INTERVIEW

"A Cop Movie" director: "Being a cop involves performance. You put on a costume and play a part"

Alfonso Ruizpalacios spoke to Salon about his Netflix doc that looks at what prompts folks in Mexico to become cops

By Gary M. Kramer

Published November 3, 2021 3:25PM (EDT)

A Cop Movie (Netflix)
A Cop Movie (Netflix)

"A Cop Movie" is a documentary about police officers Teresa and Montoya — and it is not. In addition to talking with the real cops, director Alfonso Ruizpalacios ("Museo"), who cowrote the film with David Gaitán, also has two actors, Mónica Del Carmen and Raúl Briones, study Teresa and Montoya to play them. If the film sounds meta, it is, but Ruizpalacios' involving film examines what prompts folks in Mexico to become cops. 

It is not the pay. Police officers make peanuts, and some take bribes to supplement their meager income. It is not for the respect. Officers get harassed and spit on by criminals and citizens. And it is not for the safety given how much violence permeates their world. A single incident can end their career — or their life. 

"A Cop Movie," however, shows what officers like Teresa and Montoya grapple with on and off the job, from delivering a baby to chasing criminals. The film also shows the actors' efforts to give authentic performances as people they would never be in real life. 

RELATED: In Netflix's "The Guilty," cop Jake Gyllenhaal mesmerizes during one fateful night on the job

Ruizpalacios spoke with Salon via Zoom about his remarkable hybrid documentary/narrative film. 

Before you made this film, what was your attitude towards or experiences with the Mexican police force? 

It was pretty much what most Mexicans' attitudes and experiences are — we encounter them in the city in many circumstances on a daily basis; when you run a red light or there's an accident. There is always this huge mistrust. Raúl says it at one point in the movie — and it sums up most people's attitudes towards the police — that when you see police coming, you don't feel safe, and say, "Thank God, the police are here," you feel the opposite, which is worrying. "S**t, I'm in trouble. These guys are going to try to get money out of me," You don't know what will happen. That was my view of the police before I made this movie as well.

How did you find your subjects Teresa and Montoya and get them to trust you to tell their story? 

Once we decided to make this film about the police, we found them through a process. We were looking for the right characters and interviewed a lot of policemen and academics that had worked with the police. The film had a few key advisors who helped us through the whole process that worked in law enforcement and also in public policy. It was through one of them that we arrived at Teresa. Someone had interviewed her for a pilot program for police reform and said, "She has some amazing stories you have to hear." I met her for coffee. She didn't know what the interview was for, and as soon as she started telling me her life — she is one of these people who have a need to tell her story — it was love at first sight. She was so charming and funny and clever and self-deprecating, which I always respond to. More importantly, she wanted to tell the story, and, the fact that there was this love story in the middle of this very hostile environment, was so attractive and cinematographic. 

Likewise, how did you cast the actors to play these parts as well? Did Teresa and Montoya meet Mónica and Raúl?

Raúl and Mónica didn't meet Teresa and Montoya until the very end [of the shoot]. I wanted to keep Teresa and Montoya's real voices for the whole movie because I don't think you can equal the way they tell their stories. We needed actors to put bodies to these voices. The actors had both worked in theater doing these very brave acting processes where they immersed themselves in the world in the characters. I knew they both had what it took. I knew I needed [actors] who were both brave but also very skilled. 

Did you, like the actors, take any police classes to learn more about the experience that officers undergo in their six months of training? And do you think that's enough time for someone to learn how to police?

No [laughs] I'm not that brave. I'm actually unfit for it. I'm too old, they wouldn't let me in.  And I'm probably not fit enough [laughs]. I absolutely think six months isn't enough time to learn how to police. But that's how it is in Mexico. It really is like that and it is very worrying. After six months, you get a badge and gun and out you go, into the real world. It's a huge problem. The actors' training was half of the term, three months. It was a demanding process. They went to a third academy that didn't make the final cut. They had to sleep there, and it was the toughest academy for them.

"A Cop Movie" is evenhanded in your discussion of the police. Teresa acknowledges that there are crooked cops, and that the police are sometimes at fault. There are scenes suggesting cops take bribes to supplement their meager income. But there is also the concern that cops have difficult jobs, are underpaid, and have to spend money to get a clean vest or decent squad car. Moreover, they are so disrespected that, as someone says in the film, "no one cares if they die." Can you talk about being critical and celebratory of the police in your film? 

I think you cannot generate empathy within yourself if you don't look at the whole picture and acknowledge the faults as well as the aciertos, [positives]. That's the main thing. What we tried to do in the film, and we realized it as we progressed, that we were dealing with the actor's main tool, which is empathy. We needed that. It's interesting to think of empathy as a tool — something useful and powerful, we don't tend to think of it like that — but it was our tool to get inside their minds and under their skins and see the people behind the uniform. I wasn't interested in making a movie that was making an apology, or pro-police, or "adopt a policeman" kind of movie, that would be preposterous and ridiculous. But likewise, there would be no point to say what we can read in the newspapers about how corrupt they are. Looking at the human beings was more interesting and trying to portray them in all their complexity. They are contradictory. Some days they do the right thing, and other days they don't. That was one of the things we realized in the research. The hardest thing to understand is that a Mexican cop can do the right thing and the wrong thing on the same day. It's crazy to wrap your head around that.

Given the high risk/reward aspect to this work, why do you think people become cops in Mexico? 

I think most of them come into it out of necessity. It's a job. And then they realize it's not enough to make a living, so they turn to corruption to fulfill their needs. Most people we talked to — and Raúl said — that most people are there because it is a job. They could drive a bus, or whatever. A small minority is there because they have a passion for law enforcement and learning that law, and another small amount do it because it's a family tradition. Most people do it because there are no other opportunities. Some are fortunate enough that their parents lead them down a straight-ish path and they turn to that rather than to the cartels. I love that story Montoya tells about one of his friends from when he was a kid and they used to play cops and robbers — when the met again after many years, he had just gotten out of jail. It's such a remarkable story that happens. It's not literature, it's Montoya's life. 

You immerse viewers in this world, starting from your opening sequence (shot largely through the windshield of a police cruiser) to a gorgeous slow motion scene of a different kind of bravery. In between you feature a chase scene, a sex scene, as well as some reveals, some repetitions, and reenactments, and some narrative surprises. Can you talk about your stylistic approach to telling this story?

I wanted to go against the typical verité documentary where it is a handheld following the characters around. There are great beautiful important documentaries made that have been made that way where it is more about just the subject than the form. I wasn't interested in that for this movie. I wanted to create a tension between what you are hearing, and what you are seeing, and for that, there is a sort of dissociation. The audio is completely documentary, it's the voices of Teresa and Montoya all the time narrating their own story. But what we are seeing is very deliberately staged and shot and that tension I found so interesting to watch. There's something jarring about hearing somebody talk like that but seeing another body performing it in a very stylized way. 

This is a film about work. Not just the work of a cop but also the work done by actors. What parallels do you see in their jobs? And what connections did you make between the Teresa and Montoya meet Mónica and Raúl?

The link came because the key was that when I interviewed Teresa and Montoya, they talked about how the concept of performance was a part of their lives. Being a cop involves a great deal of performance. You put on a costume and play a part. Monica says that they are playing the part of someone strong and are the most vulnerable people. Are they equipped to play that part? Do they have the necessary skills? I think that's the question that the movie asks. This idea of performance I find endlessly fascinating.

"A Cop Movie" streams on Netflix beginning Friday, Nov. 5. Watch the trailer below, via YouTube.

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Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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