Rodrigo Reyes has been honored with the Vanguard Award by SF IndieFest for his latest film, 499, screening at the film festival next month. After debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and winning the award for Best Cinematography in a Documentary Film, the film continued sreening for international audiences and picking up awards along the way, including the Special Jury Prize at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival among others.
Described as a “hybrid documentary”, 499 examines colonialism almost five centuries after Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrives in the Aztec Empire and claims Mexico on behalf of Spain. The film combines documentary and fiction to tell the story of a ghost-like Conquistador arriving in modern Mexico as the 500-year anniversary of the Spanish Conquest approaches. We follow him on his journey to the capital city, he remembers events from his past while encountering the testimonies of real people, the survivors of contemporary violence. History and the present begin to merge, giving nightmarish reflection on the enduring legacy of colonialism in our world today. Reyes is a Mexican born-American filmmaker residing in Oakland. I spoke to him about his award-winning film, growing up in two cultures and releasing a film during a pandemic.
A still from the documentary film 499. Photo Credit: RR Cinema
JM: Congratulations on winning the Vanguard Award, what is that like for you?
RR: Its super cool, it means a ton, it’s just so many things for me, so much love. I moved the Bay Area about three years ago, I grew up between Mexico and the Central Valley, so it’s this feeling like, you’re building a home here, you’re part of the community.
JM: What brought you to live in Oakland?
RR: I am sort of a migrant, that grew up bicultural, I was able to live between Mexico and the US all my life. I wanted to be a part of a larger film community, to connect with my peers and collaborate. When I was fortunate enough to be selected for the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) Mediamaker Fellowship, I took the opportunity to move here from Merced.
JM: What inspired you to make 499 and experiment with this style of a documentary?
RR: I wanted to make a movie about the 500 years of the fall of the Aztec Empire. This was supposed to be like the ‘Big Bang’ moment where Mexico is born, right? Mexico has talked about this in it’s writing and in it’s art forever, you see the Diego Rivera’s Murals at the National Palace. I was like, man this huge anniversary is coming, how do we make a film about the things that haven’t changed? How do you make a film about how this conquest continues but in different shapes? It’s not exactly like enslaving people the way the Spanish did or the way they were doing the conquering together with allies but how does this act of conquering continue? I realized that along the road that Cortés took, along that path, you can find all these modern stories of people who are victims and survivors of the violence of today. You can see how that violence connects to the colonial effort, like the killing of journalists, which Mexico is infamous for, so many journalists have been murdered there. That's another chapter in the control of information and the censorship that the "conquista" brought to Mexico and the way that the narratives were shaped. In the movie, we hear from people who are disappeared or victims of that type of violence and indigenous communities that are trying to maintain their independence. There are all sorts of different stories that you hear during the trek in the film. What I think is very interesting is the film brings a conquistador from the past and drops him onto the beach in Veracruz, Mexico and forces him to walk this path of Cortés so that he is confronted with these stories. He does not want to listen, and he does not want to learn anything from these people or hear what they have to say but something is forcing him to do it. I found that it was a wonderful opportunity to talk about how history is still alive and there are ghosts that are still here that we need to exercise.
JM: Your film feels very relevant to what is happening in this country now, did that influence your work?
RR: Absolutely, that’s a big factor. If you can go behind any speeches for the last four years, there is always an idea of what history is supposed to be. The last thing that "45" did on his way out is this 1776 Commission which totally rewrites history. People are always talking about history because history is a tool of power. The number one tool of power in history is to say, “this is the way it is, this is the way it's always been”. That is why I wanted to force the conquistador (in 499) to have to listen because the most transgressive thing that someone in power can do is listen instead of telling us what to do. Here in the US, we have so much history to reckon with and people misunderstand. They think we ought to go back to litigate something that happened 100, 200, or 400 years ago but really it is about the effects of that history today.
JM: Is this the first time you have had a film in a film festival where you live and how do you feel about screening it virtually?
RR: I have been with SF Indie before on a film, “Lupe Under the Sun”, and I have shown at Mill Valley Film Festival. This is my first film that has gone basically straight to virtual. My thoughts on this are that it just shows how much we need each other how much we need our events and our rituals to celebrate together and to champion each other. Doing it virtual is great because you can go to a festival in Rio or Poland and all these places. I can do a virtual Q&A but the movie going experience in person and the experience of talking to an audience member and seeing their excitement and hearing their questions is so valuable. I think we're all kind of hungry for each other and have a new appreciation for each other.
JM: Would you consider a Bay Area pop up drive-in screening during the SIP? Are there plans to screen 499 after SF IndieFest?
RR: Absolutely, that would be amazing! We are working with a distributor in New York, Cinema Guild, and they are working hard to bring it to audiences in theaters. Hopefully if things open back up this summer, we can do that. The film is super beautiful, and I think it just feels different when you see it on a big screen, the cinematography and everything is so powerful.
Filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes. Photo Credit: RR Cinema
Throughout our conversation about the film, Reyes often speaks intimately, as if he is traveling with his character, in the film. I get the sense the audience will come away from this film with that intamacy as well as a history lesson and a lesson for the future in healing.
Reyes says, “Cortés is the boogie man in our history, in Latino history. We cannot un-ring the bell we're not going to unlearn Spanish, we are not going to renege Catholicism and all these other things, that's not the point. The point is to build a better future that addresses this pain. I fell in love with history because my dad was a history teacher in Mexico and he would take me with him to museums and treated me like I was a little person that could be educated and learn about this stuff. This film deals with such an important part of Latino history, the conquest of Mexico echoes across the entire continent our entire history it was replicated 1000 times. I think we need something to help us talk about this and movies are perfect. 499 is a chance to talk about this thing that happened 500 years ago that is so important. This is an important anniversary so I hope that we could do that. I think it's going to be really cathartic for a lot of folks to be able to watch it and then talk about it.”
499 is the fourth feature film from Mexican-born American filmmaker, Rodrigo Reyes, who lives in Oakland, California. Reyes has garnered positive reviews in the New York Times and received significant support for his work from such organizations as Film Independent, Sundance Institute, Tribeca Film Institute, and the Mexican Film Institute. In 2017, he received the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Creative Capital Award and is currently the Creative Director of the BAVC MediaMaker Fellowship where he mentors new up and coming filmmakers.
The 23rd San Francisco Independent Film Festival (SF INDIEFEST) will be present over 80 films from around the world and around The Bay virtually Feb 4-21, 2021. There will be select virtual Q & A sessions with filmmakers, check the 499 festival listing for more information.