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Mexico's Oscar-Winning Directors Embrace Rise Of Fernando Frías De La Parra

Director Fernando Frías arrives for the screening of the HBO series <em>Los Espookys</em> on June 2019 in New York City.
Director Fernando Frías arrives for the screening of the HBO series <em>Los Espookys</em> on June 2019 in New York City.

Mexican film directors have enjoyed success at the Academy Awards in recent years. Alfonso Cuarón won an Oscar for directing Gravity in 2014, and for Romain 2019.Alejandro González Iñárritu won one in 2015 for directing Birdmanand the following year forThe Revenant.And Guillermo del Toro won his Oscar for directingThe Shape of Water in 2018. Now, the "Tres Amigos," as they're known, may welcome uno más: up-and-coming filmmaker Fernando Frías de la Parra. His film I'm No Longer Here is Mexico's Academy Award entry for Best International Feature Film.

The film, also titled Ya No Estoy Aqui,is set in 2010, during a real, but very brief, cultural phenomenon that happened in Monterrey, Mexico. That's when teens in the industrial city's impoverished barrios would hang out in the streets wearing baggy clothes, singing and dancing to nostalgic cumbia music from Colombia.

"I wanted to go deeper and understand why they were like dancing the way they dance, dressing the way they dress and associating in gangs," said Frías, who wrote and directed his fictionalized version of what's known as the "Kolombia" subculture. He said he discovered some of the why. "It's an opportunity to reinvent themselves, knowing that there's not many options in life for them. It's like, you think that just because I'm poor, I am dangerous and I should be a criminal? You think I'm ugly or something? Well, I'm going to embrace your rejection and I'm going to recreate my identity with dignity by creating this style."

In Frías' story, Ulises is the leader of a crew called Los Terkos, the stubborn ones. He has a DIY punk hairstyle, spiked here, bleached there. "It almost resembles a pre-Hispanic Aztec warrior," noted Frías.

A still from Frías' new Netflix film, <em>I'm No Longer Here</em>, stars Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño in his acting debut.
/ Netflix
A still from Frías' new Netflix film, <em>I'm No Longer Here</em>, stars Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño in his acting debut.

With his friends, Ulises dances like a slow rooster, twirling around with heel-toe, heel-toe footwork, hunched over with his arms up, "like a big bird spreading the wings and dancing and showing off," Frías says. "It's a unique style."

After a rival gang threatens him, Ulises escapes from Monterrey. He crosses the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, and ends up in New York City, where he finds work with a construction crew. But he longs to be back in Monterrey, where no one makes fun of his style and he can be himself. Like the lyrics of the cumbia music he loves, Ulises is filled with nostalgia. Frías says Ulises' journey is more about "the internal conflicts that he's living."

Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño makes his acting debut as Ulises, having been discovered by Frías and his team at a music festival in Monterrey. They saw him playing percussion on stage, and afterwards, approached him, asking if he'd want to be in the film. At the time, Garcia was a 17-year-old construction worker who never imagined becoming an actor, much less the star of a film that could earn a spot on the Oscar short list, which will be announced on Feb. 9. Garcia and the other non-actors worked together for months to develop the characters and learn the dances.

"Here in Monterrey, the film reflects the real lives of a lot of people," Garcia says in Spanish. He says they're proud that Frías represented their culture authentically. The 20-year-old Garcia is now acting in his third film and says he and the others who played Los Terkos are grateful for the opportunity to portray the culture that has since faded away.

Frías says the Kolombia scene was disappearing even as he was researching it. "It doesn't exist [now] because of the so-called war on drugs by the administration of President Calderón, who sent the army into the streets," he says. "And this new cartel that came in was recruiting the kids, so that killed the life on the streets for several years. The music, though, it will always be part of the Monterrey people."

The 41-year-old filmmaker grew up in Mexico City, the youngest of three children. His father was a lawyer and his mother worked for Pan American World Airways, allowing the family to travel the world. Frías studied communications and photography as an undergraduate in Mexico City, and made documentaries before going to Columbia University on a Fulbright scholarship. While earning his master's degree, he began writing his screenplay for I'm No Longer Here.

Frías persevered for seven years to make this film, with challenges that included repeatedly trying to secure a visa for Garcia to film in New York. Meanwhile, he made short documentaries for Condé Nast Traveler, and he directed the entire first season of HBO's Los Espookys. "I liked the playfulness and absurdity of it," Frías says of the bilingual comedy series.

The filmmaker still lives in New York, where he's working on new projects. Meanwhile, I'm No Longer Here is streaming on Netflix, earning accolades and praise.

"I think is one of the most memorable debuts on film and Mexican film in the last couple of decades," Guillermo del Toro said in a video conversation recorded last year. "It's a very painful and beautiful movie at the same time. It presents you with the usual melodramatic choices and discards them."

"Yeah, it challenges all your expectations," Alfonso Cuarón agreed.

Del Toro praised Frías for portraying a culture that no longer exists and the experiences of a young man in exile trying to protect his identity. "I think that is rare," he added, "a movie that you find being done so early in the career of a young filmmaker that has the wisdom and the complete control of the medium. He inherits a mantle that you can trace back to the golden era of Mexican cinema."

"Fernando for me, is already an inspiration," said Cuarón. "He's truly original."

Del Toro and Cuarón are rooting for Fernando Frías to join them as Oscar winners.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.