Director Rodrigo Reyes’ film “Purgatorio” straddles the Mexican-American border as deftly as he straddles the two cultures that comprise his identity.
Reyes, one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces,” will present his film in Tacoma on Friday. Shot over four weeks, the film is a documentary but uses a narrative style to create a visceral rather than cerebral portrait of the border.
Reyes, 30, was born in Mexico City and moved to Merced in California’s Central Valley when he was 6. He moved back and forth between the two countries as a “middle-class kid” through college. Today, the self-taught filmmaker works as a court interpreter in Merced.
Question: What was your goal in making “Purgatorio”?
Answer: Just crafting a portrait of this region that was emotional, not factual. Like how a good poem will give you the feel of a battle. The film never tells you what city you’re in, what time period it is. I’m not preaching or giving out stats.
Q: Do we here in Washington need to be concerned with the issues of the Mexican-American border?
A: Some people think problems are just specific to the border lands. But the truth is, we are part of one ecosystem as a society. It’s one big jungle. There are a lot of interconnections. Sure, the violence that happens on the border doesn’t spill over to Washington state, but a lot of the strawberries and blueberries get picked because somebody risked crossing that border.
Q: Did you find that the realities of the border differ from popular portrayals in the media?
A: Truth is like a mirage in the desert. Things are really bizarre down there. For example, when we were shooting in Ciudad Juarez, we thought we were going to see some action, like war journalists. It is a war zone down there. But nothing happened. There were no murders. It showed how ridiculous it is to go anywhere expecting life to meet your standards. The film is like that. It helps viewers go through that process: getting rid of what you expect to happen and being surprised by this surreal place that is the border. You can never pin it down. It’s as complicated as human beings are.
Q: Were you physically at risk during the shoot?
A: No, most of the moments of risk were of our own making. We didn’t have time to create enemies. It was just me being dumb like going to an isolated part of the border and getting the car stuck. You want to go out there and be macho but we were humbled by the people helping us. If you mess up, they’re the ones that are going to have to live with that. We get to go home.
Q: What were the people like who you met there?
A: On the American side, most of the characters are alone. They have loner roles. They are either hunting migrants on their own or helping migrants on their own. It’s people fighting an idea. Yeah, we want (migrant workers) out, but at the same time you move the worker out and the price of food goes up. These lines play games with us. It’s like a mind trick.
Q: How does your job as a court interpreter inform your movie making?
A: I’m literally getting paid to be in between cultures. Many of the people I see in court, I saw people like them at the border because there’s a lot of crime down there, a lot of pain. Making this movie became an extension of being an interpreter. I wanted to go below the skin and go between both places so you’re not comfortable either in America or Mexico.
A: Do you ever feel the need to tell people you meet socially or on the job that you crossed the border legally?
Q: No, but I get the “You speak English well” comment. I think they think it’s a compliment. It really doesn’t bother me. I’ve never wondered if they’re trying to determine if I’m legal or not. We do have a class system in America. Immigration is a big part of it. Immigrants are just expected to come over and do the work. And we celebrate the ones that work the hardest and don’t complain. I think it’s easy for people to relate to me because I’m like a poster child for immigration.
Q: Does it work the opposite way? Do you get pressure for being “too American” from the Latino community?
A: There is kind of a trap of becoming a filmmaker just for Latinos. Or in Mexico: “Why did you leave?” We don’t like people who don’t fit the mold. You have to make a conscious effort to break out of it.
Q: It’s nearly impossible to find anyone in America or Mexico that doesn’t have a connection to each other’s countries in some way through immigration, marriage, friendship, the workplace or just eating at a Mexican restaurant. And yet much of the rhetoric seems to be “us” versus “them.” What do you think the future holds for these countries forever joined at the hip?
A: It’s still in progress. Not all Mexicans are the same. For a lot of Americans, the only Mexicans they meet are the blue-collar worker: the janitor, the cook. They don’t meet the other Mexicans: the educated, the ones involved in crime, the super-rich. We hear all this talk about the Hispanic vote. But we’re not united by what it means to be Mexican. You are going to see more well-rounded people in the mainstream in politics or making films. It’s going to be an interesting process of blending. Mexican culture is ingrained in the U.S., but also Mexico wouldn’t be what it is today if it hadn’t been next to America its whole life.