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Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron on Roma, retelling history, and streaming services such as Netflix

Ruled by contrarian decisions, the Mexican director has produced his most personal and delicate film yet.

Fresh from winning the 2014 Oscar for Best Director for Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron could have handpicked any high-profile Hollywood project for any amount of money. Instead, the Mexican director made a series of contrarian decisions – first, to return to his hometown and direct an independent Spanish-language film on a modest budget; second, to shoot the film in black-and-white in an almost austere documentary-style aesthetic; third, to release the film in very few cinemas, before releasing it globally on Netflix’s streaming service.

The result is Roma, Cuaron’s most personal and delicate film yet. Set in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City in the 1970s, it tells a semi-autobiographical story of his family through the eyes of his domestic helper. Roma is graceful, poignant and authentic, a celebration of everydayness and the barely perceptible ways a family struggles to remain a family.

Released on Netflix in December, Roma quickly attracted universal acclaim. It bagged the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival. It received three Golden Globe nominations including Best Director. And while the three Golden Globe nominations are fewer than the four Golden Globe nominations that Gravity got – not to mention its 10 Oscar nominations – the 57-year-old director has no regrets. Making Roma independently without Hollywood financing meant he could retain complete artistic control over the telling of the story – which mattered to him more.

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You chose to shoot the film in black-and-white. The camera stands mostly at a distance from the action and there are not many close-ups on the actors’ faces. The film sometimes feels detached and almost documentary-like. Why did you choose this format to express your memories?

Well, the black-and-white part has always been the DNA of the film. When it manifested as an idea in my head, it was already in black-and-white, so I didn’t question it. But I wanted it to be contemporary-looking, not nostalgic grainy like in the 1950s, with long shadows and stuff. So we shot in digital black-and-white that’s contemporary-looking, to give the idea of the present looking into the past. I also had the camera standing at a distance because I didn’t want to do a subjective point of view of my memory. I wanted an objective view, as if the camera is coming from the present and visiting the past and just hovering there, looking at the moment.

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How does one excavate one’s memories to tell an honest story about the past? There ought to be a strong element of fiction in it, in order to make it dramatically compelling and engaging. And there must be parts that need to be trimmed or conflated.

Well, memories are fiction. We rewrite our memories minute by minute.  And it’s not a conscious rewrite. There are certain things that give an appearance of truth, things whose veracity you can compare with other people. But there are things where you say, “Oh, he was like this”, and someone else would say, “No, he wasn’t. He was like that.” So I think memories are fiction. The events in the film took place over maybe two-and-a- half years, but I’ve compressed it into approximately 10 months. And, as part of the fiction, I also wanted to integrate my family story with the historical events in Mexico, because I wanted the film to be about my wounds, my family’s, and the ones I share with the collective society.

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You spent a lot of time interviewing your former domestic helper, to try and recall her life as well as yours and your family’s. There are some beautiful lines in the film, such as when the women, having lost their men, say to each other: “Never mind what they tell you, we women are always alone.” Was that a line you gleaned from your interviews with her?   

No, I wrote that line myself.

How does she feel about you making a movie about her?

Well, she knew what I was doing. I asked her for permission and then we had endless conversations about every single detail of her work routine and life. And when she finally saw the film, she was very emotional and cried. But she didn’t cry because she was seeing herself. She cried because she became very concerned about the well-being of the child characters – not necessarily about her character.

Roma has a number of complex long takes, where you have dozens of characters doing different things at the same time, and within that one single uncut take, the scene can rise and fall a few times. How does one stage something as complex as that?

Well, you really have to be taking care of everything, because one thing informs the other, and the camera is taking in such a wide expanse that the foreground is as important as the background. That’s how you create a whole tapestry… But how I keep the scene organic and convincing is that I never give instructions collectively. I would give specific instructions to specific people. So in a scene with a large group of people, I would say to maybe one person, “Once this happens, you do this”, and then I tell another person separately, “Once this happens, you do that.” And then I kind of just allow the actors to follow through on their actions, you know, allow some level of chaos to happen all the time, to create that tapestry.

As a filmmaker, how has the industry changed for you, now that cinema attendances have dropped significantly, while viewership on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon has risen dramatically? Do you see yourself making films that fit the smaller screen?

It’s really just a different platform. The processes of filmmaking are the same. I mean, of course I would prefer people watch my films on the big screen. But even if I’m lucky and get a long theatrical release for a film like Gravity, the theatrical run might be just three months before it goes into home video and digital formats. There isn’t much difference to the way I work… That said, I’m intrigued by the possibility of doing a TV show because I see the potential of stretching a narrative that isn’t confined to the two-hour run of a film. It’s a chance to develop characters and follow them for some time. So I’m looking to do a TV show but one that’s not so TV-ish, one that’s more cinematic.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: Gage Skidmore on Flickr