Finding Beauty in the Slaughterhouse in 'The Reaper'
One would never expect a film about a place where cows go to die to be so visually and emotionally beautiful. But the deliberate pacing and slow reveals in the 29 minutes of Gabriel Serra Arguello's The Reaper (La Parka) make the violence and gore inherent in a documentary about a slaughterhouse surprisingly tolerable. Unlike an advertisement you might see for an animal rights campaign, the visceral parts aren't the most weighty; instead, the film is heavily focused on the realities of death as experienced by Efraín Jiménez García, the film's titular "Reaper—the one who delivers the final blow to the bulls set for slaughter.
Efraín may be quiet at work and at home, where he is responsible for feeding his large family, but Serra Arguello was quite successful at getting this stoic man to open up. Through voiceover, García discusses the losses he has experienced in his life, along with the simple human necessity of his job: "If I didn't kill them [the bulls], my kids would have nothing to eat."
We spent a few minutes on the phone with Serra Arguello—the first Nicaraguan filmmaker to ever be nominated for an Oscar®—during which we discussed aesthetic choices, the process of finding his main character, and the sensitive nature of the film's material.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How did you first meet your main character of the film, Efraín Jiménez García? Was your intent always to make him the focal point of this story?
I did know that I wanted a very big slaughterhouse, so I began searching around Mexico City with the help of someone. I went to talk with them to see if I liked these places, and then to ask for permission to film. I found this incredible place with this hole in the wall. When I was writing the project before I went to see the location, I knew that I wanted the first sequence to be a bull coming from very far, and for [the slaughterhouse] to have a hole where I could see that. I found this place that fit the characteristics and I said, “Wow, this is like a dream.” After that, I knew when I had the permission I would find a very good character.
So finally, I got permission. I went inside and asked them to let me talk with three people. First it was the oldest guy from the slaughterhouse, then the youngest. I had a psychological profile that I was looking for. I saw this guy with a hood covering his head. I asked, “Who is that guy?” They told me, “That’s Efrain. They call him the Reaper.” I said “Oh, can I speak with him?” He told me that his sister had died, and his father had died from diabetes. Then, he told me a very beautiful thing: that a tear comes out of the eyes of the bulls when they feel he is going to kill them. He had a very detailed way of telling me about the work he did. I knew this was my person.
We never see Efraín actually speaking; all of his dialogue plays out through voiceover. What was it like to interview him? Did you sit down at his home, or speak to him during his work hours at the slaughterhouse?
I got the advice to make three interviews: one at the beginning, one at the middle, and then one at the end. So I got an interview first in the slaughterhouse. Then the second one I was in some hills around his house. I was very worried about the information he was going to give me. Eventually the mood was going to be very visual, but I needed a balance; I needed a very good character who was going to say good things to me. In a way, the visuals can’t be too heavy. They can’t be more important than the information he said.
The interview was very nice. The tone that he says the things, he doesn’t really give a very big importance to them. But I was trying to get all the main things I wanted from him.
I appreciate that you gradually ease the audience into the slaughterhouse, which is where about two-thirds of the film takes place. Was this a conscious decision on the part of you and your editor, Koki Ortega?
In the beginning I knew I didn’t want to put very nasty shots or shots that revealed things. I wanted to be very elegant and very quiet and very precise with the image and try to use the sound that out of the frame will help to build other things. I knew I wanted to have four or five moments, or four or five shots, that you will never forget. I was looking for that. For me it was very important to be very soft and very elegant, making sure not to include things that will reveal other things.
What were those four or five shots?
One at the beginning when you see the eye through the hole. Then there’s the shot when the stomach comes out. When the person hangs out the bull, and the stomach falls down and kind of rolls down into somewhere. Then the wall with lots of blood. And I think the last shot that is from the big hole again.
Until the last shot of the film, death is only shown in the abstract. Is this meant to be a comment on Mexico’s history of violence? Or was it simply an attempt to remove some of the brutal parts for the audience?
I like to speak about macro things in the micro. I like to speak about big subjects with small, very simple stories. There are many second subjects that come around after you see this movie. What I really wanted to do was make a film about the life of this person inside the slaughterhouse and the way he connects with death. But the subject of violence [in Mexico] is there. The way Mexicans live every day and have lived in the past is very different from every culture. They have a god called Santa Muerte (Saint Death), and they pray to her. They have the Day of the Dead, where they put religious altars outside [for those who have passed]. It’s very interesting how this big subject is also connected with the culture and the country, where there are a lot of people who are dying, and they are used to living with death, and used to seeing death in the newspapers.
I did not expect a film with such brutal imagery to look so beautiful -- I commend your cinematographer! Talk about your process for making visual choices.
With [cinematographer] Carlos [Correa Reynoso], we spoke a lot. We made two short exercises before with this kind of language. We saw a short film from the film school in Barcelona about a very big, industrial place where they kill chickens. We wanted elements close to the camera, like a very voyeuristic way of seeing.
There were eight days of filming; he couldn’t come for four days so I did the camera for four days, knowing what I was looking for, for the image. I also went two months investigating there without the camera knowing which parts I wanted to have on the camera. The process was very interesting.
Did you have any trouble getting the slaughterhouse to sign off on filming there?
It was good to film there. It was very intense at the beginning for me to be there. When I began investigating two months before we filmed, it was very hard to be there. When I would come back in the Metro to my house, I was feeling very shocked. For the crew, it was very complicated. We were entering the slaughterhouse to see one of the micro-processes of the big process. We were taking our time to film that, and then we would go outside of the slaughterhouse to breathe because it was very intense.
What has the road to Oscar been like for you? What are you working on now?
It has been like a dream. I don’t know -- very strange. It’s happened very fast, very crazy. It has been very strange for me because I’m not very used to being on camera and giving interviews.
I think I feel more responsible to work at a high level in cinematography or directing a movie. I want to make big projects. I’m going be a cinematographer for a very important documentary director in Mexico. It’s a very big movie in Los Angeles and Mexico City about the odyssey of the people who live outside the city and work in downtown. I will see what the experience will be in Los Angeles and Hollywood. I don’t know what it will come to after this new experience. I want to live it, I want to learn, I want to be surprised, and I want to enjoy it.
You can see The Reaper (La Parka) at DocuDay LA, the IDA's annual celebration of the feature and short documentary films nominated for the Academy Award®. The film will screen at 3:35pm on Saturday, February 21, at the Writer's Guild of America Theater as part of Shorts Program 2 with fellow nominee Joanna.
Katharine Relth is the Digital Communications Manager for the IDA. She has interviewed dozens of documentary filmmakers and written extensively about contemporary documentary and independent filmmaking for documentary.org, Documentary magazine, Indiewire and TribecaFilm.com