Hollywood Must Portray Point of View of Others
Alejandro González Iñárritu is the Oscar-nominated director of Babel. His other films include Amores Perros and 21 Grams. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in February.
NPQ | What accounts for this fantastic eruption of cinematic talent from the Spanish-speaking world—yourself, Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar (Volver)? How is it the same, how is it different, from the Latin boom in literature 30 years ago with Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa?
Alejandro González Iñárritu | There is a very fortunate consonance, a beautiful coincidence, among the three of us from Mexico—del Toro, Cuarón and myself. We are Mexican filmmakers from the middle class living outside our country, getting another perspective, all releasing films at the same time that emerge from that experience. And, on top of that, we are friends. That's a huge thing. We share projects, we help each other, we criticize each other.
This is all similar to what happened in the so-called Latin American literature boom. The challenge for us now is not just to be a "boom" but to maintain these strengths for the next 30 years.
NPQ | One Hollywood producer said to me that the critical success of foreign films in this year's Hollywood awards season—Babel, Stephen Frears' The Queen, Volver—is because filmmakers like yourself have broken out of the cycle of remakes Hollywood was stuck in by telling new stories about our changing world—something United States filmmakers once excelled at. Do you see this?
González Iñárritu | Yes. Babel is about the point of view of others. It literally includes points of views as experienced from the other side. It is not about a hero. It is not about only one country. It is a prism that allows us to see the same reality from different angles. While Babel is a foreign-language film in some countries, in others it is a local film. Today it is no longer about cultural or language barriers. It's emotion and humanity that make the connection in our global community. Films like Babel can transcend the one-point-of-view formula that has reigned for so long.
At the same time, it is true that the sensibility of Babel is that of someone from a Third World country. This film could not have been conceived or executed, and certainly would have been completely different, if it was made, say, in Switzerland or the US. The film really talks about all of us on the other side of what the average American citizen has been able to experience from the TV screen without having crossed the border into the world out there. It seeks to reveal that other truth.
NPQ | When Ayaan Hirsi Ali (the Somali native whose filmmaking partner, Theo van Gogh, was murdered because of their critical films about women in Islam) saw your film, she found its power precisely as you say—in the Third World faces of the Moroccans, not, with all due respect, in the star power of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.
González Iñárritu | This was the point, yes. The most important thing for me was not to tell a story from the point of view of tourists in some country. That's a very common thing, to portray another culture in the light of our eyes, of our reality. That's a caricature, a very Occidental way to portray an African or a Mexican or a Japanese. I tried very hard to see what was important to them, to sacrifice and subordinate my point of view in order to see the drama of their world through their eyes. That is a huge exercise I went through.
At the same time, the key was to give all the characters dignity. Two words guided the making of Babel for me: dignity and compassion. These things are normally forgotten in the making of a lot of films. Normally there is no dignity because the poor and dispossessed in a place like Morocco are portrayed as mere victims or the Japanese are portrayed as cartoon figures with no humanity.
NPQ | Khan Lee, an indie filmmaker in Taiwan and the brother of Ang Lee—another foreign filmmaker with recent success like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain—offered this take on cinema: "Hollywood is a dinosaur that has destroyed and occupied our minds for too long. The world is full of new stories waiting to be told, and new audiences waiting to hear them, even if we use Hollywood's template to do so."
Is that a common perspective if you are looking into Hollywood from out there in the world?
González Iñárritu | I think bad movies are made around the world, not just in Hollywood. There are as many bad art films in the whole world as there are bad commercial films. Ninety percent of art or independent films are s---. The amount of good films with integrity has been falling in every country. You see that in the French industry, the Italian industry, the Mexican industry. It is a global crisis of the medium.
The audience, in my point of view, has been spoiled by so many years of being exposed to these formulaic and, I will say, plot-driven stories. They are so poisoned by that, when somebody breaks the mold, it is very hard for audiences to take it in at first. Then, because of the audience reticence, it is difficult to get the distribution companies to distribute those films. So it goes around and around.
Little by little, though—and I hope this has been true with my own work, including Amores Perros and 21 Grams—little grains are wearing away at conditioned ways. It still is very early in the game. Film is the youngest art of all. We have only 100 years behind us. Compared to literature and painting, we are like little babies. We have a lot to learn and to discover.