Director Helps Put Peru on the Film Map
By RAPHAEL MINDER
Published: September 28, 2010
MADRID — Javier Fuentes-León’s debut feature movie, “Undertow,” deals with an uneasy and secret homosexual relationship in a fishing community in his native country, Peru.
Javier Fuentes-León, the Peruvian movie director in Madrid in September.
As a result, the movie has earned acclaim as a new take on “Brokeback Mountain,” Ang Lee’s depiction of homosexuality in the American West, but steeped instead in Latin American magic realism.
Mr. Fuentes-León, however, is irritated rather than flattered by such a comparison, which he finds “lazy” on the part of movie critics, as well as prejudiced.
“Some people seem to want to see all homosexual stories as the same, but it doesn’t seem that every movie about a boy and a girl struggling in a forbidden relationship gets called a remake of ‘Romeo and Juliet,”’ Mr. Fuentes-León, writer-director, said in an interview during a visit to Madrid.
“Undertow” was released in Peru in late August. It was released in Spain on Sept. 17, when it also had its U.S. roll-out, in San Francisco, and has opened in some parts of Europe. The movie is reaching a wider audience since winning several prizes, including the audience award at the Sundance festival this year.
Besides Mr. Fuentes-León, a handful of other directors have also put Peru on the moviemaking map. Claudia Llosa’s “Milk of Sorrow” won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2009, while “October,” which was directed by Daniel and Diego Vega, picked up a prize at the Cannes festival this year.
“It’s great to see that Peruvian cinema is making some splash,” Mr. Fuentes-León said. “But I do find it funny to be part of a ‘new generation’ when in fact I’m not exactly that young anymore.”
Mr. Fuentes-León, 42, took a long, tortuous road toward making his first movie. After high school, he opted to study medicine in Lima, spending eight years learning how to use a scalpel rather than a camera.
“I always knew that cinema was the world in which I wanted to live,” he said. “But I wasn’t in a society and at a time in which you could just do whatever you wanted to do. Nobody in my family belonged to the art world and it was simply not an acceptable career option.”
With his medical degree completed, Mr. Fuentes-León headed for Los Angeles, where he still lives, to study movie making. During one of his classes, he was asked to write a scene that ended up being the starting point for “Undertow” — with one significant difference.
In the movie, the central character Miguel is presented as a pillar of his community: keen to kick a ball or share a beer with his fellow fishermen, loved by his family and soon to be a father, pious and willing to read in church or lead the funeral service of a beloved cousin. But he is enmeshed in a love triangle with a visiting painter, Santiago, who has been rejected by villagers as an effeminate outsider.
In the original scene, the macho Miguel was trying to maintain parallel relationships with his pregnant wife and a village prostitute. That version was first turned into a school play, but by the time Mr. Fuentes-León started working on a full-fledged script, around 2001, he had also come to terms with his own homosexuality.
“This isn’t my autobiography, but I did clearly struggle to accept that I was gay in my 20s,” he said. “In some ways, in fact, it was a bit like realizing that I definitely could never become a doctor.”
Swapping a whore for a gay painter also made sense because “in a conservative and religious society like the one that I wanted to portray, you might even get plenty of understanding from the other guys if you get caught with a whore,” he said.
As an examination of sexual identity in a conservative community, “Undertow” also required the right location. Mr. Fuentes-León’s choice, Cabo Blanco, is a fishing village in northern Peru that grew popular among Americans in the 1950s as a destination for marlin fishing.
But Cabo Blanco then fell back into back into neglect during a period of political tensions between Peru and the United States, ensuring that it never developed into a modern tourist resort.
“I absolutely wanted to make a movie in my home country,” Mr. Fuentes-León said, with Cabo Blanco providing both stunning scenery and the perfect blend of geographic isolation and claustrophobia: a remote village wedged between ocean and cliffs.
But the movie is not a study of Peruvian society. In fact, one of its central themes — the locals believe the dead should be returned to the ocean — is a pure invention by the director.
“Cabo Blanco has a cemetery, but I wanted to make a fable and this story could just as well take place in Ireland, Italy or South Africa,” Mr. Fuentes-León said.
Furthermore, the nonlocal dimension is amplified because Miguel and Santiago are played by foreign actors, from Bolivia and Colombia, respectively. The only Cabo Blanco resident who got a speaking part was the town mayor, in a secondary role as the owner of a bar.
Mr. Fuentes-León, meanwhile, is working on three scripts that should mark a clean break with the themes in “Undertow,” including a thriller set in Los Angeles and a rock musical. A fervent musician, he also composed and played part of the “Undertow” soundtrack.
One of the most striking features of “Undertow” is that despite a strong element of magic realism surrounding the topic of death, the story ends up feeling strangely natural. Miguel is initially presented as a hard-core macho who has already christened his unborn child Miguelito, overriding his wife’s tame protest and without even waiting for confirmation of the baby’s sex. But as Miguel’s feelings for Santiago come to the surface and gain intensity, so too does the credibility of the relationship.
The encounters between Miguel and Santiago are beautifully shot, with their lovemaking scene taking place in the shadows of a cave, against the backdrop of a sandy beach and the ocean. In contrast, when Miguel gets back together with his wife, the scene is one of forceful sex under a harsh light and on a worn mattress.
Asked about that contrast, Mr. Fuentes-León had no qualms acknowledging that he wanted to challenge “this assumption that sex between men is only rough and painful.” He added, “There’s also this ridiculous idea, particularly common in Latin America, that the one who is penetrating is actually not gay.”
Mr. Fuentes-León recognized that he, too, had shown some prejudice during the shooting, by initially telling Cabo Blanco residents that his movie was about a man who had “an unpopular friend.” He added: “We had been warned that we might have a problem if the villagers were told that we had come to make a gay movie, but they of course soon found out and we still ended up feeling very welcomed.”