Where did you get the idea for this film?

I wanted to do something that came from an image, let’s call it a primal image: a 9mm gun in the hand of a child. That image seemed very shocking to me. When in 2010 I was sent to make the film The Open Sky, in El Salvador, I was very shocked to learn that people who charged the rents were ten-year-old children, so I imagined the terror that many people now had of children. It is a very strong image, that a child becomes the representation of evil. You shouldn’t be afraid of a child, but if you know that he is the one who is going to collect the rent from the cartel or the gang, that child becomes a terrifying figure. Mexico, since the cartel’s war, also began to fear its children.

Something that also inspired this film was a chronicle by Oscar Balderas with which I taught for many years. It is a fictionalized chronicle that portrays the journey of a gun into the hands of a teenager. The main character is the gun. That became the starting point of the narrative that I began to work on, hand in hand with Oscar, because I sought him out and got to know him. Now we have become collaborators, and I then called Daniela Rea so that the three of us could write an adaptation of that chronicle. It was a very long process. That’s how all this came about.

So, the three of you thought about the idea for the script, then you found all the people who appear on the documentary, to fill the parts you had already planed.

Exactly. It was sort of a process in reverse compared to how I normally work, which is: based on what we have shot I write a structure for the first cut. In this case there was a text behind the search of what we were going to shoot, maybe a process closer to fiction. As I was concerned about how to keep the anonymity of the kids, especially those who were still minors, I came up with the idea of building a kind of scorpion tail to mount the camera, which, apart from emulating the perspective of video games, allowed us to accompany the everyday life, quite common and ordinary, of a child who now is referred to as a hitman

Formally, it is a very original film. On the other hand, you are a master of cinematic narrative within documentary filmmaking and here you break with that because it ends up being an abstract experience in many ways, and more so in comparison with the rest of your films which are very narrative, perhaps apart from Yermo.

Yes, because it is a film that does not allow intercuts. The construction of sequences is very complex when you don’t have alternatives. That’s why it took a long time to edit it, about ten months. Paloma says it is the most complicated film she has had to edit. We, at Artegios, gave a scholarship for a film course to a guy nicknamed Haxah, he is the one who did the music along with his friend Konk and Andrés Sánchez. They learned many things at the film course. They lived in the most encrypted part of Mexico City’s Tepito neighborhood. During the pandemic, they took a couple of iPhones 12 mounted on the scorpion tails. They filmed without a crew and upload the footage to a cloud every night, so I would review it and give them instructions on how to improve it. That’s how a lot of sequences were shot.

It’s a very effective result. It’s like a diver diving to the bottom of the sea. This is like the bottom of the underworld, or a part of it, of these underworlds that one wouldhardly know, where only they can get into.

The real value of this footage, which has a lot of clumsiness and is very imperfect – something I also like – is to allow us an access that would have been impossible for my team to have. This scorpion tail where we mounted the iPhones is still a cumbersome artifact that forced us to design the scenes, but when they took it, an exercise of freedom of movement and choice of situations and scenes emerged, and we later turned them into sequences. I’m still shocked that the iPhone 12s and all the equipment came back intact. It means that the gang itself helped a lot to get it done. It’s a very hot area where those phones are highly prized

The film gives a certain sense of objectivity, does this have to do with the way it is told?

I don’t know. Maybe what it has is a little more truth, I don’t know if it’s necessarily objectivity, because one thing that was important for me when choosing the boys is that, as in my film Devil’s Freedom, I didn’t want to talk about sociopaths who were dissociated from the moral fact of doing harm, who were already very malformed by the conditions of hyper-violence. I wanted to tell the story of an almost ordinary boy who did not necessarily come from a construction of malice from the family environment, but from the world in which he lives. “I was looking out the window and there were things I didn’t understand,” says one of the testimonies in the film, that moment of ceasing to be a child and entering the world as a teenager.

Suddenly, circumstances lead him, in an act of revenge, to become an armed wing of organized crime. But that was not necessarily that boy’s destiny. Something I really like about cinema is being able to look at the everyday life. I think that is one of the achievements of the film: it allows us to witness that these boys have cousins, brothers, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, they are moved by a little dog, just like any other people. When we finished the film, I showed it to my teenage son and he said, “How similar they are to all of us, to my friends”. I didn’t want it to seem that only social or economic status determines people’s destiny. It is often a tragic mistake. A boy who, emboldened, has access to weapons. And for that weapon to reach his hands, as the film narrates, it is necessary the involvement of the country’s law enforcement agencies, the Ministry of Defense, the Navy, U.S. gangs, the U.S. Army, customs forces, organized crime. All of this makes it possible that a young man who feels emboldened can have a 9mm in his hand. And what follows is the tragedy, what is triggered by this, which is to become a hit man. To be someone who has already taken the life of another, and there is no turning back.

Through the everyday life you show of the characters, do you intend to somehow “humanize” those who are capable of killing?

I don’t have the vision of justifying the exercise of evil. Of course, there is free will, but within these groups people are a fertile breeding ground for crime, there is no State to protect them, there is no way out, there is no way to redeem themselves. All the above resembles our lives in many ways. But what comes after this tragic mistake, after this trigger, is detached from what we understand as social entities, which is somewhat the same premise of Devil’s Freedom. What follows is a complex fall.

How do you get your interviewees to open the way they do? You are very good at getting out of people what they want to say, and you make great storytellers out of hem as well.

I believe that by being willing to listen and creating an environment where the other person feels safe. And stripping myself of judgments, especially moral judgments, because for me that is a straitjacket for any creative process, it is an exercise in self-censorship when one puts what one believes in the moral order before what one is doing, but especially when one is working with others who have a moral structure that is sometimes diametrically opposed to what one believes. It seems to me that this is an important thing. And the other thing is to take your time. I have almost never improvised on a recording of that kind, although I improvise along the way, but the backbone is solid. I almost always know who the person I’m talking to is, and that’s very relevant to the other person because you make them feel that you really care about them.

Most of them give the impression that they want to talk about their story, they do it willingly, even though they may be judged.

Sure they do. Because who asks them? I think that’s what documentary cinema must do: ask questions to those who have not been asked. I was thinking, after an interview with (Alonso) Ruizpalacios -who I think is one of the most interesting filmmakers in Mexico right now-, that why there are so many films about violence and disappearances, it is almost a fashion. And he said something that I completely agree with: It is not a fashion, because cinema speaks about the present. I think that if one wants to try to understand what is happening now and what has happened in the last twenty years in this country, in terms of the violence that has defined all these years, one must listen to those who do the violence. Of course, we must be very careful when we give a voice to the perpetrators, but I think that if we don’t listen to them, we will hardly understand what kind of society we live in or what kind of country we have; and it is also important for them to tell it because nobody has asked them about it.

Do you see any solution?

To think that attacking the causes is a matter of giving them money each month, I think that is not having listened to them, because it is not common for these young people to want to stop earning fifty thousand pesos for pulling a trigger, once they have already done it, to earn four thousand pesos a month. The answer lies elsewhere. It is the search for power, for respect, and as one of them says: “you stop being the victim with a gun”. This speaks of all the previous burden, of subjugation, of invisibility, of being permanently the underdog, and what a weapon brings you is the power to stop being the victim. That is what is sought, not just money

Legalizing drugs might help?

Yes, legalize drugs, although not all the market for the use of arms is for drug trafficking, not at all. There is extortion, the exercise of evil, the exercise of crime, of doing harm.

A scene that had a great impact on me, even though it is not a dramatic scene, is that of children handing a gun to each other, laughing, giving each other advice on how to assault.

It’s hard, because the children get into this first by playing, at least the ones I talked to. You don’t go in with the absolute notion of “I’m going to go kill people,” or with the desire to do so. They enter as if they were playing, and organized crime knows that very well. Since they are disposable, they pull them in when they are still playing. A young man will still feel like Rambo if he carries an M16 or an R15. He’s going to feel like in the movies, and more and more, because the media is constantly feeding us with those images of the exercise of power that an M16 or an R15, or a 9mm gives you. It is still a stage in which children play with pistols as all children in the world play. They ride on historical structures of coexistence.

It’s like the backstage of violence.

That’s it, just like that. It’s a good definition of what the film is in general, it’s a behind the scenes.

This film, along with El Paso and Devil’s Freedom, I think it forms a kind of triptych of violence in Mexico. Each one can be a footnote to the other.

They tell the story of a very particular period of life in Mexico. A period that is the one we are living through. Where everything is crossed by violence. Where everything that worries us most has to do with criminality, with weapons. There is no Mexican who does not come across the idea of violence in everyday life, in conversations, in everything. This film starts much more from the anecdotes of life, not necessarily from the processes of convulsion of people’s souls. This is the construction of the tool with which violence is going to be executed. Devil’s Freedom is a much more psychological film.

Thank you. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Thank you.