In this interview with Close-up Culture, director Joshua Gil talks about his second feature film, Sanctorum.
Set in a small village on the edge of the war between the military and the cartels, Sanctorum tells the story of a little boy who escapes to the forest to plead to the gods of nature for his disappeared mother’s safe return. The film will be part of the 2019 Venice International Film Critics Week.
Q: ‘Sanctorum’ will screen at this year’s Venice Film Festival. What does this festival mean to you?
A: Venice represents a great opportunity to screen our film for the first time internationally and for me in my career as a director.
In recent years Venice has received some of the best Mexican films and its directors, such as Roma, Nuestro Tiempo and La Forma del Agua by Carlos Cuarón, Carlos Reygadas and Guillermo del Toro (respectively), it is an honour this year to be invited as the only film in Mexico in programming. We hope that Sanctorum is liked by the public and critics.
Q: What brought you to this story of war, loss and spirituality?
A: The recent history of Mexico is very violent and unequal, I have always been a person close to the farmers and their work. Sanctorum tries to attract attention to the social inequality and violence that they face in their quest to live, where villains are represented by drug cartels and the Mexican government.
But that is not all, I also include in the story my version about the end of the world as we know it, this due to the feeling of hopelessness that humanity often causes me, I guess I prefer to propose a more “beautiful” ending before continuing to see how we destroy ourselves. That is why this event surprises the characters and puts them in the same situation regardless of who they are – soldiers, peasants, children, women. We are all the same.
Q: Can you tell us about the young boy at the heart of this film and what you explored in his journey?
A: His name is Erwin, he is six years old but when we filmed he was only four. I met him while doing the scouting of the film. His shyness and smile were important to me in the selection, there was some tenderness in his long silences. It took me a few months to win his trust, but once I did we achieved a great friendship and complicity.
He represents humanity, which is always in search of something, lost, but at the same time accompanied by nature and its own emotions and thoughts. Fragile but brave.
Q: Has spirituality played a role in your own life?
A: Without a doubt, one of the paths of this film is spirituality and a constant exploration of the emotions, thoughts and energy that moves us during life.
Sanctorum brings life and death together through its characters in a dreamlike and poetic way, trying to bring metaphysical approaches to everyday concepts such as love, war, motherhood and the end of everything, which at the same time is the start of something. The internal structure of the film is a spiral with the same beginning and end.
Q: The film is set small, tree-covered town. A type of place you might not expect to encounter war. What interested you about this setting and the contrast between nature and war?
A: In the case of Mexico, no territory is exempt from war, suffering, poverty. I think that Mexico is like a great Sanctuary – Sanctorum in Latin – where people can pray in any forest, desert, city, sea etc. Pray for your well-being and try to survive every day. But Mexico is also very beautiful. I love it infinitely, even if I suffer from seeing it like this under such violence and inequality.
I was responsible for doing location scouting. The day I met that forest I knew it was where I wanted to film, there is mystery, there is beauty, and a deep silence to make a movie. There is a link that attracts me between the beautiful and the dangerous, especially when talking about Mexico and my cinema.
Q: I saw a visually striking teaser for ‘Sanctorum’. What was your collaboration like with cinematographer Mateo Gúzman?
A: Mateo and I met in a phone call in 2017. I had seen a film that he had photographed named Land And Shade, which won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes. I saw many things that I liked about his work, I explained that I am also a cinematographer and admired his work, so we began a great friendship, until the day came when we could work together in the filming of Sanctorum.
Mateo is a photographer who perfectly understands the nature of natural light, drama and emotion that it can have. At the same time Mateo is a soldier of the cinema, with a great physical condition that was indispensable to support the filming we had.
Q: You’ve been mentored by Patricio Guzmán and the Quay brothers. What did you learn from those experiences?
A: I have always thought that my cinema is a hybrid between documentary cinema and fiction. Sanctorum is – in my opinion – the clearest of these hybrids, even mixing with other genres such as fantasy.
Patricio always told me: “he seeks to film the invisible” and so I try to do it always. Respecting the form of the documentary until it is necessary to break it in the name of proposing new stories or forms, with a small crew, looking for silence and observation to film the perfect scene.
In the case of the Quay brothers, the use of music was one of the things I remember most about their teachings and I try to apply it in my films. Their vision seems to me to be avant-garde giving each musical note a space and a personality. It is an element of cohesion that, at the same time, divides everything. I remember that in some of their sessions we discussed the scale of the music they had used and dealing with another note. An octave up and the emotion was completely different, so I learned to write with the music and the rest of the image. The music is as light and dark as you decide.
Q: What impact do you hope ‘Sanctorum’ has on audiences at Venice and elsewhere?
A: I hope that finishing the movie immediately makes you reflect. Let the spectator doubt, let there be long silences, sincere smiles, do not forget it in a long time, remember the sound of the child’s crying and the sound of the end of the world. The movie is thought and emotionally taken for that.
We are very happy to have a public as demanding as it is during the “Week of Criticism of Venice”, I am sure it could not be better for Sanctorum to be shown to the world for the first time.