Cannes Celebrated Director Talks About Violent Thriller, ‘Heli’

by Dorri Olds

Amat Escalantewon Best Director last year at Cannes Film Festival for his award-winning movie, “Heli.” The main character, Heli, is played by Armando Espitia. He’s a young

father who lives with his younger sister Estela (Andrea Vergara) in their father’s house along with Heli’s wife (Linda Gonzalez) and their baby. Heli works at the same car factory that his Dad does and both men accept how hard they must work to support themselves and their families. Heli and his dad work different shifts so Heli and his wife “co-parent” his 12-year-old sister Estela.Trouble comes when naïve Estela lets her 17-year-old boyfriend Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios) hide two large packages of cocaine on the roof of her family home. Beto spends his days as a police cadet-in-training and stole the coke from corrupt officials. Beto plans to sell the drugs to make enough money to marry Estela and take her far away from their impoverished and dangerous town.This one lapse in judgment in Beto’s teenage brain leads to disaster. Beto and Estela’s family are in danger. A vicious special crime force and corrupt local officials hire ruthless drug gang members to go after them.Director Escalante granted an exclusive interview to Dorri Olds.

Dorri Olds: What inspired you to write “Heli”?

Amat Escalante: In Mexico we see violence in many images in the media from the time we are very little. Every newsstand carries Alarma! Magazine and the covers are filled with grotesque images. We are used to looking at death, to seeing headless bodies and bodies hanging. Sometimes it seems like a ghost or monster did these things. I wanted to show what is happening.

Can you explain?There is a Hell in Mexico — the high crime, corruption and senseless bombardment from the media. I wanted “Heli” to be realistic and show that it is not monsters that do these things. It is children being paid to torture people and kill them and it is very scary.

How do children get mixed up in this?The Mexican economic system doesn’t work. It is like two countries. We have the very rich in Mexico —including the richest man in the world — and we have the poorest. Poor people are extremely vulnerable because they need money and there aren’t many options.

Who is to blame?It is not just one villain. The enemy is the situation that surrounds Heli. It is not one individual person. Even when there are some bad people in the film you don’t even really see their faces. They are also victims. Nothing is so easy as to say there are bad people and good people.

When kids witness their fathers and brothers torturing people for money, do they grow up and do the same thing?Yes. I wanted to show how vulnerable young people are and it’s the young people who are the only hope that exists. If a country takes care of the young people, the future will be better. Children grow up very quickly in Mexico. The movie is not about every Mexican, but the violence is happening in so many areas and it worries me. I’m frustrated so I made a movie about it.

In “Heli” a young girl gets pregnant. How common is that in Mexico?Very common and abortion is illegal. Young girls are having babies and their babies grow up with a mother who is 13-years-old so it is very difficult for them to stay on track during life. The baby that we used for Heli’s baby in the movie was six-months-old so the mother had to be on set and she was only 14. In the most conservative, religious states in Mexico babies end up having babies.

Do you mean abortion is illegal due to conservatively religious reasons?Yes, and there is no sex education in the schools. There is no guidance and society abandons these kids. It is very commonplace for young adults to see cut-off heads, to see images of violent deaths. So the young are not having the moral guidance that they should have when they’re little. The government is not taking care of its people.“Heli” is now playing in Florida and opening June 13 in New York and California. Visit the “Heli” website for upcoming release dates in additional cities. Rated R. 105 min. Spanish with English subtitles.

Dorri Olds is a journalist at Honeysuckle Magazine, TheBlot Magazine, The Jewish Daily Forward and has been published in The New York Times.