El Norte, the acclaimed, Oscar-nominated epic about immigrants from Central America seeking the promise represented by life in U.S., returns to 200-plus movie theaters Sunday to mark National Hispanic Heritage Month and the film’s 35th anniversary.
The revival, a presentation of Fathom Events and Lionsgate, marks the film’s first theatrical release since its 1984 debut and features a state-of-the-art restoration produced by the Academy Film Archives, supported in part by the Getty Foundation. Lionsgate will also re-release El Norte on digital formats September 17.
The theatrical presentation will include a special introduction by El Norte director and co-writer Gregory Nava (whose credits also include Mi Familia and Selena) as well as a new featurette on the dangerous “outlaw” production that yielded a heartfelt film that both Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale would invoke during the 1984 presidential race.
Gregory NavaThis was an outlaw film. You don’t make “El Norte” with permission. You follow the rules, it doesn’t get made.
The film, which was named to the U.S. National Film Registry, tracks the flight of two terrorized Guatemalans — Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez) and her brother Enrique (David Villalpando) — as they travel from their highlands village to Los Angeles. Deadline caught up with Nava to discuss the real-life fate of the film’s young stars, the resurgent resonance of the subject matter, and the political possibilities of filmmaking that flies in the face of authority, resists polemics and keeps its hand on its heart.
DEADLINE: The film’s rhythms and textures feel very contemporary. It doesn’t feel like a move celebrating its 35th anniversary.
NAVA: A couple of months ago, we premiered the Academy restoration of the film in Europe at the Berlin Film Festival and there were over 1,000 people there and it was packed and it got a standing ovation, and people said exactly what you said. They said this film doesn’t feel like it was made 35 years ago. It feels like it could’ve been made today, you know. And, more importantly, the message is a contemporary one, of course, and in Berlin, they really got that. They really showed up to support the film because that is a city that was separated by a wall and they really took the film to their hearts because they know, profoundly, that walls don’t work. All of the honors the film is receiving are so wonderful to all of us who made it, but it’s very, very bittersweet, too, because the message of the film is more relevant and more needed today than it was 35 years ago when it was originally released. That the situation is still so tragic on our southern border with refugees and look at the events in El Paso…
DEADLINE: It must be discouraging to see the same entrenched issues, the same bitter divides, the same rhetoric…
NAVA: It really affects us all but I’m so happy that the film is being brought back because I really feel that its message of compassion and humanity is so needed today. For people to watch the epic journey of Rosa and Enrique and what they really go through to come to the United States seeking a better life in the face of violence. I mean anybody would make that choice, wouldn’t they? When people see the movie, they say, “Yes, if I was Rosa and Enrique, I would do the same thing.” People have a right to save their lives and the lives of their families.
DEADLINE: Can you talk a bit about the films original release and the context of the times?
NAVA: When the movie was originally released it had tremendous impact. It played in theaters all over the country. It played in Los Angeles at Music Hall Theater in Beverly Hills for a year and in downtown L.A. and the theaters on Broadway for a year and in New York for a year. It was the first independent film to be nominated for an Academy Award and all of that was fantastic, but most importantly: everybody was going to see it. It helped create this atmosphere of compassion that influenced the United States government to give protective status to refugees from Central America. Thousands of people’s lives were saved as a result of that. The film became part of the national dialogue. Both Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale mentioned El Norte when they had their presidential debates and again, it helped create this sympathy and understanding. The film was released in 1984 and the U.S. government gave the protective status in 1986 that legalized 2 million immigrants and the film helped lead to that. So all of those things I’m really proud of, that the film had that kind of impact. But all that compassion has gone away now and it’s been replaced by policies of cruelty. You see what’s happening on the southern border with families being ripped apart and children put in cages, and now people murdered in El Paso simply because they’re Latino. The message of this film is needed much more today actually than when we made it 35 years ago.
DEADLINE: The situation you see now is more desperate than the one you saw in the 1980s?
NAVA: Yes, because we started to go a more compassionate way but it’s changed. You’re never going to deal successfully with the issues and the problems with cruelty. It just doesn’t work. Cruelty and walls don’t work. So what we need to do right now is we need to build bridges not walls. We need policies of compassion, not cruelty. That is the vestige of El Norte.
DEADLINE: The prominence and authenticity of El Norte made it especially influential among aspiring independent filmmakers and Latino filmmakers. That must be something that’s very satisfying to you and something that’s come back to you in heartfelt ways.
NAVA: Yes, I’m pleased with that. It was a groundbreaking film, both for Latinos and the independent film movement at the time, and it does my heart good that it opened so many doors. It started a whole interest in such things. I was talking to Alfonso Cuarón and we were talking about Roma, which is such a great masterpiece, and when El Norte was released, he said the landscape was like a desert for Latino films at that time in the United States. I mean, there was nothing, you know, and this film came along, and El Norte really, really changed that. I’m so very, very proud of that. I’m very proud of the influence it had but most importantly, I’m proud of the fact that you know it created so much sympathy for people who come here seeking a better life.
DEADLINE: Talk a bit about your life experience and how it lead up to the film’s conception.
NAVA: I was born and raised on the border. That’s my world, and I have family on both sides of the border. I’m bilingual and bi-cultural. I’ve seen this situation since I was a child, people trying to cross the border seeking a better life, and El Norte comes from like a 6-year-old going “Why is this so?” That was the perspective I always wanted the film to have. I didn’t want it to get political. You know that the film doesn’t get involved in politics. It tells a human drama. The reasons for making the film are even deeper than that. I’ll tell you something that I really haven’t shared with people before and that is that the attack on our community, the Latino community, is not a new thing that we see today. It has been going on for a long time. In the 1930s, the Hoover administration blamed the Depression on Mexican people and they followed a policy called Real Jobs for Real Americans and they deported between 1 million and 2 million people of Mexican ancestry from the United States. The majority of them were citizens. They estimate that about 60 percent were U.S. citizens and many of the rest were here legally. One of the people who was deported was my grandfather. Our family was ripped apart, just as families are being ripped apart today. The wound from that, you know, affects us to this day, three generations later.
DEADLINE: The legacy of that kind of rupture isn’t one that’s contained to a single generation…
NAVA: These things don’t go away. So I know how devastating what’s happening right now is and that is another reason why it was so important to me back then 35 years ago to make El Norte and to give a heart and soul to the shadows who are the refugees and the undocumented who risked their lives to come to the United States. That’s why it was so important to me, because of the things I’ve seen and also because of the experiences of my own family. My father was raised without a father as a result of that, but he still served this country loyally in World War II. He still believed in the promise of America. I made this film and all my films to honor that. I believed in that promise, too, and I believe, ultimately, in the good-hearted nature of the people of America. I do believe that we will come around on this and we will start to act with more compassion.
DEADLINE: That history is one that very few Americans are aware of at all.
NAVA: Yes. It’s sad because it is such a major thing to happen and yet it’s not in our history book. And it should be in our history books. All of these things need to be talked about. If they were talked about then what’s happening today might not be happening. I really feel very strongly that Latino content makers have to make more films, more television series, more art that tells the truth about our people and shows our heart and soul to the country. Right now that’s not happening. When people see our heart and soul they will embrace our community and the things that have happened at the southern border or in El Paso can never happen again. There are far too many Narcos on television and movies, and you know I understand that and, you know, crime is always a great subject for movies and TV shows. But we need a balance and right now I think that the filmmakers and Hollywood itself needs to really see what’s happening and take it to heart. People in all fields, politicians, teachers, everybody needs to really see what’s happening and come together.
DEADLINE: You mentioned that El Norte doesn’t have an overt political message and it’s true, the film is more heartfelt and humanistic. In a way, though, that makes it far more effective at communicating and winning the hearts and minds of audiences. In the end, it’s politically effective by starting politically neutral.
NAVA: Yes. I agree with that wholeheartedly and that was my point of view when I made the movie. We didn’t want to get political. We wanted to avoid any polemics. It had to be made entirely from Rosa’s and Enrique’s point of view doing only what they do and experiencing it through their eyes. What a drama can do is tell a human story, reveal a heart and soul. That was one of the first things that Roger Ebert said about the movie. He said, “Greg, this is one of the most powerful, political films ever because it’s not political and that makes it more powerful politically. It lets people come to the story and make their own conclusions and contemplate their own feelings about it.” I didn’t just make this film Latino audiences. I made it for everybody because I believe in the universality of the given experience. You don’t have to be a Prince of Denmark to tell a universal story. You can be Mayan refugees like Rosa and Enrique. That’s another aspect of the film that I think is very important. They’re indigenous people. I wanted to preserve their culture and their point of view and fill the film with their mythology and spirituality. All the images that come in the movie come from the Popol Vuh, which is the Mayan creation myth and it has twin heroes, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, and that’s why I chose to have Rosa and Enrique be twin heroes, equally important in that, duel protagonists, because that’s so true to Mayan culture. I wanted to reflect that and also because then we can show what a man goes through and what a woman goes through, both experiences balanced because they’re both so important as you watch Rosa and Enrique make their journey and ultimately, at the end of the film, come to different destinies.
DEADLINE: Anyone watching the film now will be naturally curious about the real-life destinies of the young stars in the film. What can you tell us about them?
NAVA: Well, David and Zaide, they were both very young. I think Zaide celebrated her 20th birthday on the set of El Norte so they were kids when we made this movie and of course, they are playing unaccompanied minors, you know, making the trek to El Norte and they both had wonderful careers since then. You know Zaide is one of the most respected actresses in Mexico and right now, she’s part of the National Theater Company and is in fact, they’re doing an all-women’s production of Hamlet right now in Mexico City and she’s playing Horatio. David has had a terrific career doing television and right now, he’s one of the stars on one of the most successful shows in Spanish language. They’ve both done very, very well with their careers as actors and they’re both remarkable but of course, both of them feel that, you know, the greatest thing they’ve ever done and the most important one is El Norte.
DEADLINE: The satisfaction and pride is understandable but the actual experience of making the film was a harrowing one, correct?
NAVA: Yes, absolutely, I was just out of film school. I was just out of UCLA when we made the film and I mean we had a crew of five people. Five people in a Volkswagen van, right, working in all of these dangerous locations.
DEADLINE: At one point armed men took the negative from you?
NAVA: Yes. We were shooting the scene where the Mayan farmers are killed, assassinated, by the army and that is a very controversial. The film still has not played in Mexico and Guatemala to this day and the images are very powerful and controversial but that one in particular… At the time when we shot that in Mexico there was civil war in Guatemala and in El Salvador and a very unstable situation in Mexico. People were worried and the day we shot the scene with the army assassinating these farmers, a group of armed men came to the set to shut down the movie down. I was shooting with Jim Glennon, a great cinematographer, in these ruins and the producers, Anna Thomas and Bertha Navarro, had to face these guys. I mean, talk about women of courage. They’re facing these guys and we get a message that Jim should sneak out and get back to the hotel to get the negative and get back to the United States. And the message for me was to shoot whatever I can because this is our last day. These guys with guns chased Jim and caught him but he was able to escape. He got into a taxi and went to the airport but they had the negative. We had to pay $35,000 to get the negative back, and most importantly, we had to leave the country. We couldn’t shoot anymore. So we made the exchange of money and negative at midnight at a parking lot in Mexico City. These two vans drive up and they’re full of guys with sunglasses and machine guns. We got the negative, but we had to leave the country.
DEADLINE: That’s an pretty intense production, to say the least.
NAVA: This was an outlaw film. You don’t make El Norte with permission. You follow the rules, it doesn’t get made. Governments don’t want it to get made. We couldn’t make deals with the unions. We tried to make deals with SAG. Forget it. Trying to bring Zaide and David to the United States, SAG didn’t want that. We couldn’t make that deal so finally, we had to shoot the movie without the unions and the whole cast is mainly Latino. They understood and they wanted to tell the story and that’s what kept us all going. A passion for telling this story. We had to shoot the Tijuana slum scenes with a hidden camera. Zaide and David came to the United States with tourist visas. They were basically undocumented working on El Norte in the United States. The Border Patrol actually cooperated with us. They had a bad rap, but they were wanting to cooperate with people. So the scene where they’re being interrogated by the Border Patrol was shot in the Border Patrol office and in the actual place where those interrogations take place.
DEADLINE: The making of the film sounds worthy of a film of its own.
NAVA: It was an adventure. It all exemplified a famous Mexican saying: “Mejor pedir perdon que pedir permiso.” It’s better to ask pardon than permission. We knew this was the only way it could be done. People risked their lives, obviously, and went through unbelievable adventures making the film. but we were dedicated in giving a voice to the voiceless. Claudia Puig [of USA Today and NPR] called it “groundbreaking” and “the quintessential film about immigration” when it came out and wrote recently that now its “the film of our time.” For us, we were almost killed on several occasions and we had no idea what was going to happen to the movie, but then to have the film make the kind of impact that it had — to influence actual laws in the United States, especially with respect to Central American refugees — it was amazing. It just goes to show that five people and a camera can change the world.