The thriller “Heli” won Official Selection at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and Amat Escalante won for Best Director. The film opens in New York City this coming Friday, June 13, 2014. Escalante gave an exclusive interview on June 5 to Examiner Dorri Olds.
“Heli” is about a hard-working Mexican family that falls prey to ruthless drug gang members and corrupt officials. The story focuses on Heli (Armando Espitia) and his younger sister Estela (Andrea Vergara) who live in their father’s house with Heli’s wife (Linda Gonzalez) and their baby.
Disaster strikes when Estela innocently falls in love with an older boy named Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios). He’s a police cadet who wants to marry Estela and take her far, far away from this poor and violent region in Mexico. Beto says he has a plan to get enough money for the two to marry and begin their life together. But, without Estela’s knowledge, Beto’s plan includes stealing two large packages of cocaine and hiding it on the roof of Estela’s home.
The violence is graphic but no more so than thousands of other movies. What makes the movie so disturbing is how much the writer-director Escalante was able to make you care for this family. Your heart grieves for them as you witness their horrors. It is a powerful and moving film that rightfully earned the critical acclaim and numerous awards it has received.
Dorri Olds: How long did it take you to make the film?
Amat Escalante: I worked on “Heli” for five years.
What inspired you to write the story?
All of my movies came to me in a very organic way. The subjects came into my head and it was natural for me to write about these things.
Is Heli’s family typical of the poor families in Mexico?
They have more than some but also less than some. I didn't want them to be too poor or too rich, just neutral. Nobody is happy in this type of world but it's a working family that has enough to live somewhat comfortably. There are two people in the household working so they have water and electricity.
How did the casting process go?
Casting Heli was the hardest and took a long time. I didn't choose the actor until one week before shooting the movie. Armando first came to the audition with long hair and wearing glasses. It was when he cut his hair that I could imagine him as Heli. Then before we started filming, Armando went to live in the town for a week and stayed living there another week during the shooting. He was pale at first so we had to get him in the sun. [Laughs] I like that he brought something delicate and fragile to the role, which worked very well I think.
The young actress Andrea Vergara who played Estela had very expressive eyes.
Yes, and I liked that she could cry with tears right away whenever I asked her to. She’s smart and never complained and very professional even though she'd never acted before. None of the cast had acting experience. I used the local people but you would never know they weren’t actors. They all were very good, very believable.
I wanted to show how vulnerable young people are and it’s the young people who are the only hope that exists. If a country takes care of the young people, the future will be better. Children grow up way too quickly in Mexico. It is a contradictory country with two opposite sides — people with money, including the richest man in world, and some of the poorest people in the world. This contrast is very violent in itself. This movie is not about every Mexican. Believe me, I love Mexico. It is a beautiful place. But the violence now is happening in so many areas and it worries me. I’m frustrated so I made a movie about it.
Very young girls are having babies and their babies grow up with a mother who is only 13-years-old. It is very difficult for them to stay on track during life. The baby that we used in the movie was six-months-old so the mother had to be on set and she was only 14. Mexico is conservative and religious so babies end up having babies.
Do you mean abortion is illegal due to religious reasons?
Yes, and there is no sex education in the schools. There is no guidance and society abandons these kids. It is very commonplace for young adults to see cut-off heads and dead people hanging. These grotesque images are everywhere, in the newspapers, on TV, out in the public where they live. The young are not having the moral guidance they should have. The government is not taking care of its people.
“Heli” opens on June 13, 2014 at Cinema Village. Rated R. 105 min. Spanish with English subtitles.