Listening to the Present Past: Interview with Rodrigo Reyes, Director of 499

In 1519, Cortes stepped foot onto the shores of Mexico — and changed its course forever. Five centuries later, 499, a documentary fiction hybrid, takes a closer look at the pain that path still holds.

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Director Rodrigo Reyes breaks through the other side with a poignant and haunting film about the lasting effects of colonialism. We follow a conquistador in modern day Mexico as he meets and interviews real life people impacted by its viciousness. Our conquistador follows Cortes’s path through the country — not so much a ghost, but a stark reminder of the oozing wound still there. 

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Told in a hybrid mix between documentary and fiction, Reyes wanted to tell a story outside of the molds of a traditional format. “As I started looking at what people were actually living through today, the victims of violence today, they started looking at their (own) experience. I realized it made a lot of sense to have a conquistador in the film, because they’re already living with him. For Indigenous communities, the Conquista is still there, right? The act of being erased, and the act of their language being destroyed is still there.” says Reyes. The conquistador character is not as fictional as we hope him to be, he explains, instead he is a representation of power — of a link in the chain. In the mix of reality and fiction, something intimately true emerged: the struggle and catharsis of being heard.

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Writing the script to 499 was like creating a map. Reyes and co-screenwriter, Lorena Padilla, worked on creating emotional tracks for the conquistador. Following the path of Cortes gave them an idea of setting and stories, but the challenge was figuring the ways both would click together. “We were really attentive to try to build a bond with people and spending time with them and listening to their input as well.” Reyes says. This collaboration was of utmost importance to the film team. In Chapter Three of the film, we are taken into the Sierra Madre and meet Sixto, an Indigenous poet. “He talks in poetry, because that’s what Sixto himself asked me, “Can I just speak in poetry. Our struggle is our language, I don’t have much to say beyond that.” We would then build the film around those requests.”

In another scene, we are at the Mexican border inside of a migrant shelter. Everyone on screen stays anonymous with enough details in their stories changed to stay unidentifiable. “The film itself had to listen to what people were going through, almost like the conquistador. But from our end, it was from a place of love. Whereas the character doesn’t want to listen, he doesn’t want to learn anything. He wishes he could just tell everyone to shut up. Which is very much what happens, right?” explains Reyes, “There’s always this tension between listening and silence. So we found that to be our guide.”

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Part of that listening meant respecting the immensity of the stories being told, “In the US, we’re so used to seeing uplifting documentaries. How do you approach someone with an uplifting message, when they’re looking for their son who’s been disappeared? How do you do that to a journalist who was murdered, and who has seen other friends murdered?” Even today, three years after shooting the film, many of these stories are still open, without resolution. “I told everyone, listen, I’m not here to solve this, I’m here to give it a different exposure and to really honor your experience” Reyes says. 

499 invites the viewer to not only peel back the layers of time, but understand why they are there in the first place.  “Having the conquistador in the film helps you like see time in a different way, he’s five centuries old. And then the violence that these people are going through is also very old, and it’s getting older, right? So we would build the film around that.” The parallels float from scene to scene, from the way people praise Jesus to reflecting how a hitman and the conquistador are incredibly similar. 

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499 is tied together with epic, almost melancholic cinematography. It’s filled with stunning sunsets, staggering shots of nature, while being paired with extremely harrowing stories.  “I think that beauty is really important because even though their stories are painful, I believe they should be seen in the most beautiful light because they deserve to be honored. They are human beings who are going through the very worst I think of our modern world. It’s like, the least I can do is to craft your story with beauty. Right? Because you deserve that.”

Rodrigo’s Favorite Scene in 499:

“You know, I really am in love with so many different things in the film, and it really depends on on the day. I was talking to someone in Mexico City, about the scene where the conquistador goes into a middle school, and he interrupts this military parade, which actually happens every Monday in schools in Mexico. He lays claim to the land, you know, and like, how hard we for hours really, with the kids to get the scene right. At the same time, he kind of interrupts something that is part of this whole thing of nationalistic pride and national identity. He’s only basically doing his own thing, his own version of that. He’s also trying to create a national identity. I think it’s really interesting to me that we do that to kids. That we make them feel this pride, this military pride and in our nations, we don’t teach them to be more critical. So I love that scene, because he kind of interrupts a ritual that that is very much alive. I remember being in that band and marching with the flag. It’s a scene that to me, is, really funny, but also poignant, it’s great to be patriotic, but I think we need to start thinking beyond that, right? And then to start fighting our connections with each other and with the people who are harmed by these kinds of systems and these identities.”

Learn where 499 plays next here.

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