With “Los Lobos”, the story of two Mexican brothers locked between the four walls of an American apartment while waiting for their mother to return from work, Samuel Kishi Leopo tells his own childhood between waiting and nostalgia. Encounter.
Los Lobos by Samuel Kishi Leopo
Theatrical release on January 19, 2022
8-year-old Max and 5-year-old Leo move from Mexico to Albuquerque with their mother Lucia in search of a new life. While waiting for their mother to return each evening, who works tirelessly, Max and Leo observe their new neighborhood through the window. They have to learn English on tapes. The condition imposed by their mother if they wish one day to realize their dream: to go to Disneyland…
AlloCiné: In this film, you tell your story, and that of your mother and your brother. What memories do you have of this period of your life?
Samuel Kishi Leopo (director) : The most vivid memory I have of that time remains the sound of my mother’s voice through a tape recorder. The whole film is an exercise in memory: when I was five years old, my mother left my father and went into exile with my three-year-old brother and me in the United States to try to build a new life. We crossed the border with our tourist visas stating we were going to Disney. My mother arrived with no job, no accommodation and no knowledge of English. We brought with us the bare minimum, a few toys and an audio recorder.
When she finally found a job, she was forced to leave us alone in a small apartment she had rented in a rough neighborhood of Santa Ana, California, and decided to record stories, English lessons, games, house rules, etc. on the audio tape for us to listen to all this. My brother and I were hitting the play button to listen to our mother and soon it had us imagining a lot of things from those recordings as we waited for her to return. Later, we also started recording ourselves, and this device became a communication tool between the three of us.
Was it difficult to dive back into this period of your life?
Reinterpreting and assimilating as an adult what I experienced as a migrant child was a difficult part of the process, especially realizing what my mother had to go through to keep us afloat during the worst times. Another difficult aspect was managing to keep some distance from my own story, enough to let the characters blossom and the film come to life on its own terms. The work of co-screenwriters Sofía Gómez Córdova and Luis Briones was crucial in this process. Their work was essential in shaping the memories and integrating them into a film.
How did you choose your two young actors, and how did you work with them?
We did castings in different cities in Mexico: we saw about a thousand children, and kept six of them for comedy and improvisation workshops. Maximiliano Nájar Márquez and Leonardo Nájar Márquez stood out there: in addition to being talented and sensitive children, it turned out (production miracle) that they are brothers in real life. We put a lot of emphasis on the relationship between the actors. Martha, Max and Leo rehearsed for several months and we worked hard to build trust. We also involved the children’s parents in the process, and their help was essential as they then gave us permission for Martha and the children to live together for a few weeks as a family.
Throughout the process, Martha and I prepared and practiced improvisation and play exercises with the children. Later the famous coach Fátima Toledo joined the process and we worked with her for about a month. Above all, I think the biggest challenge in rehearsing and filming was to always be honest in our emotions, to do as we felt and let it flow from there. Acting is acting, and children are professional performers.
Martha Reyes Arias is very moving in the film. She embodies the courage, strength, resilience, but also the loneliness and sadness of all these women who have tried to find a better life in the United States. How did you work with her?
Martha gave Lucía depth and realism that was still lacking in early drafts of the script. She said she wanted to build the character of a real woman, not a “publicity mom”. We worked together with this objective in mind from the rehearsals. She would accompany me on scouting, and we would interview migrant women in the community. It was a very moving act of empathy. While we were shooting the film, she worked on her days off at the same industrial laundry where her character works, and she fit in with the women working there. She prepared her body for her character’s fatigue with long exercise sessions and walks around the city (we always thought Lucia traveled long distances to save money on transportation). His vision informed mine and all his contributions to the rehearsals with the children had an effect on the writing of the screenplay.
Through her, is it a way of paying homage to your own mother?
It is, and I am very grateful to him. Martha helped me make this tribute and write this love letter to my mother and the many courageous migrant women.
The film raises the question of the price to pay for “a better life”. Is this precarious life on American soil any better than the one left behind in Mexico?
There are two sentences from the migrant’s prayer that move me every time I read them: “Arriving is never final” and “To leave is to die a little”. Like many migrants, we are fleeing violence, in search of a better life. Migration is full of pain but also of hope. Certainly the place where we arrived was not “the promised land” but we were together and that was what counted the most.
Almost the entire film takes place in this small room. How did you work with your director of photography to create a whole universe within these four walls?
In keeping with the story, we tried to approach it from the children’s point of view. They are the backbone of our story. The challenge was to create the children’s world inside the apartment. To feel their isolation but, when they begin to imagine, to feel a large space full of fantasy. All our resources were aimed at creating that particular look at childhood, for which we needed to have freedom of movement without being hindered by a heavy camera full of gadgets. That’s why we chose the Alexa mini, a small camera that allowed us to have good mobility to play with children.
The choice of optics was also central in order to find the right aesthetics. We wanted to convey the idea of nostalgia, to create a feeling of remembrance. We decided to use anamorphic lenses because we were looking for the distortion they provide, the imperfections that could recreate that feeling of nostalgia while allowing us to highlight specific points in the frame.
The reward, at least the goal of the two children, is to go to Disneyland. Was it the same for you as a child? Were you able to go there? What memory do you keep?
That’s right, my mom also promised us that she would take us to Disney, and she did! She managed to take us! Ironically, I remember almost nothing of that visit, but there are a few photos in an old family album that testify that it happened. What I remember most are the games with the tape recorder and my mother reading us stories after a hard day’s work. It was our “Disney”.
What does the title of your film, “Lobos” mean?
The movie was originally called “The Winds of Santa Ana”, but due to budget issues, we couldn’t shoot in Santa Ana, California, so that title no longer made sense. When we were writing the film, I remember I was reading the book “I thought my father was God” by writer Paul Auster. There was a sentence that said “We are all wounded animals”: it touched me deeply and I started to imagine Lucia, Max and Leo as a family of wolves looking for a shelter to heal their wounds and heal. Also during rehearsals we used to do an exercise where the kids and Martha pretended to be wild animals and they always ended up playing wolves defending their home. And that is precisely what the characters in the film do: they build and defend a house.