Need to Know: Javier Fuentes-Leon
By Phillip B. Crook
Since winning the Audience Award at Sundance in 2010, Peruvian director Javier Fuentes-Leon has been hailed as the freshest voice in gay film. His first full-length feature, Undertow, which opened in theaters on Friday, tells the story of a fisherman, Miguel, who's caught between his devotion to his wife and his affair with a male painter, Santiago. The twist is that Santiago spends most of the movie as a ghost, clinging hauntingly to Miguel's side. We caught up with Fuentes-Leon to chat about the film, breaking the Latin American machismo stereotype, and what's next for this bright talent.
Out: I think the most powerful moment for me in the film is when Santiago says to Miguel, 'You're afraid of accepting that you love me.' What were you thinking when you wrote that?
Javier Fuentes-Leon: I had a much bigger scene and I ended up shortening it with the two actors in my house in Peru. Manolo, who plays the painter, said to me, 'It has to be bigger. This is the time for Santiago to tell him 'Fuck off. I've followed all your rules for hiding but now you're going to hear me.'' So, I came up with those lines in the moment.
Are there moments between the lovers that come from your own life?
It's all made up. I mean, I do have a boyfriend and we're very happy together and he's my first longtime boyfriend.
How long have you been together?
Five years. He's American. But it's not like I had a torrid love story that ended really badly.
What, no sex on the beach?
I wish. I don't know if I wish I had all of what Miguel has, but it's romantic. Some people will think it's really corny, but what the fuck? We've seen it a million times between men and women. Why not between two men?
Throughout the film, Miguel feels caught between two forces: between insiders and outsiders, between the living and the dead, between gay and straight. Where did that theme come from?
It's not my life, it's not my story, it's not autobiographical because I'm not a fisherman or been married or see ghosts -- which is good -- but it's definitely my own fears when I was dealing with coming out. I come from a nice family, which has always been supportive, but conservative in their views and religious. I felt that pull between being loved and at the same time having to hide who I was to be loved -- at least that's what I felt like I needed to do when I was younger. I was a golden boy but with a big secret. I feared I would lose my golden boy status when I really revealed who I was. Miguel is me without being me.
Miguel loves and has sex with both men and women. Is he bisexual or gay -- or neither? Is there even a label?
It's funny that you mention the word "label" because the reason I wanted to set the film in a rural area is because I think we're obsessed in an urban area with putting everything in a pocket so we can understand it. When I moved here, I was amazed at how people say, 'I'm a German-American with Irish descent, I'm a vegetarian, I'm gay' and a top.' Whereas in a rural area, for Miguel, it's not in his list of things to worry about. He's worrying about, Am I in love with this guy? And that's supposed to be horrible according to people that I love. And I'm definitely committing adultery, but I love my wife and I want to be a good father. When you're in the closet, there's this yearning to belong and clearly you don't belong to the society that surrounds you. When you come out, being a part of the gay community many times comes along with having to adopt the music, the way you dress, the places you go to. Whereas in a rural area there's not a community to come out to so there's not a discussion of, "Who am I? Am I LGB'T'Q'" And we're going to continue adding letters. This is a long-winded answer to say I don't have an answer. I don't think it's that important.
Does Undertow reflect the status of gay people in Peru today?
No, and that's why I never mention Peru in the film. The intention was to tell a universal story about personal struggle and coming into your own and accepting who you love and are attracted to, and dignifying that. If it's hard to come out in Peru and still not a very open-minded community, thank God it's changing. This generation is doing way better than my generation and my generation did better than my parents' generation. It's my way of saying the youth will be the engine of change. It's happening in Peru. I don't think there's evil, mean-spirited homophobia. It's just common and accepted to be homophobic. It's linked to this twisted macho version of what masculine should be, which I'm also trying to make a comment of in the film. Can a man be tender, vulnerable, noble, honest?
How do you react to Ricky Martin's contribution to the image of gay Latin American men?
I'm much more of a rock fan -- Radiohead and Arcade Fire and the Cure -- than Latin pop. But I understand how hard it can be. If it was hard for me to come out in my own private world, I can only imagine having to struggle with that in the open eye with everyone looking at you, saying, 'I love you, I love you,' and especially women. You're supposed to be the hot Latin lover. It has to be really hard, so I don't blame him. I'm glad he did it. After making this film, I've stopped being cynical about other people's intentions.
Because it's really easy to criticize. It's easy to say, "Of course Ricky Martin's coming out because now he needs money." It's easy to make everyone's intentions a business move or a call for attention. I don't know why he did it now. Maybe because he wrote the book or maybe because he really felt like he couldn't hold it in anymore. Whatever reason he did it, I'm happy and I applaud him for it.