Güeros is an unusual and exciting film. It’s particularly remarkable as a début film – but its director Alonso Ruizpalacios was already an experienced theatre and TV director who had previously won prizes for his short films. (He also trained as an actor at RADA in London.)
The film’s vitality is built on three noticeable elements. First, it offers a quartet of characters portrayed by young actors with both skill and charisma. Second, it utilises a ‘New Wave’ approach derived from directors as diverse as Fellini and Jim Jarmusch – both name-checked by the director. The introduction of Ana (Ilse Salas) reminds us of Anna Karina in a film like Godard’s Bande à part (France 1964). Third, the film uses Mexico City almost as a fifth character with the ‘road movie’ structure taking us through very different districts and allowing a social commentary, sometimes directly through interactions between the characters and people they meet, but sometimes simply through documentary-style observation.
Mexico has the most cinema screens in Latin America and the highest number of admissions – but most are for Hollywood films and Mexican films have less than 10% of their own market. However, there are smaller films supported by public funds that travel to international festivals. Güeros is one of these – and there are jokes about this kind of film included in the film’s dialogue.
Mexico does not have an ethnic classification in its official census but the majority of the population is of ‘mixed’ heritage – European, African or Asian with indigenous peoples. The ‘European’ community is perhaps 10% of the population and the Indigenous peoples (several different peoples) slightly more than 10%. ‘Güeros’ means light-skinned or ‘blonde-haired’ and is used sometimes as a term of abuse in the film.
Despite its geographical size, Mexico is an urbanised society. Mexico City has a population of over 8 million but the metropolitan area of ‘Greater Mexico City’ has over 20 million and vies with São Paulo as the biggest urban area in Latin America. Income inequalities are large in the country.
Filmic New Waves
References to ‘New Waves’ in film culture often assume the French New Wave of 1958-63 (not a precise period), but there were similar movements across global cinema in the 1960s and again in the decades to follow. There is no standard definition of a New Wave and no necessary standardisation of approaches within a New Wave. As the term implies, New Wave films do something differently compared to earlier films and often, but not always, they are ‘youthful’ in some way, as well as ‘modern’. Having said that, some New Wave films are also backward-looking in celebrating the work of earlier filmmakers through an hommage.
Güeros as a New Wave film
The most visible ‘difference’ here is that Ruizpalacios chooses to shoot in black & white and to use the much squarer Academy aspect ratio (1:1.37). This perhaps references 1960s New Wave films with small budgets. The images are also a product of a dynamic camera style, relatively static at first and then rapidly mobile during the road trip. While the nostalgic feel (Güeros is set during a year-long student strike in 1999) might refer to Truffaut and Godard, it also conjures up the early work of Jim Jarmusch in the 1980s – which included road trip structures. The rather surprising mention of Japanese director Ozu Yasijuro (by the director in his press notes) might be a reference to Ozu’s early 1930s comedy films about schoolboys and college students.
The figure of the fictitious singer the quartet are looking for was inspired by the story Bob Dylan told about going to visit Woody Guthrie in hospital. (Tomás wears a t-shirt with the legend ‘Don’t Look Back’, the title of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary about Dylan’s fateful tour of the UK in 1966.) During the student meeting in the university, the inevitable poster of Che Guevera is seen but there are also references to the Cuban national hero José Marti (1853-1895). Cuba was the centre of the ‘New Latin American Cinema’ in the 1960s.