One of the standout releases of 2020, Fernando Frías de la Parra’s I’m No Longer Here (Ya No Estoy Aqui) tells the story of Ulises (Juan Daniel García), a teenager deeply in love with cumbia music and immersed in Monterrey, Mexico’s “Cholombiano” subculture, who has to flee to the United States and try to make a life for himself in New York. A beautiful, sad, mesmerizing look at longing, belonging, memory, and growing up, the film (released by Netflix and currently on the shortlist for the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film category) marks a breakthrough for its director: It’s the kind of aesthetically delicate film that immediately makes you take notice of the person who made it.
The somber, moving picture also represents a surprising demonstration of his range as a filmmaker: Just the year prior, Frías helmed the entire first season of HBO’s hilarious, surreal comedy Los Espookys, which, at least on its surface, wouldn’t seem to have anything in common with a film like I’m No Longer Here. We recently spoke about both the film and the series, how he developed his visual style, and his cinematic influences.
How familiar were you initially with the cumbia movement depicted in the film?
Not that familiar. I’d seen a couple of pictures and some articles. But I was very familiar with essential parts of that movement — like the music itself, or the Cholo influence on the border, or the Cholo connection to the Chicano, the Chicano connection to the zoot suit, and the zoot suit connection to the civil-rights movement. The cumbia, I was familiar with the violence in the news during those years. And I was familiar with how classist Monterrey is, how it is a land of contrasts.
Back in the ’90s, there was something called the Avanzada Regia. The regios — meaning people from Monterrey — were ahead of everyone in terms of music. So there were different fusions of cumbia from Monterrey. Popular Mexican-rock musicians started to invite cumbia musicians; there were collaborations with hip-hop and other genres. All those things I was familiar with, but I never went deep into understanding the meaning of the movement, or the mythology in the gang world of Monterrey. As I started to research it, I saw this culture disappearing in front of me. That is what the film is about. All public life in Monterrey was affected by the strategy that the government took against the one cartel and fighting the other. So, we had to re-create everything by the time we made the film. The kids in the film, they didn’t live in that movement. They were so young that they don’t remember it.
You exhibit a lot of control over your frame. I’m No Longer Here is visually striking, but it never feels artificial, or forced. Your compositions develop organically. Did you know initially how you were going to film it, or did that style emerge over the course of working on it?
I knew even before I started to write. I come from a very visual-first approach to things. And it was the same with Los Espookys. I’ve done things before that came very close to feeling like documentary — handheld and a lot of guerrilla-style — because I was embracing the resources I had at that point in my life, embracing the accidents and finding an aesthetic around all that. Here I knew there was going to be more control. It was a very delicate subject matter. I wanted to stay away from the handheld accents that could tell or show the audiences how to feel. The same with having a score, or other dramatic accents that are external to the characters. The characters moving in the space that you’re framing are not aware of how you’re moving the camera. They are living that world. These actors are embodying those characters, so I wanted to keep it very pure.
But that was just an abstract instinct that later made sense with the subject matter. For me, it was very important to show the space as a character and have the characters relate to that space. This is a movie about identity, about resistance, about belonging, so you have, in many frames, characters depicted in a delicate position within vast environments. This is a character in exile, so that affected the structure, too. He’s longing for home, and we are looking at Monterrey through the lens of his emotions, of his memory. And memories are more emotion than information. We remember things that affect or impact us positively or negatively.
As I’m No Longer Here proceeds, Ulises’s memories seem more and more distant. The sound is going out, the camera is more distant from the character. It’s almost like you’re finding a visual way to represent the way memory works and the way time passes.
The essence of the film is that the slowed-down cumbias play as a parallel to this idea of not having opportunities or not having social upward mobility as a society in Mexico, where lack of opportunity is just the norm, generation after generation, and youth is punished and doesn’t last long. By slowing down a cumbia that originally would be 5 minutes long and making it 12 or 15 minutes, it’s as if you want to hold on to that moment. Because you know that there is nothing better coming after that. You want to just keep dancing. You just want to hold on to that golden moment.
The first third of the film, you need to let go of not being able to understand everything because I think that’s how life works. We react first with the impact of the emotion and then we can process it. Sometimes what happens with films is that they feed you a lot of plot information and you end up having to sacrifice portraying life, in a way. For example, the scene of the drive-by [shooting] — the only scene which is violent in that way — we don’t cut. The intention was just to show it as it could happen any moment, to just break a normal moment. I didn’t want to cut and have close-ups of blood spilling or anything. There’s another scene in which they are just dancing and dancing and more dancing and more … And we just hold on to that the same way that we are holding on to the moment of the drive-by. I think for me, as an audience member, I have more ways of connecting with who I am watching if it looks like my life experience.
I’m No Longer Here came out on Netflix, and obviously there weren’t going to be many theatrical screenings during a pandemic. But it also feels very much like a film designed for the big screen — with big vistas, careful use of wide-screen, small details on the edge of the frame, things like that. At the same time, it rewards multiple viewings, and on streaming it can potentially find a bigger audience. Obviously you had no idea where it would be shown while making it, but is it ever hard to reconcile the circumstances of the distribution with the aesthetic approach of the film?
Can you imagine if I took reception into consideration that much at the beginning? Of course, I grew up with the collective experience of cinema and the big screen and it was incredible. I would skip classes to go to the Cineteca Nacional in Mexico and I keep saying that was my school. There were already incredible films in the ’80s with effects, from Terminator to Back to the Future — whatever, you name it. But when I saw real life at that scale — [as in] more intimate films like those by [Abbas] Kiarostami, for example — it created a huge sense of identification for me. That was so intriguing for me in my formative years.
This idea that this film almost invites or wants to be on the big screen, but that we can have it accessible through something like Netflix, is something to be happy about. Because you can actually watch it three times. And honestly, I don’t even know who I would be or what would have happened in general if the pandemic hadn’t happened. That’s very difficult to articulate right now. But you have no idea how incredibly moved I am every day by the reactions of people, particularly in Mexico and Latin America, and the love they have shown for the film. How would we have achieved that if we were not in such an incredible place of outreach?
You mentioned your formative years. What were your early cinematic memories? Which films and filmmakers made you realize you wanted to do this?
When I was 6, my father showed me [Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 film] Fanny and Alexander. I was blown away. The fact that it could be something scary but it also had the uncle farting, and also this sense of family … for me, it felt like a world. I couldn’t finish the whole thing, but I remember vividly the feeling of being a human diluted by a huge family arriving, the celebration of Christmas, and the scale in which you see that world. That year, my grandfather died, around the time I saw it, so it was something that really impacted me profoundly.
My dad always watched a lot of films. Some things I loved, that came from him, and definitely made me want to make films. Z by Costa-Gavras — that came from him and I love it, love it, love it. Or Léolo, by Jean-Claude Lauzon, the French-Canadian film. But then I discovered things on my own that I really connected with, particularly Aki Kaurismäki’s Drifting Clouds. It’s a film that I can watch every day, really — not just the simplicity but the style, the humor, the emotional landscape. It was something cool but sweet and stylized and naïve and playful. And then Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day. During my university years, there were very influential things, like the work of Lukas Moodysson. I remember watching Fucking Amal. I think they named it here Show Me Love. And at some point I was like, “Wow, Julien Donkey-Boy by Harmony Korine is cool!”
We were trying to see as much as we could and getting VHS or DVDs and copying films. You go through phases, but some things just stick. My influences have a lot of different colors or textures.
You said that Los Espookys also had a visual-first approach. Can you tell me a little bit about how the style for that show developed?
Los Espookys is a project in which I put a lot of my heart and soul. We shot in Chile, but at some point that show was originally set to be about Mexico City, and it was called Mexico City: Only Good Things Happen. They needed someone who was from Mexico City, but could work [in the U.S.]. Through Sundance and other people, they found me. I met Fred [Armisen], we immediately connected and we talked about music. I hadn’t read the script or anything. Ya No Estoy Aquí shot in two different years: We shot in Monterrey and then we had to wait for a whole year because the actor [Juan Daniel García] couldn’t get his visa. (That ended up becoming an episode of Los Espookys.) I was shooting the part in Monterrey and all of a sudden they reach out: “Hey, read this and get on the phone.” And I was like, “I can’t!” “No, you should.” “I’m shooting. It’s very difficult.” So I read it … and I didn’t really understand it. It was complicated. I was not very familiar with Portlandia but it was very much like sketches, small sketches. Then we had a phone call and I told them something that I quote from Aki Kaurismäki: “For me, the comedy that is really funny is when characters do very, very ridiculous things in very, very, very serious ways.” They invited me to do the pilot, but it would have to be Chile for many reasons.
The reason that I’m mentioning all of this [is because] in Chile, at the production services company, being as far as it is from the U.S., it was not very common for people working to speak English. And of course, all of the departments needed a translation of the script. And who translated that script was me! That somehow put me inside the pages and inside a collaborative experience. This was the pilot. And then actually, the network suggested removing the things that made it even more like a vignette kind of thing. I was lucky they liked my work, because they asked me to do the first season completely.
The language was already defined by me. I thought, if they want to do this show in Mexico, then it’s for a reason, so we have to show the space. So, let’s have a language where the camera is just waiting for things to happen somehow: Observing that world, being in that world, and having all of the stunts happen in front of the camera. Not in the crafty Michel Gondry–esque way maybe, but in a way in which the characters could have done it themselves, because the original scripts were full of dialogue and super-clever and incredible jokes. I took it as a personal mission to show the place and to show how those characters were able to conquer or nail each of the stunts they were hired to do. I wanted that to happen in front of the camera. That ended up becoming the language of the show.
When I was in Monterrey reading, they had me talk to the casting director and they already had these people. I said, “Hey, can I just suggest things?” “Yes, please, and we’ll watch it.” The guy who plays Renaldo [on Los Espookys] is the casting director of my film and the acting coach of the film, my super-good friend Bernardo [Velasco]. He hadn’t acted in many years. I saw him and I was like, “You have to be Renaldo!”
Also, I made a playlist for [the actors] to listen to, with this kind of Latin American, gothic, dark synthesizer music that sometimes has tropical or playful elements to it. There’s this band called Los Bukis, a Mexican ballad kind of band from the ’80s, and the logo of Los Espookys comes from there, Los Bukis.