By Outsider Pictures
Winner of multiple awards, including the Queer Lion from the 75th Annual Venice Film Festival, JOSÉ is a gripping, layered and beautifully honest story about one working class young man’s struggle to find himself. Made in the neorealist filmmaking tradition, the film is a nuanced and vivid look at being gay in Central America. It opens on January 31, 2020 at New York City’s Quad Cinema and expands to other North American cities starting in February.
José (magnetic newcomer Enrique Salanic) lives with his mother (Ana Cecilia Mota) in Guatemala City, where they survive on her selling sandwiches at bus stops and with him working at a local restaurant. It is a poor and sometimes dangerous country where, dominated by conservative Catholic and Evangelical Christian religion, living one’s life as an openly gay man is hard for José to imagine. His mother has never had a husband, and as her youngest and favorite child, though at the edge of manhood at 19-years old, she is determined to hold on to him. Reserved and private, José fills his free moments playing with his phone and random sex with other men arranged on street corners and dating apps. When he meets attractive and gentle Luis (Manolo Herrera), a migrant from the rural Caribbean coast, they pursue an unexpected relationship with more emotion than José has ever felt. He is thrust into new passion and pain, and self-reflection, that push him to rethink his life even as he is reluctant to take a leap of faith.
DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT – LI CHENG
I specifically made JOSÉ as an art-house style film, in Spanish, grounded in the social, political and cultural context of Guatemala, where the story is set and it was shot. I paired my “realist” visual language and aesthetics with an all Guatemalan cast and crew. I chose to fund the project from my own pocket in order to work quickly (film funds take time, and “friends” that I don’t have) and to maintain artistic control. With a story that really grabbed peoples’ hearts and minds we easily attracted world-class artists willing to work within our budget. I feel an affinity especially with the Italian neorealists and Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien, since, like them, I want to work in the heat of the crisis and participate in the moments of change. JOSÉ is about family, work, struggle, love and loss – and finally it’s about one man’s search for “self” and the search for Guatemala’s future.
JOSÉ is really a page ripped from today’s news headlines. The crises of young people, single mothers and dark-skinned peoples in Guatemala frames the film’s story. Guatemala has become an increasingly violent and dangerous place, where more than half the people live in poverty. Indeed most of the children separated from their parents and locked in dog-like cages in Texas (shocking people around the world) are Guatemalan, not Mexican, as is often claimed.
I’m intrigued by Latino culture: the structure of the family and especially the close relationships between mothers and sons, brothers, and cousins. With a society centered on traditional morality, it is all surprisingly similar to Asia and familiar to me having grown up in China. Yet there is closeness, passion and romance that somehow co-exist with extreme machismo, violence, corruption and religious fervor.
One thing that I learned firsthand in Latin America is that the region’s films and television are misleading since they usually feature white, middle and upper class people, with stories set in idyllic places. And yet the absolute majority of people are urbanized, poor, and dark-skinned (in Guatemala about 40% are pure Mayan and another 40% mestizo or mixed). I wanted to address this imbalance, and I wanted to speak especially about the honest emotions and struggles and hopes and dreams of young working-class people in Latin American cities, for they are the majority and the future.
We performed extensive onsite research and hundreds of interviews in 12 Latin American countries before deciding to set our story in Guatemala. It is the largest country in Central America (a region long overlooked internationally), the population is growing fast, and half are under the age of 19, hence the character of José in the film is 19-years old. It is a country of extreme climates and dramatic landscapes and diversity, a land of volcanoes and the constant threat of earthquakes. It is also rife with political corruption and inequality, and at the same time it’s a very religious country with evangelical churches and Catholics openly competing. Furthermore, the 35-year civil war, though officially ended in 1996, left violence normalized: it’s the second most dangerous country in the world, with some of the highest rates of violence against women and child murder in the world.
JOSÉ is the story of one young man’s trying to come to terms with being gay amidst this challenging situation. The research interviews we did gave dramatic voice to this tough reality: a young gay man was threatened with a knife at his neck by his own mother after she found out that he is gay; another was physically beaten and severely injured by his mother for the same reason; a mother cursed her 17-year old son – “you will never know what true love is” – after he came out as gay to her.
We also found that in Guatemala, as in much of the world, the phone dating and hook-up apps heavily influence the younger generation. It is easy to find somebody online and arrange to have sex. The ease and randomness of this undermines any sort of lasting and caring relationship.