Winner of the Venice Film Festival’s Queer Lion and a hit at festivals around the world, Li Cheng’s José is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago with screenings in more US cities over the coming weeks. Set in Guatemala City, the film follows 19 year-old José (Enrique Salanic) a gay working class young man living with his mother, falling in love for the first time and struggling to forge a future for himself in a society dominated by conservative Catholic and Evangelical Christian religion.
The film’s lead actor Enrique Salanic had intended to travel to the US to support the film’s release but had two unsuccessful attempts to secure a US visa. The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke with Enrique Salanic earlier this week on the phone from Guatemala City.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Ideally we’d be talking face to face in the US, but unfortunately your visa to come here to promote the film’s release was denied wasn’t it?
Enrique Salanic: “Yes, I would love to be there face to face talking to you. As of now I think this experience of being denied the US visa is frustrating in a way, but also kind of confusing because my intention was just to go to the US to promote the movie, but they thought I was a flight risk, that’s what they told me, that I might misuse the visa. I tried to apply twice and both times I got denied. I don’t know if they saw the trailer or they did some more research about me. The second time I applied US Congressman Ted Lieu sent a letter to the Guatemalan embassy to advocate for me, but when I went to the embassy they said ‘no, we don’t have anything here on the computer. I think you’re lying’ they told me. The agent I spoke to at the embassy said, ‘do you think a Congressman would lie for a random person like you, especially a foreigner?’ I thought they were trying to provoke me so I just stayed silent. The lady gave me some sassy look, so I took my passport back and went out.”
“The first time it was denied I was really disappointed and frustrated. There were a lot of emotions because I studied in the US for four years and then I worked there and decided to come back to Guatemala. My heart needed to come back to my country. I like to follow my intuition, and actually it turned out well because my first movie happened, Days of Life and then José, so it’s been all great. So the first time I got denied I was confused. I told them that have a projects in Guatemala that I need to return to like the YouTube channel I have with friends intended to strengthen the 22 Mayan languages here by inspiring young generations to speak these Mayan languages. I’m a producer and actor on the project. So I had a reason to come back to the country and not stay in the US, but I guess the embassy didn’t see it like that, they thought I was going to stay there. But the second time it wasn’t that disappointing. The universe is always wiser than any of us I guess. My intuition tells me that. Anyway, it is what it is, right?”
Exactly, we’ll talk about the movie now, but I thought it was important to mention the visa situation.
“Yes definitely and on the positive side it’s given more visibility to the movie. Me getting the visas denied has reached the newspapers here. I just came from an interview this morning here in Guatemala City and I’m doing another one this afternoon. So it’s nice that magazines and radio stations are giving me the space to speak up about it. I understand the responsibility and I know it’s not only me that this has happened to. There are many people that have had the same situation and they don’t have a voice and I can be that voice, not only in Guatemala, but around the world. Many artists want to go to another country and return to their respective countries.”
Well, at some point we’ll get to chat in person in the US I’m sure.
“Yes, I’d love to and I hope that day comes soon.”
Taking you back a few years, what was your initial reaction to being involved in José? In terms of the subject matter did you have any reservations and perhaps also that it was being made by someone from outside the country?
“Yes, I was initially a bit sceptical about outsiders coming to do that here in Guatemala, but I loved the enthusiasm and energy that the filmmakers George Roberson and Li Cheng had for making the movie. It was very inspiring and moving when they told me about the project and I told myself ‘OK, this is the time to do this, because if I waited for Guatemala to be ready to tell a story like this then the world is going to end first!’ So I thought ‘it’s time and I’m sure Jose will find it’s way throughout the world’, and it has found it’s way.”
“It wasn’t a hard decision to sign on to do the film. I’m very fortunate to have the support of my family, my siblings and my mum and dad, they do accept me and love me for the way I am. It really surprises me how open and accepting they are in a way because they haven’t travelled to different countries, but they do love to read so maybe they’ve gotten to know other worlds by reading books. Their support gave me a lot of strength to do this movie, because I told myself ‘well, if my family knows I’m gay then it’s OK, I think I can speak up for those young people and future generations who don’t have that voice or that opportunity, especially for Guatemala, it’s a very conservative country and the film’s trying to raise a voice and I can be one of those voices that are speaking up.”
What are things like generally for LGBTQ people in Guatemala, are many people open about their sexuality?
“I would say that in Guatemala City and other major cities people in the LGBTQ+ community are more visible, but it always takes a lot of strength because sometimes you hear cases when people from the LGBTQ community are killed because of who they are and sometimes it gets scary, but there are some pride marches once a year and it is a movement that has been growing little by little. I believe that José is a seed for future generations so they can live more peacefully, so that they can hold hands and kiss each other in the streets and have a family and have society being OK with that, without them having to live their lives afraid or worried about being harmed on the street or even being killed. It starts with something small and little by little we create that space for future generations.”
The Luis character, beautifully played by Manolo Herrera in the film, who José falls in love with kind of represents that future in a way doesn’t he? He suggests that they move away to be together as a couple. Could you talk a bit about what impact Luis has on José’s life.
“As you see in the film José is looking for guys on apps but that’s just for random sex, but when Luis comes into his life and he falls in love it’s a feeling he hadn’t considered. It just comes naturally out of him and it just flows for them, they never question if what they feel is right or wrong, it just is. José just rolls with that and they fall in love. We can’t blame Luis for wanting a better life, everyone has the right to look for a fulfilling life and for Luis that meant going away. No matter if you’re from the LGBTQ+ community or not, falling in love, being happy, having that sense of loss, these are very relatable, human feelings, I think that’s why José is so relatable.”
Tell me a bit about working with Manolo Herrera on your scenes together and creating that intimate on screen relationship with him.
“I think Li was very smart and subtle about those intimate scenes. Manolo isn’t gay in real life, he has a girlfriend and everything, he’s straight. So he was very professional and a very nice actor as well, it was great to work with him and Li took us together for coffees and we chatted to each other a lot. Little by little that confidence between us grew and in the end he became a good friend and by the time we were doing the sex scenes they just happened very naturally. I thought they were going to be the hardest but by that point we were very comfortable working together and they just happened very nicely. I was very surprised and glad that it happened that way because at the beginning I didn’t know how those scenes were going to happen.”
I’m imagine when you first read the script you might’ve though ‘oh, I have to be naked quite a lot in this film’ for the shower scenes and the sex scenes.
“Yes I did, but when you are immersed in your character, I guess it happens to all of us actors, you forget the acting, you forget the camera and you just flow with the situation.”
I know when the filmmakers Li and George were preparing to make the film they conducted a lot of interviews with LGBTQ people in Guatemala, did you do any similar research yourself as you were preparing to play José?
“Before and during the filming time I had the privilege to chat to a lot of people from the LGBTQ community from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. That gave me a lot of perspective and different insights into real life situations and other people’s experiences. Most of them were very moving and very inspiring because they were so strong. Like I said, I thought the sex scenes were going to be difficult, but the hardest part was interpreting those emotions of loss or happiness or joy or sadness because I was keeping in mind how I was going to synthesise all those stories that I heard. I had to write a lot and reflect a lot on the stories that people had told me and I’m very grateful to them because they opened up to me. Those stories synthesised into my character José and they just came into my performance on screen.”
What sort of experiences were they sharing with you?
“Maybe 30% of the people who I met came from outside of Guatemala City, from rural communities and most of them haven’t come out to their families, they’re still in the closet with them, and they had to come to the city because they feel more conformable here, they feel safer. So there is a lot of migration within the country to Guatemala City. From what I’ve seen it’s more open as a city towards LGBTQ people and in rural places it can be very extreme, there’s either a lot of machismo and a lot of prejudice against the community or people just pretend it isn’t real, that you’re not gay, or trans or lesbian, they just pretend that you don’t exists. Either way you feel ostracised from society and I guess as humans because we’re social, it’s not a very nice feeling. Some of the people I met were going to university or high school, but once they came out to their parents, hoping for their support, they were either kicked out of their homes or all the financial support was taken away from them. They felt so alone and frustrated, but by the time they told me those stories a few years have passed and I could see how strong the were, how they had turned those bad experiences into something that gives them strength and the liberty to be who they are. So that’s why I say those stories were very inspiring to me and some were very moving, we would cry together as they told me what had happened to them. Every story I heard I could feel the weight of the responsibility in playing José. It’s been very rewarding because sometimes I get messages from people around the world thanking me for the job I’ve done and it’s very moving and such a nice feeling to know that people can relate to this story.”
Has José been shown much in Guatemala?
“In Guatemala it played at a film festival called La Otra Banqueta, which specifically shows movies that are from the LGBTQ community and people who go to the festival are interested in seeing those types of films. So the reception was very good and people were very welcoming. I’m sure some people had their criticisms, I mean you can’t please everybody, but most of them were very supportive and it was nice to bring the movie to the country where it was born, because a lot of people had been waiting to see the it here. Both of the screenings there were sold out and some people couldn’t get tickets to see it, so from my understanding another screening is being organised. As for a general theatre release I’m not sure what the reaction would be to that if happened. Sometimes Guatemala can be very surprising. It can be very accepting but it can sometimes be very radical and conservative, you never know. Whenever José comes to movie theatres for the general public we’ll see what happens and how it’s received, I’ll hold my judgement until then.”
There’s a moment where Luis and José are lying bed together, looking at each other, and I believe there’s a visual reference there to an artwork depicting Mayan kings. I think that got put into the film at your suggestion didn’t it?
“Yes, there’s a Mayan structure that was discovered and the piece has a lot of interpretations, some people think the two men depicted might be brothers or just kings, perhaps trying to resolve a conflict, but some people say that they are two kings kissing each other. So taking all these different interpretations into account, I told Li about it. It could be possible that they are gay, in Mesoamerica, before the Europeans came to these lands there were some communities that did punish sexual behaviour between members of the same sex, but some other communities considered same sex love as scared because it showed that you could manage duality, the masculine and feminine sides, so being gay was was considered a virtue. It was something that Li was very interested in, so he asked us to pose in the way that the two kings are depicted in the Mayan piece as a homage to it. Maybe those two kings weren’t kissing each other, but I think the point is, we’re trying to make people realise that there were some Mayan places and communities that did accept people in same sex relationships, and it was part of their lives and it was OK for you to be gay or lesbian or whoever you wanted to be. I think that was Li’s reason for including that reference.”
And towards the end of the film José goes to an ancient Mayan site doesn’t he, connecting with heritage. Could you talk about what that meant to the character?
“I think it’s a way of us asking ourselves ‘who am I? Where am I coming from?’ You ask yourself ‘where are your roots?’ I think José being in that Mayan site gives us that idea, that feeling, of asking ‘where are we now? What happened? How did we come to this?’ That’s one interpretation, but I guess that’s the beauty of art, you can have a lot of interpretations, but I think that would be one. José was very surprised, he didn’t realise those kinds of places existed. José’s mother migrated to Guatemala City from a rural community to look for a better life. He’s the first generation that has grown up there, only knowing the city. Looking for Luis gives José another perspective not only on his personal life, but a chance to explore the world and see that there are so many mysteries in it. He sees the importance of moving on.”
From the film it seems that the mother figure is important in Guatemalan society, and José’s relationship with is mother is important in the film. It’s quite a complex relationship because José is keeping a big part of himself a secret from her. Can you give us an insight into the dynamics between them?
“I think José’s mother is just being a mother. Like any mother, she’s an incarnation of love and she was doing the best that she knew how. We can see she has external pressure on her from religion and society, what’s expected for her to do is to kick José out of the house or punish him, or try to make him ‘normal’. But in one of the scenes we see José coming back and the mother already knows he’s being seeing a man, but instead of arguing with him or punishing him she offers him food. I think it’s a very moving scene because it’s her way of saying that it’s OK and that she loves him. People might see it as a dependant relationship and I guess she just wants to make sure he’s OK and to keep him close so she can keep an eye on him. I’m sure the mother realises at some point he’ll have to leave the nest, but she wants to spend as much time as possible with him to keep him safe. And where is his father? It’s a question also for society, you know because you’re supposed to be a man and woman, that’s society’s image of the perfect thing you’re supposed to be, but that doesn’t necessary work out as we see with José. But he loves his mother and also loves Luis his boyfriend, both are important to him and I think José also appreciates the sacrifices his mother has made for him. He’s 19 which is a confusing age, you’re not only resolving your live life, but your identity, what you want out of life. There are a lot of things that you’re seeking answers to and I think you have more questions that answers. It can be quite a confusing time in out lives in general. We don’t really see José that happy or that sad, he just flows through society to survive.”
José is currently playing at New York’s Quad Cinema. It opens today at Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles with filmmaker Q&As at select screenings and Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. For more US cities head to the Outsider Pictures website.