Film From the Other Side of the Wall

By  · Published on November 16th, 2016

A critic searches for political meaning in a post-Trump Mexico.

“So, you have a new president. Aren’t you excited?”

A newspaperman from Mexico City ribbed me at the Marina Fiesta hotel bar as his friends, bloggers Salvador and Julia, watched for my reaction. I downed my drink and he threw back his head laughing. “I have seen many Americans this week and none are happy.”

This is what a Mexican film festival is like the day after the election.

The 2016 Los Cabos International Film Festival flew us in hours after the race was called and hours before Hillary Clinton conceded to Donald Trump. I watched a displaced collection of Americans gather around a terminal TV in the Dallas/Fort Worth airport as Clinton delivered her concession speech. Smug cowboy hats and weepy parkas jockeyed for an eyeline as they clasped their luggage, passports, and Cinnabons to their chests.

I had stayed up the night before until the race was all but certain. In my apartment, physically alone but locked in the same psychic scream that ran through half the country during that desperate twilight, I watched the polling confidence slip away at the same dreadful velocity as the time remaining until my 5 AM alarm. On my Blue Line train to O’Hare, the passengers were somber. It was like we were all going to a funeral, mutually acquainted through the departed.

When I got to Mexico, I thought it would be different. See some movies, lie in the sun, escape reality for a week. It’s a luckier version of ordering pizza and staying under the covers.

When I arrived, just through customs as I was waiting by the airport valets in their different primary-colored polos, the first English I heard was two people discussing the election. A frizzy-haired Uruguayan writer who spent his election night in a teary Chicago bar, there to sell a project, spoke with a fratty Kansan in Cabo for a wedding, “I don’t understand it, I don’t understand why Americans would do this to themselves.”

“We’re just mad, I guess. Mad at the system. Trump is hateful but nobody could go for Hillary because she seemed corrupt.”

“And that she is a woman.”

The Kansan paused. His family had arrived, his cigarette a stub. He looked at his bill – a few hundred pesos – thought, and threw down a twenty.

“Maybe we’re not ready for that.”

Much of the world, at least those represented at the festival, was afraid he’s right. At least, that’s what I gathered through my personal grieving process, how I began to process my country’s choice. If I couldn’t successfully translate this result into coherency through my internal rhetoric, perhaps populism – ostensibly the means of Trump’s victory – was the Rosetta stone.

I’d see movies here, sure. But I also had to ask everyone what they thought.

Craig Robinson was angry but conciliatory in a way that seems special to actors who’ve worked with truly frustrating yet important industry members. Burn no bridges, at least not publicly. But I could see his giant frame relax when he heard me speak English after a junket day of Mexican press. Finally, I was someone that – even if he couldn’t vent to me – at least understood the great amorphous national hurt.

The director, stars, and producer of the now-unfortunately-named cringe comedy Donald Cried crumpled during our interview at the mere thought of returning home. Emotional exhaustion was a national malady. “We’re also impossible to Google now,” director Kris Avedisian told me before smirking, “without disappointing people, at least.”

At a post-screening Q&A, a group of Mexican schoolchildren in their uniforms (an odd demographic that was present at almost every screening) asked the filmmakers similar questions. “It’s a shitty name….it’s a shittier name now,” Avedisian said to his co-creators before realizing the translator was blazing forward, “No, no, no – lo siento – I meant ‘bad’.”

The children all giggled. He was too late. The translator patted him on the back and laughed.

“He’s a rebel: in some areas we can look optimistically.”

Director Oliver Stone, professed Bernie supporter and Jill Stein voter, reinforced rampant liberal criticism of those positions by turning a midfest press conference for the Mexican premiere of Snowden into a seminar defending Trump.

Tommy Cook of Collider transcribed the director’s ideological dart-throwing during the Q&A. Stone responded to the first question about his thoughts on a Trump presidency with unexpected praise. Those of us familiar with Stone anticipated fire and brimstone, not “He’s a smart man that doesn’t want war.”

Maybe he doesn’t. Not yet at least. Not until the Baltic states threatened by Russia pay their dues, as he threatened in an interview with The New York Times. It remains unclear if Trump doesn’t want war, but he certainly doesn’t want an unprofitable war.

Stone continued, “It’s a dangerous world because one country is telling everybody what to do except they can’t tell Russia, China, Iran or North Korea. That’s the only exception to the rule.”

These exceptions to the rule, these bastions of political freedom, might not immediately seem like the best geopolitical allies. But for Stone, who went on to rehash his belief in a hawkish Hillary Clinton and the threat of nuclear war, electing the friend of the world’s most corrupt countries makes sense. Someone amoral who can sign treaties with nothing but the steely robotic gaze of profit. Someone whose foreign policy platform ran on destroying radical Islamic terrorist groups.

“We’re at the edge of war,” Stone said, “A real World War III and Mrs. Clinton was charging – more pressure. It can only get better because I don’t think Trump’s stupid and wants World War III. Can you imagine the bombs we have between Russia and the United States? They’ll ruin the planet. It’s over. So the only important thing is war. Avoid war.”

The press crew in attendance bristled. Stone had lost faith in America in front of them, willing to accept any domestic concessions (like a surge of hate crimes worse than post-9/11, for instance) to avoid the kind of prophetic doomsday that led to Reagan’s “Star Wars.”

Stone’s views on George W. Bush have been criticized as apathetic, despite calling him the 2nd worst president (only behind Nixon, whose Chinese foreign policy seems to be what Stone assumes Trump will follow), and it seems impossible for the director to engage artistically with a subject without drowning in its deepest ideological bogs.

Blinded by fear of surveillance, a certain (white, male) segment of the population – including the fickle Stone – would gladly sacrifice others for whatever comfort they can wring from Clinton’s failure. Dissatisfied, a Mexican press member pushed Stone further: “Don’t you think a Trump presidency is a threat to your country and the rest of the world?”

“I don’t want to go into it again. I tried to make the point of ‘look at where we are now’. Talk about threat…” Stone trailed off before finding his second, blustery wind, “You don’t understand the threat we are posing as a country. You’re not really paying attention to what I was saying about where Clinton was at. So what could be worse?”

There was the brimstone. Liberal discontent has expressed itself diversely this election, from the head-in-sand Stein voters to the Trump-embracing anti-establishment nihilists. In the brightness of Cabo, the sun glinting off the waves and your Poco Grande glass, it’s still easy to see the Kübler-Ross stages of denial and bargaining from Americans grieving their political reality. Stone jumped straight to vigorous acceptance.

The American critics I’d met, almost all of us white men, doubled down into escapism with the help of multiple screenings and an unending supply of comped drinks. We weren’t threatened, not even back home, but we were betrayed and impotent. Our home held an electoral, silent-to-polling faction of selfishness and we were in Willy Wonka & the Piña Colada Factory.

There was a gap and we dove in headfirst.

I didn’t see a TV with the news for a week. Hell, we barely had Wi-Fi and we sure weren’t going to use it for that. It was total immersion, the reverse of election overload, the mythical opposite only spoken of in hushed tones at cable news investor meetings.

Whiplash made us morose and drunk – well, usually the other way around. We had fled, some through poor planning (a 5 AM flight after election night?!) others through careful planning (I’m really going to need that vacation) while others stayed. We could only watch as our defeated friends tried to make sense of the country through their tepid takes, a country we knew we’d have to return to soon as we sat in dark rooms with Spanish subtitles.

“Me? I don’t give a shit. I got problems of my own.”

Edward, a middle-aged actor who looks a like a Mexican version of Toy Story 2’s toy-collecting antagonist, rumbles in a shuttled minivan with me through the desert between the Los Cabos International Airport and the coastal Cabo San Lucas. Edward waves his hands when he talks and scowls as often as he beams. I’d just asked him, as a working Mexican actor, what a Trump election meant to him.

“What do I care if some foreign leader hates us? I think, you know, I wouldn’t let them hear this,” he motions to our driver, “but I think Trump is right about a lot of us.”

Starring in his first feature film, Edward describes his national self-loathing with the same nonchalance as his brushes with the law.

“We don’t want to work together. We just want to lay around and wait for a better country to just HAPPEN for us rather than work for one. That’s what I see. I myself live in an apartment run by drug dealers. All my neighbors are criminals. Well, ok, I used to be into some things before I found theater.”

“What did you do?”

“Well when they arrested me the last time, I was living with over a hundred dogs. I used to sell them but then I just bought them. No, no, it’s better now. I’m out of that world. I only have like forty now.”

Edward stars opposite of actual gay prostitutes they picked up in Mexico City for realism, which he loathes not for their profession or sexuality, but their acting ability.

“I’m running a seminar and shooting at the same time. It’s impossible. They do what they want, but I’m trying to pay the bills, not get arrested, stay clean. My ‘co-stars’, my neighbors don’t want to help me with any of that. My local government doesn’t fucking care. So Americans hate us more than usual? I hate us a lot of the time. That’s why I stay here, I want to fix us.”

“You used to live in America?”

“I lived in San Francisco for years, my father is American. Shit – I’m named Edward, not Eduardo. I moved here twenty years ago and I’m not going back. Mexico needs me more.”

On the other side of the wall, filmmakers work to make their countries better places however they can. Teaching prostitutes how to act. Building communities. Hiring locally. Fighting what they hate. On the other side of the wall, Americans – whether we consider ourselves losers or winners, whatever our relationships with film – have a lot to learn.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).