Not every immigrant experience is the same. The sooner we accept and explore that notion, the more we can learn from the individual experiences. Fernando Frias de la Parra’s I’m No Longer Here landed a spot on the shortlist for International Feature Film, representing Mexico. A misunderstanding will lead a stubborn young man to leave the only life he knew how to live and experience America in the loneliest of ways.
Ulises is the leader of a gang known as “Los Terkos,” a small group of young people with an appreciation for cumbia rebajada, a slowed down version of cumbia music. It’s slowed down so they can hold onto the emotions of the music longer. Frias de la Parra wrote a lot of the music into the script, but I wanted to know what it meant to him personally.
“Particularly, the cumbia rebajada is a sound of resistance in Monterrey for these kids. Cumbia originally originated by enslaved people and connected with origins from Africa. It’s about resistance in one way or another. For me personally, the music of the film will always frame my journey with the film. The kids in the film are called ‘Los Terkos’ which means stubborn, and I was stubborn and I wanted to carry my vision throughout. One important thing was the music.”
There were suggestions that there might be too much music, but the director stood firm knowing that the film would be completely different if they cut anything.
“There were many, many suggestions to tone down the music. People thought it would be too complicated. It’s the essence of the film. Ninety percent of the songs were written in the script. The script was built upon the lyric. For me, the slowed down cumbia is a metaphor for kids trying to reinvent themselves or trying to dignify themselves through music. Slowing it down is a way of holding on to the moment of which you are dancing. There is a big lack of opportunities for Latin America and Monterrey. I wanted those moments to last forever in terms of cumbia rebajada.”
Ulises is forced to leave Monterrey after he witnesses a drive-by shooting, and he fears for his family’s safety. The entire ordeal is a huge misunderstanding, but he is forced to illegally cross the border into America and he takes a job working construction in New York City. Ulises doesn’t speak any English, and he uses a battered mp3 player to listen to cumbia to soothe him when he longs for home. The loneliness of that connection was something Frias de la Parra wanted to emphasize.
“Having to migrant hiddenly is a forced migration. The most important thing to consider here is that he not longing to be foreign. In Monterrey, they are marginalized kids and they know they are alienated from the city. It’s something decided consciously and there have been generations of systematic oppression in that way. When he comes to New York, he’s not the same kind of immigrant that is a stereotype of the immigrant narrative. He already acquired an identity with meaning based on the way he lives. He doesn’t come from a place where a lot of people migrate to the US. It was important to me to say what is the price for someone who is coming of age to assimilate in a place like New York. I wanted to expand on that immigrant narrative. Not everyone is the same and not everyone wants to follow the American Dream.”
Whether Ulises is dancing with the rest of Los Terkos or he is using his movement as a defense mechanism, Frias de la Parra shot the dance sequences in different ways. Sometimes it feels like the camera is placed there to capture a bigger picture–there is one sequence that feels like we might jump in ourselves
“Each one has its own story. For example, there is one where they say hi to each other and then let one person come in and then another, I just wanted to let it go. Let it flow without any polishing. Of course, we talk about the blocking with the camera, but I wanted them to have a free moment so there is a comparison to things when the drive-by takes place. It was very intuitive and collaborative each time. We were looking for specific meaning in each dance segment. In New York, there is a lot to prove the first time he dances. He’s showing off and trying to prove himself to his bullying roommates. There is one where he is with Lin and he’s remembering and having memories and the Terkos are looking at the camera. That was on our last day of shoot and it was an improvised moment because that meant that while we waited for night to come. I wanted some room for magic to happen. Sometimes like cooking, you get the ingredients and you aren’t looking at the nutritional value of each thing. A big thing for me is the magic that comes without when you don’t try to control everything.”
There is another when Ulises is in New York and he dreams of spending time with his friends. The camera begins to pull back and we start to lose some of the sound from the scene. The more time he spends from his gang, the more he begins to worry that the memories are fading faster.
“That’s one of my favorite moments. When the camera is going away, something is fading. At the end, there is an energy on set and a connection to the film and subject matter, and I think we were attuned to that energy. On another level, he’s sleeping and sometimes you dream of someone and that person calls you. It’s crazy. That distance is pushing it away from him and he’s in exile.”
Towards the end of the film, Ulises’ swagger fades almost entirely, and he returns to a place that he never thought he’d be again. Everything looks different, but Frias de La Parra didn’t want to lead us by the hand. The final moments of the film are more ambiguous than you might think. Will Ulises become a drunk himself? Will he die in two years time? It’s up to Ulises to find his own way now that he has more experience and it’s up to us, the audience, to figure out if we think he will be okay.
“That’s a question that I’ve had since finishing the film. Although I have ideas, I don’t necessarily share them because I want the audience to stay with this question. I want people to wonder what he’s going do to next. He’s just one drop in the ocean. What’s going to happen to a generation who have to deal with the political circumstances and collateral damage of the drug trade. I wanted to end on the player running out of battery. Time’s up–what are you going to do?”
I’m No Longer Here is available to stream on Netflix.