Guillermo Arriaga: Obsessed with death, hungry for life

Even a brief reference to the titles and subject matter of Guillermo Arriaga’s work is enough to realize his raw material: death. It’s breath penetrates the screenplays, the novels, leaving an impression on the silver screen, whether its in «Amores Perros,» «21 Grams,» or in «The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,» the latter directed by Tommy Lee Jones. Even when Arriaga ventured into directing with «Rogelio» (2000), the dark inspiration was very much there: Rogelio cannot accept his death and carries on visiting his friends. «Though I belong to a culture in which death is very prominent, I believe it’s some kind of personal obsession,» confessed the Mexican author, adding that what has determined his work so far, «is an obsession with death and a passion for life.» Indeed. Robust, with dark, piercing eyes, the 47-year-old Arriaga is full of life. A multifaceted man, Arriaga earned an award at the recent Cannes Film Festival for his screenplay «The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,» while his works have been translated into a number of languages. A guest at the 46th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, Arriaga spoke to Kathimerini. The people of Mexico enjoy a special relationship with death. In «The Labyrinth of Solitude,» Octavio Paz links the need for celebration with the sadness of death. I don’t think all Mexicans share this view. Especially when it comes to today’s population, the relationship with death has been eclipsed. Western culture tries to hide death. For example: You can’t be bald, you shouldn’t grow old, forget about getting fat. It’s like you’re brushing against death, as if you’re losing your power. The threat of death is all around is, it’s part of our culture and still touches countries like Mexico. Therefore I feel that it is my duty, as a creator, to highlight its existence, in order to strengthen our ties with life. You still celebrate the Day of the Dead in Mexico… Yes, on November 2. Nowadays, however, it’s just folklore. Offerings to the dead are part of our culture, only these days, it looks more like Halloween. Even though death is important to Mexicans, I don’t think they are defined by it. So you’re talking about a cultural change… Each culture has its own way of existing, its own advantages and disadvantages. The great issues attacking our societies today are political correctness, the unjust distribution of wealth – the gap between the rich and the poor is tremendous – and the widespread suspicion that is cast upon anyone who is different. The «stranger,» the «other,» is a constant threat. At the same time, immigration is rapidly growing. In a way, «The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada» is a depiction of how you can be friends with somebody who is completely different from you. Are you referring to the relationship with the «stranger»? The basic issue has to do with friendship and justice. Justice is all about being able to see things from the other person’s perspective, to be able to understand the «stranger.» How are foreigners perceived in Mexico? We have a very peculiar relationship with foreigners. On the one hand, we can be very generous, but on the other we are very suspicious. Mexicans abandon their homeland when forced to for financial reasons, not because they want to. What kind of impact is globalization having on your country? The stronger cultures are the dominant ones. Here in Greece you too can see that Hollywood films dominate the market. The same is true in Mexico; everybody here in Greece knows who Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt are. This is the kind of globalized culture that dominates the world. Through my work in cinema my experience is that people have more things in common, rather than differences. They share common pains and agonies. And that’s something that can lead to creative collaborations. For example, in «The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,» you have an Irish producer, a Texan director, a Mexican writer, an Italian editor and an English cinematographer together with American and Canadian actors. Art is blossoming in Mexico, I think. The living conditions are harsh, people are hungry and artists wish to express the problems. Latin American literature seems to be blossoming as well… You’ll understand why if you visit Latin America. It’s full of life and contrasts and you cannot avoid being touched by the reality of it all. What do you think defines your work? It’s genuine and describes situations I’ve been through. It’s honest. Do three consecutive burials incorporate an element of sarcasm? No, of irony, perhaps, which stems from the contradictions. Sarcasm has to do with poking fun at something that is painful. This is about irony. When you refer to «The Three Burials,» you often say «in my film…» A movie is not just a director’s. Screenwriters are not behind the directors but next to them. Who decided that the creator is the director? The Cahiers du Cinema, 50 years ago? In my opinion, the «auteur» varies: Sometimes it’s the director, sometimes it’s the writer and sometimes – very often – it’s the producer. So whom does the movie belong to? Probably to the most powerful one. And quite often, our work is abused. For me, penning a book and writing a screenplay is the exact same thing.

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