Oklahoma Mon Amour portrays a ruptured family and the quest for its reunion, the journey of two brothers, the challenges faced by multicultural youth needing to find their true identity and to unveil buried secrets, all of this tinted by the puzzling closeness between Mexico and the U.S. Filmed in black and white and with a non-traditional structure evocative of an earlier cinema from the sixties and seventies, the film also interacts with current world tensions, and presents an unusual approach to the Mexico/U.S dynamics, also showing a cosmopolitan Mexico City seldom seen in cinema.
Carolina Rueda, the director of Oklahoma Mon Amour, has worked professionally in the fields of film and video production and film studies. She co-founded directed and edited weekly segments for LatinEyes, a television program that focused on Latin American culture in such a way as to break down the stereotyped images of Hispanic people living in the United States. LatinEyes received an Emmy Award for Best Cultural TV Show in 2006 (San Francisco, CA). In 2005, she co-produced the Colombian feature film Visitas, which premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival and was exhibited at several other venues, including the Internationales filmfestival Freiburg (Switzerland), the Chicago Latino Film Festival, the Festival de Cine de Granada (Spain), Cine Las Americas (Austin, Tx), and the Festival de Cine de Cartagena (Colombia), among others.
Carolina has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, has taught film editing and film studies courses, and is the author of the book Ciudad y Fantasmagoría: Dimensiones de la mirada en el cine urbano de Latinoamérica del siglo XXI (City and Phantasmagoria: Dimensions of Seeing in the Latin American Twenty-first Century Urban Cinema), published in 2019.
What draws you to filmmaking and the cinematic language?
I am a Colombian filmmaker. When I was living in Colombia film schools and opportunities for women filmmakers were scarce. However, all I did from an early age was watch films to understand cinematic language. To me, filmmaking is about telling stories that matter with a particular aesthetics that engage the viewer. I strongly believe that filmmaking cannot be dissociated from cinematic language. As Alejandro González Iñárritu has said, “each drink needs its own glass,” namely, each story deserves to be told in a particularly visual way. In this day and age, we are bombarded with all kinds of images at all times. However, the originality with which many of the masters of cinema have told their stories, such as Agnes Varda, Jean Luc Godard, Julie Taymor, Werner Herzog, Claudia Llosa, is something that will stay with us forever. Believing in the story we want to tell and carefully elaborating the cinematic language for that particular story is the best we can do as filmmakers.
Do you believe in film schools or does making a film teach you more than film school?
Talent for filmmaking exists in raw form and the best that can happen to someone is to be able to recognize her/his talent from a young age and act upon it, as Kubrick did when he was a child. However, film school teaches you technical aspects that are fundamental for making strong, well-produced films. Film school guided me when navigating through all the eras, theories, and tendencies of cinema. The more you watch films from all over the world, having in-depth conversations about cinematic language, theory, technical aspects, and narrative structure (which happens quite a lot in film school), the more knowledgeable you will be when making decisions for your own film. Having said that, one can learn a great deal about all the aspects of filmmaking when making a film. It becomes a fascinating experience to put into practice what was learned in film school and to discover your own ways of adding and contributing to the art of filmmaking.
What makes cinema stand out more than the arts for you?
In the old days, film was seen by many as a “bastard” art in comparison to poetry, music, painting, theater, until some of the members of the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema strived to raise the status of this audiovisual art and to give a higher status to great film directors –similar to that of a novelist, poet, painter, composer. The argument was that film is a complete art that allows a true auteur her/his most personal expression. For me, all the arts should stand out for what they are, and it is unfortunate, for example, that poetry, theater, and ballet, are bound to keep losing the strong presence they once had. As a film director, I have experienced what film does. Film stands out because it allows a film director to mix elements from all the arts, but it is also important to know and for the audience to understand how this mixture works to serve specific purposes. This is how commercial cinema is different from that art-house cinema.
Did you choose a certain directing style for making "Oklahoma Mon Amour" based on the script?
The film was conceived and the script was written thinking of a narrative structure that would juxtapose various cinematic forms. In particular, the idea was to tell a fictional story (a ruptured family whose members end up living in different countries) that is interrupted by narrations representing the psychological subjectivism of the characters, written notes that appear on screen, real events footage, and poems. Committed to this hybrid structure, I gave a certain spontaneity to the shots and allowed the actors to be spontaneous with their actions. This gave a cinema-verite style to some of the sequences, especially when Nico walks around the cities and when Sebastian is in a motel in Laredo, Texas. We took this same approach in the editing room. I wanted the film to have a contemporary look that also echoed art-house black and white films from the sixties and seventies.
How did you choose the cast and the crew of your film?
Walking the streets of Puebla (Mexico) and Mexico City, while reading Walter Benjamin –the German thinker who spent a great deal of time observing urban materiality and life– brought to life the character of Nico. Nico would be a walker, and a distraught observer and thinker. Having this in mind, I looked for someone with a particularly strong visual presence. I was lucky to find Arthur Dixon. Also, like Nico in the film, Arthur is multicultural (he was born in the U.S., speaks English with a British accent –his parents are from the UK–, and also speaks Spanish). Traveling by bus in Mexico gave me the idea of Sebastian’s character. Sebastian is a troubled and sweet Oklahoma young man, who is committed to change his fate. When choosing the actor for this character I was looking for a strong and dramatic eye expression. I found this in Ricky Williams.
I offered the U.S. actor David Slemmons the part for the character of Leam knowing that he was perfect for this part. Not only his strong presence represented what Leam should be but David (as it happens with Leam in the film) was an activist in the sixties and seventies. This is why many of David’s photos from when he was a young activist appear in the film. I was very lucky to be able to work with the Native American Yuchi-Mvskoke Creek actor Richard Ray Whitman, who brought to life the character of Lloyd. It was important that his character is who helps decipher a terrible secret hidden in this land because past Oklahoma events are also part of this film.
I would also like to say that the three main characters would not be who they are, would not do what they do if it wasn’t for the strong women in their lives, Syd, Paige, Mónica, and Fiona. The casting for their characters was very important to me. After several efforts, we were able to cast Tatiana Rioseco, who lives in Chile; Kody Burns and Sydne Gray, who live in Tulsa, OK; and actress and singer Katie Williams, who lives in Norman, OK.
How did you fund your film and what were some of the challenges of making this film?
In the same way that this film was initiated organically, I slowly started receiving financial support from private and public institutions, friends, and family. It took us a while to be able to do the postproduction until OMAFILMS had enough financial support to do so. Our biggest challenge was to film in Puebla, Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and London, with a small budget. One of the early challenges was to find very professional people that could commit to the film at its different stages. This is how we ended up working with people that live in Puebla, Mexico City, Taipei, Bogotá, Caracas, Los Angeles, and Norman (Oklahoma). I call Oklahoma Mon Amour a “Norman” film, because many people involved in the production are associated with this Oklahoma town and because I received financial support from the University of Oklahoma.
Do you consider yourself an indie filmmaker and what would most be the most difficult thing about being an independent artist?
I believe that the indie film realm is a great setting for women filmmakers. I am without a doubt an indie filmmaker. I have never been interested in venturing into the Hollywood or commercial film industry. All my life I have been a fan of films by Agnes Varda, John Cassavetes, Jim Jarmusch, the early films by Francis Ford Coppola (especially Rumble Fish, shot in Oklahoma in black and white) and Maya Deren’s avant-garde films, among others of this same nature. Indie filmmaking comes with specific challenges: having to stretch the budget, stop the production due to the unavailability of crew and cast, and getting the most of the equipment to deliver professional, high-quality films. These challenges, however, can also be quite positive. You become very resourceful and your creativity and story ideas can run loose. For example, while a high-end production that shows a train derailing could be interesting cinematically, an indie filmmaker is always looking for workable stories and will possibly identify the very compelling story that happens right in front of her/him, in her/his street, in her/his neighborhood.
What is the distribution plan for your film?
The film is now being submitted to film festivals. I am happy to say that it has entered several international film festivals, winning best Family Film at the Silk Road Film Awards (in the city of Cannes) and Best Female Cinematographer at the Toronto International Women Film Festival. Presently we are looking at various distribution possibilities in Latin America, the United States and Europe. We are still in the early stages of this process.
What is your cinematic goal in life and what would you like to achieve as a filmmaker?
Oklahoma Mon Amour, being the mixed-genre film that it is, represents a strong passion I’ve had regarding cinema. I am excited to continue exploring this format for future short and feature films, but also, being from Latin America and living in the United States, I am passionate about telling stories of how the world is becoming closer, how we cannot speak anymore of defined North/South boundaries. Watching the many vulnerable people that live in Norman, Oklahoma, that at times seem to represent no more than an unnoticed ghostly presence, has made me think of a story that needs to be told –a subject already hinted in Oklahoma Mon Amour when Sebastian says: "In Ava you don't see many people walking, except for those loners that traverse endless pathways..." Unnoticed people from both the Global South and the North with their unique human qualities interest me for future fictional and mixed-genre film works.
What kind of impact would your film have in the world and who is your audience?
In Oklahoma Mon Amour the fictional story is interrupted by voice-in-off, real events footage, and texts and poems addressing matters of cultural differences and past and current world tensions. This is how the film becomes reflective. At one point Nico says, “No place is safe. Auschwitz, the Tlatelolco Massacre, the Oklahoma City Bombing, Hiroshima, horrible as Alain Resnais showed in his film... conflicts between countries are as paradoxical and those that can destroy a family,” connecting the two layers in the film. Mixed-genre allows for a rich, sometimes poetic and metaphorical, cinematic experience, and black and white cinema (which is again becoming popular) has always stood out. All viewers are different and Oklahoma Mon Amour is now out there. While someone might feel drawn to the fictional story of this multicultural family (from Britain, the U.S., and Mexico), someone else might focus on the way Oklahoma and Mexico are depicted through the black and white images, and yet someone else might focus on the mixed-genre structure or the music. These are just a few ways in which I hope Oklahoma Mon Amour can be impactful. The film is difficult to categorize. However, I believe it can be rated PG-13. The fictional story is emotional but is also entertaining, and the topics beyond the fiction can be food for thought for everyone.