Exclusive Q&A: The Jewish-Mexican Experience Via Mariana Chenillo's Award-Winning Film

Though Mexico is a thoroughly Catholic country, writer/director Mariana Chenillo decided that her first feature film, now titled Nora's Will, would be based on her own Jewish experience.

The film tells of a woman who, upon her suicide, uses the Jewish holiday of Passover to confound her ex-husband and makes demands that only a Jewish woman could make about her funeral and seemingly, everything else. In doing so, she exerts her will from the grave and forces everyone involved to confront a chasm of cultural and familial issues--with a touch of humor and irony.

Chenillo won a bunch of Ariel Awards for her film -- the equivalent of the Oscar for Mexico -- and recently enjoyed the spotlight placed on her as one of the 10 next-generation directors included in Revolucion, a feature-length compilation of short films examining Mexico on the centennial of its independence from Spain. As part of this year's recently concluded New York Film Festival, this film had its New York debut. And now not more than a week after the fest ended, Nora Will is making its New York run.

Q: How much of this story is based on elements from your family?
MC: This story is real but also completely fictionalized. By this, I mean that a few elements were taken directly from reality, the most obvious ones are the Nora and José's characters, based on my grandparents. Also, the fact that they lived across the street from each other and that she had tried to commit suicide several times during her life.

After my grandmother's death, my grandfather moved away from that street. If she wasn't there any more, there was no use in him living there. He also kept things that belonged to her (and perhaps also to him before they got divorced), and slowly, almost unnoticeably, his feelings towards her changed.

So what brought me to the film was not the memory of my grandmother's suicide, but what followed it. The process of forgiving, even though forgiving doesn't always means understanding.

Q: In a vast Catholic country what is like to grow up in a Jewish family? 

MC: My sisters and I went to non-religious schools all of our lives. We understood the meaning and deep symbolism of many Jewish traditions, but were also used to attend our school friends' first communions and other Catholic celebrations. So we grew up with all of it, witnessing how both cultures complemented and contradicted each other.

As my sister Deborah states -- half joking and half not -- we are not only Jewish but Guadalupan-Jewish. Mexican culture is so strong and so profound than even second generations like us have roots as deep and as ancient as the Mexican culture itself.

Q: What was it like growing up in Mexico and how it influenced you becoming a filmmaker

MC: Mexico is a country full of contradictions. Death itself is at the same time feared and celebrated. The humor needed to survive the sometimes painful situation, comes from both: the need to forget and the need to understand.
The light shines so bright that the contrast almost makes things dark. So there is no escape. Reality is there in all its beauty and its crudeness. Filmmaking (or any form way of expression) is just a matter of observing. 

Q: The story is a set of convolutions upon convolutions -- what did it take to construct it and how did it evolve?
MC: Something that was clear from the start was that I wanted José to take care of Nora's corpse. And also, that I wanted that to be a part of her plan. Therefore, a big reason for him to stay at her apartment against his will was needed.

First, he tries to get out of that situation by attempting to bury her that same day without their son. But the son does not allow it. Then he tries to get out of there by fixing a Catholic burial, but that does not work either. And then he finds that forgotten photograph under the bed (ironically, the only flaw in Nora's plan). So after that, he won't be able to leave, because he will need to know what her desk is hiding from him and he will need to stay in her apartment until he finds out.
Q: Where did you come with the cast and did they have to understand the Jewish experience?

MC: Since raising the money for the film took a very long time, the casting process was done quite slowly. The casting director told me I have an unusual technique, because I don't like to see that many actors during the process. I cast every actor as if he or she HAS GOT to stay in the film. So I make many many takes and try with all my might to help them so they will do it right. I don't know why I do that, but every time I cast, I find myself trying very hard to make an actor fit to a part. Which sometimes does not work at all, but at other times, it makes actors more confident and things just work out very well from the very first time.

I do believe I was lucky to have such a good cast. Fernando Luján, the protagonist has done more than 70 films and he is great. So I am grateful that he trusted me on my very first one.
I had done lots of research on the Jewish topics such as death rituals, food, Passover, etc. that the film would address. So I made copies for everyone to read. The actors say I gave them a "whole book" of instructions.

And some of them, like Enrique Arreola (the rabbi's assistant), and Angelina Peláez (the nanny) had to learn and practice some special skills like reading psalms in Hebrew or cooking Passover food. They really did work very hard.
Q: What was so compelling about this story that it had to be your first feature?

MC: The truth is that all through film school, every piece of fiction I shot, was also about my grandmother. Not comedy, and nothing like this film, but in many ways, they were all about the same subject.

I feel as if then I was trying with different tones and genders, until I found out that humor was the best tool I had, and that I had to stick to it if I wanted to tell this story.

But again, while I was writing and preparing this film, I used to ask myself over and over again: "Why is it that I am doing this old people and rabbi's film as my very first film?" 

It was pretty scary, also because being a film about my family, there was much to loose... They could all have stopped talking to me!

But it seems to me now that I almost had no choice. The story was there, and I kind of felt I had to take it out of my way in order to continue telling other stories that were about other subjects.

Q: Is this film getting exposure thru the jewish festivals as well?

MC: Jewish film festivals are quite a good way of sharing this film with specific Jewish audiences, so yes, the film has been through some. But we believe the film, even though being very particular, is also a universal story has proved to attract many different types of audiences.

Q: What are you working on next; do you have plans to make films with further Jewish themes? 

MC: Neither of the screenplays I am working on now are based on Jewish themes. I believe the Jewish theme was the result of Nora's will being a family story. I think that each story is already self-contained in its own particular context.

I am currently writing two screenplays. One of them is very personal, and the other is an adaptation of a short story I was invited to adapt, and then to direct. This last project I mentioned, is planed to be shot during the second semester of 2011.

Q: And do you plan to make films in English?

MC: It also depends on the particular project. At the time, I am working on two screenplays that will be shot in Mexico and in Spanish, but I also believe that some of the stories I am interested in telling could also happen somewhere else in the world.

Q: As for the film Revolucion, what does it reflect about the popular mood about the Revolution; how does the popular culture deal with the centenary -- is there a desperate, ironic, satiric mood about it?
MC: There's a deep feeling of despair right now in Mexico. We had a huge celebration just a few weeks ago celebrating the 200 years of independence from Spain, and there was a lot of questioning. Why was the government spending so much money on a celebration when the situation of the country is in a big crisis in so many ways?

So I think that the society is really questioning themselves and the government. What should be done now? With so many problems, where's the hope? I think that irony somehow looks for hope because it portrays contrasts. How will we manage to go on living without humor and without irony? And without that sense of that there's going to be something after the crisis then I think that there's no use. So I think that's also shown in culture in general and in this film.

For more stories by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com