“In this country you’re not the first, and you won’t be the last.”
There’s something sad that happens to you when you migrate. You’ve worked so hard as a young person to hold on to a sense of individuality and to stop feeling like you don’t belong in the world. You travel to a new country and there’s a culture shock. There’s first the language barrier to overcome. There are also customs and things that are done differently from where you came from, and there’s a period of adjustment. I describe the first months after I arrived in the United States as feeling as if I were underwater, or separated from those around me by a glass wall that I needed to sit behind, and sounds coming my way were muddled or undecipherable. Then there’s the hardest part: As you start getting more comfortable in your new surroundings and with your vocabulary, you start to feel that your old self, the one you left behind in your country is fading away and is ceasing to exist. In a way, all people that immigrate go through this transformation. I always think of the great Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan saying that he died when he left Ireland and a new him was born here. The complicated part is that you never feel like you fully belong in either place.
I feel nobody in film has captured in such an uncompromising way that situation I describe above quite like writer/director Fernando Frias in “I’m No Longer Here” (2019). The film is Mexico’s official selection for the Academy Awards, and it has been shortlisted with fifteen others for the Oscar for Best International Feature award. Mexican titans Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro have been championing it.
Ulises (I love the Homeric allusion) is part of a small street gang in the violence-plagued mountains of Monterrey, Mexico, the second largest city in the country. The group calls themselves “Los Terkos” which means stubborn. They’re a non-violent urban tribe known as “Kolombias,” a countercultural movement about loving a slowed-down version of old cumbia music. Ulises and his friends spend their days dancing and dressing in very bright oversized clothing and are marked by their striking hairdos, which are partly bleached, with long bangs on either side of their faces and the backs of their heads shaved. When they dance to the cumbias they go in a beautiful form of trance, swaying like peacocks, an effect that becomes even more heightened because of the vibrant hues of their baggy clothing.
Frias immerses us in this rich and detailed world without too much explanation. What is extraordinary from the get-go is his visual technique, and the way he juxtaposes the young rebels yearning for freedom against the mountains and the sprawling metropolis below. The camera work is spellbinding, using long takes, and emphasizing with rich texture the sense of alienation and longing of these young people. There’s one dizzying shot where he shows you the valley of the city with flickering lights and it pans and floats above a group of dancers at night that is astounding.
The director also has a very dreamlike sense of pace and editing, going back and forth between timelines telling you the narrative in a non-linear way. It takes a while at times to find your footing in the story, but that’s exactly the way the main character feels, and I love that marriage of content and style.
A drug and political war threatens to consume everything around Ulises, and out of necessity he escapes to an unforgiving Jackson Heights in Queens, New York. He seems to be stumbling, feeling alienated and marginalized. Other Latinx immigrants make fun of the way he dresses and his taste in music. Not able to speak the language, he finds the rest of the city is unwelcoming.
Frias researched, spending months studying members of the Kolombias and casting youth from street gangs. As Ulisses, Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño is commanding and soulful. His dancing is magnetic. While in New York, he makes friends with a young Chinese immigrant, Lin (Angeline Chen), who gives us a sense of hope. “Well we’re both on the same boat,” he tells her in Spanish. “I don’t understand you.” There are two strong females with strong advice. His mother tells him to never come back to his country, and a streetwalker in New York tells him to soldier on.
Frias has a sturdy style. Working with director of photography Damián García, he creates two sharply contrasting worlds that Ulises navigates. Monterrey has a sense of spontaneity and freedom, and New York has a progressive loss of saturation and everyday elements like groceries on a bodega encroach upon him.
Gladys: “And do not step back, even to gain momentum.”
Available to stream on Netflix
Written and Directed by Fernando Frias
Starring Juan Garcia, Daniel Garcia, Xueming Angelina Chen, Leonardo Garza, Tania Alvarado, Leo Zapata, Fanny Tovar, Yahir Alday, Adriana Arbelaes and Jonathan Espinoza
Writer and Director Fernando Frias on Bringing “I’m No Longer Here” to the Screen
“This is a story I wanted to tell because it connects through the possibilities that fiction brings to us — different points that come from real life, from history, from place and from social issues, and especially from perspective. The story is just the excuse for the film to exist, the film is just like this thread that connects all these points that I was interested in exploring and connecting and showing that connection. It’s about the emotions of what our character feels, at least inside, as a consequence of the environment and the things that he is experiencing in terms of dealing with the drug trade and the war against drugs, with the lack of opportunities in Mexico, with the spontaneity of counter-culture and its value, and especially with prejudice and with the way we see each other. I wanted to tell this story because I wanted to question the way in which we assume certain things; like in general, people would think that certain people that live in certain places are such a way. I wanted to offer an angle that looked into some issues that have been addressed by other content and our narrative but with another perspective, with empathy to its characters, and to the people that are represented in the film.” (hollywoodreporter.com)
Writer and Director Fernando Frias on the Music of “I’m No Longer Here”
“Like 95 percent of the music I already knew from the script. It’s funny because since 2017, since before shooting, I told the producers in Mexico, “Make sure you have the rights for the songs because these are the ones that have to be. Have you cleared them?” “No I’m on it.” [Later]”Have you cleared?” “I’m on it.” They were written in the script so I always knew. One of the things that I have been clear about since the beginning was how the film ends, what’s exactly the scene of the ending. That’s normally how I approach my work in general, it always starts with the ending and then everything is just finding the way to get to that ending. So that [final] song was there, for example. It’s funny because at some point, we didn’t have the rights of certain songs but for me, they were incredibly important. There’s one song that Ulises dances to when he’s fighting with his roommates in New York, and he lip syncs the song that says like “I am Your Majesty and this is my cumbia.” So I needed that.
I said, “I am sorry, but I’m going to have to film the scenes with the real music, even if it over-imposes dialogue.” I know it’s not the best idea because if later on we don’t find the rights or something, how are we going to get away with it? But for me, my songs were cast like characters, so I went that way. Like 95 percent of the songs remained, we just switched one in Mexico and one in Monterrey. And sometimes the music was like playing against mood, sometimes the music underlines the feeling that Ulises is having at that moment; instead of his connection to his land in Monterrey, other times it actually reminds him how far he is. When he’s walking alone in Jackson Heights at night and he sees that everyone has someone but him — some skateboarder kids who are together, some other people jogging, they are together, and he’s just alone. And there’s a song that plays from his mp3 that it’s almost like an ironic cumbia, it’s almost as if it were making fun of him.” (hollywoodreporter.com)
Frias on Casting “I’m No Longer Here”
“…Each one of the actors we worked with have a story behind how we found each other. It’s very interesting, there’s many different cases. For example, Chaparra [played Bianca Coral Puente Valenzuela], she came to help take care of her friend’s kids while her friend Tania [Alvarado] was doing the casting for [her character] Wendy. And when Tania left the audition she introduced me to her kids, and I met Bianca and I told her, “Do you want to also try?” And she said, “Sure, why not?” And she maybe didn’t have the characteristics that we were looking for for a certain character, but we were open to see and hear and listen and talk to people. That was a part of the process that gave us back a lot because it also helped the script. So we didn’t even have a scene but we improvised and then we saw Bianca’s amazing histrionic skills and we were fascinated by that. That became a very important thing because we even wrote a role more specific for her.
And there are cases like Leo [Zapata], who plays Isai, the kid who in the film ends up dying and there’s a funeral. I met him the first time we started looking for kids in different places in Monterrey, in the streets. He came in super straightforward, he told me all of the things that were unaccepted by authorities and society, and he was very open about the things he had done and his decisions in life. He was troubled, his life at that moment was complicated and he was hard to track; he was moving around a lot but I felt like he had so much charm and such an open and honest way to share with us that I wanted to do everything I could to keep him coming back to the callbacks and the casting and the rehearsals. It was difficult, but in the end I’m happy to see it happened and he was very, very proud of it. So behind each of the characters, there are very interesting stories. The more we were becoming like a family, the more each one was helping. We would be rehearsing and we would be like “Hey kids, we are missing this guy who is a character that in the film comes in and yells at you — do you have any ideas, any neighbor, any cousin?” And they would be like, “Let me think, oh yeah, maybe this and that.” And we’d say “Can we call them? Can we get them to send a video or something?” “Oh yeah, or next time I’m coming to the rehearsals can he come with me?” So we would be rehearsing and then someone will come and say like, “Hey, I want to try for that role.” It was a very, very nice process in which a lot of us got involved. (hollywoodreporter.com)
About Director of Photography Damián García
Damián García studied Cinematography at Mexico City’s CCC (Center for Cinema Studies) and specialised as Director of Photography in Barcelona, at the Film and Audiovisual School of Catalonia (ESCAC). Since 2003, Damián has worked in cinema and advertising and has shot films like “Chicogrande” (Official Selection and Opening Film at the 58th International Film Festival of San Sebastián, Best Cinematography at the 32nd International Film Festival of Havana and nominated for Best Cinematography by the Mexican Academy of Film Arts and Sciences in 2010), El Infierno by Luis Estrada (nominated for Best Cinematography by the Mexican Academy of Film Arts and Sciences in 2010), “La Vida Precoz y Breve de Sabina Rivas,” directed by Luis Mandoki (nominated for Best Cinematography by the Mexican academy of Film Arts and Sciences in 2013), “Güeros” (Best Cinematography in Tribeca 2014, “Ariel” for the Best Cinematography by the Academy of Films Arts and Sciences in 2015). In 2015, Damián shot “Desierto” by Jonás Cuaron (staring Gael García Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and “Mr. Pig” by Diego Luna (starring Danny Glover and Maya Rudolph). In 2016, shot the first season of the TV mini-series “Mars,” produced by Imagine Entertainment and Radical Media. (damiangarcia.net)
About Writer and Director Fernando Frias
Fernando Frias is a Mexican documentary filmmaker, screenwriter and award-winning director. He recently directed all 6 episodes of the first season of “Los Espooky’s” on HBO, from “Saturday Night Live” alums Julio Torres and Fred Armisen. He wrote, directed and produced his latest feature, “I’m No Longer Here,” which was selected for the Sundance Screenwriters lab and won over 10 prestigious development, production and post-production grants. The film has gone on to win the feature film competition and audience prizes at the Morelia Film Festival in 2019 and best film at the Cairo International Film Festival. It has also garnered 10 Mexican Academy Premios Arieles, including Best Director, Best Picture and Best Script. It has been nominated at the Goya Awards and chosen to represent Mexico at the Oscars in 2021. Frias is an alumnus of Columbia University where he received his MFA in directing and screenwriting as a Fulbright Scholar. (friasdelaparra.com)