Monday, October 17, 2011

‘Better Life’ taps human side of immigration

by The real-life story that prompted A Better Life, a moving tale of a Mexican immigrant gardener and his rebellious son, took 25 years to become a movie.
“It’s easier to make a film about aliens from other places in the universe than illegal aliens,” says producer Paul Witt. “It takes a collection of passionate individuals to get a story like this made.”
And passion certainly is the connecting link among all those involved in the critically acclaimed film, which opened in June in a limited theatrical release and comes out on DVD Tuesday.
The film grew out of an incident in the early ’80s involving the gardener of Witt’s neighbor, who lost his livelihood after his truck was stolen. He couldn’t report the theft because of his undocumented status and fear of deportation.
“It’s bad enough to be the victim of a crime, but to have to keep your head down and basically stay invisible is terrible,” Witt says.
The story stayed with the producer and came close to being made into a movie in the ’90s, but studios shied away — until recently.
“It’s certainly a more important story now than it would have been 20 years ago,” says Witt. “This issue is at the forefront of so much of American thinking, and this film puts a face on people who are only talked about in terms of numbers and as a problem.”
The film does not take sides on the issue of illegal immigration.
“We don’t see this as a political film, it’s a father-son story,” says director Chris Weitz (The Twilight Saga: New Moon).
‘You can’t help but feel’ for them
Weitz was drawn to the tale for many reasons. His grandmother Lupita Tovar, now 100, is a Mexican-born actress, and he wanted to address immigration from several angles.
“It’s inevitable that once you open a window on the life of an undocumented immigrant, you can’t help but feel a certain understanding for their situation,” Weitz says. “Even people who are very much in favor of immigration reform and quite conservative about it will understand more about the issues when they see this picture.”
Weitz, who also has German, Czech and Norwegian ancestry, learned Spanish for the film.
“I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish,” he says. “It was necessary for me to start learning it because we were shooting with a bilingual crew, and I wanted to go into neighborhoods in a manner that would be accepted and embraced by the local people.”
The film, which shot in 69 locations around Los Angeles, exposed corners of the city rarely seen in movies. One scene features a Mexican rodeo, shot about 30 miles from the city’s center.
Demián Bichir (Weeds) plays Carlos Galindo, a gardener whose stolen truck kicks off a spate of bad luck.
“Carlos is trying his best to live a low-profile kind of life,” says Bichir. “He lives in both worlds. He has to speak English with his customers and with his son and then Spanish with his friends and his sister and his everyday world.”
Seeing the unseen
The film focuses on people who often are invisible in real life. “There are many people who are washing your dishes, taking care of your lawn or your children, even in places where you don’t think there is immigration,” Weitz says. “It’s easy to ignore them because in some ways, they don’t want to be seen. They’re scared. They also often come from countries where the authorities are inherently unfriendly to poor people. “
José Julián, 17, who plays Luis, Carlos’ son, knew the milieu of the sullen teen who wants to distance himself from his dad and flirts with joining a gang.
“I’ve lived in areas that have been very gang-ridden, and I have friends who are exactly like the character I was playing,” says Julián.
Playing father and son, he and Bichir forged a strong friendship.
“During filming, we’d eat together, we’d chill in the trailer, we went to a lot of rehearsals,” Julián says. “I learned so much from that man.”
Weitz was determined to tell a tough story with empathy.
“To work the way a lot of immigrants work in this country takes such tremendous drive and fortitude,” he says. “And that’s not usually portrayed on the screen in a very positive way.”
But he didn’t want to whitewash the truths.
“This was a very realistic story,” says Weitz. “It deals with very complex, but on the surface, very simple, emotions: the love of a father for his son, the love of home, the love of country and the misunderstandings that occur between generations.”



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