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Año Uña: Photo Montage Film

Jonás Cuarón, son of Alfonso Cuarón makes his debut with a touching film made up of snapshots of his friends and family.

Año Uña is a wonderful film. Stylistically influenced by Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Jonás Cuarón’s debut film is a postmodern merging of fiction and truth. Snapping pictures of his family and girlfriend at home in Mexico and New York for a year, he then collated the shots before reassembling them into a totally new narrative.

A will-they won’t-they love story told solely in still photos, it sees a frustrated Mexican teen (Cuarón’s brother, Diego Cataño) and an older American student (Cuarón’s girlfriend, Eireann Harper) meet when she becomes a lodger one summer.

I took the 25-year-old film-maker aside to chat about Año Uña, making his brother talk dirty to his girlfriend and the future of Mexican film.

Dazed Digital: How did the project come about?
Jonás Cuarón: I wanted to find new ways of doing cinema. Normally people write the screenplay first and then impose images, but I wanted to first have the image and out of the image, the screenplay. I dedicated a year to taking pictures of my everyday life – of my girlfriend; my brother; my family. And then after a year I ordered the pictures and constructed a fictional narrative. The photos are real but the story is complete fiction.

DD: You must have a bunch left over then?
JC: Yeah, I took 8,000 photos and in the movie I used two or three thousand. The rest just didn’t work for this narrative. But, what I find interesting is the many other stories that could have been told with the photos. That’s why we did an online competition where we put up pictures from the movie and allowed other people to make their own short film from them. [The winners were announced on 24th November and will be screened at London’s Curzon Renoir cinema before Año Uña on 29 November 2008. Alfonso Cuarón will introduce the film.]

DD: What camera did you choose and what did it add to the film, do you think?
JC: I used a Nikon FM, which is just a normal film camera that I always use. At one point I thought it would be easier to use a digital camera but, since I wanted to play with the idea of photography, I thought having grain in there would be a nice detail.    
Also, I made sure that at the beginning of the film the photos start in black and white. As the story moves closer to the present they become more colourful, which I something I did via colour correction. I wanted to play with the idea of memory and the greater sense of colour and detail you have with newer memories as opposed to the abstractness of ones from further back.

DD: What do you think about people our age using the net to make cheap films?
JC: I think digital is a really great format. Yes, I took my photos with film, but the whole process of editing them was digital. Once I had the negatives I scanned them and was able to edit them cheaply from home. It was cheap – but long.  Doing it again though, I’d still use film.

DD: What does the title Año Uña mean?
JC: It has a few meanings. When I started working on the photographs, I realised the passage of time was going to be an important theme so that’s where the word ‘year’ (año) comes into it. The title in Spanish means ‘year of the [toe]nail’ which relates to the fact that the film is framed around a year in which the boy, Diego has an ingrown toenail.
It’s also a play on the letter ñ because the movie talks a lot about the boundaries between two languages - specifically between English and Spanish - and for me the ñ is one very clear example of that boundary.

DD: How did your dad, Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men) help as executive producer?
JC: During the filmmaking process, I wasn’t able to ask advice from anyone besides my girlfriend because nobody understood what I was doing. When I finished it I showed it to my dad and he got really interested in the new format and the new language of the film that he told me he would gladly help me promote it.

DD: Have you always wanted to work with your dad?
JC: No, until I did this, I didn’t even realise I wanted to do film. I wanted to write, tell stories and take photographs. But, while making it I realised film was a good balance between the two. It allows me to tell a story but via a visual medium.  And then, after I made this one, I had the opportunity to work with my dad on a short film project called The Shock Doctrine.

DD: For Naomi Klein? How did that come about?
JC: Yeah. I was in London for a month before opening this film at Venice and Naomi Klein asked my dad to make a trailer for her new book, The Shock Doctrine.
At that time he was really busy so he was going to say no, but that weekend I read the book and felt it was really interesting. I told my dad that if he needed help I’d gladly do it. So he and Naomi wrote the screenplay and I directed it.  

DD: The characters speak in internal monologues, often orating sexual desires. Was it embarrassing to direct your little brother saying sexual things about your real-life girlfriend?
JC: [Laughs]. They both took it as an acting job. Also, all of the characters have their real names apart from my girlfriend – I changed her name to Molly – because I knew that it was going to be easier for my brother to say dirty things about ‘Molly’ than my girlfriend.  
If the characters had thought that I was talking directly about them they would have got angry – like, my cousin would have got angry about the things I say about her – but I always made it clear that it’s fiction. People were pretty cool about taking it as a game almost.

DD: Is your girlfriend a professional actress?
JC: She made everything on the project work. She acted, edited, helped produced it. And the idea was kind of hers.

DD: Año Uña seems to be made without compromise - not to please an audience and not to win their money. Do you care what critics think?
JC: It’s true I was trying to find a way to make a film that didn’t require big budgets or studio support. But film is a means of communication and I think it is important to keep your audience in mind. You don’t want to make them suffer.
One of things I really tried to run away from was; I didn’t want it to be something that would only work for my family. I really worked on making the narrative fictional and making the characters enjoyable for those that don’t know us. In a way it has two layers. One is fiction for the audience and the second is the layer that my family sees – the film as a photo album.

DD: What’s the reaction been like?
JC: People tell me that in the first five minutes they are really dreading having to sit through 80 minutes of photographs, but by minute seven, they are already drawn into it. They stop thinking about the fact there are photographs on the screen and think about the plot instead.

DD: That pretty much mirrors my experience. Did you have a problem selling a film that can be described as an ‘art movie with a bunch of photos with people whispering their thoughts aloud in two different languages’?
JC: [Laughs] It’s true. When people hear about it, they are nervous. But when they see it, they really enjoy it. I think the device [of orating all thoughts aloud] creates a level of intimacy with the characters that does not normally exist. In normal film, monologues can be…

DD: Cheesy?
JC: Yes. But in this film, it feels natural. Also, I like the play between the inner and the outer self. For instance, the character of the boy is interesting because at that age, you have all these plans as to how you’re going to get the girl and you think you’re Casanova in your head. But on the outside you’re shy and awkward.

DD: Will you and your girlfriend continue to work together?
JC: Hopefully. She is someone who is very active conceptually. She is always coming up with new ideas, so even if we end up working separately I will always ask her for advice.

DD: How did you meet?
JC: We studied at the same college [Vassar, New York state]. She majored in art history and I took an art history class. I double majored in studio art and English literature.

DD: What are your thoughts on the future of Mexican film?
JC: Right now is a good moment for Mexican film – people just want to make films no matter what and they don’t wait for vast production support. There’s a big community of Mexican filmmakers right now.
But I’m more interested in the future of worldwide film. Films end up being national because they end up having a language but a good film ends up talking about more universal things. I’m really big fan of the Dardenne brothers and am really excited about seeing their latest film, The Silence Of Lorna.

Año Uña is released on 28th November.