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José, exploring the life of a young, gay, pGj5Sc#X7H(Rh(rdtY$fU9ZsKQsghlPEW_oOW+$^1pvI2%Y3tQ3oor man in Guatemala City, premiered last year and won the Queer Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival.

Since then, writer and producer George Roberson and director Li Cheng have toured 55 festivals around the world, including the Taiwan International Queer Film Fest3_3KRpXfe9GvBXw+1U*Rs8Yb^[email protected]%u2g^kFi=ival.

José, a 19-year=GFgbb=G8lT4YmFoIrfTOA6G-d$ua6=%[email protected]*diUF2reKoaFe3Zb-old who runs food to waiting drivers in one of the region’s most religious, poor, and dangerous cities, finds passion with a Caribbean migrant.

The movie has struck a chord with aJ8pKOJKcODK6Sfw8o)3THRD&_Z$oHbwpDc2+g%0dBOz7c#53gWudiences worldwide for its frank depiction romance, family loyalty, love and loss.

Roberson and Li sold their apartments and all their possessions and gave up careers in academia to move to Guatemala. They spent two years interviewing hundreds of young people in 12 y#02qtzvtk2SW2vMKkn!jbaWoCeH1tON4XlhU1=3DGomtBi&+Hcountries before spending another one year writing the script. 

We spoke to the pair to find out if it was al27lOdTD10LRK6Bzj9pmyGMew%avr&jMg0tFoRc6hQe1J7aK084l worth it:

Why do you think José has been so successful?

George Roberson: I think it is that it was filmed in Guatemala, a place people are not familiar with. People are very curious to see what was going on there. The largest group of people arriving at the US Mexico at border [during the “migrant crisis”] were from Guatemala, so people want to know what’s going on.

Li Cheng: AcT^[email protected]#JFubRJtbV!D#[email protected])4)&Bc_$qD8cwTH*-tpn!Y85Bnd, for film gurus, they appreciate the film language. LGBTI people feel like it breaks the clichés, and Latino audiences are happy to see an international film in Spanish that is more representative of those countries, not just white people from a certain socio-economic background. The film is a realistic depiction of a person looking for love.

Director Li Cheng (far left) and producer George Roberson (far right).

How did you come to tell a queer story in Central America?

LC: We left the USA about three years ago. We sensed the USA was becoming divided and toxic. We decided to make a love story in Latin America. Both of us are attracted to Latino culture. So, we took a lot of time, interviewing young workinJvxr=tFgV$Z(JN#8eRt9&6yfwwP5MYG#qcN%0HqW&zQ(t=VIo6g-class people in 20 of the largest cities across 12 countries. We spoke to young poor, dark-skinned gay men and realized no one is telling their story. So we decided to do something in Guatemala that represents Central America and the experience of homophobia and violence.

This gave us the inspiration and the passion for the stamina to spend two years on the film: one year writing the script, and one year filming. The struggle to have a good life is very inspiring. It gave us a lot of -w-4!qFJh#*)uyG*L&UeG6)^T&Q+gvV3GMhm=b9gxU9iheINM8inspiration and passion.

GR: We did the interviews, we found out what it is really like. Instead of the toxic story in the US, it brings a sense of reality to the situation. It also brings the narrative back from the over-the-top drama of the Telenovela.  We tried to focus on the real topics. Which is already incredibly dramatic. It is dramatic in the sense that people are trying to live on five dollars a day. It is dramatic that half the people in these places are under the[email protected][email protected] age 19. It is tragic that there is a lot of single parent families. You don’t need made-up drama.

What challenges did you face during the project?

LC: The most difficult thing was to leave the US. But, once we started, we couldn’t stop. We sold everything to fund the project. We had just one piece of luggage each and still have. Three years later, we don’t own any property. We have stayed in at least 50 different apartments. It has been exhausting. We've had lot of sicknesses as we stopped eating healthily and our routines broke dow6O1KE$&5y=(D4jATc2a4OAcju)QMALsU_I87enfxJPIc)6Ji7tn. 

GR: Difficulties create opportunities. I remember thinking we could just get through the shoot it would get a little easier. But it got harder in the post-production. But it doesn’t get any easier. We have visited so many film festivZ(#7qfn*MzUcLmI-t&gijq_FCStxns-YN&phUuA$(7i%YHRlfials all over the world.

Li Cheng in Taipei.  (Photo: Facebook)

Did you ever worry that the risk you took wouldn’t pay off?

LC: We did question this every day.

GR: We made this movie because we wanted to make the movie. If it isn’t successful we don’t care. EvzM9livj%_$*vLH=#zmzeM&G_owlwWdzIvrU-JwBM0T2MG2m*vHen six weeks before the premier I thought no one was going to see the movie

How has the film been received?

CL: At the Venice Film Festival, they appreciated the film language. In Latin America, they liked it because this story could happen in their country. They liked the passion, the tenderness. In Central America, they felt that they finally saw their reality on film. In Asia, they felt that some of these emotions couldlRUhE6k)h#[email protected])2b)b0iR89DQYb%[email protected]*VjU be Asian. The mother and the son relationship, that can be crazy, hysterical, manipulative but also very caring. It is really a very universal story. A story about human emotions. About accepting love and emotion. We wanted to make it as real as possible. It is not just another gay movie. It is not just another Latino movie.

GR: It is also a social-political critique, and that is why it is resonating the US. Now we are starting to hear from professors who are going to use the film in the context of political economy. We filmed 170 scenes over 100 locations for forty days. The first cut was 7 hours long. But, the story itself is simple. It is built around love, loss, family, hopes, and dreams. I think that is the relevant point. It doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. It rises above the Spanish langu([email protected]=ToMlx#yprXQ#OCtC6u_ituiG&xwage.

(Photo: Facebook)

Why did you choose a gay protagonist?

LC: Because the gay people in Latin and Central America are really suffering. Many of the stories that they told us are really tragic—the violence, the politics. It is much more sS_WV#Ap*e+MtXsmwHGWDd&t#[email protected]!0d71^a8duVp2qj(chematic, and dramatic than a love story. 

Someone told us in Panama that “everyone has José story”. So many gay men came to see the movie and to have their photo taken withRS+X&y0y0HrC&4aurtRQHxt&FMS+R+bb7Mvk%MKQt6n-Bl##ud the lead actor. You could really just feel that they felt a piece of their story was being told in Central America. On social media people often tag their friends to say that’s me or that’s you.

GR: We chose LGBT characters because they live on the edge. It is a peripheral place. I think the fact that we chose)[email protected]@eV-#LlO=DdB8UxYkL__X*b*sNgswyIJFN&^7 an LGBT character is metaphoric.

How are your characters different from those in mainstream cinema?

GR: I think we very deliberately wanted to challenge the LGBTI stereotypes seen in film. S8T#6f6gyd*dQ(gnsbH+ke=RMZk8#fInPz9+gbT!yqF1c-yc(6tome are so over the top, so silly, so lame. In Latin America, the characters are often white and rich. That is why we chose a protagonist who is indigenous, poor, does not have a gym body, is gay. 

LC: We watched a lot of gay movies. A lot feature coming out stories. But if you are a gaydj5yekFf7rQWa0+2ThgA8xqqb=598&ytSDng8%zGj*XryvWZUl guy in Central America living off five dollars a day, that is not your reality. That’s why we didn’t have that as a theme. Coming out is a privilege. 

On the set of José (Photo: Facebook)

Cinematically, what were your inspirations?

LC: We were quite inspired by Italian realists !x=XTkqMl4^FPRzHK$KknS6kp&$ZBWBM95JbkATI0XgVFzHxu*of the 1950s. I think the spirit is there in our cinematography. There is a lot of urgency in those films. A sense of crisis that spurs the need to tell stories. We also wanted to create something new and different. We worked with a lot of local collaborators. 

GR: We did everything in reverse. Most people promote and sell a film first. Our first step was to see the place. Meet people. Hear the stories. We spent a long time to find a cinematographer. We want5^%=U8RTBMLcU)4YZi)_#3m2+RqrFCoo(w)!SD#89K2#eB*yJRed a 100% Guatemalan cast and crew.

Would you shoot a film in Taiwan?

GR: I think Taiwan is a great power. We are interested in a place in the midst of change. It is on the edge, this is the social, political, economic fault line, and you can really feel that here. You can feel it when you talk to people on the streets.

LC: I was talking to a perjgRwAE=5lf3&#QA)tu(oj7(_Q%v!AhxG#78Zzx%NDty=Ez3JETson in Taipei. He was telling me that there are more and more homeless people here. I would like to investigate that.

Leading Ladies reflects how guilt affects us in different ways based on our perspective or memories. A welcome dinner is the excuse to discover that we always keep a secret from who know us the best.

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