El Norte, the widely acclaimed, Oscar-nominated epic about immigrants from Central America seeking the promise represented by life in United States, returns to 200-plus movie theaters on September 15 to mark National Hispanic Heritage Month and the films 35th anniversary.
The revival, a presentation of Fathom Events and Lionsgate, marks the films first theatrical release since its 1984 debut and features a state-of-the-art restoration produced by the Academy Film Archives, supported in part by the Getty Foundation. Lionsgate will also re-release El Norteon digital formats on September 17.
The theatrical presentation will also include a special introduction by El Norte director and co-writer Gregory Nava (whose credits also include Mi Familia and Selena) as well as a new featurette on the dangerous “outlaw” production that yielded a heartfelt film that both Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale would invoke during the 1984 presidential race.
The film, which was named to the U.S. National Film Registry, tracks the flight of two terrorized Guatemalans — Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez) and her brother Enrique (David Villalpando) — as they travel from their highlands village to Los Angeles. Deadline caught up with Nava to discuss the real-life fate of the films young stars, the resurgent resonance of the subject matter, and the political possibilities of filmmaking that flies in the face of authority, resists polemics and keeps its hand on its heart.
DEADLINE: The films rhythms and textures feel very contemporary. It doesnt feel like a move celebrating its 35th anniversary.
NAVA: A couple of months ago, we premiered the Academy restoration of the film in Europe at the Berlin Film Festival and there were over 1,000 people there and it was packed and it got a standing ovation, and people said exactly what you said. They said this film doesnt feel like it was made 35 years ago. It feels like it couldve been made today, you know. And, more importantly, the message is a contemporary one, of course, and in Berlin, they really got that. They really showed up to support the film because that is a city that was separated by a wall and they really took the film to their hearts because they know, profoundly, that walls dont work. All of the honors the film is receiving are so wonderful to all of us who made it, but its very, very bittersweet, too, because the message of the film is more relevant and more needed today than it was 35 years ago when it was originally released. That the situation is still so tragic on our southern border with refugees and look at the events in El Paso…
DEADLINE: It must be discouraging to see the same entrenched issues, the same bitter divides, the same rhetoric…
NAVA: It really affects us all but Im so happy that the film is being brought back because I really feel that its message of compassion and humanity is so needed today. For people to watch the epic journey of Rosa and Enrique and what they really go through to come to the United States seeking a better life in the face of violence. I mean anybody would make that choice, wouldnt they? When people see the movie, they say, “Yes, if I was Rosa and Enrique, I would do the same thing.” People have a right to save their lives and the lives of their families.
DEADLINE: Can you talk a bit about the films original release and the context of the times?
NAVA: When the movie was originally released it had tremendous impact. It played in theaters all over the country. It played in Los Angeles at Music Hall Theater in Beverly Hills for a year and in downtown L.A. and the theaters on Broadway for a year and in New York for a year. It was the first independent film to be nominated for an Academy Award and all of that was fantastic but most importantly: everybody was going to see it. It helped create this atmosphere of compassion that influenced the United States government to give protective status to refugees from Central America. Thousands of peoples lives were saved as a result of that. The film became part of the national dialogue. Both Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale mentioned El Norte when they had their presidential debates and again, it helped create this sympathy and understanding. The film was released in 1984 and the U.S. government gave the protective status in 1986 that legalized two million immigrants and the film helped lead to that. So all of those things Im really proud of, that the film had that kind of impact. But all that compassion has gone away now and its been replaced by policies of cruelty. You see whats happening on the southern border with families being ripped apart and children put in cages, and now people murdered in El Paso simply because theyre Latino. The message of this film is needed much more today actually than when we made it 35 years ago.
DEADLINE: The situation you see now is more desperate than the one you saw in the 1980s?
NAVA: Yes, because we started to go a more compassionate way but its changed. Youre never going to deal successfully with the issues and the problems with cruelty. It just doesnt work. Cruelty and walls dont work. So what we need to do right now is we need to build bridges not walls. We need policies of compassion, not cruelty. That is the vestige of El Norte.
DEADLINE: The prominence and authenticity of El Norte made it especially influential among aspiring independent filmmakers and Latino filmmakers. That must be something thats very satisfying to you and something thats come back to you in heartfelt ways.
NAVA: Yes, Im pleased with that. It was a groundbreaking film, both for Latinos and the independent film movement at the time and it does my heart good that it opened so many doors. It started a whole interest in such things. I was talking to Alfonso Cuaron and we were talking about Roma, which is such a great masterpiece, and when El Norte was released, he said the landscape was like a desert for Latino films at that time in the United States. I mean, there was nothing, you know, and this film came along, and El Norte really, really changed that. Im so very, very proud of that. Im very proud of the influence it had but most importantly, Im proud of the fact that you know it created so much sympathy for people who come here seeking a better life.
DEADLINE: Talk a bit about your life experience and how it lead up to the films conception.
NAVA: I was born and raised on the border. Thats my world, and I have family on both sides of the border. Im bilingual and bi-cultural. Ive seen this situation since I was a child, people trying to cross the border seeking a better life, and El Norte comes from like a six-year-old going Why is this so? That was the perspective I always wanted the film to have. I didnt want it to get political. You know that the film doesnt get involved in politics. It tells a human drama. The reasons for making the film are even deeper than that. Ill tell you something that I really havent shared with people before and that is that the attack on our community, the Latino community, is not a new thing that we see today. It has been going on for a long time. In the 1930s, the Hoover administration blamed the Depression on Mexican people and they followed a policy called Real Jobs for Real Americans and they deported between one and two million people of Mexican ancestry from the United States. The majority of them were citizens. They estimate that about 60 percent were U.S. citizens and many of the rest were here legally. One of the people who was deported was my grandfather. Our family was ripped apart, just as families are being ripped apart today. The wound from that, you know, affects us to this day, three generations later.
DEADLINE: The legacy of that kind of rupture isnt one thats contained to a single generation…
NAVA: These things dont go away. So I know how devastating whats happening right now is and that is another reason why it was so important to me back then 35 years ago to make El Norte and to give a heart and soul to the shadows who are the refugees and the undocumented who risked their lives to come to the United States. Thats why it was so important to me, because of the things Ive seen and also because of the experiences of my own family. My father was raised without a father as a result of that, but he still served this country loyally in World War II. He still believed in the promise of America. I made this film and all my films to honor that. I believed in that promise, too, and I believe, ultimately, in the good-hearted nature of the people of America. I do believe that we will come around on this and we will start to act with more compassion.
DEADLINE: That history is one that very few Americans are aware of at all.
NAVA: Yes. Its sad because it is such a major thing to happen and yet its not in our history book. And it should be in our history books. All of these things need to be talked about. If they were talked about then whats happening today might not be happening. I really feel very strongly that Latino content makers have to make more films, more television series, more art that tells the truth about our people and shows our heart and soul to the country. Right now thats not happening. When people see our heart and soul they will embrace our community and the things that have happened at the southern border or in El Paso can never happen again. There are far too many Narcos on television and movies, and you know I understand that and, you know, crime is always a great subject for movies and TV shows. But we need a balance and right now I think that the filmmakers and Hollywood itself needs to really see whats happening and take it to heart. People in all fields, politicians, teachers, everybody needs to really see whats happening and come together.
DEADLINE: You mentioned that El Norte doesnt have an overt political message and its true, the film is more heartfelt and humanistic. In a way, though, that makes it far more effective at communicating and winning the hearts and minds of audiences. In the end, its politically effective by starting politically neutral.
NAVA: Yes. I agree with that wholeheartedly and that was my point of view when I made the movie. We didnt want to get political. We wanted to avoid any polemics. It had to be made entirely from Rosas and Enriques point of view doing only what they do and experiencing it through their eyes. What a drama can do is tell a human story, reveal a heart and soul. That was one of the first things that Roger Ebert said about the movie. He said, “Greg, this is one of the most powerful, political films ever because its not political and that makes it more powerful politically. It lets people come to the story and make their own conclusions and contemplate their own feelings about it.” I didnt just make this film Latino audiences. I made it for everybody because I believe in the universality of the given experience. You dont have to be a Prince of Denmark to tell a universal story. You can be Mayan refugees like Rosa and Enrique. Thats another aspect of the film that I think is very important. Theyre indigenous people. I wanted to preserve their culture and their point of view and fill the film with their mythology and spirituality. All the images that come in the movie come from the Popol Vuh, which is the Mayan creation myth and it has twin heroes, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, and thats why I chose to have Rosa and Enrique be twin heroes, equally important in that, duel protagonists, because thats so true to Mayan culture. I wanted to reflect that and also because then we can show what a man goes through and what a woman goes through, both experiences balanced because theyre both so important as you watch Rosa and Enrique make their journey and ultimately, at the end of the film, come to different destinies.
DEADLINE: Anyone watching the film now will be naturally curious about the real-life destinies of the young stars in the film. What can you tell us about them?