Photo by Torrey Bailey
"In Tijuana, everyone is an assistant director without you asking. It’s great.” So says local artist and filmmaker Omar Lopex when asked what it’s been like to shoot and direct his new feature-length film—titled Ana, Who They Pulled Out of the River—on the streets of Tijuana.
“It’s perfect because you’ll have random people taking care of business for you,” says Lopex, referring to how the Tijuana locals would often do things like stopping traffic or redirecting other pedestrians so that Lopex could finish the shot. “I think that it has to do a lot with movies because all people love movies. Way more than art projects.”
Still, shooting in single takes, guerilla style, on a rather bulbous 16mm, analog camera hasn’t been without hiccups. In one instance, he was trying to get a shot with the film’s main character on a zonkey (the donkeys that are painted to look like zebras, a common site in Tijuana). After spotting a cop car in the alley where he was trying to film, a local Lopex had hired to help on the set decided to take matters into his own hands.
“He goes to the cop and he’s like, ‘Hey! We’re shooting a movie over here! Can you move?’” recalls Lopex, shaking his head. “The cop gets out of his car and goes like, ‘what’d you say? What’s going on?’”
The cop initially asked Lopex for his permits (which he didn’t have), but eventually bought Lopex’s story that he was simply taking a picture of his relatives. As Lopex prepares to complete Ana, he says the film’s budget now includes funds for police bribes. He doesn’t plan on hiring that assistant again.
“He was the worst,” says Lopex. “He’s a sweet guy, but he’s an idiot.”
Lopex is already a respected video artist with shows at the San Diego Art Institute (SDAI), Art Produce and the Oceanside Museum of Art under his belt, but Ana, Who They Pulled Out of the River will be his first feature. In many ways, the black-and-white film could be seen as an extension of his 2015 short film Sin Eater, a riches-to-rags story of two sisters set in San Diego during the Great Depression. Around the same time as that film’s completion, Lopex also curated a special screening at SDAI of other short films by and about women.
Even with those facts and that he was raised primarily by women, Lopex maintains that Ana is its own entity. The fact that the film features an all-female cast that, as he puts it, “doesn’t mention guys” is purely incidental.
“It’s not an anti-guy thing. It’s just like they don’t exist and we don’t even talk about it,” says Lopex, who also brought on artists such as Toni Larios and Hugo Crosthwaite to help with things like set design. “It’s mythical in this sense that it’s all-women and it’s in this crazy city, but really what I hope is people don’t even notice it until halfway through the movie or at the end of the movie. I hope they think, ‘wait there’s no guys in that. Where the hell are they?’”
When Lopex is asked if he took any inspiration from the Bechdel test (a test named after writer and illustrator Alison Bechdel which tests whether or not a piece of fiction can have two female characters that interact without talking about a male), he says that while he’s happy with the all-female vision, it wasn’t something that first crossed his mind.
“I couldn’t pretend to be that guy,” says Lopex. “You know, I’m a decent guy, but I don’t have my feminist t-shirt. The film is not all about women, but it’s female-driven.”
Inspired as much by comic books like Love and Rockets as it is by classic episodes of Colombo, the film itself is a murder mystery that begins with a woman abandoning her daughter on the banks of the Tijuana River. The story of Moses is an easy analogy, but Lopex says the story more closely resembles that of The Jungle Book, in that the daughter (Ana, played by Ariadnali de la Peña) is raised by the wildness of the city. Lopex is reluctant to reveal more details about the plot other than when the mother shows back up 20 years later to find her daughter working as a clown, and that’s when things really get intense.
Still, for a protagonist, Ana has a very limited amount of dialogue and Lopex says the “meat” of the story comes from dozens of extras and supporting characters.
“Anna is the protagonist and she’s the movie, but we never really jive with her,” says Lopex. “She’s not awful but we jive with everyone else. We, the audience, are pretty much everyone else and we’re all the other characters. I watch it and I think if you’re a decent person, you’ll side with all the other people in the movie. All the ancillary characters.”
Lopex says that many of the actresses he cast in these parts were just happy not to be playing what have become stereotypical parts. Even the zonkey scene was cut because Lopex wanted to avoid what he decribes as the “tired tropes” that people often associate with Tijuana.
“All the actors we’ve recruited and cast, they love it because everything they ever get pitched is all like ‘I’m a whore,’ ‘I work as a drug mule’ or ‘I’m trying to cross the border,’” says Lopex. “I have feelings about all that stuff but it’s boring, and they’re bored playing those parts. It’s that or they’re playing a zombie.”
After a fundraising event in May and some support from SDAI, Lopex says he will complete the film in hopes of shopping it around to festivals and potential distributors. He’s realistic about it though. Given the use of analog, black-and-white film, the all-female cast and the film’s subject matter, he’s knows he’s not working on a blockbuster, but rather a film that will live on in the hearts of a select audience.
“You know, it’s not a marketable movie,” Lopex says. “My kids are asking, ‘so when can we go see the movie?’ I always tell them, ‘you realize it’s not going to be in the AMC theatre, right?’”