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Sayles Job

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In Men With Guns, John Sayles travels to the troubled hinterlands of Latin America

By Richard von Busack

NOVELIST, FILMMAKER and actor John Sayles has made cinematic journeys to New England, Chicago and Texas. His films range from the 1920s labor epic Matewan to the intimate love stories Baby, It's You and Passion Fish. He even made a children's movie, The Secret of Roan Inish. Sayles' latest, the follow-up to his 1996 hit, Lone Star, is Men With Guns, a drama about Latin American politics.

In Men With Guns, Federico Luppi (the star of the Mexican horror film Cronos) plays Dr. Fuentes, an elderly, well-off physician who learns the hard way about the political troubles in the mountains. As always in a Sayles film, the writing doesn't hit any false notes. The English subtitles in this Spanish-language film give that necessary element of formality and indirection to the Latino dialogue.

Sayles' scriptwriting has always been adroit, but now the photography and soundtracks are really worth talking about as well. Slavomir Idziak (Krzysztof Kieslowski's cinematographer on Blue and The Double Life of Veronique) shot Men With Guns in some of the remaining lush jungles of the Yucatan, and the range of Latin music on the soundtrack is every bit as evocative as the photography.

Sayles previously wrote a novel in Spanish, Los Gusanos (The Worms), about Cuban exiles in Miami, so, as he says by telephone from his office in New Jersey, "My Spanish is fine." He's quick to add, "It's not fluent, but I can have a conversation, as long as a lot of people aren't talking to me at once. And people are a lot more patient if you're the director."

Filming in Spanish was important to Sayles, because he wanted to show the difference between upper-echelon city dwellers and the native people in the countryside. "The story doesn't work if you don't have it in Spanish," Sayles says. "The plot points of the doctor not being able to understand the men in the countryside wouldn't make sense. It's fairly important to the story that this is a guy who is out of touch. You can't do that with two different kinds of English. And the actors I wanted to work with speak English so uncomfortably. I've acted in foreign languages myself. I acted in Italian for the film Fin de la Notte. All my energy went into the language and very little into the character."

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Full review of Men With Guns.

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Men With Guns is set in a made-up country complete with maps, flags, military uniforms, native costumes and an imaginary soft drink, Kokal (the Kokal motto is "It's inevitable"). "No matter where we went in the countryside to film, no matter how remote," Sayles recalls, "there was always a crate of Coca-Cola--their ... penetration ... is really remarkable."

Asked to pin down the model for the country, Sayles explains, "I'd say that because of the ethnicity of the people, I was thinking of Guatamala, or maybe some of the states of Mexico, particularly in light of what's been happening in Chiapas. But this could have been set in Honduras, Bolivia or Peru, anywhere where there's a sharp difference between white people and indigenous people. A lot of the incidents here could have happened in Bosnia, Russia or the Vietnam war. The speech in which Dr. Fuentes' son-in-law says that it's useless giving the Indians anything was something I heard in Georgia during the civil rights movement."

SAYLES BASED HIS story on an incident from The Long Night of the White Chickens, a novel by his friend Francisco Goldman. Goldman told the true story of an uncle who was a doctor in Guatamala. "The doctor was much less innocent and ignorant than Dr. Fuentes in Men With Guns," Sayles stresses.

Few Central American "dirty wars" were as dirty as the longtime fighting in Guatamala, where some 150,000 were killed. Yet Goldman's uncle, who trained barefoot doctors for the countryside, was so shocked to discover what happened to them that he had a heart attack.

It's difficult, Sayles believes, "to live and to act if you know too much. It paralyzes you. One of the things Men With Guns is about is the price of willful ignorance. The Indians in the film live in a kind of willful ignorance. They try to keep themselves pure. With this kind of purity, you can hang on to your culture for about a decade--maybe longer if you're Shiite or Amish. Very often, one of the things you don't get when you cut yourself off from the outside world is the power to save yourself."

It's unusual that a gringo filmmaker looking at Latin America didn't take the easy tack of indulging in magical realism. "There's a taste of magical realism in the end of the film," Sayles says. "I did want to remind the audience that culture isn't just clothes and hair and food and music, it's how you look at the world. But this view of the world is not always practical; that's why I had an Indian woman who was clairvoyant but who still couldn't see that she was about to step on a land mine."

Sayles doesn't traffic in the easy pleasures of confrontation and revenge. "I didn't really want to make an action picture," he concludes. "I was more interested in the balance of power the gun represented. Half the stories of the world could be called 'men with guns.' Before that it was 'men with swords' and 'men with rocks.' "

In Sayles' films, violence doesn't clear the air--it clouds it, obstructing a view of the past, fogging the ability of people to see one another clearly.

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From the April 1-7, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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