If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Graffiti, politics, and tracking shots.
Oscar Ruiz Navia is a cinephile who never attended a proper film school. Part of a new generation of Colombian filmmakers, he developed his interest in film on his own, and in 2006 founded Contravía (“Another Way,” in English), a production company to develop art house films in his country, where there is not a huge film industry. His first feature, Crab Trap (2010), won several awards, including the FIPRESCI prize at the Berlin Film Festival that year.
The director, who spends his time teaching and in movie clubs in Colombia, took four years to make Los Hongos, which will play at the New Directors/New Films series at MoMA/Lincoln Center on March 28 and 29.
The film is a scrappy comedy-drama about graffiti taggers in Santiago de Cali, Colombia. Ruiz Navia affectionately portrays the lives of its two leads, Ras (Jovan Alexis Marquinez), who lives with his religious mother, and Calvin (Calvin Buenaventura), who cares for his ailing grandmother. Mostly plotless, Los Hongos unfolds like a series of encounters for its characters and the audience. The film depicts the teens biking and skateboarding through the city, meeting up with a tagging crew to create a mural on a popular bridge, and becoming activists rebelling against authority and social injustice.
Inspired by Arab Spring videos, and the collective power of street art, Ras and Calvin soon realize the ramifications of their art and their actions as they have a series of run-ins with the police.
Navia spoke with me via Skype about his dynamic film, whose title means “the mushrooms,” or “fungi.”
Gary M. Kramer What inspired you to tell this story? How did you come to make this film after the success of Crab Trap?
Oscar Ruiz Navia In 2010, when I finished my first film, I wanted to make something in the city, because Crab Trap was made in the jungle. At the same time, my grandma died of cancer, so I had to go back to Cali, my hometown, as I was living in Bogotá. After I had this experience of her death, I wanted to make a film about life. I wondered: How can I create a film that promotes this idea in a different way? I got the idea to create this relationship between these two guys who are from different neighborhoods and backgrounds but who share the same interest. I wanted to cast the film with real people and work with these actors. I wanted to mix my ideas with their stories, which is what I did in my first film, which also used non-professional actors. I could use not only their faces and bodies, but also their stories to create a world that blended my ideas with theirs. With this project, I had to do deep research with the graffiti artist and the teenagers. I did many interviews to get ideas for the script. That’s why the process took four years.
GMK There is a very homemade sensibility to Los Hongos. Can you discuss your stylistic approach to the film?
ORN In my research, I discovered that all these teenagers who do graffiti are very influenced by the Internet. They mix different things from different contexts. I heard an interview with one artist who said they were interested in the Arab Spring, so I thought I could bring a problem from the Arab world into my hometown. This feeling and the intention of promoting these political ideas, even from other countries, have a lot similarity with things in Colombia.
GMK Like the “Free Africa” sentiments in the concert near the end of the film…
ORN Yes! We have African roots and indigenous roots—mixed races—in Colombia and South America. There is the term Mestizaje. It’s a globalized world where everyone is connected, but the problem is that globalization is bad—it’s always the big countries that have the possibility to go everywhere. If you Google something, you’ll get 1,000 pages from the United States, and none from Mali, South Africa, or Taiwan. It’s a nice idea this globalization, but if you are in Colombia, you don’t know anything about Africa or Taiwan. The main power takes all the windows of communication. We have a lot of windows to communicate now, but what we see are the same few ideas. The same is true with cinema. We have the possibility to make a lot of films, but everyone wants to make the same movie. The same is true with the Internet: what we communicate is not always very diverse. Even though we are in the small town of Cali we are connected through the Internet. The characters in Los Hongos want to promote political ideas through their painting. Some folks may find that to be naïve, but when you are a teenager, you have these dreams. I was trying to be faithful to people of that age, who have a lot of hope. Some people of that age want to kill themselves, but many have hope, and think they can change the world. It was natural to the content I was talking about. All the political speeches belong to the characters. They are not my speeches. Some of the characters liked to talk about politics, and it is part of their normal life, so my position was to let them be how they were in the film.
GMK It works well. There is a real authenticity, as well as a quotidian aspect to the film; it’s almost documentary-like in how you present the characters and their actions. What can you say about how you captured the characters and their actions?
ORN I usually research them a lot. I spend time with the actors before the shoot. I prepare over several weeks—hanging out with them, getting to know their houses, their family. I want to know a lot of things about my characters in real life—as much as I can. It gives me the ability to understand how they would react to situations while shooting. I have ideas for my scenes, and some are experiments. I will tell Ras and Cal, “Today you are going to meet the guys in the university who have more experience than you, and you are going to present your idea of painting to them.” I asked them, “How are you going to do this?” If they say something good, I say “Keep it. Remember it.” If they say something that will take us down another path, I control them a bit. But I try to create the relationships we see in the film in advance, before shooting. For example, I got the actors together for a few weeks for dinner, so they can talk about their real lives, and feel and develop their relationship. Ras and Calvin had to become friends in real life for the film to work. I met them separately, and they didn’t know one another. I had them make a painting together. We went out together for beers. And that’s why it feels organic. I create that sensation. It’s one way to work with actors, versus rehearing the dialogue, which I don’t care much about. It’s more about capturing the relationship we are trying to show in the film. Sometimes I have some lines I need them to say, but they can say them any way they want to.
GMK Can you discuss the visuals in the film? I loved the composition, from the tracking shots of Ras on his skateboard, to the long sequence of the bridge mural being painted, to the still image of the two teens sitting in a tree. Each of these moments conveyed real emotion.
ORN I have different ideas depending on the situation of each scene. The general idea was that, when they were moving, the camera had to follow them. I’ve always liked tracking shots. I did that in my first film and my short film Solecito (2013). I like to put the camera in a place that makes the spectator feel the movement as a character. I like it when I see a movie and the camera makes me feel that. I knew from the beginning that when the characters were going to move, I was going to follow them. When the film was more relaxed, or calm, the camera should be on the tripod. That shot in the tree is a moment that is really a fantasy; it’s not realistic at all. It may be in their minds, or maybe it is real, and the rest of the film is a dream or a nightmare. This change of rhythm was deliberate, because all these problems develop, but the characters don’t lose their hope or their love. Maybe some people don’t like this—but a lot of films have shock value and show the violence of the world. But to me, what is important is to show this hope and love. It is very real and relevant. In these times, people have forgotten that simple kind love, or nature, or origin. It’s spiritual. I shot the tree scene calmly, as the situation deserved. I moved between control and no control, and decided how to mix these apparently opposite things.
GMK There is also the digital element of the film. In addition to changing camera techniques, you used multiple formats.
ORN Yes, I wanted to mix formats. I shot Los Hongos in 35mm, but I wanted to include Skype, YouTube, and digital footage. It was a formal decision about how to change the point of view from classic images to digital and show new ways of creating images. Now everyone has a camera all the time. I wanted to think in the terms of our time.
GMK Los Hongos eschews a formal narrative structure. Instead of a plot with dramatic tension, there are episodes, stories within stories, such as Calvin’s grandmother’s lovely narrative about her family. What prompted you to craft the film in this way?
ORN It was something I knew I would do from the beginning. I wanted to mix my ideas with things that would happen during the experience of making the film. My first directorial notes proposed that. The reason being that I wanted to include things in my life with things not part of my life. A lot of my ideas were based on memories. The grandmother is based in my real grandmother. The actress who plays her is my great aunt, the sister of my grandmother. The props were from my house. It’s a very personal film. The father is played by my father and he’s playing a character very close to him. It’s not easy to work like this though, because it is difficult to separate your own feelings from the work. But it was something I really needed to make.
GMK There is a strong political message in the film, especially when Ras and Calvin champion the Arab Spring slogan, “We will never be silent again.” Can you talk about how youth from different backgrounds become politicized in the same way?
ORN Ras and Cal are supposed to be from different backgrounds, but they meet at a public university. That happens in life—you can meet people from different backgrounds and be friends of people who are part of another social class. I studied at a public university, and my family is middle-class. They have political ideas, so I grew up with these political ideas, not to be conservative. It’s part of my education. I never joined a movement, but in my work, I try to talk about this sensibility towards social injustice. I have my own ideologies. I’m not an activist, but if you see my films, there is always something about the conflict in Colombia. I believe cinema has a power to raise questions for the audience and I like to talk about Colombia. It’s a complex country full of problems. I’ve experienced it all my life. I didn’t want to create a “pamphlet,” but I wanted to use art and expression to create questions for the audience. I didn’t want to give them answers, or try to save the world, but rather, create the feeling of young people who want to change something.
GMK What can you say about the collective power of street art, which is a key theme in the film?
ORN In Cali, where we shot the film, the street art community is not as big as it is in Bogotá. But it’s growing. There are different groups that work together. They aren’t all political, but it is a way to be political and escape from all the problems in their lives. There are also artists who like to paint about the political conflict in Colombia, or stage protests, so we have different kinds of artists. In the film, I mixed different graffiti artists, and I chose the ones I had a good feeling about. We had to create a new crew, because they don’t work together in real life. In the end, they designed something together—“Underwater Revolt”—specifically for the film. In real life, they have their own projects, but it’s difficult for the artists to make them. They don’t have a lot of sponsors, and they have to deal with the police. I hope this film helps people understand that this practice is an art expression and not criminal. Maybe we can contribute to that?
GMK What can you say about the role of authority in the film? The police seem reasonable, then relentless. Are the painters entirely blameless?
ORN The police have no right to arrive and beat people. They first ask them to leave, but the artists don’t leave, so the police become more aggressive. We have problems with corruption in Colombia, and this is true around the world too. I wanted to describe this corrupt ambiance that surrounds the artists. My intention was more focused on trying to avoid authority and corruption, but I can’t develop an idea about authority: it exists. There is this power, and graffiti artists try to avoid the authorities. They don’t consider what they are doing to be bad, so they don’t feel they have to leave. They provoke the authority. It’s part of their world, and how they are.
GMK In addition to the graffiti, there are songs, photography, artwork, and other “art” forms.
ORN I wanted to mix my memories with things I’ve seen in my research process. I knew it was about more than graffiti. It was about being a certain age, and having secondary characters—Cal’s grandmother, father, and girlfriend—who would become important. It was the actors’ charisma and talents that made them become stronger in the film. My idea was to be very faithful with each world I represented—from Cal’s grandmother to Ras’s mother. I was very sensitive to the characters and gave them a lot of trust and love. I really love them, and have a deep relationship with them. It’s very consciously affectionate. It was my decision and intention to do this.
GMK There is a strong ritualistic component to your film. The bathing scene with Ras’s mother trying to deliver him from evil, is contrasted to the teens dancing, which is a ritual of sorts, a rite-of-initiation to sex. Can you discuss this and the juxtaposition of these elements?
ORN I was trying to show there are different situations in the world that coexist in parallel planes. On the same night you see this woman [Ras’s mother] trying to clean this boy of evil, and you see these rich girls dancing and having fun. This happens. Both are important, one is not more important. Each person has their own priorities. The girls can have a party on a Wednesday and get drunk, but in the opposite, working-class neighborhood, Ras’s mother is very worried about her son not being home for a long time because he’s out skating. I respect the rituals of both people. I didn’t want to judge them, but to show that this exists. I’m not saying Ras’s mother is doing something stupid, or the girls are, or vice versa. Rituals are something I respect. I’m very spiritual myself. I have a lot of rituals. When I see other people’s rituals, I want to learn more. All the characters in the film are mushrooms—they are growing up in a rotten context. They are in bad situations and they resist and fight and survive and struggle to find their own freedom, in their own way. I focus on the struggle of everyone to survive. Everyone is looking for happiness and freedom, and this feeling of “home” was important for me to communicate to the audience. What I admire about the teenagers is this hope that they have. If you grow up, you can keep that, and keep fighting. Life is a long battle—you need to keep the energy all the time. It’s like what Van Gogh writes in Letters to Theo, in a letter to his brother: You always have to be a man of nature, like Robinson Crusoe. You can never “turn” the fire off. You have to keep it inside you. The mission in life is finding a way to keep the fire burning. If you have a problem, keep your fire on.
GMK What can you say about filming the teenage sex scene?
ORN (laughter) Sex is not always good in real life. In the movies, they always have this scene to give the audience a climax. I wanted to show a failure. Cal’s not too successful with the girl. It happens. I wanted to suggest that even if he’s not successful with love, he has to paint and keep going. It’s what I just said about the fire. Also, I didn’t want to judge the girl. Boys always fuck the girl in movies and they are a big success and all macho. This time the girl was the winner. It was nice for me to show that. How often have you seen guys finish and the girl doesn’t. How often does the girl say, “You’ll have to finish yourself?” It’s unusual. She is looking for love. She kisses another girl later in the film and this is real: some girls like both girls and guys. The world is changing. You can experiment. She likes him, but she likes the other woman too. I’ve seen that in my own life.
GMK If art is political, how do you express it most effectively?
ORN Again, I don’t want to change the world with this film. I just want to show that there are many people who want to change the world through art. I think that anything can be effective—words or images. One is not more effective. It depends on how you make it. You need to be very creative and emotional. You have to surprise. Banksy makes art that is very impressive. If you say political things, you have to be very smart. Art should raise questions, not give answers. Everyone has to find the answers themselves.
Los Hongos will be shown as part of the New Directors/New Films Festival hosted by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.