American Visa is about the Bolivian dream vs. the American dream

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American Visa is the second movie directed by Bolivian film director Juan Carlos Valdivia. American Visa is the story of Mario Alvarez, a man that in In post-9/11 Bolivia harsh new laws plans on traveling to Miami to reunite with his son and start a new life in the US. But it is almost impossible to get a US visa and what complicate his situation even more,is Blanca, a beautiful young woman who is looking for change in her life. Mario facing deadends goes wild.

Cinema Without Borders: What inspired you to make “American Visa”?
Juan Carlos Valdivia: Three reasons. I loved the novel in which it’s based. Being a nomad myself, the immigration story with a bend was very attractive to me and it offered a base in which I could make it personal. Finally, I wanted to pay homage to my city, which I think is one of the most beautiful and unusual cities in the world.

CWB: The main character of American Visa is a man desperately looking for a way to get an entry visa o US? Does he represent the common dream of the people in the third world wanting to live in America? Or he symbolizes the search of man trying to find peace?
Juan: I think the second is a more profound reading, although the first is a very common. When someone gets a visa denied, all of a sudden, he or she becomes a second-class citizen. He thinks that going to America is going to solve all his problems. But what he’s actually looking for is a something to validate his dream and his struggle, which he thinks he can’t find at home. He needs a connection and a purpose in life, a reason to go through the many challenges that life puts us through.

CWB: Could one call “American Visa”, a political movie? To many your movie is a strong statement against harsh US policy towards people from the developing countries. Is this a true understanding?
Juan: American Visa has a strong political side. But rather than pointing fingers, it is directed to ourselves. The movie talks about the Bolivian dream versus the American dream and I think that is revolutionary. In this country, or many other Latin American countries, that dream hasn’t even occurred to most people. It’s something we have lost. In recent years the number of people leaving Bolivia has grown exponentially. We are only 9 million people in a territory twice the size of Spain. Every week 10 jumbo jets leave for Spain (the choice country now for Bolivians) and 90% are immigrants. Why does this happen in a country where most people, according to a recent study, live happily? It is a national disaster. Mostly they go to earn money to send back home. The movie talks about the necessity of looking at our reality, the need to stop dreaming scenarios outside when there is so much to do inside. When visitors come to Bolivia, they can easily see that everything is to be done, unlike developed countries where everything is done and I don’t mean in the material world. We need to build strong institutions, a better democracy and better understanding of ourselves. Mario, the protagonist, is a dreamer. He thinks he’s going to have a good job in a restaurant in Miami. He comes from a life of failure, he smokes too much, he drinks his problems away and the situation of getting a visa forces him to get his hands dirty. Blanca, on the other hand, doesn’t mind getting dirty working on a nightclub every night. She’s working on her Bolivian dream. She knows who she is and she wants to go back to her hometown with a good man. She’s an internal immigrant in a way, coming from the lowlands and living in the Andean capital. That is where the real tension lies.

The story about the corrupt Embassy official is political in a different way. While many in Bolivia other celebrate it, others thought it was a flaw in the movie. They had difficulty accepting that an American working at the Embassy would be corrupt. The character was inspired on an American, operating out of an Embassy Central America, involved in the traffic of Chinese citizens to America. American movies show Latins mostly as criminals, poor, dirty, ugly or stupidly sexy. Mario, who is acting on impulse, doesn’t realize this confrontation with the American is expressing his disenchantment and his goodbye to America. Unconscious as he is (like my fellow citizens) he needs fate to make the final decision for him.

CWB: In your first movie, Jonas Y La Ballena Rosada, one of the main characters ends up going to US and loving the wrong person. Has the subject of US presence in Latin America a fascinating angle for you?
Juan: I studied film in the Sates. My movies have a more American than European influence in language and aesthetics. Everybody has a love and hate relationship with the U.S. It cannot be one or the other. You need to have both, even Americas. Otherwise you are on automatic pilot.

CWB: Your main character comes close to turn to a rebel, and then finds love. Are your characters find loves as an answer to their desperations?
Juan: The happy ending is reactionary in Latin America. We need to change that. Who needs another movie about the terrible things that happen to an immigrant? Mario’s dream is at home. He just doesn’t know it. He needs to open his eyes. Jonah (Jonah and the Pink Whale) was an anti-hero. I saw an heroic possibility for Mario. Love is heroic. It takes courage to love. Mario rebels against the system, against himself, he goes for his American dream and — like it often happens — he finds his dream somewhere else. He finds his dream in something very simple, a relationship with someone who has opened a door to a new vision of life. Blanca has done this. He has helped change his way of looking at the world.

CWB: You worked with two very talented Mexican actors, Damian Bichir and Kate Del Castillo in American Visa and they both play Bolivian characters. Was it because of co-production nature of your movie or had another reason?
Juan: The actors played the Bolivian national character so flawlessly that it became a plus. I was living in Mexico at the time of pre-production. My first movie was a co-production with Mexico and I made a third movie in Mexico since. It is part of the design of the movie, to put two great well-known actors in the lead. It’s so American in a way. But it worked. A lot more people saw the movie because of that and – this is very important – the two main characters carry the weight of the story, not the plot, not the style, so you need actors with weight, you need people to fall in love with.

CWB: What were the challenges you faced while making “American Visa”?
Juan: Like usual. Money. Then, I had a lot of problems in post because one of the producers wanted to force his cut and his version of the movie and I had to fight for my right to tell the story I had envisioned. That made the process very tortuous and painful, but in the end I came a lot stronger out of that. Adversaries can teach a great deal more than what it appears when you go through it.

CWB: What are your plans for international distribution of “American Visa”?
Juan: The movie was released wide in Bolivia and Mexico. We have home video distribution in the U.S. and we’re waiting for offers through our sales agent. We just learned today (dic 18) that we are nominated for the Spanish Academy Awards (Goya)

CWB: What did lead you to become a filmmaker?
Juan: At the age of four, I used to paint and write poems, which I sold to my family and their friends. The first thing I bought from my savings was a ticket to see Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. I also bought a booklet with drawings and 45rpm record with the story. Later in the U.S., I switched from architecture to film after a period of loneliness during which I went to a nearby Art House and saw 3 movies a day. I fell in love with movies and later with moviemaking.

CWB: Who are the filmmakers that you admire?
Juan: The atmospheres and strange worlds of David Lynch and Luis Bunuel. The enchantment and grace of Wong Kar Wai for the atmospheres. The intelligence, bravery and aesthetic explorations of Lars von Trier. I have recently discovered a new Argentinian director, Lucrecia Martell, whom I love. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublov is a movie I watch over and over and over. Piece by piece. There’s a homage to Casablanca in American Visa and Woody Allen’s love for New York inspired me to pay homage to my hometown. I also like Paul Thomas Anderson and Aaronovski. In my early years I was a big fan of Fassbinder. As much as I like many Europeean filmmakers, I have a weakness for Hollywood. Luckily I am neither American nor European so I can have a different discourse and take from two worlds that are so different and opposed.

CWB: Please tell us about your future projects.
Juan: I’m developing a Project with the Guarani indians of South America and a saga about the coca wars in Bolivia. I have a Project aboard a cargo slip and I’m writing a new original screenplay.

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Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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