Down Mexico Way - 2009
A look at my diary tells me I’m due in Monterrey, Mexico, for a film festival. Having been invited earlier in the year I had forgotten all about it. I look up the website. There I am, listed as one of the film director guests. Further, it’s an “Australian“ film year. Three of my films (“Driving Miss Daisy”, “Black Robe” and “Fringe Dwellers”) are to be shown and I’m to be given an award – one of those “lifetime achievement” things which invariably denote the end of a career.
Anyway, I’m quite pleased to be able to get out of London for a few days. Meetings on a couple of film projects are repetitive and exhausting. One of them, “Zebras” – about a multi-racial boys football team in South Africa during the apartheid era – has an excellent script by David Williamson but seems to be bogged down in a search for a leading man. The problem being, as always, that the number of ‘A’ list actors is miniscule – around ten absurdly wealthy “names” – and every project by every producer in the world is after them. One suggested solution to the difficulty, not one I endorse, is to get David to write in more long and inspirational speeches as, allegedly, “actors count the number of words”.
Another project , a rather good script about Kenneth Grahame ( the author of “The Wind in the Willows”) is mysteriously unable to attract a cast despite the producer having a slate of 30 films in preparation with six to be made before the end of 2010. At least, this is what he assures me is the case. So far, he has produced no films at all, which seems to be of some concern to actors and their agents.
Despite spending 8 months in Mexico making a film a few years ago I realise I don’t know where Monterrey is. I thought it was in California. Wikipedia tells me that is a different Monterrey ( and the Californian one is spelt “Monterey”). The Monterrey I should know about is a two hour drive from the US border and is the capital of the state of Nuevo Leon. It’s the third biggest city in Mexico and has a population of nearly four million. A few years ago it was voted the safest city in Latin America, but a few headless bodies by the side of the road, courtesy of drug dealers, has somewhat tarnished this status.
My wife and I are met at the airport by Ernesto Walker, a tall young man with a huge mop of curly hair. He is one of the festival organisers and, luckily for me, speaks near-perfect English. Despite years of study my French, Italian and Spanish are lamentable. One of my sons, who speaks five languages, often comments on my ability to invent new verbs. I once outraged a waitress in an Italian restaurant for asking for “pompino” when I meant “pompelmo”. The latter is a melon, the former an act of gross indecency.
We are taken to an elegant hundred year old hotel in the oldest area of the city ( which was first settled by the Spanish in 1596). A magnificent building – in which we are given the Presidential suite, a collection of rooms considerably larger than our London apartment.
The next morning we set out to sightsee, in 38C heat, around the old part of the city. An ultra-modern art museum has an unexpectedly interesting exhibition by a Mexican artist who specialises in photographs of bizarrely decorated old cars. Of more interest to me is the Historical Museum which, with a series of beautifully mounted and lit displays, shows the history of the country from a section with superb pre-Columbian art through to the present day. We are escorted by a well-informed young Museum employee. He comments rather calmly on the Mexican-American wars of the 19th Century; (there was a Battle of Monterrey in 1846 when US troops invaded,) but points out that Mexico lost two thirds of it’s territory once Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico were appropriated by the USA. “We are getting our revenge now”, he added, “with all the Mexicans going up there to work”. True, some states, Florida and California among there, are already predominantly Spanish speaking. Over twenty million Mexicans are currently living in the United States.
Another astonishing fact is that a few years after the Spanish conquest the native population dropped from twenty million to less than one million– due to their lack of resistance to common European ailments. Over the centuries it gradually re-established itself, until today less than 7% of Mexicans are without some Indian ancestry.
This state, Nuevo Leon, in the northern part of the country is devoid of any remnants of the great pre-Columbian Indian civilisations. The Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs had their empires a few hundred kilometres further south. The Indians in this area, few of whom seem to have survived, were nomadic and have left nothing but a few petroglyphs on rocks in the nearby desert. I remember that when I was filming my Pancho Villa film for HBO , in the province of Guanajuato, I had a guide book which said that there were no Mayan ruins in the entire state. I mentioned this to a Mexican actor in the film, who said “come out to my ranch with me on Sunday”. Near his ranch house, about 80 kilometres from the town of San Miguel de la Allende, he showed me two Mayan pyramids.
“Driving Miss Daisy” is to be screened in a cinema built in part of a vast old industrial estate which is now closed down and has been turned into a recreational area covering hundreds of acres. All admirable, but I wonder about the loss of jobs. Where have the thousands of former employees gone? The answer is a shrug? Perhaps the USA? Certainly not China, where the steel formerly produced here is now being manufactured.
Before my appearance on stage brief clips are shown from a number of my films, interspersed with photos of me directing. As they progress I look older and older, heavier and with less hair. Funny how I think of myself still as being around 25, lithe and with a mass of curly hair I was sure would never fall out.
On stage I receive a statue – the emblem of the Festival –a cabrito- goat. A local delicacy that I take pains to avoid. There is even a diplomat from the Australian Consulate in Mexico City who presents me with a plaque emblazoned with sentiments extolling my contribution to Australian films. As usual, in these situations, I feel like a fraud. Maybe all directors believe that other directors really have talent, know how to direct, while they themselves are bluffing their way through film after film.
More relaxing is a half hour interview on stage conducted, in English ( we are assured the audience all speak this language), by my old friend and collaborator, Peter James, who has photographed eleven of my films, including the about-to-be-released “Mao’s Last Dancer”. I think that no other director/cameraman team anywhere in the world has made so many films together. Peter, an unexpectedly polished public speaker, asks if there is a consistent theme in my work. I answer that, regrettably, there doesn’t seem to be one. A disadvantage, in my view, as all the directors I admire have a marked individual imprint. Peter disagrees, saying that a consistent theme of my work is of a central character, alone, having to face problems, moral issues, and deal with them. I’d love this to be true but find that, all too often, I can’t get the finance to make the films I want to make and instead find myself directing something that will pay the mortgage and finance the occasional ski trip to Idaho.
At a lunch in a huge restaurant, with the unavoidable speciality cabrito, I ask the festival organisers what happened to the other guests? Where is the English director Peter Greenaway ( a new film, “Rembrandt’s J’accuse” is showing at the festival), the American Jim Jarmusch ( who is also to receive an award) and John Maringouin, director of the documentary “Big River Man”. The answer consists of amusing tales of the vagaries of film directors & actors. Evidently Ben Stiller did come to the 2008 festival but refused to shake hands with anyone because of fear of contracting swine flu. This year Jim Jarmusch announced he would attend but simply failed to show up. All calls to him were fielded by acolytes, Jarmusch himself never came onto the phone. Peter Greenaway called and said he was coming but didn’t. Oddest of all was John Maringouin, who got the Festival to change his ticket three times. There was further confusion because it appears he had changed his name so that the person ticketed wasn’t the name on the passport. Finally, he mysteriously missed a number of flights from one of the southern US states. “Big River Man” an appealing film about a Serbian eccentric named Martin Strel who specialises in swimming the entire length of polluted and dangerous rivers, was shown without Maringouin being present. Compared with this bunch, I seem surprisingly normal. At least I answer my own phone, write my own e mails, and have no assistants to complicate my travel arrangements and social engagements.
Five days of stunning hospitality, the best margaritas in the world and superb cuisine – apart from the cabrito. Now I’m back in London, still trying to make “Zebras” move forward. Will Leonardo DiCaprio really want to play a South African soccer coach for a tiny fragment of his normal vast fee? All the news here is of the release of the man convicted for the Lockerbie bombing. I read an extraordinary article by John Pilger, a journalist and documentary film maker I’ve admired for many years, stating that Megrahi (the bomber) is definitely innocent and that Mrs Thatcher and George Bush snr have known this all along. That the bomb was planted by a Palestinian group, contracted by Tehran, as a reprisal for the shooting down of an Iranian plane by a US warship. Can this be true? If so, why has Gaddafi payed out over $1 ½ billion dollars in compensation to Americans who died in the crash? Why has no newspaper or magazine picked up the story from Pilger’s “New Statesman” article?