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. 499 is the fourth feature film from Mexican-born American filmmaker, Rodrigo Reyes, who lives in Oakland. 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. SF INDIEFEST honored Reyes with the Vanguard Award and 499 will screen at the festival next month. The film has been screened internationally and is picking up awards at film festivals along the way. It debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2020 and won for Best Cinematography in a Documentary Film and the Special Jury Prize at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival last year among others. El Tecolote spoke to Reyes about his award-winning film 499, growing up in two cultures and releasing a film during a pandemic. The 23rd San Francisco Independent Film Festival (sfindiefest2021.eventive.org) will present over 80 films from around the world virtually Feb. 4-21, 2021.
Teco: Congratulations on winning the Vanguard Award, what is that like for you?
Reyes: It’s super cool, it means a ton. It’s just so many things for me, so much love. I moved to 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.
Teco: What brought you to live in Oakland?
Reyes: I am sort of a migrant, that grew up bicultural. I was able to live between Mexico and the U.S. 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.
Teco: What inspired you to make 499 and experiment with this style of a documentary?
Reyes: 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 its writing and in its art forever. You see 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 we 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 like 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 in 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.
Teco: Your film feels relevant to what is happening in this country, did that influence your work?
Reyes: 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 listen because the most transgressive thing that someone in power can do is listen, instead of telling us what to do. Here in the U.S., 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.
Teco: 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?
Reyes: 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.
Teco: You speak as if you’re traveling with this character in the film. I get the sense the audience will come away from this film with that intimacy as well as a history lesson and lessons for the future about healing.
Reyes: Cortés is the boogie man in our history, in Latino history. We cannot unring the bell, we are not going to unlearn Spanish, we are not going to renege Catholicism and all the other things, that is 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 was replicated 1,000 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 can 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.