In Gabriel’s Ripstein film debut, Tim Roth, an ATF agent, gets caught by an amateur Mexican gun runner in the South border, 600 Miles is a genuine portrait of gun smuggling into Mexico.
Young Arnulfo, soon-to-be-gangster, smuggles weapons for a drug cartel from Arizona and across the border into Mexico. He’s helped by Carson, the gringo who thanks to the liberal gun laws easily can buy assault rifles in the US weapons stores. Inadvertently, he is being monitored by the agent Hank Harris (Tim Roth) from the federal organization ATF which, in the real world, is known for its controversial methods in the fight against arms smuggling in the Mexican drug war.
Arnulfo finds himself in deep waters after a violent collision with the agent and panicked, he decides to kidnap him instead of fleeing. Ultra-realistic and in long, patient frames, we follow their trip back through Mexico while the two men’s destinies are being forged together in a partnership that will prove to have fatal consequences.
600 Miles premiered at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival this year, where it won the award for best first feature and is the Official selection entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.
We sat down with Gabriel Ripstein and talked about the reality of weapon smuggling in Latin America, the process of developing the two main characters, the film choices used to create the unique story and more.
The film approaches an original theme, something we aren’t use to hear about, specially when it comes from the relationship between Mexico and the US. The story is about the ATF. Is this a real story?
First of all, thank you for saying that. Yes, the film is not a traditional film when it comes to the relationship and the border of Mexico and the US. I wanted to go away from the cliche, which is gun trafficking. The context is real. I based it on the operation supported by the ATF in 2009-2010. It was called operation Fast and Furious. Basically, it allows guns to flow into Mexico from the US. What they were doing was taking down serial numbers of gun buyers with the intention of tracking down weapons that were brought into Mexico. The operation failed miserabley because thousands of guns were lost in Mexico.
The gun control is very debated at the moment in the US. Were you trying to raise the controversy?
I wanted to talk about something that is factual, about the incredible accessibility of firearms in the US. I lived many years in the US, in New York for three years and seven in Los Angeles. I was struck by how easy it is for anyone to purchase any amount of high caliber firearms. We are talking about guns that are for an army, not for someone’s personal use.
I actually grew up around guns, my grandfather and father were hunters, so it’s not that I am terrified of them. I do think there is an unhealthy apetite in the US for these firearms and the easy accessibility, which happens due to the lack of gun control. The purchases you see in the film are factual. The film scenes are shot in real gun stores and the sellers are not actors, they work in the store. I asked them basically to do what they do everyday. That was one of the topics that was circling around my head and when you combine that with the huge organized crime in Mexico, it is a very bad combination. The accessibility in the US and the demands in Mexico, makes it a huge industry of gun trafficking, it creates a huge violence in Mexico. Parts of the country are in a war, factions of organized crime and hundreds of casualties happen. The majority of the bullets that are fired come from the United States. This is the context where the story takes place. But, ultimately, the story is about two people.
There is also some irony with the ease of purchasing a gun by a teenager, but that same teenager couldn’t buy a beer.
The scene was designed, although I didn’t want to be obvious about it. In Mexico, it is much more lenient, but again the purchase of firearms is completely illegal there. In the US there is this contradiction, people can go to the army, but can’t buy a beer.
This is your debut film with an international context. I’m curious about your background, how it influenced you to write this story?
I come from a family of filmmakers. My father is a director and my grandfather was a producer. I grew up in the film set. I wanted to be a film director, however when I was a teenager and had to make a decision of what I wanted to do with my life, with a rebellious nature that is common as a teenager, I said no. I wanted to do something serious and make money, tired of my father’s art films, that made no money, so I decided to be an economist. I studied economics, a very hardcore private school in Mexico City. Later, I was a business consultant for many years and I was miserable. That’s when I decided to get back to film. I went to New York, did my NBA in Columbia, learned about the business elements of film and started working. Also in Los Angeles, in the studios. Then I came to Mexico to work in the business side of film, developing and producing films, very commercial type of films. From there, the studio took me back to Los Angeles, I was overseeing all international productions. Films we were doing in China, Russia, UK and Mexico. It was a really good experience because I had a lot of exposure to the process, but I wasn’t really satisfied creatively. So I started writing scripts and was fortunate making a living out of writing scripts, many times for hire. I did that for about five years, until I decided to write something more personal, that I want to direct and this idea starts to role around my head and turns to characters, situations and storyline. This film is a Mexican production, I produced it with a friend of mine Michel Franco, also a film director. He produced my film, I produced his, we shot them almost back to back, with the same actor Tim Roth. His film is called Chronic.
The story is about these two characters, two different nationalities and age groups. How did you develop them?
I try to be very subtle and not make them the product of the situation of their country, but they are. In a way, they represent where they come from. The ATF character is pragmatic, a workaholic. There is a saying that in the US you don’t have friends, you have interests. As long as you are helpful to them, they will be your friend. The other main character, the kid, is a product of the family, which is such an important component of the Mexican life, his family that happens to work in organized crime. They are both the lower link of the chain, they are completely disposable each in their own universe. The ATF character is a bureaucrat, big machine in an office, a grey character that is following instructions. The same goes for the Kristyan Ferrer character, he is the last person in the chain, his job is not glamorous, like working in some Cartel. He is doing this tedious work of going back and forth. So, they have to connect, they are stuck together, their relationship develops because of the basic need, the need of survival. In the end of the day, it’s because of the mistakes that one of them makes, this young man that is scared, out of his element, mistakes that turn into a snowball. They are stuck together and when they do the trip to Mexico, things get more dangerous and realize they need to get out of there alive. The kid during the film is sort of mistreated, everybody slaps him around and suddenly he finds this man, that is his prisoner, who gets it, talks to him, worries about him, all in a need for survival. In that situation, the relationship starts to blossom. This relationship is very bizarre and peculiar. It’s not a happy ending, they aren’t going to walk off to the sunset together, like father and son. But, there is in some point a relationship that is born out of necessity.
There was no music in the film.
I made the choice to make the film almost like a documentary, hyperrealism film. This is dictated by the story. I’m talking about something complex, serious, not easy to simplify to gun trafficking, because I didn’t want to simply say the Americans are the bad guys and Mexicans are better, vice-versa. We are all co-responsible, where the US and Mexico are guilty, with good and bad in all the characters. So I didn’t want to make it artificial or make it feel like a film. I wanted the production design to be very hyperrealism, how these gun stores are. There was no stylized version of this. I wanted the sensation we are there, we are following these characters, like a documentary. That made me choose not to have any music, because if I did, it would feel like it’s a film. I’m influenced a lot by the Dardenne brothers, I used the same cinematographer they used, Alain Marcoen. It was a decision to be coherent with what I was doing, form and function of the story. Music is an incredible narrative resource, but there is also the danger of the score telling you what you need to feel, or how you need to react. I never heard in my mind any music while I was crafting the film.