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Transcript by Victor Rodriguez

I left Mexico because the domestic cinema industry had left. Now it's back

By Salma Hayek

In 1990, I left Mexico and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career acting in American films. My friends and family couldn't fathom my decision. I was well known in Mexico, having starred in a popular soap opera. At the time I left, I spoke very little English, had no job waiting for me and no idea how I was going to get one. All I knew was that I wanted to work in films, and in 1990 my chances were a lot better in Hollywood than in Mexico, because there was no film industry in Mexico.

It hadn't always been that way. During the golden age of Mexican film, the 1930's, as many as 100 features were produced anually. Even as late as the 1950's, Mexican film stars like Pedro Armendáriz were known throughout the world. So what happened?

The decline of this once prosperous industry was attributable to a number of factors. Hollywood's distribution business moved into Latin America like steamroller after World War II. This had an obvious impact. Less well known is the effect of the Mexican goverment's decision to include movie tickets in what was called the basic basket (canasta básica), a program to protect the buying power of low-income citizens. The law, which set price ceilings on the products in the basket, discouraged major new investments in the industry. Producers resorted to low-budget "quickies" to make money, and owners neglected their theaters. The middle-class audience stopped coming, and the industry started to slide.

A few quality efforts kept the flame alive. But even successful works such as Like Water for Chocolate and Midaq Alley (my first film in Mexico), which garnered impressive international box office and a host of awards, were compromised at home by a second-rate distribution network. It remained nearly impossible for homegrown films to compete with Hollywood productions; as late as 1998, a mere nine feature films were produced in Mexico. Many Mexico's most promising directors - Alfonso Cuarón, Luis Mandoki, Alfonso Arau and Guillermo del Toro- faced with limited opportunities, followed work to the U.S. Others such as Arturo Ripstein, Jaime Humberto Hermosillo and Jorge Fons, struggled to keep making films at home.

Recently, though, a combination of shifts in the industry and unforseen creative successes has coalesced into what feels like a moment of tantalizing possibility -as though the collective body of Mexican cinema has managed after years of asphyxiation to carve itself some room, draw a deep breath and start moving its limbs again.

This spring I was back in Mexico filming a movie about Frida Kahlo. The talk of town was Amores Perros, directed by Alejandro González Iñarritu, a savage film that confronted audiences with images of urban violence and domestic tragedy in Mexico City. It became the biggest domestic earner of 2000, placed fifth in overall box office among a host of Hollywood blockbusters and became Mexico's first film nominated for an Oscar in 24 years.

Amores Perros came close on heels of Antonio Serrano's Sexo, Pudir y Lágrimas (Sex, Shame and Tears), which the previous year had become Mexico's all-time box-office leader and outperformed Star Wars: Episode 1 -The Phantom Menace, despite a budget of only $1 million. Both films highlighted a new response to Hollywood's mass-marketed, effects-driven fare: human stories with gritty realism. And the approach seems to be paying off. This year the movie-trade publication Variety reported that in July, three Mexican films were in the Top 10 of Mexico's box office, a success rate unimaginable as few as three years ago.

This creative success has been facilitated by changes in the bottom line. In 1992 ticket prices were freed, and a new theater chains emerged. Mexico's resurgent film industry has even caught the eye of Hollywood. Last year my company, Ventanarosa, persuaded American production studios to enter into Mexican co-productions for two projects, a welcome change after years of disinterest.

Some people are cautioning against too exuberant a celebration. "Let's not forget that the competition between Mexican and American films is still very unfair", says Cuarón. "The marketing budget of a single American movie can be bigger than the procuction cost of all Mexican films in a year."

A new Mexican film-industry protection act seems to take aim at exactly this problem. The act established a $13.5 million fund to assist in the financing of films, and Sari Bermudez, president of the government's council for the arts and culture, expects that by the end of President Fox's term, annual film production will have grown to 50 features a year. The law also mandates that at least 10% of the country's screens must be reserved for Mexican films (local films already accounted for 14% of all exhibited films last year).

There is no doubt in my mind that, a decade after I left, a new dawn seems finally on the horizon for Mexico's cinema. For those of us who have been waiting, working and hoping for most of our adult lives, it's an exciting day indeed.

© Time Magazine Special Issue October 15, 2001