Colombian director Oscar Ruiz Navia discusses his latest film, Los Hongos (2014), exploring art and politics through youth culture in Cali, Colombia. Oscar’s first feature, Crab Trap (2009), won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. This interview was conducted by Christopher Heron in Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2014.

How have the public screenings been going?

Oscar Ruiz Navia: We’ve just had one so far, but it was nice. It was in the Cinematheque. In Locarno it was great. A lot of people, I was there with some of the actors, my father, who is one of the actors, and the kids. They were skating and doing graffiti. It was the first time they took a plane, actually. It was a nice experience. I’m so happy I’m here; I think people are starting to understand the proposal I have. We’ll see, the film is just beginning… you know?

Maybe we could start with the context of the city, how Los hongos fits into being a representation of that space – what it shows, what it doesn’t show?

Cali is an emblematic city in Colombia. I don’t know why, but the cinema is always growing there, very interesting cinema, maybe more than the capital. Of course in Bogotá they have cinema, too, but in Cali it’s all these underground lines. In the 1970s there was a very important movement called Cali-wood.

Is that what the characters are watching at one point in the film?

Yeah, they’re watching Carlos Mayolo and Luis Ospina, the masters. They’re watching a film called Carne de tu carne (1983) and I wanted to do a kind of homage to these films. They like vampires and these kinds of films. The actor who is in that shot is Carlos Mayolo, who is the director of that film. Cali’s always been a city very particular for cinema. Then, let’s say that there was a reference of the city that is stuck in that time. People are like, “Ah, Cali” and they think of the 1970s and this group of people, but there was a situation in our city in the 80s and 90s, it was the drug cartels. The cartel of Cali was very famous and the city changed a lot. Then there were a lot of stereotypes that came out, beautiful women or salsa or this idea that everyone there is happy, but then if you see the representation of our city in the cinema of recent years, the city has changed. It’s not the same. I wanted to create a portrait that was more attached to what the city is now; it’s a complex city, it’s very big. We are more than 2 million people and the city is fragmented. You have the East part of the city and the West. In the East, you have all these people from the Pacific Coast that have arrived in the city because maybe there were problems with violence because of the conflict we have in our country. That’s why I pretended to create a new portrait of the city, of course through my point of view, the point of view of the people I chose to be part of the cast.

So you’ve adapted the rhythm of what you see in these different, complex fragments connecting? How does that manifest in your style, how do you visually articulate that?

I wanted to create something very simple. I decided I was going to create a relationship between one guy from one part of the city and another guy from the other part of the city. I wanted to create this encounter also to make these two parts of the city closer. Even if they have different backgrounds and histories, they can be together because they love the same thing: graffiti. I found also that graffiti as an expression is something I relate to – it’s like an analogy of the cinema I like. It’s something that’s subversive, but at the same time you want many people to see it. It’s like the good walls and the good paints are like this: they are maybe forbidden or not official, but many people can see it. So I decided I was going to create a universe through the passion of graffiti. I’m not a painter myself, but I really like the images and the way they draw. For me, I always start a process of research with the people, it’s very important. I’m trying to get to know them as much as possible in order to re-invent the script. I have these general ideas of this friendship, but I didn’t know what was going to happen, so I did casting for two years, trying to find different stories and different people. Then I found the real graffiti artists and all these people, all this talent that is not me, is just them creating something particular. Maybe my mission was just to choose what was good, like a conductor.

You were saying you were taking two parts of the city and bringing them together. How was that different than in Crab Trap where there were two neighbours who didn’t get along – people of different cultures that live side-by-side but don’t get along. Were you worried that might happen or that it wouldn’t work as a friendship?

I think it was different because Crab Trap was made in a very small village and let’s say it was another subject. It was a film about when you arrive somewhere and you don’t respect what is there. These ideas of colonization and progress. Because this village was very traditional and they have a way to live that was very different from how we live in the city. But Los Hongos is a film that has another kind of pretension. I wanted to talk about young people, but maybe because I come from a middle-class context and I studied in the public university, I was very close friends with people who are not the same social class as me. It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you have something that you like in the same way, you can create something. Maybe it’s a way to propose some kind of hope. Sometimes people think that hope or love or these kind of things are naive or stupid, but I’m a romantic guy, you know? I’m an idealistic guy. Pessimism is not what we need, but this is just my point of view. More than the idea of putting together the two cities, I just wanted to created a universe, very diverse, and be very loyal with the people I chose. Because for me it’s very important not to tell a story necessarily, but research people, characters, and create something that people… can feel is true or is at least close to this feeling of truth.

You’ve got this network of different types of artists, too: there’s painting, drawing, video work, music, singing. I was curious how do you balance those media – it never feels like you go too deep into it, it never feels like you really find out how these people interact. It feels like you just see a bit from the outside. Was there ever a point where you were going to maybe show more of the ‘scene’ of artists or was it always going to be a little distant?

Yeah, it has a little distance. Because the film is not just about art or graffiti, it’s not a portrait of graffiti artists. It’s more about young people in my city. For example, one of the protagonists is a skater and the other is a student in fine arts. The group of graffiti artists that develop the work in the film, this submarine revolt, they are the most important graffiti artists in my city. Mario Weiss, he wrote an article for the film, he is the oldest graffiti artist in Colombia, not just in Cali. He has been painting for 50 years. I decided to invite him and he said, “Yeah, yeah, I want to.” He knows the power of cinema. These guys with the masks, in the Colombian scene of street art, they are the top. They are acting as themselves, they are not pretending to be a character. They are very political. I just create these meetings – “We’re going to make a scene where you are planning something” – but these were based on the meetings I had with them during the research. My process was just to do interviews with them and then have the opportunity to change the script all the time. I didn’t create the dialogue of the film, the paints, I just proposed things and sometimes they didn’t like what I wanted. Then they proposed something else. Sometimes what I proposed they liked, but it was just the general idea and they start develop what they could actually do. The distance you were saying? Maybe it’s because the film is also about my own life, but not in a very direct way. I’m trying to express things that happened to me with my family, with my memories.

When you’re observing all of this, how much of your background in social communications is playing into how you observe these artists and families interacting?

I studied social communications and journalism, but I always liked photography. I used to do black and white photography and I got some professors that taught me all these photographers, like Robert Frank or Walker Evans or Cartier-Bresson – this kind of documentary photography. I always found this very cinematic. Even if those images were real, I don’t know because of the black and white and the way they do the copies, for me it’s something different, like a fiction at the same time. I always very attached to the real, documentary. I learned how to create an ethnographic process or how to research with communities. I was working with a community for years. Of course this is very important in my process to know how to get close to people – how to respect. For me it’s one of the most important thing when you bring people that don’t know the language of cinema, you invite these people to be a part of your film, how to respect and not use them as marionettes. To make them feel comfortable and with a lot of dignity. I think all of this knowledge from the university and my social communication background is important for that, but then of course my two films are for me like documentary films in some way. In the way I prepare the films. Then when we are in the shoot, I need a lot of time on the set to make the scenes because I never do rehearsals with the actors. It’s not a theatrical play for me. I just try to create the relationships the characters have in the film before the film, but then on the set I need a lot of time. I need to create a real mood in the set in order to capture reality moments. Then when you’re in post-production, in the editing, you create something that is not real at all. All this ambiguous line is what I’m interested in and it’s very difficult. It’s the risk I’m trying to develop.

It’s a film that has a lot of camera movement especially when the artists are working or the boys are travelling, it’s very fluid. How did you visualize the film and how much work was spent getting those complex shots?

Yeah, I knew from early stages that I wanted to have these tracking shots, so I saved some money to rent a steadicam. I love ‘travellings’ when I see them, I really love them. It was important because the structure of the film is the characters going to different parts. I decided that I was going to use this type of shots when they’re in transit. Of course they were difficult sometimes, alongside the skateboard or the bike. We got a motorcycle with four wheels and there was a sharp turn… It was very professional and very nice, because it was my first time I could have this type of equipment. I was used to low, low budget, but this film was a bit more comfortable in that sense. At the same time, it was a big risk because I didn’t want to lose my intimacy. Let’s say it was my big challenge, how to do this type of things, but keep my film intimate. I think sometime I was successful and sometimes I would maybe prefer to do it with more time. I want to thank the cinematographer Sofia [Oggioni] and Rafael [Sahade] the steadicam operator. They really contributed a lot in the film.

What about the role of religion and politics, those two themes within the film, outside of the art that we were talking about?

Politics is very important in the film. If we go to the meaning of the title, ‘Los hongos’ means ‘the mushrooms’ and I was not talking about drugs or psychedelic things. I brought this concept of mushrooms in a literal sense because they are living beings that appear in a context where you have these dirty things around, but then there is this life expression. This film was about life, people who don’t care about their problems and the obstacles. It’s like a rebellion, but a little bit optimistic. This idea of mushrooms is somehow against political corruptions, these contexts that we live in in my country or in some countries in Latin America. I didn’t want to focus the film on the politics itself, but of course they are there. That’s why you can hear on the radio or the TV that surrounds. There is a direct relationship with graffiti because sometimes you can see in some walls a beautiful piece of art and they put a candy ad. For example, my father who acts in the film as the father of the main character, he always talks about politics. I just wanted to be loyal with him, how he is – he’s always dreaming about changing the country, but he’s at the table drinking coffee with his friends. He’s always dreaming he will change the world, saying, “We have to do this!” I grew up with this all the time, so I decided to have this character in the film. That’s why all the politics are focused on this character.

Then religion was another thing in my research, when I was doing all the casting process, I did more than 700 interviews for the film with different teenagers and people. After some interviews I realized there are so many people involved in church and religion, so I was interested in that. I decided to go deeper and then I realized it was a phenomenon in my city. There were a lot of churches like this. I didn’t want to judge those kind of things, I just wanted to portray. It’s also a sign of some kind of emptiness in the soul that people have after some political problems, violence. That’s how it’s related. Some people arrive in the city escaping from violence and when they arrive they find these churches as the place where they can solve the soul. It’s just a sign that there is a problem in society, especially in the character of María. She was like this in real life, she likes these kinds of things. Once again, I didn’t want to judge her, I just wanted to show that there is the ambiance, too. If you remember the relationship with Ras, he’s not bad or good, he’s just another generation and he likes art. He’s an artist, so he doesn’t want to work in constructing buildings, he wants to go paint. He has a big sensibility, but María also is like an artist. Somehow she knows how to sing and I discovered that when I chose her as an actress. She told me, “No, I’m a singer,” so she starts singing. She sings so beautiful so I changed the character, “You go to the church, but you’re also going to be a singer in the film.” I found this very nice, because it connected two characters that are fighting in the film, but they’re both artists, they have sensibility.

I didn’t want to judge the politics, just to put it on the screen and then people can think whatever they want. Some artists think that if you speak about politics, you are old school and I don’t like that. I don’t think politics and art should be so separate. I think sometimes they’re the same, everything is very political, but I don’t want to have a specific speech, I just want to create a polemic [laughs]. In my country people don’t want to say these things. Our slogan for our film is “We’ll Never Be Silent Again” and we’re doing this kind of campaigning in Colombia, because when you speak about freedom and freedom in films, people can feel attached. Everyone loves freedom, it doesn’t matter the context or the country or who you are – somehow everyone loves freedom.

What about the urban and the rural divide, the tree in the water at the end? What does it say that that’s where the boys end up? It’s an inspiration to them as artists, too. They’re so based in the city the whole film and they’re almost punished being taken out to the wilderness, but they kind of enjoy that and they get something out of it.

Yeah, it has a very symbolic meaning for me. Of course it’s a very open meaning in terms of people reflecting on it however they want. It’s a sign of what I’m pretending to express. It’s in the same way as the title: even if there is all this shit around, these obstacles, there is life and there is this hope. I have hope a little bit. At the same time, at the end, what do you have? You have these roots. You have to get close to real love, real people that you know are your people. I’m a very familiar person, but I don’t consider family a conservative institution. I think your grandmother has to be your best soldier, really, it’s very idealistic, but I like family. I like the concept of family, but not as old and conservative ways. We have to create another model of family, that’s why I wanted to end the film with a giant tree, because at the end you just have that. You have your roots, your people, your blood. It’s like the origin of life and that’s why they talk about the mother, because mother is the symbol of the beginning of everything. This film was very personal for me because it was based in my own experience, my relatives appear in the film, so I wanted to create something at the end that was more sensitive than narrative. It’s definitely not to try to say something specific, I want people just to feel. When you see the film in a theatre, you can feel the sound. It closes the film in a way that feels more metaphoric, close to something poetic, more like a dream. When I was trying to get the money for the film, I said it was going to a mixture between real fiction and a dream.