Fernando Frias’ I’m No Longer Here (Ya No Estoy Aquí) had a long journey to the screen — conceived when Frias was a student at New York’s Columbia University, the project was selected by the Sundance Writers Lab in 2014, and went before cameras in 2017, ultimately hitting the festival circuit in 2019, and Netflix last year. Challenges in getting the acclaimed drama made included everything from financing hurdles to a lengthy hiatus and the lead actor being rejected for a U.S. work permit three times in a row.
The battles paid off with I’m No Longer Here scooping 10 Ariel Awards (Mexico’s Oscar equivalent) along with other prizes, and being selected as Mexico’s entry for the International Feature Oscar race. It carries a 100% fresh critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes and has found support from such Mexican titans as Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron.
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Frias’ drama spotlights Kolombia counterculture in Monterrey, Mexico and follows the story of 17-year-old Ulises (played by breakout Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño). He’s the leader of “Los Terkos,” a street gang that has a passion for slowed-down cumbia music. But it’s not just a music genre; for them it’s a culture shown through dance parties, their oversized wardrobe, unique hairstyles and gang alliances. After a mix-up with a local cartel, Ulises is forced to migrate to Jackson Heights, Queens, where he quickly finds himself wanting to return home.
Regarding those unique hairstyles, Frias says, “The team in charge of hair and makeup sent us wigs so the characters could play around with them and they spent three days trying out things. None of the kids had ever acted before. It was a very fun part of the process.”
As for discovering Trevino and some of the other actors, Frias used “different lines of investigation” including local social media and connecting with anthropologists. Eventually, and without assigning roles, he assembled what he calls “a summer camp” for the kids to get comfortable.
Notably, Trevino gathered a group of people — from neighbors to family — in what Frias calls “an incredible gesture.” The young man “didn’t say this is an opportunity only for myself, he invited everyone.” When Frias told Trevino and his mother that there was a possibility he could have a big role in the movie, the novice said, “’This is your film and you do whatever you want, I support you.’ I thought, ‘This is a leader’.”
Prior to that, Frias recalls that after the Sundance Lab, “I was very foolish or naive to think that maybe I would have a better chance of finding producers in the U.S. I explored that path, but it’s very difficult with an indie film in Spanish and no one famous. I was living in New York and I knew how competitive it was in Mexico to get government funds and I didn’t want to wait that long. They were moving slow in the U.S., we got grants in small amounts and then applied to the Mexican Film Fund. They didn’t give us that one, but in 2016 we applied again and finally got it. By the end of 2016, the production company was doing another film and had to wait to shoot in summer 2017. A film based in two places was really tricky.”
Then in fall 2017, the production had problems with getting a visa for Trevino. “It was terrible,” says Frias. Even with immigration lawyers in tow, the permit was rejected by the U.S. consulate three times. Luckily, on the fourth try it was granted — a good thing because had it failed, Frias told me, it would have meant another application had to wait 10 years.
After seven years with the film, what is Frias’ state of mind today? “It’s very strange how I was connected to the project during the process of giving birth to it and now it’s not any more my film — it’s out there in the world. It feels ironic now because so many parts of the process felt really lonely and frustrating, to say the least, but it has taught me this lesson of patience and resilience.”
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