CMU IFF: Pure Untouched Reality

The crowd is bustling around me with an excited energy to witness opening night of the 12th International Film Festival at Carnegie Mellon: Faces of Inequality. Being that this topic is very relevant to our lives today, it drew in a large crowd. The film being featured on this opening night is Life And Nothing More by Antonio Méndez Esparza. I sit on the left side of the auditorium in the middle. “Sorry, are you waiting for people here?” a woman in a black jacket and light colored jeans asked, gesturing to the seat next to me. “No,” I replied with a smile. As soon as we are settled into our seats, the lights go dim and the screen turns on. The opening of the show is entertaining, as we watch students walking about backstage to interview live, those who are crewing the event. They eventually make their way to the front of the auditorium and introduce the founder and director of the event, Jolanta Lion. After her, we meet the man behind the film, director Antonio Méndez Esparza. A man of few words, he states, “I hope you will find them [the actors] as wonderful as I do.” The film focuses on a young 14-year-old boy named Andrew, his single mother Regina, his sister Ry’Nesia and a love interest named Robert. Throughout the film it comes to our attention that Andrew’s father is in jail and Robert’s appearance as a love interest impacts Andrew to a high degree. He struggles with adolescence, growing up and dealing with various pressures from every angle of his life. The film particularly emphasizes the challenges of life and themes of “race, inequality, gender and class.” After reading the synopsis, the show begins.

One of the opening lines is “Life is based on the decisions you make.” A particularly haunting statement that sticks with me because of its honesty. The cinematography is such a beautiful, accurate depiction of life. It doesn’t feel like you’re watching actors trying to “be realistic.” It is a film of pure reality. Esparza selected nonprofessional actors for this reason.

One aspect that makes this film so incredibly realistic are the silent scenes. One that resonates for me is a close up on Andrew’s face. He is thinking. The background is dark and the only thing visible on the screen is his neck and face. He is simply breathing and thinking. The aspect of the scene that makes it so realistic, is that this detail of our daily lives is consistently looked over. Throughout my time watching films, I have never witnessed a scene with such an attention to detail. This type of silent scene is repeated throughout the movie with various characters. For example, it comes up again when Regina is attempting to fall asleep at night. This tactic of cinematography appears to be used as a method of getting to peek into someone’s personal life.

Another aspect of realism in the film is its approach to race. “Are you free, dead, or in jail?” a professor questions his students, Andrew being one of them. This idea of race plays a significant role throughout the film as it arises in many of the scenarios that Andrew encounters. For example, when he gets confronted by a Caucasian family in a park, they tell him to leave because he is not supposed to be there. The mother and father describe how they are uncomfortable with his presence. The reality of this occurring is all too real. This scene in particular is holding a mirror to reality and asking the audience to question our own lives and the preconceived judgments of others.

The crowd erupts into applause as the first credits scroll onto the screen. The truthful, honest and heart-wrenching movie has gotten everyone thinking, which is good because Esparza comes out to answer all of our pressing questions regarding the film. His inspiration for the film was his own life. His wife had originally been a single mother until they got married. Esparza wanted to “try to understand a mom in a different perspective.” For this, he explains that going to his community and listening to the people, would be his first step. He was able to capture the main themes of the film including racial oppression in an episodic nature. “I’m always searching for that moment that is truth,” says Esparza. These episodes of life are different than other films which typically have a carefully agreed upon script that is followed closely. His aim was to capture reality. He quoted that he “didn’t want to try to fantasize reality.” His reason for the creation of the film? To try and understand a part of himself through another lens. His hope? To make a film that changes perspectives and challenges the audience. Which is exactly what I believe he did.