Fernando Frias is a Mexican documentary filmmaker, screenwriter, and director. His latest film, I’m No Longer Here, became the official Mexican entry for Best Foreign Language Film for this year’s Oscars. Recently, I’m No Longer Here was announced as one of the 15 films Oscar-shortlisted for Foreign Language Film. In his exclusive chat with Awards Radar, Frias shares his inspiration behind the story, the research into the Mexican subculture of the cholombianos, and what the critical praise and global attention means to him for this film.
Fernando, thanks so much for chatting with me and congratulations on all the success with I’m No Longer Here. Now, I know you began writing this several years ago and the script was completed in, I believe, it was 2013. So what was the inspiration behind writing I’m No Longer Here and when did you have the kernel for this idea?
A result of so many things. The script was never ready until the last day of editing. The origin of the story was the music. I wanted to do something using the music. After I had experienced myself a very interesting encounter with kids around the border as I was teaching workshops to pay for a scholarship to study film in the US. One of the kids I was teaching asked me my age and when I responded, I was in my early 30s back then, he said that by that time he’d be dead. Because he’d rather have the pleasures of life even if he was gonna die next year than living a life in poverty. That made me think about the way in which we sometimes in Mexico, or in general, insolate our life to prejudge others just because of the way they look, come from, or their life circumstances and what motivates certain individuals. At the same time, I thought of the music as some sort of parallel or metaphor to compare this desire of not wanting youth to expire but facing such dark and complicating circumstances, such as lack of opportunity, lack of social mobility, and systematic oppression. This idea of cumbia, a sound meant to last 5 minutes but actually lasts 12 or 13, was just an echo or parallel to say that these are supposed to be the golden years. Of course I understand these kids who just want to elongate as much as they can and extend that moment of happiness. There’s not even a future on the horizon. That was one thing. At the same time, I wanted to explore questions about the way we talk about our local stores, tragedies, dramas, and social issues and how there have been reinforcements of the stereotypes. In storytelling from the region designed to make an impact outside through the exploitation of the most shocking aspects of life there. But I wanted to humanely connect through the life of a character, not so much about the violence. I wanted to challenge myself into finding another angle to talk about the same subject matters but from another perspective that I could connect. Finally, I also wanted to talk about the idea of identity, resistance, and belonging. I wanted to go further and deeper from the superficial aspects of the clothing, hair, dance movements, and slang which of course is fascinating and incredible but we could not stay on the surface. This is the reason. It’s a countercultural movement. The idea was to talk about how we were going to talk about this. We needed to show the film in a modern era and juxtaposition in a way where it’s more about behavior. Some people have said it’s more of a documentary. For me, I’m flattered. It’s more of a compliment. The story is just a small excuse to connect different dots from reality like the context, the place, the political context in Mexico like the war on drugs.
How did you go about casting the film, as most were coming onto this project as non-actors. Especially the lead (Ulises) Juan Daniel Garcia Trevino? Was he already passionate about music and dancing before being cast?
When we started shooting, everyone was a professional actor. We made that a summer camp in which we made sure everyone knew from a technical point of view knowing what to expect, how to behave, how to be professional , and how to make the time to rehearse, study and embody the character. Even though they are young, most of them had a lot of life experiences. Juan Daniel is the lead and most of the weight of the film is on his shoulders. He’s in every frame. But every character in the film, no one had experience in film whatsoever. Behind every member of the cast, there is a very interesting story. It’s hard to talk about Juan Daniel and not anyone else. The way we run into each other, it’s worth mentioning. But, talking specially about Juan Daniel, he came from music. He was working as a welder but he had a band with his family. His mother was singing. He played percussion. He’s the youngest of three brothers. He has an older sister. Him and his two brothers have a band with his mother at a social program in which a local municipal authority helped them with instruments. He easily picked up. He has a great ear. He didn’t know how to dance. He learned to dance for the film. Him and his band were opening for a local concert with the biggest star in Monterey, there were like 20 bands opening for him. It was a major event. Juan Daniel and his family performed one song at the very beginning which is where we spotted him.
The film highlights the Mexican subculture of the cholombianos. What research went into this culture on your part to ensure that it was portrayed fairly and accurately in the story?
The research, along with the casting and rehearsals, is the richest part of the process. It was very intuitive. It was not structured at all. It was just following my gut. At some point, I found myself riding taxis and asking them to take me to places where they thought there were still cholombiano kids or some markets selling this kind of music because as I started researching, I saw the music fading out. It was the darkest days of Monterey because of all the violence. It’s also part of the film. When our character comes back to Monterey, what he encounters is not what he left. I basically saw that happening when I was researching. I was thinking it was going to be really hard and violent there when I was going there. One day though, I noticed there was an organization of kids that were part of criminal gangs and now they’re trying to re-introduce them to society. And then I would go explore that avenue. It’s an evangelical thing. For me, it just was very shocking.It made me think “do I believe in these social programs?”. That way one day, for example. The film questions what the ways are to get out of such complicated environments. One of the kids died, another one became a born-again Christian. I was here in New York and I would research online too. There was this thing called PhotoLog. It was like Facebook for them. I would connect with so many of them from there. It would be one contact that would contact me to another contact and then another contact. Then I would go down there to try to find them. There were also a couple of publications that blew my mind. And one of the publications is from a Colombian. I always thank him because being Colombian, he said he was able to go deep into this counterculture. They welcomed him with open arms. Little by little, the research was like a puzzle. It started to reveal itself to me.
The film is not only the official Mexican entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, but it also just made the shortlist of 15. What sort of responsibility do you feel helming a film now representing Mexico which has now been further elevated by getting on this shortlist?
I have a sense of responsibility which I think is different from a responsibility because you are representing but also what can you do? I am thankful for the opportunity of having nice conversations. But the film is what it is already. Maybe a sense of a responsibility in terms of how I am going to follow up to what I just did which was very intuitive. Now I am very conscious about the press because of the attention and accolades happening. I didn’t emotionally budget for it. It feels like a new thing every day. Even though I’m extremely thankful, nothing compares to the reception of the audience in Mexico for me. There’s a before and after because normally, films go and make a hit outside Mexico in a festival. And then you have the affirmation of someone outside. From there, it becomes the project celebrated that ends up celebrating Mexico. Our story is completely different. Our international premiere was in Mexico and our life as a film started in Mexico and slowly expanded from there. First to Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. We had a small commercial run in Argentina before the pandemic and that was incredible. Then, Mexican filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron came on board to talk about the film and support. That brought more attention from other countries. When I say that there is a before and after, right now people in Mexico are showing so much love and support. You go on Instagram and see the amount of fan art, that’s not common. Having Baby Yoda with the hair and saying “here I am no longer”. Or memes with Ulises and having a 6 year old kid decide that his birthday party is themed to I Am No Longer Here. And somebody writing “Representation Fucking Matters”. That’s a dream. And that’s where the sense of responsibility comes from more than representing in something that I cannot actively participate in. Like, how am I going to follow-up with all this love and support? The film hit a nerve in Mexico and opened up possibility and hope. I am extremely proud to be lucky enough to be living this.
How did Netflix find out about this film and become involved? And what does it mean to you to have your film on this tremendous platform where it’s accessible to hundreds of millions of people across the globe?
It’s been a growing relationship. We’ve worked hand-in-hand. It’s been incredible. I came to them with the film in an unfinished stage and looking for help to finish it. They saw it and were interested. They wanted to do this. As the film started to gather attention, before it was released on the platform, they were incredibly supportive at opening at more festivals and screenings. From there, it’s been an amazing experience because how else would the film have reached so far and deep? At least in Mexico, but also in the world. It’s been a journey together in which we have proved both of us to be very open. At the beginning, I was thinking once the film lands at Netflix, the film will be done. And it was the opposite. It landed there, and it just blossomed. That’s fantastic. The same with them. They have been super open and saying that there’s attention and wanted to know how they can continue and not lose momentum.