|Director Fernando Frías de la Parra|
I’M NO LONGER HERE (Ya no estoy aquí) B Mexico USA (112 mi) 2019 ‘Scope d: Fernando Frías de la Parra
A near documentary exposé of a subculture in the mountains of Monterrey, Mexico that has altogether disappeared, known as the Kolombia, an underground movement from the barrios of Monterrey built around “cumbia rebajada,” a slowed down version of the Colombian cumbia combined with local Cholo culture, following a street gang named “Los Terkos,” a ragtag bunch of friends in baggy clothes and eccentric hairstyles who hang out dancing to cumbia music, a style that originated among the black slaves who once lived in Colombia, mixing indigenous and African-influenced rhythms. Seven years in the making, using a cast of non-professionals, the film follows 17-year old Ulisés (Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño), the de facto leader seen in nearly every shot, who keeps recruiting younger members. Their criminal activity is kept to a minimum, no guns, no real lawbreaking, spending their time hanging out on abandoned half-built rooftops overlooking the mountains and the city, where their own real activity is having parties and dancing to a style of music they like, taking photos of themselves projecting gang signs, then posting them on the Internet. None of them work, so they live on the fringe of society, and while there are bare outlines of a story, the gritty street elements of social realism dominate the film, getting to places never before seen, as there’s not an ounce of sentimentality in the entire film. Reminiscent of Juan Andrés Arango Garcia’s Colombian film La Playa DC (2012) which explores a pronounced black culture in Columbia that is historically discriminated against, both films are etched with hyperrealist images, taking place in the poorest neighborhoods, with cinematographer Damián García using stylish compositions to follow them through multiple graffiti-strewn alleyways. Actually shot in 2011, the film takes place at the height of Felipe Calderón’s presidency, four years after he declared war on the drug cartels, a war that left over 100,000 dead by the end of his term, where smaller, more violent gangs filled the void left behind by the many arrests, where America on the border sits precariously representing the highest consumer of drugs and the highest exporter of guns. There are repeated radio interruptions by the government announcing their latest actions to combat a heavily pronounced narco-drug trafficking trade, implementing nightly curfews that are largely ignored by these kids. But that pervasive gangster culture is imitated by these kids who have no other role models except the real gangsters in the neighborhood who offer them protection, known as Los Pelones, once run by the deceased older brother of Ulisés. But they run into trouble with an outside gang known as “Los F,” inadvertently hitting students for money on what is apparently their turf. During the street commotion following the police arrest of one of the members of “Los F,” Ulisés steals the outlaw’s hand radio, like a walkie-talkie, holding it up like a badge of honor, but reticient to turn it on. When he does, of course, it leads the gang directly to him, kidnapping him off the street, warned at gunpoint to get out of the life or face the consequences. Inexplicably, he keeps wearing the radio, barely escaping a horrific drive-by shooting that wipes out the Los Pelones gang. But one of the badly wounded survivors sees the radio, claiming he set them up, calling him a traitor and cursing his entire family, forcing them all to flee.
Told in a non-linear fashion, the film makes time jumps backwards and forwards, likely leaving some viewers confused, especially since there’s not much of a storyline. Viewers are simply immersed into an economic substratum that we rarely see, brought to life by the stunning authenticity of Ulisés, a brave soul who is exiled from his home and smuggled into the U.S. for a hefty price and sent to Queens, New York for his own protection, but has no viable support system there, falling between the cracks, sleeping on the streets, unable to grasp the language, leading a lonely existence. It’s a heartbreaking tale of a man adrift, where each day is a new obstacle, casting a pale light on the immigration system, as this is ultimately a sad and tragic story. The opening actually reveals his exit from Monterrey, meeting with his mother on a mountain road overlooking the city, hugging and saying goodbye as he leaves with someone else on his way to his future destination in America. Cutting back and forth between two time frames, Ulisés is teated like a local celebrity in Mexico, tough, defiant, aloof, yet easy to like, where his bird-like dance movements offer a surreal quality, tapping into the unknown, where we even see a childhood video of his dancing, which is celebrated in his neighborhood. Few films offer such a stark portrait of restless youth, with no education, no opportunities, and no future, where they were fed to the drug cartels like lambs to the slaughter, as if serving no other purpose. But trying to make ends meet in a foreign country is another real problem, where he’s on the lower rung of the lower rung, basically going it alone, with no celebrity or status, no caché, where each day resembles the last. He meets an older Columbian woman working at a bar that he befriends, and while she shows concern, she also distances herself from him, never allowing him to become too close to the point where he starts relying upon her. The deal is he’s on his own and must fend for himself if he wants to make it in this rat race, never receiving a break, pretty much shunned by all. He attempts to make money dancing in the subway, but an irate homeless guy kicks him out of what is apparently his spot. He hooks on with a few day laborers, but they take advantage of him. He’s befriended by an overly friendly girl working in a Chinese grocery store, Lin (Angelina Chen), who is attracted to his style, but language difficulties prevent them from understanding each other. But their friendship leads to a rooftop room where he can spend some nights, but they’re on different tracks, where she’s younger and wants to go to parties, while he finds the music at these parties a drag, finding no one he could call a friend, getting bummed out after a while, getting homesick for his own city and his own friends, feeling a million miles away from home. When he calls his mother, she says they’ll kill him on sight if he comes home, to stay where he is and try to make the best of it.
Even in the close-knit fabric of his own neighborhood, it’s not like they had it good, but they were happy as kids, having no real responsibilities. In his absence, many of his members have coalesced to “Los F,” becoming part of the drug trade, while others were routinely killed, part of the daily damage of living through tough times, where his group has all but vanished off the face of the earth, a relic of an earlier culture that he can recall only in memory. Flashbacks or images of earlier sequences recur with regularity, where he’s pretty much in his element at home, surrounded by like-minded friends. Nothing like that happens in New York, where’s he’s viewed as an outsider, an illegal with no rights, where no one seems to want to know him. Lin is enthusiastic about him, but not for who he is, a guy who’s down and out, instead she continually views him as this cool guy she wants him to be, someone she can hang out with at parties, thinking his friendship will win her friends, but their inability to communicate creates a larger problem, as they can’t even talk to each other, and she never senses his desperate straits or gains any insight into his humanity. Eventually they part ways, leaving him even more isolated, without any money, sleeping on the streets, where each day runs into the next, as it all becomes a blur. Joining the ranks of the homeless, he’s arrested and deported, finding his way back to his home, but it’s not anything like he imagined, as everything’s changed. One of his gang members has found Jesus and has become a rapper for Christ, but he may as well be a stranger, as the friend he used to know has vanished into thin air, replaced by this alternate version that he finds all too strange. The places they used to hang out have been overrun by “Los F,” showing a violent presence, where guns have replaced the former innocence of their neighborhood spirit. It’s a tougher world, more mean-spirited, where all that he recalls is only a vanished memory, existing in his own head, but the drug cartels have taken center stage and driven out whatever remnants of a neighborhood or community still exist, where he feels just as alienated in his home country. The isolation and confusion from the brisk pace of life in New York City that ignored him and passed him by have transplanted him from any recollection of his former self, where now even in his own town he is mocked and derided for being or looking different, forced to accept his role as a stranger in a strange land, as either you’re part of the war on drugs or you’re not, as that’s all that seems to matter in terms of political priorities or funding issues, where the country has become a vast wasteland of collateral damage. This is a film that requires a certain observational acumen, as really not that much happens in terms of a coherent narrative, yet the implications are enormous, where Ulisés, as his name implies, goes on a great adventure only to return home many years later, but in this case his home has been rampaged and destroyed, with nothing left of value that he recognizes or holds dear.