Violent Thriller ‘Heli’ Offers Harrowing Look at Everyday Mexico

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Amat Escalante won Best Director last year at Cannes Film Festival for his award-winning movie, “Heli.”

The movie tells the story of Heli (Armando Espitia), a hard-working young father who lives with his wife (Linda Gonzalez), baby, and sister Estela (Andrea Vergara) in their dad’s house. The family unwittingly falls prey to the brutal world of Mexican drug cartels and corrupt officials. Heli’s naïve little sister, Estela, 12, lets her older boyfriend Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), 17, hide two book-sized stolen packages of cocaine in the water tank on her family’s roof. Beto’s plan is to sell the coke to make enough money to marry Estela and take her far away from this dangerous area. One bad decision leads to the sudden involvement of a vicious special crime force and corrupt local police forces, and the innocent family is made to endure unthinkable horrors.

“Some people are offended by the brutality,” said Escalante, “but we Mexicans live with that violence; it is nothing new to us. We see images like this every day.”

Americans see articles about drug gangs in Mexico, but most of us have no idea what it’s really like there, and it’s not on our minds as we go through our busy days. Escalante took on a very disturbing subject and turned it into a compelling and gripping story. Unless you are squeamish by violence in movies, go see this film. It’s a fascinating and well-told heartbreaker.

Escalante granted an exclusive interview to TheBlot Magazine.

Dorri Olds: Do you know people who were victims of drug gangs?

Amat Escalante: I’ve met some people that have lived through very gruesome stuff and some were kidnapped temporarily or they knew people that disappeared. The news is completely invaded with these stories. It’s in all the books, on TV, in magazines. It is a very visual and exploited subject.

What was your aim with the film?

I wanted to show reality and do that with an intriguing story. When we Mexicans see people left hanging from bridges, we see it as the movie audience sees that first body hanging in “Heli.” It feels bad, and it’s a very unpleasant image, but it feels very different if you know that person and why he was murdered.

In Mexico, there is something missing with all those stories in the media. There is no reason to show those grotesque images like severed heads, but the drug gangs use the newspapers to communicate with symbols and messages to other gangs. The press feeds into that and shows it all.

Are you saying that Mexicans have grown accustomed to these vile images?

Yes. At the beginning, nine or 10 years ago, it was shocking. But now, it’s every week. If you stop by a newsstand, many of the covers show these things. That is something strange and unique about Mexico. I wanted to make a movie that shows the influence of being bombarded with those images.

Do you really see dead bodies hanging in public?

Yes. Every week, there’s hangings and decapitations. It’s very sad. Luckily, where we shot the movie it’s not like that — not so much anyway. We shot it where I live, in Guanajuato. It’s not as extreme as in other states, especially near the borders of El Paso, Texas, where it’s very bad. But everything in the movie is taken from reality, nothing was invented by me. I just put things that we all know about here in Mexico into a story I could tell to the movie audience. There have been hundreds of thousands of deaths since the war on drugs was declared a few years ago.

How corrupt are the police?

Very, and now there are groups of people forming what are called, “self-defense groups.” It is mostly happening in small towns away from Mexico City, and the police and government have done nothing. They are often part of the problem. These self-defense groups are creating their own jails and legal systems. They’re made up of citizens with guns to fight the drug cartels. It’s a very violent situation and is happening in many communities. That is how much Mexico’s system does not work.

I think for the United States it’s difficult to relate to that type of corruption. In many areas of Mexico, whenever you try to do something normal, as an example go to get a license plate for a car, you come up against corruption. There’s no morality and nothing you can do about it but go along with it.

For “Heli” were you influenced by violent classics like “The Godfather?”

“The Godfather” I only discovered recently, but I do like the thriller genre.

Who are your favorite directors?

I adopted teachers by watching movies by Werner Herzog, Fritz Lang, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and so many Spanish and Mexican directors. I’ve been inspired by Westerns, too. With “Heli” I tried to make a story in an excited way that is also crying out about a situation that needs to change.

“Heli” is now playing in Florida theaters. It opens 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.

Watch the trailer:

Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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