LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL 2014: It’s truly a privilege to be introduced to extraordinary talent as they make their mark on the public with their debut feature film. As an audience member, you feel like you’re watching the beginning of a great journey, one that might one day include a showcase at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival or a trip to the annual Oscar ceremony. Such is the case with director Damian John Harper, whose film Los Ángeles is so remarkable and powerful, you’ll feel as though the fist of reality punched you in the gut just to let that pain linger for a long time afterward. Free of the Hollywood glitz and glam pressures of filming in the actual city of Los Angeles, Harper instead shows us the barren, violent beginnings of the eventual Mexican immigrants before they make the dangerous trip across the border and into the United States. It is a story more than worth telling, a hard-hitting fiction of everyday events that makes you abhor the immigration laws more than you already do, not to mention empathize even harder with the poor in Mexico. That their lives don’t necessarily improve once finally arriving in the land of opportunity is perhaps the most unfortunate realization of all.
Harper sets his dramatic tale in a tiny, rural Zapotec village in southern Mexico, where food is scare, the law enforcers are lazy and violence permeates throughout the fabric of community. Our introduction to the film’s protagonist, Mateo (Mateo Bautista Matías), is a startlingly violent one: the teenage boy is beaten to an inch of his life by an out-of-town rival gang, who take advantage of Mateo’s “wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time” predicament. Mateo realizes he must toughen up before making the long and difficult trip across the Mexican-California border and eventually into Los Angeles, where his deadbeat father currently resides. He also comes to the cold, hard truth that Los Angeles is another hive of violence, where he’ll need protection if he wants a chance at making it in the city of angels. Finding protection means selling his soul, as Mateo’s only guaranteed means of security can be found via a local gang with friends in Los Angeles who will act as Mateo’s muscle if trouble finds him. But first Mateo will have to prove his worth as a gangster, which means he’ll be forced to lie, cheat, steal and murder before the trip to Los Angeles can even begin. Watching Mateo wrestle with this fact is a tough pill to swallow, but we know he’s doing it for the financial security of his family. Watching Mateo struggle with this notion of ends justifying the means provides one of the more harrowing, emotional experiences I’ve had watching indie cinema. You are on edge at every narrative twist and turn, the film spiraling into chaos the more it unravels.
The tragedy of this situation doesn’t begin and end with Mateo. What is so wonderful about Harper’s film is the way he structures narrative. He actually makes a cleaner, more heavily focused multi-perspective character saga than films of similar ilk like Babel and Crash. The interweaving lives and stories are sewn together much tighter than the aforementioned films. Don’t worry Crash and Babel haters – you won’t see any of the histrionics or overwrought storytelling that many couldn’t stand in either film (I happen to love both, so you can count me out of that consensus). Such a narrative device allows the film’s themes and message to feel more expansive and all-encompassing than had Harper simply focused on one boy’s story and not taken into account his village as a whole. Thus we are given large windows into the lives of two additional members of Mateo’s community: Marcos (Marcos Rodriguez Ruíz), a village councilman whose own family is ripped apart after his daughter becomes betrothed to Mateo’s gangster boss, and Lidia (Lidia García), a mother who has not heard back from her Los Angeles-residing son for three months nor has received any of the working money he promised her. Both stories are just as painful to endure as Mateo’s, yet the deeper the sadness, the better we understand how various members of this tight-knit community (divided in this case by gender, age, and social class) struggle with the same plight of uncertainty.
I was so happy to learn that all of the actors in this film are non-professional; they come from roughly the same area in Mexico and therefore know exactly what horrors these characters face on a daily basis. I always treasure independent cinema that adheres to the ordinariness of its communities and areas of filmic interests. Harper has delivered an authentic portrayal of life on “the other side,” a world so steeped in disarray, violence and poverty that the only thing we can do is open our doors and try to find a solution. Consider Los Ángeles one of one of these doors that will hopefully open up the skeptic’s mind concerning our country’s flawed immigration policy.
I am keeping my fingers crossed that this extraordinary debut by gifted director Damian John Harper will be picked up by a studio that can help it thrive outside of festival life. Los Ángeles is currently part of the “LA Muse” festival lineup at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival. Be sure to check out the trailer!