For this Filmmaker Focus, we sat down with the team behind Lejos del Sentido (Away from Meaning) to discuss their journey of documentary filmmaking, their advice for up-and-coming filmmakers, and much more! Their film was screened and featured at FICG in LA 2018 as a part of its nation-wide festival run! Olivia Luengas is the director and cinematographer of the film, and this will be her first feature-length film! Usually a DP, this is her first credit as Director. Odin Acosta, a sound designer of 10 years, is making his producer debut in Away from Meaning along with continuing his longstanding role as a sound designer.
What made you get into filmmaking? Do you have any influences?
OL: When I attended high school I got started in a photo workshop class. After graduating, I traveled and studied photography in Spain, France, and Mexico. When I finally came home, I realized I wanted to do something more with it and take my career with the image further. So I began studying film in Guadalajara, which is where I fell in love with and transitioned into being a DP. This is where I became fascinated with the image and telling stories through film.
The differences between photography and film are very obvious. The similarities are the more important parts to me. In film and photography, you are also very aware of movement. You must be like a hunter, ready to capture the scene that you want, anticipating the scene that you think is going to happen. As I have grown as a DP it has been tough for me to realize that I can use movement. Over time I have come to realize that my filmmaking style has many still frames, a tough habit to kick from my photo days.
OD: I have been passionate about filmmaking from a very young age; 15 years old to be exact. Back then I used to play in a reggae band which led to my career transition into sound design. I was the one guy who wanted to do sound design in college and that seemed to work out pretty well for me. Now I’ve worked on over 80 films as sound designer! The thing I love most is that, as sound designer, I have the chance to use my imagination to structure how things sound, which is the most important part of a film. My influence was Walter Murch, one of the first independent sound designers; he worked for Coppola and Lucas and many others at the start of professional sound design. I also got the chance to meet him in Berlin for a masterclass I was attending in 2013! He was amazing!
What kind of movies do you prefer to make?
OL: I do like documentaries but also I want to explore other kinds of films in the future. Mainly, I want to make films with important messages. Our film was made because we wanted to expose people to what is happening with mental health issues they might not be aware of. I was thinking of what would not only be good to expose people to but also what would be accessible to the audience.
OD: My main focus is documentary films. In Mexico, it is very hard to get into mainstream fiction films, whereas the doc world is very accessible and I have developed a strong community and career there. At the end of the day, I have more freedom in documentaries rather than fiction films. My approach to design is to get the clean audio from dialogue and then build elements to make you feel like you are the main character. I want to make the viewers feel like they are in the moment.
For our readers who haven’t seen your film, what is it about and what does it mean to you?
OL: Away from Meaning was born from a necessity to talk about the subject of mental health because we are touched so deeply by the issue. The film’s main character is my sister so, at first, I did not want to talk about this because of how obviously personal it was. But in the end, we thought that the only one who could explain best what was happening to her mind was my sister. The other great thing is that the film is also a love story and a story of hop alongside the story of mental health.
Audiences who have seen the film, even if they are not exposed to issues of mental health, have told us that they found the love and hope of the film compelling. They find a story of a bittersweet mixture of topics. It has hard moments but also humor, which helps make the film subject more accessible to audiences while also exposing them to an uncomfortable reality. Finally, this story isn’t unique to Mexico. It is universal and timeless. It will not expire. The problems with public health are not just in Mexico.
OD: I think that people who haven’t seen our film need to know that this is a Spanish speaking film. This film is very important for Latino communities in America to help start the conversation about mental health which is unfortunately rarely a topic of discussion. When we first pitched this, we used a tagline, “Take mental illness out of the shadows”. It’s not a painful story; it is a hopeful one for the future of how we deal with mental health.
What, to you, is the most important aspect of documentary filmmaking?
OD: When we started, we weren’t very aware of the impact we were going to have. We have been members of Good Pitch who gave us the tools for our impact campaign. Good Pitch helps connect creative low-budget films like ours with audiences and communities that need to see them. We feel that people like documentaries because they feel small and real, which helps the audience feel more attached to the subject matter because of the usual personal scope of these films. Documentaries cover news in a much different way then what we are used to seeing on television. The news coverage in documentaries is much deeper, which is very attractive because it feels very unattached from the mainstream 24-hour news cycle which abandons stories very quickly.
OL: The most important aspect for me is that I can return something to my country. Giving back something to the communities that have given so much to me. To help them heal and learn about themselves and the world around them.
Is there a motto or philosophy you live by?
OD: For me, “Make the movies that you would love to see.”
OL: I heard this phrase from a friend, “Work hard and play hard.”
What is the worst or best movie you have ever seen?
OL: My favorite film is Muriel’s Wedding and Australian fiction film by BJ Hogan. I used to be made fun of for liking this film by all my friends in high school because it wasn’t cool. The way the film approaches its characters and the idea of “failure” and what it means and how society judges failure is why I love it so much. The main character, to everyone in the film, is a loser but she is lovely and all the things she does have a strong purpose that helps her work through all of the situations she is given. In the end, she surrenders but all the pain that the family causes to her and vice versa is because of their definition of failure which is a critique I so rarely see in our society.
OD: I consider myself a person who likes to see the good side of bad movies. The best movie I have ever seen is a French 90’s movie, All the Mornings in the World. It’s a very French art film, it is also the film that got me into filmmaking. It is a very deeply emotional film which showed me you could make a film that made you feel real emotions, it blew my mind. Also, I love Men in Black. Whenever Men in Black is playing on TV I always finish it.
If you could be born into history as any famous person who would it be and why?
OL: The first person to come to my mind is French documentarian, Agnes Varda. I chose her because not only do I love her films but also because she is a very free person who has never bowed to the establishment or conventions of filmmaking.
OD: Bob Marley. Although, I know his ending so maybe not. On the other hand, he is truly an everlasting legend who, with his music, changed the world. I used to have a recurring dream that I was backstage at a Bob Marley concert and it was all very exciting so maybe I’d choose to be his manager! All of the fun of being around Bob Marley while also getting to still be alive!
What is something you have read, watched, listened to lately that you recommend our readers check out?
OL: I have become a really big fan of an American band, Sylvan Eso. It’s very impressive that only two people make all of their music! I have been telling everyone who will listen about them!
OD: I read The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge recently. It is a book from the 70’s about a guy from California who goes to the Sonora desert in Mexico where he is taught by a magician/psychedelic teacher. He goes on a psychedelic journey where he consumes peyote, mushrooms, and a thing called Devil’s Weed and he describes how it feels. In the end, he uses science and data to help explain what he experienced. The author has a quote that stuck with me, “No road takes you nowhere, but the important thing is to chose the road with the heart on it.”
Last but not least, do you have any advice for up-and-coming filmmakers?
OL: One piece of advice is to work with honesty when you chose to tell your story. To put your heart into your work. If you do this it will be a unique vision and it will be harder to quit because of how attached you will be to your work.
OD: It’s a contradiction to the way we made the film but my advice is “make sure to get your budget down first.” We didn’t stop the production even though we ran out of money and I’m saying this because if I had the chance to make another film, I would budget it more responsibly. With more strategy and prep you will enjoy the process of making your film much more and thus you will make a better film.