. There are other filmmakers with whom I feel close to, because we are friends, and because we have similar approaches to making films with low budgets and with no commercial interests. Between this filmmakers are: The Axolote group: Rubén Imaz, Matias Meyer and Michel Lipkes. Also the couple Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman. Nicolas Pereda. Pedro González. Julio Hernández Cordón, among others.
How are your films distributed?
My films have been only distributed in commercial cinemas in Mexico, with the effort of myself and small Mexican distribution companies like Interior 13 an Circo. Only my first film Shakespeare and Victor Hugo´s Intimacies has been released in TV in iberoamerica, thanks to a deal with Ibermedia program.
I saw that you are already working on a new project. What is this about and when will it be released?
It is once again a very low budget film. Is about 3 Spanish conquistadors who climbed up the iconic Mexican volcano The Popocatépetl, in an expedition in 1519. Even though it is a historic film, the resources we had were minimum, three guys wearing costumes climbing a mountain. It is a co direction with Ruben Imaz and will be released some time next year.