We Are What We Are depicts to what extent people will go to survive in the decaying, violent slums of Mexico. Director Jorge Michel Grau knows of this struggle first hand, having grown up in the nation’s dark recesses: streets filled with gang violence, drug wars, and inconceivable poverty. His film acts as a visceral metaphor for these grim realities, complete with cannibalism family, a decaying City backdrop, and graphic violence and mutilation. Here, “home” — that is, the family, the tribe, and its rituals — can save you from being swallowed up completely by the Hell surrounding you.
Heather Buckley: How does your film reflect the state of Mexico?
Jorge Michel Grau: What I want to convey is the sense that in current Mexican society, everyone pretty much is left to their own devices to survive because of the social disintegration and the violence, the rampant, brutal violence that is ongoing now as a result of the drug war. But also, in this process of trying to survive, people are creating small tribes, which help them with their process of survival as they create systems of protection for individuals. And so through the metaphor of the tribes, I would also develop the theme of cannibalism in the way that man’s only predator is another human being. In the film, the stronger tribe preys upon the weaker one. So some of the weaker tribes in society, such as the homeless children, prostitutes and gays, these would be the natural prey for the stronger tribes, in this case, this family.
HB: When did you decide that this metaphor would be best expressed using the horror genre?
JMG: First of all, I love horror films, I grew up watching horror films of the 1970’s but, I wanted to make a story about the disintegration of the family and social disintegration as well, and that is pretty much what is developed in the first part of the film. Then there is a sudden turn towards horror, because I thought it would be a context and framework that would work well. And partly because it would reflect this sense of society surrounded by violence. In Mexico, if I am inside my house, I am protected, but the moment I walk out, I’m open to attacks and aggression all around me.
HB: What is your attraction to the genre?
JMG: What I like about horror is its elasticity, its capacity for expansion, so you could include elements from other genres within a horror film, for instance, humor, and in my case I also wanted to add drama. So that is actually what I really like about it, the possibilities of horror, that you can open it up and insert other styles and feelings.
HB: Do you want to continue to make a horror films or do you want to make things outside the genre?
JMG: I don’t know. What I’m really more drawn to is the cinema of violence. Along the lines of Sam Peckinpah, or Miike, where it’s really more the violence rather than the frightening—that’s what draws me to the genre, that with the aesthetic of gore, you can explore the genre of violence.
HB: What is your attraction to violence as an artistic expression?
JMG: I grew up in the neighborhood where the film takes place, and it was a very violent neighborhood, and I lived with that violence all throughout my childhood and teenage years, and I’ve gotten used to that, those levels of violence, I feel very comfortable relating to the people. It’s a type of community where the violence is sort of endemic, or internalized. Parents beat their kids, brothers beat each other up, so violence sort of comes natural to the way that I look at the world, and I make films.
We Are What We Are – Trailer
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HB: What art, film or literature or even music influenced you as an artist/director?
JMG: Sonic Youth is my favorite band. In certain ways I feel frustrated that I was never a musician. Other than that, I like the writing of J.G. Ballard, the South African novelist [J.M.] Coetzee, Chuck Palahniuk. I like the cinema that really hits you in the gut, the really dark, desolate type of films, Also, in Mexico, we have something called ‘Dark Literature’, I don’t know if you would say “gothic”?
HB: What is it about Mexico’s culture that is breeds this sort of cinema?
JMG: I think that we’re a society that, for instance, is suffering the weight of Catholicism. Catholicism really applies pressure and squashes everything. And squashing things, as if you had a cake, and put your hand down and applied pressure to it, it spills to the side. It’s something similar to that happening with religion. Also, because there are so many limitations, people are living in situations with very limited means, so there is a sense of violence. It’s not so much violence, an aggressive or offensive violence, people are more defending their territory, they’re defending their tribes. But you’re living in an environment with tall grey buildings and wires hanging all over the place, you’re stepping on dog shit everywhere, it just creates this situation of aggression and violence around you. Those feelings hanging around, they permeate the work.
HB: How is it to raise money and shoot in Mexico considering that’s the environment?
JMG: There are many problems, it’s almost impossible to make a movie. The only way you can make films in Mexico is with the government, if you take government funds. So, very established filmmakers who started their careers in the seventies, those directors are still making films today, still applying to those same funds that filmmakers like myself, all of us who are new, up and coming filmmakers, have to get in line for the same limited amount of funds, and so it’s a very difficult process. So, one way out is to make very low budget films. When you have a low budget, you can maybe get some money from friends, acquaintances, or other people to get help finishing the film. In the case of my film, it was made through a prize from my film school, without that prize I couldn’t have made this movie.
HB: How dangerous was it to shoot in the areas where you shot your film?
JMG: If you recall the scene with the homeless children, the attempted kidnapping with the homeless children underneath the viaduct, we were actually shooting the film, and further out we had a group of kids who were barring access to the location, and they were assaulted with guns while we were shooting the scene. In the actual neighborhood where I grew up, where we shot the film, since my grandmother still lives there and my mother still lives there and my sisters are still living there, where I happen to know just about everybody, we didn’t really have any major problems. The problems came up in the surrounding areas.
HB: What was “the ritual” that they keep referencing in the film?
JMG: I wanted that to be on purpose, the sort of sense of lack of information that you have, in part because in Mexico, there are many people who are Catholic, or claim to be Catholic, but they don’t really know very much about the nature of the rituals that they perform, the background of the rituals, they just say they’re Catholic, and that’s it. So, in the same vein, I wanted the characters in my film to feel that they are performing, or have to perform a ritual, but they really don’t have a lot of information as to what they actually have to do, or anything behind it. So, first, I actually wrote out, in the screenplay, a very detailed scene with the ritual, explaining what all the details meant, but I never told the actors anything about it. I wanted them to sort of be lost when it came time for them to actually perform this ritual.
We Are What We Are (review here) is available now on IFC Midnight’s video on demand platform, available to over 50 million homes in all major markets.
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