There is no doubt that Mexican directors have a firm hold in Hollywood. Take Alejandro González Iñárritu's Golden Globe wins on Sunday for “The Revenant” and his Oscar wins for "Birdman," as well as Alfonso Cuarón's Oscar for "Gravity" and Guillermo del Toro's for "Pan's Labyrinth."
Now a young Mexican director is hoping he is going in the same trajectory. Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer's short film, “Contrapelo” is currently one of 10 short films eligible to receive an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film at the 88th Academy Awards in February.
Dunnet-Alcocer will find out on January 14 if his film will make the final five nominees. “Contrapelo” is the only film on the list that is either directed by a Hispanic director or that has Hispanic-themed content.
The 19-minute film tells the story of a proud and respected Mexican barber who is forced to shave the leader of a drug cartel.The barber struggles with the moral decision to either kill the drug lord and become a murderer himself, or to let the man continue to kill. The idea came from a story Dunnet-Alcocer read when he was 10 years old.
“I read this wonderful short story called, ‘Lather and Nothing Else’...it couldn’t have been more than two pages long,” recounted Dunnet-Alcocer in his sprightly way. “It’s set in a place going through a civil war, and the captain of the army is a really bad guy. He walks into a barber shop to get a shave, and the barber of the shop supports the rebels ... Years later, it just came back to me, and I felt it would be a great thing to take the initial premise and transform it into Mexico’s problem today.”
It took five days for his team to shoot the film in a soundstage in Los Angeles. One of the most important elements of a short film, however, is capturing a large load of suspense in a short amount of time.
“In one way or another you have to make the audience engage and take part in the dramatic question of the film,” said Dunnet-Alcocer. “If the audience doesn’t feel there, they’re not going to feel tense. They have to be emotionally invested in it.”
As far as “Contrapelo” goes, he has seen reactions from the audience vary.
“Some people want the barber to kill the drug lord, and some people really just don’t want him to kill him,” said Dunnet-Alcocer. "The way I see the Mexican problem is not a black and white problem - it’s very emotionally confusing and complicated. I didn’t want to make this a message on the drug wars, but for the audience to feel what the victims of it feel - even the drug cartel are victims of it.”
Born and raised in Queretaro, Mexico, Dunnet-Alcocer said storytelling has always been an integral part of his family life.
“My dad, my mom, my grandmother, were always telling stories - stories were part of my DNA,” he said.
The 31-year-old director said he was also forever obsessed with movies, especially those directed by Martin Scorsese. As soon as he discovered that there was such a thing as a career in directing, he knew he wanted to be that person. In 2011, after having studied film at the University of Colorado, he went on to the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles. A year later, he was awarded the Director’s Award Grant, and his thesis film, “Veladora,” received the Bridges/Larson Production Award.
As an educated filmmaker based in the U.S., Dunnet-Alcocer says he is fortunate to have choices for work. But what his film explores is, what about those who don't have many choices?
“The barber says for example that all the members of the drug cartel should be killed, but everybody is connected to this problem in one way or another,” said the director. “I want people to be engaged in the emotional circumstances, and I just really want you to be there - you can take away what you want to.”
After the film made its rounds through the U.S. film festival circuit and was nominated for Best Narrative Short at Tribeca, Dunnet-Alcocer explained that in order for “Contrapelo” to qualify for an Oscar, it had to either win at an Oscar-qualifying festival, or get a theatrical run for at least one week in the U.S.
“I almost abandoned hope,” he said. “But then we got invited to the Monterrey Film Festival - the president of the jury worked for Shorts International, which owns Shorts HD, and she really, really liked the film. It won Best Mexican Short Film at that festival.”
Shorts HD, a high definition channel dedicated to playing shorts from all over the world in the U.S., then took care of the theatrical run in Los Angeles, which ultimately qualified “Contrapelo” for an Oscar.
Carter Pilcher, Shorts International's founder and CEO, said Latin-American filmmakers face a challenge in U.S. film festivals, because if the film is in Spanish, the judges probably don’t speak Spanish, or can’t relate to it. But Pilcher thinks they should get more recognition as directors such as Iñárritu and Cuarón got their start making edgy and accomplished shorts.
“When we saw the film ‘Contrapelo,’ we realized this is a really special film, and for sure this is not just a one-off. we think this is a guy with a big career in front of him,” said Pilcher.
Pilcher said he is currently working with the Hispanic Heritage Foundation to develop a Hispanic Short Film Award for September.
“There are very few film prizes recognized by the Academy of Motion Pictures - and there is not a route in like that for Hispanic American filmmakers,” he said.
But the near future appears to be bright for Latino filmmakers, because according to the Shorts HD audience data, Hispanics not only over index with films in general, but are double the number of viewers who watch shorts - 40 percent of U.S. Hispanics, as opposed to 15 to 20 percent of the mainstream American audience.
“We’re talking to cable TV stations in America, and we’re increasing the percentage of Hispanic created films from about 10 percent by the end of next year to 20 percent,” said Pilcher. “What we’re seeing in Latino filmmakers is so exciting that we know our audiences love it.”
Dunnet-Alcocer is now working on his first feature film, this time set in his hometown of Queretaro, and anxiously awaiting the news about his possible Oscar nomination on Thursday.
“It would be like a dream,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine, but it’d be absolutely amazing. It’s such a great satisfaction with everybody that supported me from the beginning - your family, friends, loved ones - it’s a great thing to share with them. I’m just insanely grateful.”