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13 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

How Mexican directors came to dominate the Oscars

The US President might want to build a wall, but the future of film lies south of the United States border. 

By Tom Beasley

In 2014, Alfonso Cuarón became the first Mexican filmmaker to win the Oscar for Best Director, when his work on ambitious sci-fi drama Gravity was lauded by the Academy. Four years on, the Best Director Oscar has been dominated by filmmakers of Mexican origin. Since Cuarón went home with the gold, his fellow countryman Alejandro G. Iñárritu has won twice, for Birdman and The Revenant. Although last year’s award went to white director Damien Chazelle for La La Land, the trend now looks set to continue apace.

Guillermo del Toro, perhaps the most well-known proponent of the movement known as New Mexican Cinema, is the running favourite to win Best Director at this year’s ceremony. His unusual fantasy romance The Shape of Water has the most nominations of any film, with 13, and Del Toro has hoovered up precursor prizes throughout the race. On Saturday night, he won the Directors’ Guild of America Award, which is a near-perfect barometer for Oscar success. In the award’s nearly-70-year history, it has only diverged from the Academy’s pick on seven occasions.

But what is behind this stunning new wave of success for Mexican directors?

“I think it has been a long time coming,” says Dr Miriam Haddu, senior lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Royal Holloway University. “All three of these directors started around the same time in the 1990s, from similar backgrounds, and then moved to Hollywood, so it has probably been building up as the culmination of quite a lot of work.

“I think there are a lot of factors that have come into play to make them not just recognised as successful Mexican directors, but as successful directors. It might be timing that is crucial. It’s reflective of the climate in Hollywood, which is now much more open to alternatives.”

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Dr Marc Ripley, who researches Hispanic horror cinema at the University of Leicester, agrees the trio of Cuarón, Iñárritu and Del Toro have been hugely influential in bringing Mexican cinema to the masses.

“The three of them work quite closely together,” he says, “They have managed to bridge this gap between representing quite specific Mexican issues, but yet appealing to a wider international audience. In their latest films, they are working more internationally and with largely English-speaking casts, so their cinema obviously has a wider audience.”

Del Toro, in particular, is a filmmaker who has dazzled audiences for years with his eye for a monster and has made big Hollywood movies such as Hellboy and Blade II, alongside the more textured work of humanist ghost story Devil’s Backbone and his dark fairytale masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. The Shape of Water is a fusion of those two halves – an entirely American story told with Del Toro’s signature poetic flair.

The Shape of Water isn’t the only Mexican influence to be felt at this year’s Oscars. The easiest award to predict of the whole evening is Best Animated Feature, which will be handed to Pixar’s Coco – a kaleidoscopic celebration of Mexico’s annual Day of the Dead tradition. Ripley says the strength of the “Latino dollar” at the American box office has led to an improvement in representation and allowed the diversity of the USA to “reach as wide an audience as possible” on the big screen.

There’s an irresistible urge to discuss the movie world’s warm embrace for Mexican artists in the context of the US administration’s threat to erect a border wall between the two countries. It’s as if the push from Donald Trump to create a solid divide between the nations is being countered by the rich Mexican culture seeping through. When The Shape of Water is winning big at the Oscars and Coco was one of the biggest box office hits of last year, it’s tough not to think the man in the White House looks a little red-faced.

Haddu says: “We know what the response by Hollywood stars has been to the Trump administration, so I think in many ways it has galvanised the Latino community and perhaps created a level of empathy from viewers, who are against the Trump rhetoric.”

The Academy has been both criticised and applauded for its cultural representation in recent years, from the righteous fury of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign to the euphoria when Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight won Best Picture amid the calamitous, Carry On Oscars controversy of the notorious envelope mix-up. It’s crucial, in that context, to point out that voters are seemingly in love with the filmmaking craft and extraordinary talent of directors born south of the border. President Trump might want to build a wall but, when it comes to culture, that division is a porous, flimsy structure.

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