A trio of Mexican directors known as the Three Amigos has made their mark on Hollywood, dominating the Academy Awards best picture contest in recent years with films that have little connection to their homeland. But a new generation of Mexican filmmakers is finding international success with films produced in their own country.
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Alonso Ruizpalacios, Amat Escalante and Michel Franco are part of a new wave of Mexican directors 40 or younger who— unlike Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro G. Inarritu — have focused on working in their native country despite the financial difficulties and safety issues.
Del Toro won best director and best picture earlier this month for his fantasy romance “The Shape of Water.” It was the fourth time in five years that a Mexican director took home the honor. He was preceded by Cuaron’s 2014 space thriller “Gravity” and Inarritu’s back-to-back wins for “Birdman” and “The Revenant” in 2015 and 2016.
All four projects featured major Hollywood stars, but not distinctly Mexican stories. The works of Ruizpalacios, Escalante and Franco are different, and have won awards at prestige-building film festivals abroad.
Ruizpalacios won the best screenplay award last month at the Berlin International Film Festival for “Museo,” starring Gael Garcia Bernal, about a 1985 theft at Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology.
“My main interest is to keep making films here in Mexico. Is something that interests me a lot,” Ruizpalacios said to The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Mexico, he said, “is a fertile land and is far from being over-exploited.”
Ruizpalacios, who in 2014 won best movie and best first film for “Gueros” at Mexico’s equivalent of the Oscars, the Ariel Awards, noted that Mexico’s tax incentives have made it easier for his generation to make movies.
The best-known incentive is the Eficine 189 created in 2006 — the year Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” was released — that allows taxpayers to contribute a percentage of their income taxes to a production company that wishes to make a Mexican film.
Each project can receive up to 20 million Mexican Pesos ($1 million) or up to 80% of the total cost of the to-be-produced film, and up to 2 million Mexican pesos ($107,000) for distribution.
“Everything used to be a lot more concentrated in a handful people. They were the ones with the support and now is much more democratized,” Ruizpalacios said. “I believe that I, and all my generation, got this very clearly: We could not have made the movies we have made and the ones we want to make without those (tax) changes.”
Escalante, whose credits include “Sangre” and “Los Bastardos” (“The Bastards”,) has said not only that he is interested in making more films in Mexico, but that he wants to work specifically in the central state of Guanajuato, host to the International Cervantino Festival of Arts but also known for its religious conservatism.
“There I live, there I know, there I feel safe filming,” he told the AP in 2016. “It has everything: there’s the field, the city, very interesting people.”
His films have garnered attention at international festivals, including a Cannes Film Festival award for best director for his 2013 film “Heli,“which explored the impact of violence in Mexico, portrayed through a relationship between a policeman and a young girl.
Franco, who won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes last year, said that he plans to keep working in his native country. He won for “Las Hijas de Abril” (“April’s Daughter”), about a pregnant teen and the conflicts that arise with her estranged mother.
“I am convinced there is no place where I can make better films than Mexico,” Franco told the AP in 2017. “I love my country very much. It also hurts a lot to see so many people not living to the fullest in Mexico for many reasons, because of all the conflicts we have, but that is also something that can be portrayed in cinema.”
Male directors aren’t the only ones finding success. “Tempestad,” a documentary by Tatiana Huezo, 46, was Mexico’s submission to the Oscars this year. It tells the story of a woman in a jail controlled by organized crime and a mother searching for her missing daughter. While it was not nominated for an Academy Award, its accolades included three Ariels and a UNESCO award for best documentary at the Sofia International Film Festival, in Bulgaria.
Shooting in Mexico can be complicated. Besides a lack of resources that still affects most productions, there are also the security issues. Huezo, for instance, said that she needed special advice to film in dangerous areas in the north of the country. And Cuaron, who returned last year to make his first film in Spanish since 2001 “Y Tu Mamá También” (“And Your Mother Too”,) saw a few members of his crew injured after an altercation with city officials in the capital’s downtown.
And yet Mexico is among the 20 countries with the biggest film production of the world, according to the Mexican Film Institute IMCINE. Film production in Mexico increased to record levels for its third consecutive year in 2017, resulting in 176 feature films. State-supported productions accounted for 55 percent of the films, receiving overall 800 million pesos (43 million dollars).
As for the triumph of Mexican directors at the Oscars, when Del Toro accepted the best director award for “The Shape of Water” — his lavish romance between a mute woman and a sea creature that was also named best picture — he dedicated it to young filmmakers around the world.
“Growing up in Mexico, I thought this could never happen,” the Guadalajara-born artist said. “It happens.”
Some followers have questioned how “Mexican” is the success of the Three Amigos, who have been working abroad for more than two decades. But when Del Toro won the Golden Globe last January and a reporter asked him to explain his extraordinary ability to observe the dark side of human nature and mix it with fantasy and horror without leaving joy and love aside, his answer was simple: “I am Mexican.”