|Latin America: Features||
The Other Side - Gustavo Hernandez
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"Father, please forgive me! I cannot control my desires! Strangling... raping... and sucking brains out!" yells the character of Ajileo Barajas (Jesus "Chuy" Perez) in Gustavo Hernandez's short film The Mexican Dream. Suddenly embarrassed, Ajileo rushes to reassure the two producers and one director at his American Dream Productions casting audition.
Director Milos Forman once said that "Everyone is from two countries: their own and the United States." It's no surprise that people the world over identify with the American Dream, seeing as the global pop culture machine reproduces images of an ideal America
"It happens all the time; I lose myself in the character," says Ajileo. The judges just want to get rid of the crazy little Mexican.
"Wow! That was really something. Thanks," says one of the producers. Ajileo: "Are you sure? I can do it again if you want." Producer: "No, thank you. That'll be just fine."
The Mexican Dream's poster says it all: "They say the grass is always greener on the other side... Well, it ain't."
Hernandez, a native caraqueño, made the short for his American Film Institute (AFI) master's thesis. Inspired by the rich drama of illegal immigration to the US and his own strangeness in a foreign land, Hernandez crafted a story about a determined Mexican immigrant who seeks not only a better life, but fame and fortune as a Hollywood star. While Ajileo struggles in a hostile environment, he pushes on thanks to his reserves of hope and humor.
Making the film
The Mexican Dream is a deformed American Dream. It's what happens when the American Dream crosses its borders, and when the US population isn't the only focus, but the whole world
"The Mexican Dream had 13 locations, 14 characters and a length of 28 minutes," said Hernandez. "Many professors and colleagues told us we would have to cut a lot, or risk the short falling apart. We were very stubborn and decided not to cut anything. We believed in the story's strength, and that's how we undertook the project."
The results speak for themselves. The Mexican Dream has played in over 20 film festivals, and earned over a dozen awards, including the AFI's Franklin J. Schaffner Fellowship Award for Best Director and Best Live Action Short Film at the San Francisco World Film Festival.
On top of the festival circuit success, Hernandez recently inked a two--year distribution deal with HBO. In all, Hernandez says the short's profits have been "substantial." As if the financial and critical success weren't enough, The Mexican Dream's long and eventful ride has one more stop to make: it is getting screened in Cannes.
(Un)making the myth
In The Mexican Dream, Hernandez contrasts Ajileo's dreams of life on the other side with the reality of being an immigrant. This opposition finds expression throughout, but perhaps most eloquently in an extended sequence early in the film.
The image shifts to a top/bottom split screen, the top showing Hollywood Boulevard and the bottom Ajileo and the coyote still in Mexico.
On top, a disappointed Ajileo scans the famous names on the Hollywood Stars. At bottom, Ajileo asks the coyote about getting acting roles in Hollywood to which the latter responds: "The only role you are going to play is... The Super Washing Man! You are gonna be washing cars, washing dishes, washing gringos' asses!"
According to Hernandez, the American Dream of a better life combines with the American Dream of being a star.
"Though it's a single dream, it comes in a package. The Mexican Dream not only means living in the United States, but being famous as well, making a lot of money and having your name printed on a star on Hollywood Boulevard."
At some point, the American Dream ceases to limit itself to the achievement of a middle class lifestyle, but comes to encompass the dream of being a star. People refuse to settle for the dreams they see on screen in favor of the much bigger dreams lived by the stars off screen. Why be a representation when you can be an actor? Then you live the sum of representations and your star life on top of it.
My struggle is on par with that between David and Goliath," he said. If things worked out okay for Ajileo, might not the same hold true for his earnest and passionate creator?
For Hernandez, The Mexican Dream is what happens when you export the American Dream.
"The Mexican Dream is a deformed American Dream. It's what happens when the American Dream crosses its borders, and when the US population isn't the only focus, but the whole world. The United States is perhaps the only country that has an official dream like this. The Mexican Dream is a satire that topples the myth that achieving a better life is easier in the US"
Making the grade
"Hollywood provides entertainment dictated by repetitive marketing formulas. It's increasingly hard to tell stories that sensitize us, stories that show us the other side, because of the studios' self-complacency in guaranteeing box office hits," said Hernandez.
Hernandez's dream, then, is to do the opposite of Hollywood.
"My dream -- as a good idealist -- is to tell truths that change the world, and if not the world, at least a few people," he said.
As his calling card, The Mexican Dream tells us a lot about what kinds of movies Hernandez would like to make. His short has humor and charm, a good story and a social critique to boot. But you'll never confuse The Mexican Dream with art cinema. Hernandez wants to make movies that matter, but that appeal to large numbers of people. His vision doesn't run counter to Hollywood's, but instead speaks to the best things in it.
"We can create the same level of entertainment with the same box office success, but with more interesting stories, characters and situations than the same old stereotypes," said Hernandez.
If Ajileo's struggle seems overwhelming, it owes itself to his creator's identification with him. "My identification with Ajileo is visceral because I'm just another immigrant in this country," said Hernandez.
Just as Ajileo takes on the American Dream, Hernandez takes on Hollywood. "My struggle is on par with that between David and Goliath," he said. If things worked out okay for Ajileo, might not the same hold true for his earnest and passionate creator?"
The key, according to Hernandez, lies in creating fresh characters that audiences can identify with. Rather than shun entertainment value, he embraces it, but adds that making audiences reflect on his work makes it more worthwhile. As entertainment and food for thought, The Mexican Dream makes a mighty good start.
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