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Interview: Aaref Rodriguez, director of “Avenues”

An Intimate Subversion

For Aaref Rodriguez, telling a story from Highland Park in East Los Angeles was both a labor of love and a tightrope walk between stereotypes about movies set in East Los Angeles gang territory and the deeper story he wanted to tell.

“What I wanted to tell was the story about the larger picture of a Chicano, a human being devolving," Rodriguez said. “I wanted to subvert the stereotype — to have the audience be touched and be shocked at being touched by these issues.”

“Avenues,” Rodriguez’ first feature from his company, Bad Man’s Son, tells the story of Saul Sanchez, a Chicano gangbanger getting out of prison after serving 10 years for homicide. Saul, who is illiterate, desperately wants to contact his little girl, now someone else’s adopted daughter. For Saul, walking into the world a free but marked man is just the beginning of a journey whose end will shock and touch viewers.

"Avenues" is one of the official selections of this year's San Diego Latino Film Festival.

According to Rodriguez, parts of the story are based on real events in the lives of two of his actors, both from tough neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

Credit: COURTESY STILL

Aaref Rodriguez answering questions about his new film, "Avenues," screening March 22, 2014 as an official selection at the San Diego Latino Film Festival.

For Rodriguez, the goal of his film was not to create an indictment of LA Chicano gang life, but to create a call to action. Rodriguez, who lives in the same neighborhood the film was shot in, said the film is “about fatherhood and the decisions we make. We have to start owning a lot of things (in order to fix them)…starting at home.”

According to Rodriguez, an articulate, teddy bear-like man in his mid-30s, “Avenues” took months to shoot and a year to edit. Like many independents, it was shot on a shoestring by a small crew. Because this was prior to Kickstarter and other crowd sourcing, Rodriguez funded it through work (as a full-time public school teacher), donations in kind and money donated by those interested in the project.

The production was mostly a family affair with wife Kristin Cox Rodriguez producing and his brother-in-law doing sound. Because most of the crew had "real" jobs, shooting was done on the weekends as money and equipment permitted.

“People look at the credits and they’re surprised to see our names come up so many times,” Rodriguez laughed.

“We were helped a lot by the rule of three — you can shoot in LA with a three-person crew without permits” and the use of SLR digital cameras — innovative for the time — with professional lenses.

Much of the lighting was natural and bounced lighting so the crew could move easily and quickly between locations.

Rodriguez originally shot a shorter version of the film called “Pardon” while at USC Film School, to which he received a full scholarship (“I couldn’t have gone otherwise.”). “Pardon” won a number of awards and Rodriguez decided to see if he could expand it.

Interestingly enough, the lead in “Pardon,” Rene Arreola, on whose story both films are largely based, in "Avenues" was cast as the antagonist, “Nacho,” a gang leader who tries to get Saul to rejoin to the “Avenidas familia.”

In the feature, the role of Saul Sanchez is played by Hector Atreyu Ruiz, familiar, as Rodriguez points out “from just about every CSI, Law and Order show.” Rodriguez was lucky enough to go to university with Atreyu Ruiz who brings a raw, barely controlled energy to the role of Saul, grappling to overcome gang life and illiteracy.

Saul’s younger neighbor Leo who is about to head down the same path as the younger Saul, is played by the young extraordinary first time actor, Israel Montano, whose own life inspired some of the other events in the film.

“I auditioned a bunch of kids but ended up casting him,” Rodriguez said, who found Montano in his own classroom.

Much of the film includes long vistas of Highland Park, but also drops in on Sacramento, Folsom Prison and Merced.

Rodriguez, who wanted to give the film a sense of place, carefully followed the journey Saul would take from Folsom back to LA.

The Folsom Prison shots were fun, said Rodriguez, basically the same shot one sees in the film on Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, “because that’s where they let you shoot- right on that spot,” said Rodriguez.

According to Rodriguez, a lot of thought went into the look and sound of the film in order to avoid the usually Chicano gang clichés.’”

"Don’t get me wrong,” Rodriguez said. “ love the Cholo gangster but that has kind of been overdone. I wanted to tell a cyclical story, something cinematic, but not manipulative.”

As a result, Rodriguez’ shots are carefully composed, with beautiful shadows, and a color depth that eschews the stereotypical low color saturation and graininess that tends to be cinematic shorthand for the mean streets of hard-scrabble urban neighborhoods.

Rodriguez was also highly selective in his choice of music for the same reason. “Hip Hop and techno often mean urban story,” said Rodriguez during a question and answer session after one screening.

However, Rodriguez’ soundtrack is devoid of an urban-sounding music, instead opting for score that is almost Philip Glass-like in its simplicity and sparseness.

“I wanted something universal,” Rodriguez explained, “so I even took out some pop in the background during post.”

For Rodriguez, the reality of the neighborhood and the message of choices is what he hopes his film conveys.

‘I want to tell the story of people being marginalized, of two people struggling with the reality I see all around me. I was lucky to be raised by a stepfather, but not every kid has this. Single mothers have it hard.” And the life he sees some of his students heading towards is the life Saul and young Leo have to work through in “Avenues.”

Rodriguez has yet to screen the film for Highland Park, but is hoping to screen in summer for the neighborhood, bringing the film full circle- back to the neighborhood from which his stories come.

“Avenues” screens again on March 22 at 5:30 pm at the Hazard Center, Rodriguez, the crew and the cast will be on hand for a question and answer session after the screening.

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