He is one of the most recognized Mexican creators since, in 2000, the movie Amores perros , which he wrote, appeared. His route has led him time and time again along the thorny path that leads from cinema to literature. "I was always free," he says. The same has won the award for best script at the Cannes festival, for Los tres entierros de Melquiades Estrada , and the Alfaguara novel award, for Salvar el fuego. Guillermo Arriaga (Mexico City, 1958) is, and is known, a hunter. His mettle was revealed when, in his moment of greatest visibility in Hollywood, he engaged in a notorious controversy in defense of the role of screenwriters as the true creators of those millionaire stories that jump from screen to screen. He continues to make movies and his recent novels, The Wild One and Saving the Fire , have been bestsellers on a global scale.
Question. You grew up in the south of Mexico City. The formative experience of those years and those streets is reflected in passages from your work, both literary and cinematographic. What about that Mexico you grew up in, do you still find in this country that we live in and what do you think has changed, for better or for worse?
Reply. The Unidad Modelo, the neighborhood I grew up in, was created by the architect [Mario] Pani. It was based on the functional architecture of Le Corbusier, who provided that all services were planned around the neighborhood. There was the supermarket, the church, the schools, the hairdresser, the butcher, the greengrocer and there was total integration. It was almost a province, a little town within the city. The neighborhood has very nice things, it is not necessarily a dangerous neighborhood all the time. It has a very attractive coexistence. But Pani designed walkers for him that are about a meter and a half wide, so cars don't enter. And in the sixties that became a trap, because snipers were stationing at the entrances ... And police who wanted to enter, police who thundered. There, a group called 'Los Nazis' was born and drug dealing began to occur. In the Mexico where I grew up, there were these groups. And there were ultra-right groups right there, in the neighborhood. But the violence that I had to experience does not compare at all with the violence that we are experiencing now. The violence of a lower middle class neighborhood, like the one I grew up in, does not compare to the violence that Mexico is suffering right now. I have walked a lot through gaps throughout the country, with peasants, in areas that are now impenetrable, and people always welcomed me and [said]: "Come, take some beans, stay in the house." Mexican farmers are very generous and I don't know when… well, I do know when. There is a very particular moment when Mexico went off the rails and what we are seeing seems to me to be unparalleled, except at the time of the Mexican Revolution.
Q. What would you say was the moment when things got out of hand?
R. Globally, it has to do with the election of Reagan, Thatcher and John Paul II. I think the commitment to the corporatist project, the Reaganomics , the famous trickle-down , [which posited] that the benefits were going to drain to the rest of society. That was the key moment in the transformation of the world. It is curious how the two countries that pushed globalization of this type are the first two that have cracked: England, with Brexit, and the United States, with Trump. But they were the ones who pushed that model and I saw it in real time, because I was with friends of mine, farmers, when the Free Trade Agreement was signed, 1994, the year in which the Mexican countryside suffered a devastation that it did not have. in previous times. My peasant friends raised a sorghum crop, the best sorghum crop of their life, but by selling it, American sorghum had so many subsidies and it came so cheap [to the market] that they couldn't even recoup the cost of the seed. From there they began to migrate. I know kids from Tamaulipas who joined the hitman because there wasn't much choice. Either you left town or you joined the hitman. I was able to observe the decomposition in the Mexican countryside, at least where I was, in Tamaulipas.
P. From the Free Trade Agreement comes an impoverishment of the countryside, then an accelerated migration and a vacuum is created that is filled by crime ...
A. Sure, and there is a desperation. Those who were able to migrate left… Of my friends, 85% of them migrated [to the US], and now they live there. Among them Melquiades Estrada, to whom I dedicated a film. Another key moment was the DEA's success in canceling the cocaine routes through Puerto Rico, Miami and the Dominican Republic. The moment they successfully closed that route, the whole negotiation between Colombia and Mexico came, and that also degraded the issue. What some leaders have not understood is that the demand for the drug will always seek how to move the product. And Mexico, with this border so porous that it has… To this we add the inexperience of the PAN governments and the lack of a tusk, which left very large holes that were filled by crime.
P. Until reaching a point where it seems difficult or impossible to reverse the power that organized crime has achieved.
R. I believe that it can be reversed and there are many ways to reverse it, but the legalization of drugs, of all drugs, is already urgent. I would like the president of the republic to explain to us that what he is trying to do is a Marshall plan in the south. A kind of plan of: "We are going to finance the south so that it rises." But there are also very large job gaps on the northern border. Those from the northern border had an advantage: they did not have to make the great trip from Chiapas or Oaxaca, [in the north] it is practically eighty kilometers, one hundred kilometers and you cross the border. It is not the same to arrive from Oaxaca without knowing what the maneuver is like in the north. But, well, this is a time when we have to legalize drugs and eliminate corruption. That is perhaps the most serious problem we have. Redesign the legal system, because impunity is ... We cannot say: "They killed each other." You can't, you have to go case by case: Who killed him? Why did he kill him and who did he leave a widow or who did he leave a widower? Who did she orphan? The Mexican judicial system needs to resolve these problems.
Q. Your characters reflect deep conflicts, but in your work there is also a look at the societies that surround those characters, at their class conflicts, for example, very markedly in Salvar el fuego . How do you face narratively the work of counting Mexico?
R. When I start a work I don't know what it is going to be about. What happens to me in the day, I put it [into the novel]. In fact, one day I made a tweet in which I said: "It's raining, let's see how it influences the novel." But it was not how the rain influenced my mood, it was that if it rains, it rains inside the novel. And, in fact, it rained in The Wild when it rained outside. It is filtering. There's no way reality won't leak, especially for someone who, like me, has no idea where the novel is going. When I sit down to write I don't even know what the structure is going to be, or who the characters are, or what the ending is. I am completely lost, I am walking as I can. Do I spend my time traveling the border? It was inevitable that the border would not leak. Do I have the past of the Model Unit? There was no way it wouldn't leak. Do I live in a troubled society? It is impossible not to leak. But, at the same time, I also want to filter the other: the generosity of the Mexican, humanity, solidarity. We are a very hospitable people, we are a very generous people. I, from my experiences, believe that the people in this country are fundamentally good. I hope the novel also reflects that. But, sorry, I don't feel that I have a commitment to see how they are going to see Mexico or not [through my work]. I would be loading the work with weights that it will not support, it will break if I am thinking about that.
P. In many passages of The Wild and Saving the Fire a great pain is portrayed ...
R. Living in this country you do not come out unscathed. Terrible things have happened to known people, not very close, but people who were very kind. For example, I'll tell you: a rancher who lent us his property to hunt was tortured for three days. The way they tortured him is that they cut him open in the carcass, they left him alive in the carcass for three days, then they cut off a piece of his intestine. And it had nothing to do with it, it was a confusion. His brother was a policeman and they believed he was a 'hawk', they believed they were both 'hawks' but he had nothing to do with it. However, they tortured him for three days like this, with his guts open ... For a long time they wanted him to write a film about the dead in Ciudad Juárez. I always refused, but I had access to the files and the photos .... And there is a part where you say: "I can't paint a beautiful Mexico, honestly, because there are massacres here." And then you realize the deep corruption that has occurred in this country, at all levels, from the municipal police to the president of the republic that… I am an optimist and I will always be an optimist, but you cannot not write about these realities. I've seen them up close. I arrived in the town of Allende, where there was a massacre of three hundred people, a day later. I was in the dark, not knowing anything. I arrived, we were going to buy some things in Allende, I was in a nearby town, which is called Zaragoza and the atmosphere [felt] rarefied. Then I saw the monkey's hands, these giant shovels from the cranes that had broken down the houses to get people out of there. Until they told us: “Can we give you some advice? Go away ”. And you know that there they killed three hundred people, starting with some kids, who mistook them for 'hawks'. And so the truth was infiltrating. That's why I tried to put a bit of humor in Salvar el fuego , which is my novel that portrays this more starkly. Because if not, we go crazy.
Q. Is part of the job not to make the book impassable by piling up horrors?
R. Of course, I did not want to stack horrors. What I wanted was to give it a human meaning, because even within the narco there is humanity. Inside every monster a hint of humanity throbs.
Q. You are a hunter, you have spoken extensively about it. In this country of armed people, who commit blood crimes every day, someone will inevitably tell you: "The hunter is also a criminal," right?
A. To begin with, humans are a species sitting on a throne of blood. The other day I saw on Twitter how the blades of crop reapers leave hundreds of beheaded animals: quail, rabbits, hares, roadrunners. Just because you don't see death doesn't mean there isn't. We all, in some way, have to destroy something to eat. And that vegans do not say that they do not mistreat animals, because they have never gone to see how [a harvest] is dismantled, to see how the threshers come in. They haven't been there, they don't know what the process is like. In every feeding process, inevitably, there is a question of cruelty and death. What I have done is take the act of death into my hands. I'm not paying a butcher. I am not paying a fisherman. I am not paying a farmer. I am taking in my hands the animal that I am going to eat and this makes me be more respectful of life. I, for example, never leave a piece of animal on my plate, I never throw it away. In a shrimp cocktail, the last little shrimp, if someone is going to throw it away, I say… “Wait. That little shrimp died, carnal. Do not throw it away. It's not fair". I have more appreciation for life than most people. And [hunting] is not criminal. I think people have lost, especially in urban areas, a sense of where food comes from. I still eat the venison that I hunted in January, every other day. And here [at home] they eat deer, and they eat goose, and they eat dove, and they eat ducks. My children grew up with that, eating wild meat. But the animals I hunt had a chance to leave. Not like these farm horrors, where they are confined to a miserable space for years without a chance. I don't hunt females, babies, or young males; I hunt certain types of animals and try to do it in the most ethical way possible.
Q. You are a writer who does not politicize his stories, at least not in the sense that they are politicized in current debates. How do you relate to this kind of debate, to the politicization of literature, of the characters, and even of the figures, the facts and the sayings of the writers?
R. One of my fears is that we will begin to censor ourselves, that for the sake of political correctness we will make a toothless literature, we will make a literature that does not put lemon on wounds. Besides, we are beings of our times, you cannot judge a work by the times, right? I never write with the intention of doing politics. However, [political issues] have been reflected, in Salvar el fuego, above all: the abusive father, a male, who humiliates his wife and children. There is a part where they talk about racism in the United States, obviously racism in Mexico, racism towards the indigenous, which is a good bastard. And also corruption, impunity. But I'm not doing it to do politics, the truth is that I'm not interested in doing politics. Every novel, from the moment it is written, already has an existential, philosophical, political, social, and psychological vision. Even if you don't want it there it is. And you have to learn to handle yourself.
Q. You are an internationally recognized and read author. How does criticism face a creator who, as is your case, tackles thorny issues, extreme episodes, characters on the edge?
A. In Mexico we suffer from a very superficial criticism, which does not in any way delve into what the work is ... You realize that they read one page, then another, they read ten skips and that's how they criticize. That kind of criticism I don't even take seriously. Now, regarding foreign critics, it's funny, but, for example, The Wild One had an overseas resonance that it didn't have with critics here. I do not belong to any literary group, nor to any film group. I've always gone it alone. And many of the critics belong to a clan and they give each other a ball. That happens here, but when they publish you elsewhere, you no longer belong to any clan, there is a bit more objectivity. And, obviously, Europeans with a book like The Savage don't even know how to react ...
P. The last years of European history and the type of societies they have built have perhaps created a kind of bubble around certain social violence that, however, were common in Europe ...
A. Yes. When they say to me in Spain or in Germany: "Mexico is a very violent country," I answer: "Look who's talking." You know the massacres that took place between 1936 and 1939 in Spain, and the massacres that Mr. Franco continued to carry out over the years, until he killed three people with a vile stick in 1975. 45 years ago they were driving a screw into a political prisoner! And what greater horror than the one that existed in Germany. And what greater racism than there are in Europe. Every time they ask me about what is happening in Mexico, I tell them: "You are not that far either." Sometimes, a historical circumstance is enough for all the rotten water to come out. The bubbles are not powerful enough to stop what is happening. The United States is showing us this: the bubble they are trying to build is not working for anything. So, instead of getting into bubbles, you have to talk about things for what they are. And we have to touch on the issues and we have to confront ourselves and we have to open up and speak head-on. What happens is that they already want us to do everything on the side, sidestepped, with downcast eyes. But no: you have to see it head-on. It is something that I can say that, with my work, they have appreciated it in Europe. Despite the shock that creates them. For example, in Holland, The Wild sold out the first edition in one day. What happened in the Netherlands, that a novel having to do with the Model Unit in the sixties became a success? And in Italy, Germany and France. Something resonated about that book with European readers.
Q. You have an outstanding career in film, but in recent years you have put a very strong accent on your literary side, as if you had redoubled your commitment to literature as a means of expression, with a couple of novels that have had a lot of resonance criticism and success with readers. This seems to go against the current of a time when the image and the visual prevail over literature, over print ...
R. My work has always been literature, I feel that what I do in film is literature. A theater playwright is never questioned whether or not he makes literature, but a film playwright is. What I write is a work that is communicated with the rest of my work. It is not a commissioned work, it is not a manipulated work, I have an aesthetic approach that comes from [the book of stories] Return 201 , I have been doing these non-linear things since I was 23 years old. Cinema is very seductive, but there is also a part that requires large capital and to access these large capital you need to make concessions that I was not willing to make. I preferred literature and literature took me to the movies, and literature will take me back to the movies. I came to the movies because they started buying the rights to my novels. A sweet smell of death was going to be directed, originally, by Alfonso Cuarón. At some point I sat down with Guillermo del Toro to see if he led the Guillotine Squad . I do not get rid of the cinema, I have produced films and I have not stopped directing. Last year, I went to Venice with a film that I am very proud of, which is called Speaking with Gods , a film in which I called several important directors around the world to talk about their own religion. But he needed to write these novels. And in the literary world, the dialogue you establish with a reader is different from the one you have with a spectator. There is a different depth, there is something that you touch deeper in a reader than in a spectator. And that becomes an addiction too.
P. One of the things that has characterized you in the world of cinema is your struggle to dignify the screenwriter as a creator. Cinema is a collective activity, with work teams and committees ... Is the comparative freedom that literature gives you something you miss when you make movies?
R. No, no, because if I am proud of something, it is that I never conceded. I reconciled, because you have to, but I never conceded. I sign what I write with pride, even if it fails, but I sign it. And I would not sign it if they ask me for things that are not acceptable to me. I would rather live badly, economically badly, to feel that I sold myself, that I did not do what I had to do. I went on American television and precisely because of this attitude of not giving in, I couldn't advance. You got twenty-six bastards telling you what to do. And they are very nervous about the focus group and the vice president of development comes… And there are seventeen vice presidents in each chain who are going to give their opinion on what you do and it is very exhausting. I did not like television. Sure: you can become a millionaire if you hit one of those. I have a writer friend who I was going to partner with to make a production company in Hollywood. One day he said to me: "I have to go do a pilot [program] in Ireland." And me saying to him: "Don't go do television in Ireland" [laughs]. His name is David Benioff and he is the creator of Game of Thrones . You just got paid $ 150 million just for signing with Netflix. But it is exhausting, you have to have character for that.
P. Is the priority to be committed to your stories and defend your identity as an author?
A. There are battles you have to fight and most of the writers in the movie business are dissatisfied. There is a neglect, a contempt for the work of the writer, which I have tried to reverse, not for me, but for all writers ... The director is used to power, he likes power. But the writer has no power and does not know how to handle power. The director is used to facing movie stars in Hollywood. But the neighborhood came out for me. And I said: "Well, I do." And it was a very large media lawsuit and had very large costs. It was a godmother, but I don't regret it. I wanted to put the names of the writers up and let them know that there is a writer behind a movie. But, look, people know that I wrote Dog Loves , in general nobody knows who writes a movie, but they know about me that I wrote Dog Loves . And I can tell you that I go anywhere, to New Zealand or Australia, and I can fill forums. And they pay me well to go. So, even financially, defending yourself has its advantages, right?