You might remember the thrills of your first, young love—or lust—and the butterflies in your stomach that made daily life fade to black whenever that person is near. Throw in the discretion of being a closeted gay boy and the idea of doing something that could potentially shatter your world made those kisses all the sweeter. It’s a story that resonates. It is that universal coming of age tale of queer familiarity that unites us, regardless of who or where we are. Such is the story of José, a Guatemalan film by director Li Cheng, that recently had its New York debut and will open in Los Angeles on February 21st and select cities to follow.
José follows the life of the titular José, who lives with his mother in Guatemala City and works as a runner for a restaurant, chasing down cars to attract them to the local business. José, portrayed by indigenous actor Enrique Salanic, has a very close relationship with his mother, who is not-surprisingly religious and who struggles to support them as a street vendor. What José’s mother doesn’t know is that her beloved and hard-working son is diving into his sexual exploration and meeting up with random men he finds on a dating app. José hooks up with them in a local motel that charges by the hour, with some rather impersonal, yet personal scenes that depict José longing for more than just fun.
José soon meets Luis, played by Manolo Herrera, a migrant worker from the rural Caribbean coast who piques his interest. Luis arrives into José’s life to test his devotion to his mother and his responsibilities to the household, but to also awaken something in José that he cannot seem to find in his mundane quotidian life peppered by earth tremors synonymous to his inner turmoil.
The film shows José and Luis unearthing their affinity for one another, taking them on somewhat of a road trip into rural areas of Guatemala, a historically conservative and Catholic country, with stringent laws and a homophobic reality. José tells the authentic story of two young lovers at a crossroads in their lives where they must decide to continue to explore their intimacy and a potential life of freedom or remain confined to the lives of tradition and complacency.
In an interview, openly gay actor Enrique Salanic and Director Li Chenge offered some insight on their process in working on José and what the film represents for the country of Guatemala.
DAVID LOPEZ: How did the story of José come about?
LI CHENG: Well, long story, haha.. Back in 2016, myself and my producer, George F. Roberson, started to get very unhappy with how things were going in the USA, and we were especially troubled by the negative things we kept hearing about Latino people – it all seemed so disconnected from reality. So in August of 2016 we went to São Paulo, Brazil to begin research for the story that became José. We interviewed hundreds of young people about their lives, loves and dreams. The interviews and script writing was a one-year project, and we worked in a dozen Latin American countries. The José story emerged from this process of looking and listening
DL: What made you want to tell this story?
LC: We wanted to return to a sense of reality – to show things as they really are, to leave over-the-top drama behind, and to challenge stereotypes. Latin American films are often focused on white and rich people, although the vast majority of the people are poor and non-white, and really struggling with lack of opportunities – yet they have the same hopes for a decent life and love, and no one is telling their stories
In our interviews, one seven-teen year old had recently come out to his mom as gay, and she replied, “That’s ok, but you’ll never know true love” – the inference being that somehow homosexual relationships could never rise to the level of love that’s reserved only for heterosexuals, and that homosexual relations are only some sort of extreme and exploitative and animalistic sex (which are common tropes of homosexual sex, even in queer cinema). We felt we couldn’t leave that unchallenged.
DL: How did you go about casting?
LC: Industry people told us it would be impossible to make the film in Guatemala due to widespread homophobia, and since, they said, no actor would kiss another man. So we had concerns about casting…and so we turned to social media and reached out to networks of young people, and we had an overwhelmingly positive response to our casting calls. In the end more than 500 people attended castings, and it was very difficult to decide since there are so many highly skilled people.
DAVID LOPEZ: How did you become attached to the project?
ENRIQUE SALANIC: I worked as an actor in the film Days of Light directed by Sergio Ramirez. The photographer, Alvaro Rodriguez, recommended me to Li Cheng. After talking to Li about the project, I became engaged with the story as I felt that it was time that somebody told it.
DL: Do you identify with José in any way?
ES: Yes, I think many people will too. José goes through human experiences and emotions that are very relatable.
DL: How was your process in becoming this character?
ES: I was very fortunate to have talked to many people across the LGBQT+ community, before and during the filming process. This helped me gain a broader perspective on the different realities that are lived day to day in Guatemala, and as time went by, I realized it was a reality lived by many people around the world. To convey and synthesize all of these stories was perhaps one of the hardest parts of Jose’s character.
DL: How has this film been received in Guatemala?
LC: Some social media in advance of the film’s first screening in Guatemala was negative – but at José’s recent premiere in a Guatemala City film festival, with the all-Guatemalan cast and crew on the red carpet, there were two side-by-side sold-out theaters in a fancy shopping mall, with a long line of people who couldn’t get in – that’s successful by any measure.
DL: What do you hope this film will do for the people of Guatemala and the LGBTQ+ community?
ES: I hope José plants a seed of hope and strength for future generations; in order for them to live peacefully without the fear of being harassed, attacked or even killed for who they are. It’s a movie that makes the audience question themselves, the society, and the reality that they live in. I hope you have the chance to watch José and spread the message of love, hope and strength.
LC: José is our love letter to Guatemala – we hope people will see it, feel it, and debate it.
José is the first Central American film to premiere at the Venice Film Festival and has taken home numerous awards on the festival circuit, including the Queer Lion Award and Best Film at the Boston LGBT Film Festival.
Experience José now in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pasadena CA, Miami, San Diego, Palm Springs CA, Fort Lauderdale FL, Aventura FL, Boca Raton FL, metro Phoenix (Tempe), Lake Worth FL and more. Find tickets: http://www.outsiderpictures.us/movie/jose/