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CINEMA

Celebrating the “Mexicoscars”

The seven Academy Awards for Alfonso Cuarón’s 'Gravity' were recognition of a golden generation

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón with the two Oscars he received for 'Gravity'.
Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón with the two Oscars he received for 'Gravity'.JASON LAVERIS (WireImage)

Hours after winning the Oscar for Best Director for Gravity on Sunday, Alfonso Cuarón sent out an email to his closest friends. “I love you loads,” he wrote. “Thanks a lot for everything.”

The message was an extension of the thank-yous that got left out during the brief seconds the Academy granted him on stage.

Along with Emmanuel Lubezki, who also took home a statuette for his photography on the film, Cuarón is among the filmmakers who helped change the face of Mexican cinema in the 1990s. Last Sunday night’s ceremony was recognition of their more than 20-year careers in Hollywood.

On Monday Mexico celebrated to the full an award that it has taken to its heart. “We are not a family who celebrates prizes too much,” said Alfonso’s brother, Carlos Cuarón. “They make you happy for a moment and then it is time to move on.”

Cuarón is among the filmmakers who helped change the face of Mexican cinema in the 1990s

The Mexican media devoted their front pages to the triumph despite the fact the filmmaker has lived outside the country for the past two decades. “It is not Mexican cinema, it is a Mexican filmmaker making excellent cinema,” explains Alejandro Pelayo, a director who preceded the so-called “Three Amigos Generation” of Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñarritu.

The new Mexican cinema of the generation after Cuarón has been picking up awards at the biggest international festivals for the last few years now. In 2013 Amat Escalante won the Best Director Prize at Cannes for Heli – the third Mexican to do so in seven years after Carlos Reygadas in 2012 and Iñarritu in 2006.

It was not an isolated case. According to data from the Mexican Film Institute (Imcine), in 2013 71 Mexican films were awarded international prizes. The success has run parallel with a rise in the number of films being made - almost 100 in 2013 compared with just 14 in 2002. The boom may be in part explained by a tax incentive that allows companies to give up to 10 percent of their taxes to film projects.

But the generation recognized in the Dolby Theatre on Sunday stands out for its effort. “When we were students the industry was dead,” explains Salvador de la Fuente, a classmate of Lubezki and Cuarón at the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos film school at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. When they began studying in the early 1980s Mexican film was churning out movies of negligible quality. Sex comedies, the so-called cine de ficheras, featuring nude actresses and set in the slums, dominated. Only a handful of filmmakers were recognized for the work. Felipe Cazal, Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, Jorge Fons and Arturo Ripstein won prizes at the Berlin and San Sebastián Film Festivals. Their films were financed with public money, after Mexican President José López Portillo introduced state policy to fund art film, “supporting socially committed cinema,” according to Alejandro Pelayo, director of the National Film Archive.

When we were students the industry was dead”

The economic crisis of the 1980s molded the lives of Mexicans. It was this that saw the second great generation of Mexican cinema begin to take form. They were the children of the crisis. They made movies with very little money in which creativity made up for the lack of resources. And it was there, in this context, that the main exponents of Mexican cinema started to experiment. Cuarón worked as a soundman, supporting a boom mic on sets. Del Toro helped with the makeup. “He did the makeup for dead people," Pelayo recalls. "He liked it a lot and it suited him very well.”

A second wave of public financing arrived at the start of the 1990s when Ignacio Durán was at the helm of Imcine. The aim was to raise the profile of Mexican productions and push them toward the international market. It was in this context that Cuarón made Sólo Con Tu Pareja (1991), which triumphed at the Toronto Film Festival. After that success, he started to look north, to the United States. The Mexican cinematic miracle was underway. That generation, says Pelayo, “speaks very good English, it’s very American.” Cuarón worked as an assistant director for American filmmakers who went to shoot in Mexico. His predecessors had been more likely to look toward London and Paris.

At the end of the 1980s the budget for a Mexican film was around $300,000. After the boom in public funding, films were made on budgets of up to a million. The situation aided the production of films such as Cronos and Like Water for Chocolate. The first is the debut of Guillermo del Toro, which catapulted him to Hollywood The second enjoyed so much international success that it brought cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to the attention of the industry.

On Sunday, Lubezki, who had been nominated five times before, finally triumphed in the Dolby Theatre. The prize provided long-awaited recompense for the Academy’s former errors. But it arrived, nevertheless, at the right moment, enshrining his name alongside that of his “friend and teacher,” Alfonso Cuarón.

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