August 20, 2019

Jewish Directors Part of Hola Mexico Film Festival

Scene from “Leona”

Opening on May 31 and running through June 8 in Los Angeles, the 11th annual Hola Mexico Film Festival will have a prominent Jewish presence, and not simply because festival founder Samuel Douek is Jewish. 

Three of the films are by Mexican Jewish writer-directors. Douek told the Journal that the number of Mexican Jewish filmmakers at this year’s Hola is higher than usual but hardly a jaw-dropper. In a country with a population of around 60,000 Jews, there are bound to be artists whose work garners attention, he said.  

“Jewish people always gravitate toward story-making and I guess it’s no different in Mexico,” he said. “We chose 20 of the most amazing films that came out of Mexico and we really think that the general market and, of course, the Jewish audience will really enjoy the films at our festival.”

The three films by Jewish directors are of different genres. “Si Yo Fuera Tú” (“If I Were You”) is Alejandro Lubezki’s slight twist on a body-swapping comedy. Sergio Umansky’s “Ocho de Cada Diez” (“Eight Out of Ten”) takes a searing look at revenge and justice in present-day Mexico City, and the coming-of-age drama “Leona” (“Lioness”) was partially developed out of director Isaac Cherem’s desire to see attitudes change about women in Mexico. 

The Journal spoke to the three filmmakers, each of whom will accompany his film to Los Angeles.   

Alejandro Lubezki, “Si Yo Fuera Tú”

For his first full-length feature film, Lubezki rewrote a script that had made the rounds among several previous writers. He brought in his partner, Amaranta Arguelles, to co-write and the producers liked Lubezki’s version so much that they also asked him to direct the film. 

“It was a remake of a Brazilian movie, and I found a way to rewrite it to make it Mexican without it being folkloric because I don’t like to think of Mexico as only folkloric,” Lubezki said. “We don’t have a lot of body-exchanging comedies here, and I thought this was an opportunity to talk about important things like life and death, love and family while making a comedy.”

In the film, husband and wife Antonio and Claudia switch bodies, a situation that forces the two to reconsider elements of their lives and communicate on a different level. “Si Yo Fuera Tú” premiered in Mexico in October 2018. 

Lubezki is the grandson of Eastern European Jews. Characterizing himself as more culturally observant than religious, he calls his parents “free thinkers who are also outsiders in the Jewish community.” The filmmaker’s brother is three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. 

“Coming to Hola Mexico is important because maybe this festival is going to help me find someone who wants to distribute the movie in the United States,” Lubezki said. “That would be amazing.” 

“Si Yo Fuera Tú” plays at 6:30 p.m. June 6 at the Montalban Theater, 1615 Vine St., Hollywood. 

Sergio Umansky, “Ocho de Cada Diez”

During the opening credits of “Ocho de Cada Diez,” viewers are informed that 24,000 people were murdered each year under former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration. At that rate, six people would be killed during the time it takes to watch this film. The title, “Eight out of Ten,” refers to the ratio of murders that are never investigated in Mexico. 

In the film, Aurelio, a poor textile worker, is determined to bring his son’s killers to justice by any means possible. Citlali, a prostitute who is a victim of domestic abuse, helps him.  

Umansky interviewed hundreds of drug dealers, sex workers, abuse victims and even a couple of killers for the film. He found the concept of a father seeking justice for his murdered son intriguing. 

“But I had seen that movie before,” Umansky said. “I thought this movie was so dark and it needs some light. So I began writing a love story. When I read the statistic about 8 out of 10 murders, I changed the title and decided that this would be a love story within a very dark context. And that’s when the idea of putting 10 murders in the movie came about.”

In addition to the murders that are part of the fictionalized story, Umansky obtained security camera footage — not always legally — of actual homicides in Mexico City. 

“Ocho de Cada Diez” is slated for release in Mexico around Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16. “With our new president [Andrés Manuel López Obrador] now, the violence is getting worse,” Umansky said. “So we are tapping into a need to shout for justice from our represented officials.”

Umansky acknowledges his heritage but does not characterize himself as a religious person and says he hasn’t been to a synagogue in 30 years. Being Jewish informs his life “every second of every day. We experience it in the details of kissing the mezuzah or saying, ‘Laila tov’ (good night) before we go to bed,” he said. “My next project is called ‘Fault Lines’ and I’m working more and more with the Jewish part to make sure we don’t lose the little things that make this family different.” 

“Ocho de Cada Diez” plays at 4 p.m. June 1 and 7 p.m. June 2 at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live, 1000 Olympic Blvd. 

Isaac Cherem, “Leona” 

Mexican Jews traditionally do not leave their parents’ homes until they are married, said Cherem, who chafed at that idea when, still unwed, he was preparing to leave the nest. He ended up moving in with a friend who was dating a non-Jewish girl. 

Using his own experience as the seed of his story, Cherem made the protagonist female and sought out actress Naian González Norvind. They ended up writing “Leona” together. 

Norvind plays a mural painter named Ariela who is ostracized from her family and her community when she begins dating Ivan, who is not of her faith. 

In addition to his own experience, Cherem saw the fallout over one sister marrying a European Jew and another leaving the country to live with an Italian boyfriend in Australia. “I just left the neighborhood and made my own life,” Cherem said. “But I think for women, it’s even harder. They have more pressure on them.” 

When the film screened in Jewish neighborhoods in Mexico, Cherem recalled, “Some people said, ‘My family’s not like that!’ ”

“I’m not trying to make a film about all of the Mexican Jews,” Cherem said. “When I started writing the screenplay, I was angry at what was going on. I wanted to scream. I wanted to say, ‘This is not OK and we need to change this.’ Now I don’t think that. I still feel they need feminism, and they need a lot of things, but who am I to say? I can only make a film.”

“Leona” will play at 7:30 p.m. June 3 and 9:30 p.m. June 4 at Regal L.A. Live.