As a producer, Alejandro Springall’s films have been nominated for an Oscar, and as a director he has won various awards, including Sundance’s Latin American Cinema Award and the Grand Prix de la Découverte for his 1999 “Santitos.”
Alejandro bought me some chamomile tea and told me about Judaism, Mexico, filmmaking, and “My Mexican Shivah”…
-Interview by Jon Robbins
How does your film fit into today’s Mexican cinema?
Right now there’s a lot of expectation from Mexican cinema and Mexican filmmakers. For the moment, I am exempt since my film is completely out of any Mexican canon. Still, it reflects the rainbow of themes there is right now in
“My Mexican Shivah” is Chekhovian comedy where there’s comedy and there’s drama. So it’s unique on this count alone. In fact, it is only the second Jewish-themed film from
Is there a consciousness of European history in
Absolutely. Most of the Ashkenazic immigration was Polish, Lithuanian, Russian; it’s people who came from the Shtetl, fleeing pogroms as early as the 19th century and into the 1920s and 30s, and then certainly after the war, but that was the smallest part.
We have a
At one point there was the idea of creating the Jewish state in Baja, and there were discussions with Mexican government. Also, the Jewish community in
There is hardly any overt anti-Semitism in
What drew you to make a film about Jews and a film about a Shivah?
My first motivation was to make a family drama that took place in one location. Now I've always had a fascination for Jewish rituals…
I have a Jewish grandmother, and though I didn’t grow up as a Jew, I have one foot in the community. Of course I’ve been to a lot of Shivot in my life, and it occurred to me that the Shivah was a great ritual that had an incredible dramatic engine. For me, the purpose of the ritual is to find some spiritual well-being, and to decontaminate from death in order to mourn and thus continue with life. People who sit Shivah, the Avelim start in one emotional state, and after the seven days there has been a radical change.
I said to myself it was time to make a film about the Jewish community; that
We were talking casually the other day, and you remarked how different “My Mexican Shivah” was from your previous film, “Santitos” [Traveling Saints]…
Santitos was the opposite of “My Mexican Shivah”: the conflict rages because there is no ritual; there is death, but there is no means for resolution. There is no process for the loss. With “My Mexican Shivah” it is the opposite: the conflict arises because of a strictly regimented ritual. Also, I used 82 sets for "Santitos"! "My Mexican Shivah"mostly takes place in one apartment.
But in both films we have extremely Mexican characters: “Santitos” is not a religious movie either; it’s about the devotion of a woman to her saints, not Catholicism per se; in
The country allows what I call the “religious Paella,” but there is always a way to find a logic, and a fundament;
And also we should recall that the first Jews who arrived in
When I spoke to Ilan Stavans, who wrote the short story on which “My Mexican Shivah” is based, he commented that Jews live freely in
I believe that Jews are. Before now no, but there wasn’t that interest in it either.
They’ve always been protagonists in the sense that great lawyers and doctors are, but you don’t become a protagonist until you become a politician and Jews have become politicians only in the last 12 years. That’s what I think. You see, there were only ever a few cases where being Jewish prohibited you from being X; One cannot say this was ever part of the Jewish experience in
Never has a Jewish temple been closed in
Although in society, I can tell you, there is some anti-Semitism but it is a religious anti-Semitism. It comes from the horrible Catholic tradition of the Theocide. There is of course the type of anti-Semitism you have where people say “Oh you’re half Jewish Alejandro, I like Jews. I fact some of my best friends are Jews!” They don’t even know how deep this problem runs. But in the press you don’t see comments like that because of the Jewish Central Committee, which really works to educate and to keep anti-Semitic discourse out of public discourse.
No, there is no big difference between Jews and Mexicans like there is in the
“My Mexican Shivah” has a unique visual style. The camera is an outsider, an “eavesdropper,” as you put it. Would you talk about this approach? How much of it is a product of the excellent acting?
I rehearsed a lot with the actors so they would really have the characters in their skin. The film wasn’t acted for takes. This allowed me to spend all set-time creating a naturalistic life for “Shivah” and to have the camera move with a lot more freedom. This way, I would catch bits and pieces of something that was actually happening.
Many times I used two cameras. I would run the entire scene knowing how I wanted to fragment it, so I would cover it in full takes. There was no performing for a certain cut. I just picked it all up with a very close camera and a POV, depending on what I thought of the scene. In some scenes we have to be very close to the character, we are their intimate, and then when it comes time to follow up on the general action, I switch to the POV.
Would you give an example of this technique?
For example, when Ari arrives with the kids: we are part of the turmoil, and it’s handheld and it’s brisk cutting. Like any Jewish family, everyone’s speaking at the same time. The camera is in the epicenter of the turmoil, so that the audience would be there and that would strengthen their emotional relationship with the whole Shivah.
The important thing was to be close or distant enough, and then to jump into the middle of the scene as that other characters, the camera. 85% of the movie takes place in one apartment so I had to avoid this feeling of claustrophobia, but also to go in and out in a certain way so the audience somehow feels it, too. To me it wasn’t very mise-en-scene but more documentary.
What about the music by the Klezmatics, wasn’t that mise-en-scene?
But the music helps with the atmosphere. It’s very specific, at certain transitions, in certain scenes, it keeps us attached to the Shivah and Jewishness.
Was that a concern?
I made this movie for Mexican audiences, non-Jewish audiences; I think non-Jews relate to the movie by way of these elements. I tried to communicate how this Shivah smells, sounds, and tastes by way of certain elements. How are the nights, how are the days, what do you eat? How’s the light? I had to give the most I could, I had to introduce Jewishness to the Mexican audience, and of course Jews who watch the movie pick up on many of these elements.
There is an aspect to the film that only Jews can understand, and there are a few elements that only very observant Jews notice and appreciate, like when the son and father recite the Kaddish. I had great council: two rabbi friends of mine helped me to plan the details.
We had one screening in
Like Ilan Stavans says, ‘Jews are like any other human being, just a little bit more.’ Jewish rituals are very intense, and I wanted to communicate this. Look how beautiful, how wise, how old this ritual is, but also how right it is, how efficient. Everybody should have Shivot in their families, with their own prayers, their own religions; those seven days, man, they’re magical!
Maybe my next movie will be about a Bris: people think it’s a horrible thing to do, but I always show off my own Bris photos—that was one thing my father would not negotiate on. It’s one of the happiest rituals of them all. Men especially get very happy.
Please check back in the next few days for Part II of my interview with Alejandro Springall.