Exclusive Interview: queer Mexican filmmaker Bruno Santamaría on his delicate portrait of gender expression Things We Dare Not Do “it was a very personal movie & it changed my life”

Selected to play at Mexico’s cancelled Guadalajara Film Festival in March, queer director, cinematographer and co-editor Bruno Santamaría’s hauntingly beautiful Things We Dare Not Do/Cosas que no hacemos finally premiered in the World Showcase section at the 2020 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, which ran online from May 28th until June 6th. Following his acclaimed 2016 debut feature Margarita, an intimate portrait of the relationship he developed with an actress living on the streets near his home, Things We Dare Not Do sees the filmmaker turns his focus to the inhabitants of a Mexican costal village. Dancing, running and playing among much younger children, we meet the free-spirited sixteen year old Arturo, who was assigned male at birth. As we spend more time with Arturo she tells Santamaría about her gender expression, which she later discusses with her parents, saying that her dream is to wear women’s clothes; all sensitively captured through the filmmaker’s empathetic lens. Santamaría was so inspired by Arturo’s bravery that he decided to tell his own parents that he is gay three months ago.

Filmmaker Bruno Santamaría. © Bruno Santamaría.

During Hot Docs, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Bruno Santamaría who has spent the last few months of quarantine in San Juan Tlacotenco.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: With your last film Margarita and this film, Things We Dare Not Do, you’ve chosen as your subjects people who are often sidelined, ignored by society and rarely the centre of their own films. How deliberate or conscious a decision is that when you’re deciding who to focus on as director?

“In both cases it was more like I felt the need to talk about these two people, because at a certain moment in my life they were in front of me. I think I started to do narrative documentary cinema because of Margarita. She had lived on the streets in front of my house since I was a child. It was an obsession for me for a long, long time to try and meet her and when we did get involved with one another we started to have a friendship. We talked for a long time and shared stories about our lives and when I started making films I realised that the camera actually made it a bit easier for me to really know her, to meet her, to understand who she is, and at the same time who I am. With Arturo it was in some ways the same thing. I was on a trip with a friend, we were giving video lessons in this small community and suddenly Arturo was right there in front of me and we started to talk to each other and we understood we had some empathy with one another about certain things, about secrets and we realised she was going to be the subject of the film. I think it’s not just a case of trying to find someone, but more that they are suddenly in front of me. Of course I wanted to make a film and I have thoughts about the kinds of films I want to make, for example with Things We Dare Not Do I was trying to talk about repression, how society stops us from doing the things that we want to. That was the only thing that we knew when we started making the film. So it was a bit difficult for the crew, for my friends I was making it with, they’d ask me all the time, ‘what are we doing?’ and I’d say ‘I’m not sure, I just know the title and that it’s about things we dare not do.’ Then suddenly Arturo was there in front of me. I think there’s something about life and passions, waiting for the right moment when it’s very clear, not just for me, but also for the crew who are making the film with me, that these are the subjects, the characters of the film that we want to make.”

Filmmaker Bruno Santamaría with subjects from Things We Dare Not Do. © Bruno Santamaría.

That’s interesting, because watching the film I’d wondered how fixed an idea of the narrative you’d had in your head before you began filming or whether it was more a case of allowing things to unfold in front of you and shaping the narrative from what you were observing.

“With Margarita we tried not to build too much while we were filming. It was so important with Margarita as happened in real life, that she appears in front of me and when I had the camera in front of me I was waiting for things to happen, not pushing them to happen. With Arturo it was the same, suddenly she was in the middle of our eyes and we’d ask what she was feeling and build the story around what she said. That’s the reason I think the stories in both movies are so simple. Just one step really, they’re not very dramatic situations. The most important thing with these kinds of movies, at least for me, is to feel very close; what are the emotions. Taking just one act, for example with Margarita, there’s one person who wants to portray a woman and what is happening between them. With Things We Dare Not Do, Arturo is keeping a secret. Then she tells the secret and she stops hiding it.”

Things We Dare Not Do. © Bruno Santamaría.

You refer to her as Arturo, but in the film she’s usually referred to as Ñoño.

“Yes, Ñoño is what people call her, but now I asked what she prefers and it’s Arturo. About a month ago I asked her which pronouns she prefers and she said ‘she’, so I said I will do it from now. She’s in a process, there’s not much information in the small community where she. She is 18 years old now, when we filmed her coming out she was 16.”

Filmmaker Bruno Santamaría with subjects from Things We Dare Not Do. © Bruno Santamaría.

How did you go about earning the trust of the people whom you film? For instance to be right there in the room when Arturo is talking to her parents about wanting to wear female clothing, it’s very intimate. Obviously you had to establish trust not just with Arturo, but with her family as well in order to be there.

“For me it was it was a very big gift, not just from Arturo, but from her family too, because it was so intimate as you say. Initially this happened because Arturo also understood it was important also for me, because I wasn’t able to do the same thing with my parents. We talked a lot about this. I was in the closet at the same time as Arturo told her parents about her gender expression. We were working for three years in this little town and we got involved with the entire town because it’s very small. We used to show movies outside in the town, have coffee together, we spent Christmas together, celebrated birthdays together. We were a long time with them. Specifically with Arturo’s family, I also had an interview with her mother about her life and her identity. I told her that I wasn’t able to speak to my parents about being gay, so she asked me why and we started to discuss it and she confronted me about it, saying that the worst thing you can do with your mother is to keep a secret from her. Maybe she is not going to be happy that you’re gay, but in the end she’ll accept that, but the thing she won’t be able to understand is the secret. Arturo overheard that. So I think this conversation was so important for everyone who was then later in Arturo’s intimate coming out scene, because everyone understood why we were filming it. The mum understood, the dad understood and Arturo of course was completely in this moment. Leading up that moment, Arturo, the boom operator and I knew what was going to happen, but her mother and the father didn’t. So when it happened it was very tense at the beginning, very quiet and we didn’t know what to do. In the moment I decided that we also needed to see the father’s reaction, so I turned the camera towards him and the mother too. Then I asked them if they’d like me to leave them alone. I said ‘this is your moment and I don’t want to disturb you’,  but they said ‘no, we understand why you’re here and you can stay here’.”

Artruo had come out as gay before that hadn’t she, when was that?

“Arturo told her parents at twelve that she was gay, but she was sixteen when she told them that she wants to dress as a woman.”

Filmmaker Bruno Santamaría . © Bruno Santamaría.

How did making this film and seeing Arturo be so open with his parents affect you in your own life?

“About three months ago I came out as gay to my parents and it was because of the film and Arturo. It feels strange sometimes to talk about myself, but in some ways it is a very personal movie and it touched everyone involved; it touched Arturo, it touched me and it changed my life. Before the pandemic we were going to show the film at a film festival in Mexico, the Guadalajara International Film Festival, but it was cancelled because of the pandemic. But I thought it was very weird that my parents would be going to the movie and be listening to me talking about the film without me having the courage to talk about myself, so I felt I had to come out. I’ve had a boyfriend for three years and my parents knew him, but they didn’t know that he was my boyfriend. But of course when I told them, my mum told me she already knew a long time ago and she said ‘I don’t know why you didn’t tell me before’. So it was simple. It was more of an internal conflict really.”

Yes I think a lot of times we want to be comfortable with ourselves before we come out to our parents, and there’s always that fear of rejection isn’t there. But I’m happy for you that you’ve done it. Do you feel better now that you have?

“Yes of course. Now I am living in the mountains with my boyfriend and I think it would have been impossible to have done that without having come out. It’s completely better.”

Things We Dare Not Do. © Bruno Santamaría.

Well, living in the mountains with your boyfriend sounds wonderful, I’m pleased about that for you too. Tell me about the really beautiful sequence in the film where we see Arturo go to the river and put the dress on. Was that an area that she’d regularly go to do that, or how did that come about?

“No and it’s interesting that you ask about this because it’s the only sequence that we filmed that wasn’t something that happened in real life. We were talking about how to film a dream and we thought maybe it was as simple as asking Arturo was her dreams are, and maybe we could film that. She told me ‘I would love to dress as a woman’ and I asked why she didn’t do it and she told me that she was preparing and thinking about it and already had a dress ready, but she didn’t know when or where she would put it on. So I said to her ‘maybe we can film it far away from the town so nobody is going to see you’ and she was so excited. We had a very long walk to the riverside where we filmed. What for me was so interesting was that it was a suggestion, a proposal from me to film a dream, but when we shot it real things started to happen and Arturo felt very emotional, very excited. When I saw this sequence during the editing process I forgot that it was something that we’d proposed to her, because of her urgency to do it. We were playing, like kids play, but then real things started to happen.”

Things We Dare Not Do. © Bruno Santamaría.

And the smile on her face in that scene is really beautiful.

“Yes, exactly!”

And in terms of the cinematography and camera work itself is it always you holding the actual camera?

“Yes it’s me the whole time.”

Things We Dare Not Do. © Bruno Santamaría.

I saw that you said in another interview that when it comes to camera work ‘movement creates emotion’ and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about what you mean by that?

“The camera is a way for me to interact with people. It allows me to be there and also I have a pretext to be there. But for example when I am with the kids, I saw them playing, running around everywhere, and they go in the water and jump from trees to water. So for me I wanted people to feel this when they see the film, and in working out how to do that I thought maybe I have to play like a child with the camera. So I started to forget about creating a beautiful frame, or a beautiful pan and just ran like the children, just trying to be like a child playing with them like Arturo does. So the camera can capture this movement which has in itself adrenaline and emotion, something that is a little bit chaotic. Of course if the whole movie was like this, all the time running around it would be too much, so we made a mixture of being around the children and the camerawork being chaotic to reflect their energy and at other times there are still and silent moments with Arturo when she’s alone thinking, trying to understand what she’s feeling. I wanted to create that contrast between silence and noise. Stillness and chaos.”

Things We Dare Not Do. © Bruno Santamaría.

There are moments in the film where you interact with your subjects from behind the camera, the younger children and Arturo are talking to you some of the time and clearly that was a decision you made in the edit to keep those moments in. Again, maybe it touches on your first film as a director, in that you want to convey some of the relationship between you and the people you’re filming.

“There are different ways of looking at that, but for me it’s a way of making a film. I find it easier to get involved with people and connect with them and establish trust and have unique moments when I’m not just there shooting, but I’m with the people and interacting with them. So if they ask me something I can’t be quiet because we’re interacting. If they think that I’m just there observing then you build a wall between you and so I feel it’s better to be in the same place with them, talking and playing around. So that’s the reason the material has a lot of interaction with the person behind the camera and in front of it. When we edited the film we considered what could we do with it; we could take it out or try to keep those moments in, at least the ones where it was important for me to talk about the relationship between the people making the film and the people on screen. Of course everyone making a documentary builds fiction into the middle of reality; you change sequences and you ask things, but for me it’s important not to forget that you’re actively making a documentary, you’re filming in a place, it’s like what you’re seeing is the mix of two worlds, of two people, of two thoughts and I like to see that when I’m watching a film. For example when the gunshots are heard, the boom operator enters the frame a little. It was an accident of course, but we were a little bit nervous and there was blood in the stress and we didn’t know how to communicate with each other, so it was away to show that we were making a film.”

Things We Dare Not Do. © Bruno Santamaría.

I love the opening of the film, first of all we get that almost dreamlike aerial shot of the landscape with the beautiful music that you’ve selected, we’re coming down from the sky, it’s a pretty stunning opening and it feels like we’re arriving magically. And then we see the flying Santa Claus dropping candy down to some very excited children. Why did you want to introduce us to the world of the film in this way?

“I found out that this little island existed between mangroves in North Mexico because one little kid told me about the flying Santa Claus throwing candy down to the kids and that was the reason I decided to be there. I wanted to see if it was real. To start with I thought maybe the kid was just making it up, but then I stayed there for a few months including Christmas. At 9am on Christmas morning Santa was flying over our heads throwing candy for kids. It was completely amazing so we filmed that at Christmas time and we thought maybe we should get in touch with him and find out who he is. He works on trailers as a mechanic and he flies over this little island often and just came up with the idea of being Santa Claus. It was a very intuitive process for us. When we decided to do the montage we thought the movie is about growing up and in the case of Arturo telling her parents what she wants to do in her life, living in an open way. So the movie starts with a dream of Santa Claus throwing candy to the kids, and it ends with Arturo going to work after she’s told them that she wants to dress as a woman. So in some ways it was important for us to show that at the beginning, we felt that it was like a journey from childhood to adulthood.”

Things We Dare Not Do. © Bruno Santamaría.
Things We Dare Not Do filmmaker Bruno Santamaría and Santa Claus. © Bruno Santamaría.

Did you go up and sit behind the pilot in that small plane; it must’ve been a bit scary?

“Yes it was! The little aeroplane has two seats and we were lucky because he usually flies with his wife, but he let me go up with him and I sat behind him with the camera, praying that the aeroplane wouldn’t crash! But it was a very beautiful place, so it was worth it.”

Things We Dare Not Do. © Bruno Santamaría.

Yes it looks stunning. You worked with Ai Weiwei on his film Vivos, can you tell us a bit about your collaboration with him and the powerful subject of the film?

“It was an incredible experience. Ai Weiwei was working with a big production company in Mexico that makes documentaries and he created a crew with three unit directors that were also camera operators, so he was looking for people that could both direct and operate the camera and I was one of the three unit directors. It was a very complicated and sensitive and hard thing to do, the subject is the consequences of disappearing students from Ayotzinapa, and we worked with a lot of researchers. It was a completely different experience for me from what we did on Things We Dare Not Do where it was just two of us for the entire time that we were making the film, whereas with Vivos each of the three units had a crew of about ten people. Even so, we got very involved with the subjects because the researchers had been working with them since the beginning which allowed us to have intimate access to these people. Ai Weiwei directs and produces in a very contemporary way because he was doing it from a distance, but all of the time with his very big crew he was checking screenshots of almost every shot and we had to explain why we’d set it up like that, so it was very complex logistically to make the film. At the beginning during the first days of the shoot, every unit had nearly a week working with Ai Weiwei himself where he was trying to understand if we were the right people, he wanted to understand the way we work. We went to the mountains with him and it was funny in some ways because he’s a very humorous guy, he’s very sensitive and very smart of course. Even though he doesn’t speak Spanish he immediately makes a connection and has empathy with people, I saw people immediately connect with him.”

Things We Dare Not Do. © Bruno Santamaría.

“Ai Weiwei asked us to think about the consequences of what had happened, how people’s lives had continued after being affected by this terrible situation, so with that in mind every day we started out thinking about what we wanted to film. I decided to think about how there is one woman who has a little girl and the father of the child was killed in an horrific murder. I wanted to focus on her maternity and how she now alone has the courage to talk with his little child about what happened and how they continue their lives. They’re very sensitive and take of each other in a way that’s very powerful to witness. There was also a big family of fourteen brothers that had a family member who was shot and in a coma. As well as the students who disappeared there were also murders and people who were shot. We tried to focus not just on the fact that these people disappeared, but the continuing consequences affecting their families.”

Things We Dare Not Do. © Bruno Santamaría.

What’s your favourite LGBTQ+ film, TV series, play, book, artwork, piece of music or person? Something or someone that’s had a big impact on you and resonated with you throughout the years and why?

“There are so many, but the most important was Confessions of a Mask or Kamen no Kokuhaku by Yukio Mishima. I first read it when I was around fourteen years old and at that moment I needed to feel something and I wasn’t able to because of depression, and there’s a passage where the character has the same problem. I read this book by accident when I was fourteen, and I can still remember how it made me feel; reading how a boy was aroused when he was looking through a book of photographs of male sculptures, and he suddenly noticed that he was consciously excited, for the first time in his life, to see a man. And the same happened to me as I imagined the protagonist of the book doing this. It was a way to understand that I had a secret in my own life.”

By James Kleinmann

Bruno Santamaría’s Things We Dare Not Do/Cosas que no hacemos had its world premiere in the World Showcase section of the 2020 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, which ran from May 28th until June 6th.

Things We Dare Not Do. © Bruno Santamaría.

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