American movie studios are still putting together their Oscar strategies, but all around the world, the die is cast for films competing to fill the five slots in the Best Foreign Film category. Such is the case of Colombia's "A Male" (Un Varón). Fabián Hernández's hard-hitting drama follows a teen struggling with his identity in the poorest districts of Bogotá. Surrounded by drugs and violence, circumstances push him to embrace manhood at its most abrasive. But Carlos (Dylan Felipe Ramírez) can barely hide his sensitivity. He lives between the streets and a shelter for troubled youth. His sister is a prostitute. His mother is in prison for a crime we are not privy to. He has no words to articulate his yearnings that would plant a target on his back.
Director Fabián Hernández is not an interloper mining poverty for drama. He grew up on these streets, and his experiences inform a narrative informed by Neorrealism and the social compassion of the Dardenne Brothers. Not that Hernández would coast on these references. He sheepishly confesses not to be a cinephile. He does not need to be to create a vivid, compassionate portrait of a defenseless boy in a pitiless city. As hard as the movie can be, there is a measure of triumph in Carlos' stubborn recognition and embrace of his vulnerability.
The movie had a fruitful path through film festivals. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, playing in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar. There it was in the run for the Golden Camera Award, dedicated to first features, as well as the Queer Palm. It also played at San Sebastian, Sao Paulo, Fribourg, and many others.
Local boy makes good: Fabián Hernández returns to his old neighborhood to shoot "A Male," Colombia's Best Foreign Film 2024 Oscar candidate. / Photo courtesy of Cercamon.
We spoke with Hernández as he revs up to face the promotional circuit to which every foreign filmmaker must submit, when their movies are blessed by their countries with Oscar-winning ambitions. It could not have happened to a more unassuming and humble artist.
Popflick: This is your first feature-length project after producing and directing three short films. What was the biggest challenge you faced working on a larger canvas?
Fabián Hernández: The biggest challenge was to conquer the fear that comes in a project where more interest comes into play. More money is at play, and the film production process is more formal. All my shorts were self-financed, produced, directed, and edited by me. It was a very self-controlled job. I didn’t even have public funds! That gave me a strong sense of freedom. I tried to do my first feature film under the same philosophy. I feared that spirit would be lost tackling a bigger project. Fortunately, my producer, Manuel Ruiz, supported me in keeping it alive.
Popflick: Was working with a larger technical team intimidating?
Fabián Hernández: The good thing is that I had colleagues I’ve known from way back on the team. That allowed me to enjoy a lot of trust and solidarity from them. For example, I knew cinematographer Sofia Oggioni from way back. The direction assistant became a close friend. All this allowed me to feel I was shooting with family. The crew made me feel comfortable and relaxed, under no pressure to do something “professional,” so to speak. They pushed me to do something from the heart.
Popflick: What was the most valuable lesson you took from making short films? What helped you the most when it came to jumping to feature films?
Fabián Hernández: One short taught me how to give the actors trust to resolve problems. I learned to let things flow and how that helps to build a movie. You can forego being a God on the set, the sole owner of reason and truth. You must listen to the actors and crew and shoot without pressure. That helped me a lot during this movie.
Mean streets, fragile boy: Carlos (Dylan Ramírez)contemplates harsh codes of masculinity in "A Male" / Photo courtesy of Cercamon.
Popflick: How did the idea of “A Male” came up?
Fabián Hernández: There was a particular event in my youth, very violent, involving four people on a Bogota street called L Street. I was 13 or 14, and that moment marked my life. I was a child then, and I felt a lot of fear and terror. But that same violence pushed me away from that course. It showed me the possibility of taking another path and staying alive. It made me distance myself from a particular lifestyle and reflect on many things.
Popflick: “A Male” begins with people giving testimonials straight to the camera, as the talking heads on a documentary do. Why do you start an eminently fictional movie this way?
Fabián Hernández: I wanted to make a movie where people could express their ideas, talents, life philosophy, and concerns. For me, cinema is so much more than script. It's not just telling a story. It goes beyond telling a tale with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It can be a social and political tool. I wanted people to expose their motivations. They have their vision around the themes of masculinity explored in the movie. Many of the dialogues in the film come from them. I discarded a set's vertical, hegemonic structure where the director knows everything and the script is a bible. For me, the dynamic should be something more horizontal. A movie is a collective creation; the ideas and their expression of them are the most important things beyond the script and the actions it conveys.
Popflick: The vocabulary is very rich. I fear it gets lost a bit in the subtitles. As a Spanish speaker, I even had trouble following the florid street slang, the nicknames, and such. Was that the street slang of your youth?
Fabián Hernández: the movie takes place in contemporary times. It’s not a historical construction nor an auto-biographical memory piece. Even if some episodes come from my past, I wanted the actors to have the chance to bring their language. I am against turning the acting into a mechanical process, expressing my dictates. The movie was not a beast that needed to be tamed to live. It was important for me to let this florid language live within the movie, just to let it be, not to tame it and domesticate it. After all, language is always changing around us, reinventing itself, coining new words. That’s why I follow the actors’ input regarding their dialogues. I think of this as a co-creation, even if particular things must be said. This is not just my movie. The actors are authors, too.
No room of his own: Carlos crashes into his absent sister's shabby dwelling to get a break from the street in "A Male" / Photo courtesy of Cercamon.
Popflick: How did you find your actors? I imagine they are all newcomers, with no formal training?
Fabián Hernández: I’ve known them for almost seven years now. We worked on a couple of shorts, did a lot of rehearsals, and talked a lot. Those seven years were very formative for all of us. The fact is, they could never have access to formal acting school. Those are very expensive and only cater to middle-upper classes. For me, that process was a way to give them a chance so we could investigate how to perform and the themes of the movie. We would read, rehearse, shoot, watch the results, and experiment with sound…it was very formative and prepared us to tackle a feature film. Those seven years gave Dylan Ramírez the confidence to serve a solid lead performance for the movie.
Popflick: Colombia, your country, has a well-developed film and TV industry. Were you ever tempted to engage professional actors? Would you work with them in the future?
Fabián Hernández: I think every project has its particularities, its own set of needs. "A Male" required visceral emotions. It would have been much too difficult for a professional actor. The movie's internal system demanded lived-in experience, flesh that a professional actor could not provide. It required something much more direct than performance. For example, there's the scene where the boy calls his mother in jail. It's a call that the actor makes to his mother, who is in prison for real. What he tells her, the lines, are things he wants to say to her because he has not seen her for a long time. We made this covenant to get the movie to express things happening, turning them into artistic expression with a documentary edge. It would be very hard for an actor to reach that place. I am considering working with professional actors for my next project because it demands a person with the skills to calibrate emotions precisely.
Popflick: The movie shows a face of Bogota that politicians are not necessarily keen to project abroad. Did you find any resistance while developing the project, for the way it shows poverty in Colombia?
Fabián Hernández: We don’t exploit poverty in any way. The movie shows a process of gentrification taking place in part of the city. They demolish buildings, push poor people away, and rebuild for the well-off and the rich. This happened in a neighborhood known as “El Cartucho,” also on “The L” and “The Bronx.” They see destruction as a solution. Some streets where we filmed do not exist anymore; they disappeared in this gentrification process. Violence and poverty prevail; they are just pushed aside, sometimes just a few meters away! This is not a solution. So, I showed that process in the background so we could start talking about it.
Popflick: How did you feel, going back as a filmmaker to these streets where you grew up? In a way, you are now on the outside looking in. Was it difficult for you?
Fabián Hernández: I’ve never really been too disconnected from the place. My parents still live there. But I never imagined that I would live the life of a filmmaker. It was never a goal or a dream when I was a kid. I never thought I would grab a camera and do a movie about things that happened in my life. That is exciting and very gratifying to find myself in that role. It was emotional and surprising. The place where I come from keeps giving me everything.
Popflick: Did you feel responsible for showing these places and characters? Or guilt for exposing uncomfortable truths?
Fabián Hernández: I don’t think I’ve ever felt any guilt. I feel pride. Mostly when I hear the actors talk about the movie and what they feel about it. We did not engage in sensationalism; we had full trust and complicity. And I don’t think we were mistaken in betting for this way to do things.
Can you show a gun in the first act and never fire it?: Freddy (Johnathan Steven Rodriguez) teaches Carlos the violent ways of "A Male" / Photo courtesy of Cercamon.
Popflick: Have the people in their community seen the movie? How do they feel about it?
Fabián Hernández: there have been all sorts of opinions. Some say it needed more violence, guns, fire, screams, and violence. Many young kids demand that! I motivate them to think about that about the corrupt pact between the social classes that control the film industry. They show these situations as if they were a circus. It’s very uncomfortable because time also stands still in this environment. Many kids can be in stasis; they don’t expect anything and do nothing while staring at the roof. They are not in action all the time. Not everything is crime-oriented action! We show that in the movie. Also, these kids have ambiguity, sexuality, all these things that don’t appear in those movies. It was very important for me to show that and make kids think about this and how performative masculinity is. It’s not just about drug-related violence. There are many cliches around that, and this movie does not dabble in them. So, you get many questions about it! “Why didn’t so and so killed that guy?” “ Why nobody dies?”
Popflick: Were they expecting something more traditional, or commercial?
Fabián Hernández: Yes. They wanted more of those entertainment products that feed on people’s vulnerabilities, exploiting poor people to turn them into monsters, villains who can’t think and who hold no power to make choices. That is problematic, so this movie must open a new head space. Of course, it coexists with this exploitative mainstream, but it is not an extractive hatchet job on poverty, violence, and guns that prevails in filmmaking.
Popflick: Now that the movie is over, and you can take some emotional distance from it, how do you feel about it? Is it what you expected?
Fabián Hernández: Totally. It is the movie I wanted to make. I feel very proud of it and comfortable speaking about it. That’s a good sign! I’m especially proud of not falling for those stereotypes about poverty, about not romanticizing it. There is so much of it!
Popflick: In developed countries, some audiences embrace that kind of film or denounce it as poverty porn. How do you feel about this?
Fabián Hernández: My movie has been very well received. Of course, watching these problems from afar as poetic dramas is great. Marginality has been embraced by intellectuals but from a safe distance. It’s easy to write about the other and film him, but they don’t want to live here, nor be close to it! I think that is very harmful, too.
Popflick: What does it mean for you, a young filmmaker doing your first feature film, to be selected by Colombia to represent the country in the Academy Awards?
Fabián Hernández: It was a big surprise. I’m very grateful to the people who voted for the movie. I think it’s very interesting that such a provocative movie, so against the mainstream, gets exposure up north. That it finds a place where big commercial forces shape moviegoing. People can watch a modest, visceral, and honest movie like ours. It means so much to me. It means it can achieve resonance that we can find answers and talk about other things.
Popflick: Which movies and filmmakers inspire you?
Fabián Hernández: regarding “A Male,” I tried not to watch too many movies for inspiration. I did read a lot of books. I read a lot of literature on philosophy, sociology, and gender studies. I like to read a lot. My favorites are Judith Butler, Paul Preciado, Michel Foucault, and Leo Vidal. They inspire me. Regarding films, I like Céline Sciamma and Michael Haneke a lot. “The Piano Teacher” (Haneke, 2001) is a wonderful movie. But I’m not much of a cinephile!
Popflick: What advice would you give young latino kids hoping to get into filmmaking?
Fabián Hernández: The key is not to fear the industry. Don’t try to fit in an industry with many walls and barriers. It is too selective, bordering on petty. Kids who see it as too distant should start doing short films in any way possible. Be it with a small camera and a single actor. That’s the way to go, step by step. Also, they should read a lot. And not just books about film. Books about other things!
* "A Male" is playing in special screenings around the country. Expect a theatrical release soon. Check your Art House listings!
A documentary that explores our complex relationship with nature itself and our contradictory behavior of caging what we fear may be lost.Stream Now
Want to get an email when we publish new content?Subscribe today