amat escalanteDespite having won the much coveted Best Director award in Cannes last year, Mexican filmmaker Amat Escalante seems to have spent much of his time ever since defending his contentious offering Heli, which has polarised the film community given the disquieting, graphic nature of the piece. When we then sat down with the immensely talented director, he explained his motives and reasonings for creating a film that leaves so little to the imagination.

“Even with gratuitous violence, there’s something about human nature that has a curiosity about certain things,” he said. “I don’t have anything against any type of image, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody, as long as nobody is damaged or hurt. I think anything can be done, especially now with digital technology, really anything can be done. It’s interesting to explore those routes. That’s why I’m attracted to those things.”

Heli manages to find an intimacy and humanity amidst the violence that ensues, and Escalante explains that was his very goal, to take horrific images we witness every day in the news, and find a story behind them. “In Mexico we’re used to seeing these images, of people hanging, or being beheaded, it’s in the newspaper, but it’s just an image to sell. It’s a morbid curiosity. Many times one loses perspective of who these people are. So in Mexico when you see these images you feel like a monster or a ghost could have done it, when in actuality it’s humans doing that. So I tried to explore that also, to look beyond those images and see what’s behind them; the society that led to that point, which I think is much more important than the actual image we’re used to seeing.”

“The few images that I show that are gruesome, you can find them on the internet easily. I don’t like to see violent images of real life situations happening, but it’s very different the way they’re shown in my movie and the way you feel watching my movie, it’s very different to if you just look at images on the internet.”

Heli, as you can probably tell, makes for something of an uncomfortable watch, as we explore a rural Mexican society, overcome by drug dealing, with a young boy at the heart of this tale, attempting to protect his family. Escalante is aware that viewers may find the picture difficult to watch – yet he tells us that as far as he’s concerned, it means he’s done his job efficiently.

“I’m sure Woody Allen likes people to laugh, horror film directors want the audience to jump and be scared, I do like to get a reaction from the audience, in whatever way I can. If people react because of how I edit the film, it makes me happy that I got the reaction I wanted. Movies are like magic, a series of tricks that you do, and it’s nice to see when they come together and have an effect. Whether they jump, or they laugh, or they cry, whatever they do, it’s always satisfying.”

He was quick to compare his feature to that of a horror movie too – though admits that playing on real life occurrences, away from the supernatural, can make for an even scarier piece of cinema. “I’m a fan of horror movies, and gore and slasher films. I like all kinds of movie, but I like blood and violence, and in my movies I like use them, but I need to have a reason for it. Sometimes it’s more scary when the reason is very much tied to reality, instead of a ghost or something like that. I like to play with the horrors of real life yet treat it like a horror movie, it’s even more horrific, because this is actually happening all the time.”

However the director admits that he was surprised by the reaction this film has received, as while the reviews have been mostly positive and many have praised the ingenuity of the man at the helm, the reaction to the more violent aspects of the piece have been something of an eye-opener. “The film is violent but for me the reaction was a bit of a shock,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be that off-putting to people and that people would question whether it was a proper thing to show, and the limits and all these things. I have seen other movies that I felt were much more violent that were very popular over the world. There was something about the way that I was showing the violence that was shocking to people, but before showing it to audiences, I hadn’t realised that so much. After you show it, you get another idea of what your movie is.”

Having toured the festival circuit, and playing to a plethora of different countries and cultures, Escalante tells us that he doesn’t take any of that into consideration when creating his picture, thinking only of an audience a little closer to home. “When I’m making a movie I really don’t think about people in other countries, mostly just the audience in Mexico,” he claimed. “I don’t worry much about what I might educate people about, there really is none of that when I’m working on the movie.”

“I do think of an audience, just not a specific audience. Of course I want to tell a story that keeps people on edge, excited and entertained – that I do think about. But that would be the only responsibility, for the audience to not be completely bored watching the movie. I feel happy with this movie, rarely have people said it’s boring. Even if they don’t like it, they can’t say it’s a boring movie. For me, I like that. I like that you follow these characters, this family and this love story, the corruption, the violence… But you’re with it, and that’s why it’s more effective, because you’ve invested as an audience and those things I find more interesting than to think of certain type of people who are going to understand my movie or not.”

That being said, he did tell us of a certain audience who perhaps have not been quite so receptive to his third feature film, as many others across the world have. “The place where I always find the most difficulty showing any movie really, but this one in particular, is in the United States. Maybe because it’s so near Mexico, and maybe there’s some guilt that they feel, and I think that’s where it’s most misunderstood in general.”

However he did tell us that a positive response in his homeland has not always been guaranteed either – as the film does perhaps represent Mexico in something of a candid, brutal light.

“Once people outside of Mexico see it, it can become uncomfortable sometimes for Mexicans, certain Mexicans anyway. Because it’s showing a part of Mexico that’s not so good. It’s not so healthy,” he explained. “I made the movie because I love my country, and I worry about it and I think exploring the problems and what’s wrong can only help a situation, not make it worse.”

Heli is out in cinemas now, and you can read our four star review here.