"It is a civil war": "Heroic" director on how the Mexican military makes ordinary men into killers

David Zonana's latest film is an indictment on the power imblance that forces Mexican men to turn on their own

Published January 20, 2023 11:30AM (EST)

Heroic (Sundance Film Festival)
Heroic (Sundance Film Festival)

David Zonana's chilling drama, "Heroic," premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, is set in a Mexican military academy where 18-year-old Luis (Santiago Sandoval Carbajal) is a "colt" (young cadet) training to become an officer. Luis quickly resents the dehumanizing nature of the academy, and wants out, but he can't give up the money and insurance he gets to support his diabetic mother.

While he bonds with some of his fellow colts, Luis is trapped when Sergeant Sierra (Fernando Cuautle) takes a liking to him. Sierra asks Luis to accompany him and some other sergeants on an "errand." Luis' participation gets him privileges — like missing out on a hazing initiation — but it also puts Luis in an untenable position where he feels powerless. Luis is asked to paddle one of his fellow cadets in one scene, and he witnesses a colt being physically abused in another. Things get increasingly worse. How Luis copes with the pressures he faces and the difficult situations he finds himself in build, inexorably to the film's shocking conclusion.

Zonana again employs the same formalist approach he used in his stunning debut, "Workforce," with artfully composed still shots that observe the action in a cold, detached manner. A horrific scene involving near-naked cadets being pushed like weighted discs in a game of shuffleboard along a soapy floor to see who can slide the farthest is one of the less disturbing episodes. Zonana's film is a stinging indictment of inequality and power. 

On the eve of his film's premiere, Zonana spoke with Salon about "Heroic." 

I have to start by asking the question that went through my head several times during "Heroic." Is your film too brutal? It was as disturbing as Amat Escalante's "Heli" and "Los Bastardos," and Michel Franco's "New Order."

If it's too brutal, then Mexico is too brutal. What all these directors are trying to say and portray in their films is a reflection of what they see. Amat, Michel and myself are not trying to exaggerate things. We are responsible directors and wouldn't do something brutal just for the sake of it. The question should be: What is happening in Mexico, and what are we seeing that is influencing us to create these films?

You employ a discipline and a precision in your shots, in how you compose a frame and how long you hold a scene to let viewers absorb all of the drama and emotion. Can you describe your approach to directing and why this style is so impactful for you?

My way of shooting is similar in both "Workforce" and "Heroic." The camera moves more in "Heroic," but I still use long shots; it is not as static as "Workforce." I am a narrative-driven director. I write the script first, and what I try to do with the camera is to portray the story the best way possible. Sometimes the answer is to just let the action happen and put the camera where it will record it as best as possible. It also makes the actors — who are a mix of actors and non-professional actors to let them feel they are in a natural environment. A long shot allows them to explore their characters in a theatrical way because I am not manipulative with the camera. The story unfolds in front of it, and I let spectators become more aware of what's happening in a scene — so they can understand the characters' inner world but also what's happening in the outer world. That helps us put ourselves in their shoes. We see their surroundings and feel the tension in the same way the characters live it. 

"Heroic" is all about the difficult economic position Luis is in and what he must endure to support his family. His options are limited, and, as you show, even more so once he joins the academy. Can you talk about this theme, which is pervasive among the underprivileged and Indigenous in Mexico?

Most folks talk about the violence and brutality of the film inside the military and academy, but that is only one part of the story. I wanted to understand in a deeper, humanistic way what is going on. We all see in Mexico the military presence in the streets and in charge of the security of the Mexicans and fighting the cartels. The military is not fighting an outside enemy, like in Afghanistan; they are fighting civilians, who look like them, and may even speak the same language as them. It is a civil war. So, in the news, we see shooting and killings and the military doing terrible things in hand with the government sometimes. 

I wanted to understand the roots of all this by asking who these guys are, and how they get to become what they are — the ruthless people in the news who are murdering and disappearing people and fighting the cartels. Why did they want to enroll? My theory is that no one wants to hold and shoot a gun against someone who is shooting him back if it is not his only option. I believe 90% of those guys would rather have a regular job, with enough income and not have to carry weapons and shoot someone; that most people would prefer a more peaceful way of living where they can support their family and healthcare is not a necessity. I believe it is part of the story of Luis, that his motivations are that he has a sick mother, so health care is important to him. Mario [another cadet] has a daughter and he needs to support his family. I believe these guys would rather work at Microsoft if that was available, but they probably grew up in a marginalized environment where education is not available. The military is also the only way they can get an education or career; they cannot enter a public college. The private colleges are not a possibility. This is not the film's main subject, but the film needed to shed light on this matter and why this exists. How did we get here? That has to do with social, political, and economic matters. 

What decisions did you make about what to depict and how much to present in the training scenes, which involve drills, classes, dining, sleeping,and more? We get a very real sense of the numbing routine.

When I was writing the script, I knew I had a responsibility of talking about a very secret institution. The military is not very transparent, and it is difficult to access, and get information, or talk to people still inside. I tried to be as responsible about informing myself about details — the way they move and behave inside, and the brutal aspect of it. I did interviews and had meetings with academy or army dropouts. The actors also helped make it realistic because most of the actors — the main characters and his friends — are ex-cadets. They helped me make this world and their structure as real as possible. It's an important part of the military world and the discipline it implies. When you get to the real objective, which is converting these people in ways that they will obey orders at any cost because they have been trained for many years to move and respond a certain way and not ask questions; just following rules and orders, and that's crucial to take out the identity and individuality of a person and homogenize it. The institution will try to convert this in a mass group of people that will follow any order. I tried to portray it as realistically as I could.  

You present many scenes of physical and psychological abuse. Luis is frequently being bullied to do something he does not want to. How did you determine what situations to feature because things escalate until they reached the breaking point?

Let's not forget the reason these guys are there. One of their goals they have is to be able to kill. When you enter the military world, you are a regular guy. If someone put a gun in your hand and tells you to shoot a guy you won't do it, but the goal at the end is that you do it because someone is ordering it. So that process that happens between when you enter and finish is dehumanizing. The goal is to make people able and capable of killing. 

We have to question the institutions that surround us in any country, but the military has that weight in our society. What they have to endure is part of it, and these [abusive episodes] are not inventions of mine. They are from the people in the academy who told me how it was, and sometimes it's even worse. It's not close to what they have to endure in reality inside the military system. The events are inspired by what was shared with me while I was writing to while I was shooting with the ex-cadets, who recounted their experiences.

I kept thinking as I watched, how would I behave? 

One could say, "I would drop out, or rebel, or not obey," but if your mother is sick, and you need healthcare, or you have a daughter and need to ensure you have a job for the rest of your life. If you have those kinds of necessities, most people would obey and follow orders. If we were in their shoes, we would do the same thing. It is done out of necessity. They don't have an option to think for themselves. If they don't follow orders, they would be expelled and not have job, or healthcare for their family. They would have nothing. It's not an option. It's not about being different, or thinking for yourself, or rebelling. It's about necessity, and if you have necessity, you will do whatever to survive, and that's what these people are doing. 

I'm curious to get your thoughts on the issues of masculinity in "Heroic." This is an all-male environment and there are interesting codes of conduct both written and unwritten. I found Sierra's touching Luis was poignant, homoerotic and creepy. Can you discuss? 

I am sure there will be questions about homoeroticism in the film or homosexuality and abuse, but I think it exists because of causality. It is because they are all men. If it was men and women, it would be harassment or abuse from a man towards a woman. It wasn't specific about sexuality or a homosexual thing, or something to explore, I was trying to portray sex as a means of power, which is what Sierra is doing. Every power structure and having sexual control over someone – it can happen in these kinds of environments. It can also happen in a corporate environment between sexes. It is about having control and power over others.

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Speaking of power, control, and vulnerability, your film is certainly a metaphor for Mexican society where citizens are powerless against outside forces. Can you talk about the political dimension of your film and your critique on authority?

Political structures in Mexico and around the world for me don't make sense anymore. 500 years ago, people wondered how politicians had people under their control. But if you change the president or the party in power, it's all the same. They sell it that things are changing, but it doesn't take a lot of intelligence to see it is the same — and it will remain the same until something happens. 

Politicians use the military to enforce control directly or indirectly, almost unconsciously. The military is in charge of Mexican security and what they think they can do against the government. It's a double-edged sword that the military is used to ensure the safety but at the same times, they have psychological control over the people. In the end, politicians only want to remain in power. They are not producers. They are administrators of the people's money, and they want to ensure the system endures because that is their way of life. Why would a politician want change if their livelihood depends on it? It's a paradox.

"Heroic" premieres at the Sundance Film Festival in person on Jan. 20, with encore screenings Jan. 21, 23, 26, and 27. The film will also be available for viewing online Jan. 24-30. For tickets and more information, visit the Sundance site.

By Gary M. Kramer

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

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