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Mark Becker: Merging the Personal and the Political
By Sara Schieron
January 19, 2007 - 1:33 PM PST

"I liked the idea that I could let the political subtext simmer beneath the surface"

Politics weren't the elephant in the room. My prompts, direct as they appear, didn't trip director Mark Becker in the least. Becker's point of view is one he regards respectfully as "subjective," and in that, he makes no prescriptive judgments or expressions of a political agenda, though his film, Romántico could so easily enter the world of activist media. Focusing on Carmelo, a loveable and struggling troubadour and undocumented immigrant, the film journeys with Carmelo from his lean-to in the hallway of a home in the Mission District of San Francisco back to his hometown of Salvatierra, one thousand miles from the Mexican border. Drenched in subtext and political implication, Romántico refuses to make an explicit statement of the life and times of its heroic and careworn everyman. Much like his doc, Becker relays the political through the personal, and that's what reverberates long after you've left the theater.

When you were researching troubadours in the Mission District, did you find Carmelo and his peers were part of a diminishing working class?

Around the time I started the film, there was a scene in the Mission that was changing. It was around the time of the dot-com boom and there was a sense, as rents were going up, that it wasn't a place where working class folks could afford to live and work. I'm sure that was in my mind when I was beginning the project and that may have been part of the inspiration. Making a film from the subjective point of view of a working class guy, I was thinking - though the film didn't turn into this - I thought, "Maybe this could be a mariachi-eye view of the Mission and what's happening to it."

You held fast to the subjective aspects of the film and avoided veering into the political. You could have dealt with immigration issues, or post-NAFTA economic conditions, if you'd wanted to. Did you avoid politics because you thought you might be exploiting Carmelo's story to get to politics?

Yes. Ultimately, I was making a film about this man who's a musician for a living, and as I explored his life, the political ending up merging with the personal in a way that made me feel that I didn't need any polemical elements in the film. I liked the idea that I could let the political subtext simmer beneath the surface and allow the audience to consider the larger resonance of one person's plight. There's a lot of political documentary making that makes it clear the filmmaker has a strong point of view about this issue and why it's terrible. Not even necessarily telling us what to do about the issue, the film can allow the politics ride its surface. It was definitely a choice of mine to let the politics simmer and bubble. I love the idea that you feel you're watching a film about a personal story and you can't help but get some sort of political resonance.

For example. This is a story about a man who came over the border as an undocumented immigrant, who comes home and is immediately confronted with all of the reasons he left his country in the first place. He can't afford what he wants for his daughters. He's playing love songs to prostitutes and their clients. This is the way he can make money and he's barely doing it at that. When that isn't working out for personal reasons, he tries to sell ice cream on the street and that isn't making ends meet. If you do the math, he's spending more than he's earning and the populace can't even afford his ice cream. Given that you're seeing his relationship with his daughters, you can't help but put yourself in his shoes, or rather, in the shoes of somebody that would be tempted to figure out another way to make a living and take care of his family. Americans have a sense, a question; they ask, "Why can't they find a way to come over legally?"

Your scene with the Embassy middleman made a great point out of that.

When Carmelo speaks to the middleman, the middleman explains why he can't come over legally. Carmelo's been struggling beyond what seems reasonable to make a living and he's decided that maybe he should go back to the US, because his situation in Mexico isn't quite working. To the middleman, it all seems obvious: if he can prove his economic self-sufficiency, show his international and domestic credit cards, the deed to his house, maybe prove that he owns a car or two, that he has sufficient funds in his bank account, that he has a job to return to in Mexico... then Carmelo will have no problem getting a visa. For me, that's when the personal hits the political right on the head. If you're in Carmelo's shoes, and you have no reason "legally" - which I put in quotes - to come over to the US and if you think your young daughters are going to struggle terribly if you don't come over - what are you gonna do? I find the film, in the political sense, to be a film about the myriad reasons that lead someone to the border, and I definitely left any sort of overt polemics off the table because my interest was to make you feel a story and not make you feel an agenda. That's, um, that's not to say...

That's not to say you're criticizing documentaries with an agenda.

No, and I feel like there is criticism in personal stories. It just doesn't feel like you're being manipulated into a viewpoint but at the same time you can't watch my film and come out of it without feeling a sense of compassion or without understanding that the story of Mexican immigration goes way beyond border politics. I love the idea that the film could instigate discussion about these issues while it can't touch upon them because it's a personal story. I love the idea that a person who knows a little bit could talk about post-NAFTA effects in a town like Carmelo's Salvatierra, and how US economic policies have helped create a situation where someone might even more urgently need to cross the border, but I didn't think the film's goal was to polemicize it because I felt that would end up alienating people.

That's a really good compromise in the balancing of a political issue and a narrative.

At a certain point in the filmmaking process, you have to leave things off the table and there are times where your point of view and your political leanings are the things that lay on the cutting room floor in order not to ruin the story - and that was my compromise.

I wanted to ask you about the religious aspects of your film. Martyrdom seemed to play a big role with the characters. Carmelo is a musician who leaves his loved ones to sing love songs to others. There are crucifixes everywhere and gods bless you for not allowing any telephone poles to innocently remain telephone poles. Did the appearance of this theme compel you towards the troubadours?

I'm interested in trying to paint a world based on what inspires me about the film's characters. I was making a film that was mostly about Carmello and I tried to, as much as possible, find out how to paint his world. He, at various points expressed this ambivalent relationship with religion. He's at once a guy who turns to the Virgin of Guadalupe in times of great trouble - looking for solace and a way out of his problems - and at times, he questions the notions he was taught as a child, like one should have as many children as God gives you. So I can relate to that kind of ambivalent spirituality that Carmelo has and I tried to represent that as best as possible, with images and without becoming excessive.

You employed some effective visual metaphors in your story - one of my favorites is the sequence in the car wash. Did you feel there was some kind of congress between this ambivalent religion and the levels of alienation going on in the story?

I love that documentary is a means of visual storytelling and though it's not always used that way, I love that it can be that way. I certainly tried to bring the frame to life in a way that could provoke you emotionally. The film itself is a story of Carmelo's past and his present and how the two interrelate. When I was thinking how to bring to life his complicated past, I didn't want him just sitting in a room explaining it. So I tried very hard to be inventive about that. We revisited a bunch of places he'd been and I felt like I couldn't evoke the feeling he was giving me with his stories using vérité footage, so I chose to, as much as I could, craft those stories with image and sound design in a way that never felt like re- enactment but would evoke emotion.

As far as the car wash is concerned, sometimes the constraints you meet during production help you think outside the box and express something. Somehow I wasn't able to film Carmelo or Arturo working at the car wash, so I had to figure out how I could represent that as best as possible, given that I don't have access to them at the car wash. So I chose to shoot the car wash from the passenger point of view, not exactly knowing what it would represent in the film. I was excited about shooting it in my associate producer's car because he had those little "homies" on his dashboard and the little hula bobble and the Virgin of Guadalupe. I thought it was evocative. It wasn't until the editing that I felt like the film dealt with a passage.

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"I liked the idea that I could let the political subtext simmer beneath the surface"
"...I realized I wasn't making a music documentary."

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Sara Schieron
Sara Schieron teaches film studies, produces film shorts and documentaries, and writes for occasional journals and web sites.

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