Multi-award-winning Mexican film director Michel Franco tackles inequality and abuse of power in his storytelling. His most controversial film to date, New Order (Nuevo Orden in Spanish), narrates a dystopian fictional story that hits Mexico City, where the seemingly endless situation of inequality in a growingly biased society explodes.
Not even the Covid-19 pandemic has stopped the 400,000 people who have watched the film across Mexican theatres during these first weeks. Premiering in Europe at La Biennale Di Venezia a few weeks ago, the film won the Grand Jury Prize and has recently won the Impact Award at the Stockholm International Film Festival, meaning a 1,000,000 SEK (over $100,000) cash prize, as well as the award itself, designed by Ai Weiwei.

New Order is Michel Franco’s sixth feature film. Since he released After Lucia (Después de Lucía), all of his movies have been awarded at Cannes Film Festival, including the prize Un Certain Regard in 2012. His work speaks about inequality and abuse of power, but until today, it’s always been with an intimate tone. Now he wanted to make a film that analyses conflict on a bigger scale. In addition, the dystopian approach and the dissatisfied society portrayed in the film resonate with the current events, which takes the debate further than Mexico. We caught up in a Zoom call with Michel the night before he received the Impact Award to discuss injustice, film festivals and fuelling controversy to ignite public debate.
You have won several awards at the Cannes Film Festival for each of your films. How important is that recognition for a film director, or how did it help in your case?
It’s very important because it’s a way to call attention to the film. Whether it’s Cannes or Venice – or any other festival –, awards are crucial to highlight a movie. When you’re making a film that isn’t highly commercial or your main purpose is not to sell tickets, when it is more of a cinematic exploration, awards are very important – also, because they come from people I respect and admire. For example, when I received the award for After Lucia, it was Tim Roth who handed it to me, and then we worked together. So prizes are necessary too to open up those relationships.
You just released New Order, which premiered at the Biennale di Venezia a few weeks ago. How did that go?
That was fantastic, we got the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize! Everybody was talking about the movie at the festival. Ever since I started writing it, I always said it had to be a boom; it had to have an explosive effect and stay in the audience’s minds. It should be discussed. I was very happy to see that all that happened in Venice. Journalists from every country appreciated the movie. It was important to see that the film is not only relevant for Mexico but also for every country that can relate to New Order because of its economical and political situation.
I would love to get into it, but before that, I’m just curious to know how did the Cannes Film Festival play out this year. Did you attend the small event at Croisette a few weeks ago?
No, I was actually in Mexico because of the movie’s release. Even though the current situation is complicated, it still came out in cinemas. We were working on that.
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Going back to how people reacted to your new movie, I’ve read that it has not received the same response in Mexico than abroad. Some Mexican critics have claimed that the film is racist, classist, and all these stereotypes about poverty which, according to them, no longer exist in Mexican society. What is your take on it?
I was expecting that to happen because the movie hits home in a different way. I made New Order because of how divided society in Mexico is, how polarized it is, and I think we needed to talk about this to make things better. A movie that talks about this issue – which many people want to pretend isn’t happening – triggers the conversation, of course.
I said it earlier, this is a boom; when you drop the bomb, this has to happen. About 400,000 people have watched it in cinemas in its first weeks in Mexico. It is successful box-office-wise even with the pandemic. It’s been discussed not just by the general audience but also by journalists, scholars, etc. People are passionate about it, and that is flattering in many ways. I would say it has been a good response.
Would you say the general audience gave the film a good response in Mexico?
I would say yes. Not only because of the number of tickets sold – almost half a million people have watched it – but also from what I have heard from people around me, as I am not on social media. I’m not interested in participating there, but people tell me what is happening.
Some people will say they don’t like the movie or that they’re uncomfortable about it, and they’ll write a long thread on Twitter explaining why. Of course, this triggers a conversation. Even if some people are uncomfortable with it, I think that that is the point precisely. I just want this issue to be discussed in a clever way. Of course, it’s not always clever to do it on social media (laughs).
All your previous feature films have been well received internationally. For instance, I haven't seen your work with Tim Roth in Chronic yet, but I’ve read inequality and abuse of power are constant themes in your filmography. Do you think New Order generates greater controversy than any of your previous films?
What happens with April’s Daughter or Chronic – or well, any movie of mine – is that there could be a sort of discussion or controversy even though they are intimate. I think New Order is also intimate, but I intended to make a film that analyses conflict on a bigger scale, which is more ambitious. I had to make five films first to be able to make this one. That’s why it’s more controversial – it is talking on a bigger scale.
Naian Gonzalez Norvind’s character plays the role of the rich helping the poor against her own benefit. Just briefly, please tell me a little bit about both the character and the actress.
As a matter of fact, the actress and the character are quite similar; I wrote it specifically for her. There is a lot of Naian in that character. I have known her since she was 14 because she’s the sister of the actress in After Lucia. She’s that kind of positive person wanting to help and make things differently, and that might get her disappointed. She’s not as naive as the character but she’s as kind as her. There is a lot of heroine in the character.
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Do you think she plays that turning point in the story where people realise that not everything is black or white but a yin and yang sort of thing?
She’s a reminder within her family that things are not right. But does she fully understand their situation? She is willing to leave her own wedding for a little while to make a very good deal, but is she really willing to sacrifice more than that? I don’t think she understands what that means… To me, that’s also interesting. She’s very naive.
Nevertheless, the film winds her up in a situation that looks more political than socially critical. Could you please elaborate on that point?
The second part of the movie talks about the military. When I made the film, I didn’t want to talk about left or right wings or any kind of political ideas as it would’ve been much smaller than it is and people from different places wouldn’t relate to it. I would be giving a narrow point of view.
What I do want to talk about is who can think and defend militarizing. Is that a good idea? Have we learned anything from the past? Look at all the dictatorships in South America in the last few decades. Even now with the pandemic, some governments are taking advantage of the situation to fully control the population. Will they give away that control once the pandemic is over? I don’t know whether they will tell the truth. What I want to say is very clear, and that’s why my main character is put in their hands. It’s so devastating.
I’m curious about some scenes, like the ravage of the Louis Vuitton flagship store at Presidente Masaryk Avenue. Is that CGI of actual footage?
We shot all those scenes during Easter, so the city was pretty much empty, but naturally, we had to close the streets. We had to place fake corpses and other elements there. Still, of course, we didn’t destroy Louis Vuitton (laughs). Basically, everything we were able to do physically we did, and the rest is post-production. For example, we shot the burning cars ourselves but placed them in post-production.
Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro Iñarritu; I believe all these figures have helped to establish Mexican filmmaking. How do you see the current filmmaking scene in the country?
I think Mexican cinema is very powerful, one of the strongest in the world. I identify myself a lot more with the likes of Amat Escalante – he's my favourite Mexican film director. Then, of course, there is Lorenzo Vigas, my business partner; we produce films together. He won a Golden Lion with his first movie and has a new film coming out next year. I think the difference between the three big names and ourselves is that we are still living and shooting in Mexico. That’s a big difference.
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Do you see yourself taking similar a path and working in the future, like you already did with Tim Roth, with some other Hollywood stars or working with the studios there?
I could shoot and work anywhere if I knew what I was doing and if it made sense, but I will always keep control of my movies – I will never give that away.
I’ve read that you are very fond of filming long takes without making any cuts, but for this film, there was not really a creative reasoning for that. If you could please let me know a bit more about this.
In the beginning, when I made the film, I said that it was not as important. When you have so many main characters, I figured the story needed to have a strong rhythm and the camera should be almost invisible following these characters. Funnily enough, in the end, there are many long takes.
For example, when the intruders jump into the wedding, I always thought that the scene was going to be split into different takes. Also for technical reasons, we ended up with a single shot. I think that adds to the realism. The main thing is that I didn’t want to impose whether I wanted to shoot one way or the other. The camera has to be at the service of the characters and not the other way around.
Speaking of the rhythm, I think you were involved in the editing of the film too. Is that a common thing for film directors? How does it work for you?
When I shot After Lucia, I did it with a tiny budget. I didn’t have money to hire a cinema editor, so I got help from a guy who used to make social media videos – weddings and things like that –, and we worked together because I had no money. I kept editing my movies. In New Order, I did it with the editor of Daniel and Ana, my first movie. I think from now and on, I will get my hands off the editing and let other people work (laughs).
Your dystopian approach resonates with the events during this year – riots in France, demonstrations in Chile, the pandemic worldwide and the chaotic situation in the United States, etc. Like we say in Spanish, ‘llueve sobre mojado,’ which would translate as something like ‘it never rains but it pours.’ How do you think the pandemic has affected places such as Mexico City on top of what you explain in the movie?
When you have a country with sixty million poor people that is so polarized with very few warranties, especially for more than half of the country, there is no room for it. Everything is very thin and fragile. In many countries, people are locked down and they receive some economic aid, some help. In Mexico, there is nothing. Everyone is for themselves. I think that’s a terrible thing. Most people in Mexico are living their lives on a daily basis, so I’m worried about the outcome in the next weeks and months because people are hitting rock bottom. We need to have more empathy; that’s the only way.
To end on a positive note, how do you think the film industry will help create a better society?
I think films, especially when they go to film festivals and win awards and are distributed internationally, will generate a lot of discussion. They can help to raise attention. After Lucia helped to talk about bullying. Did the film fix the problem? No, but it’s a must-watch movie! Will New Order really change things? Definitely not. It’s just a movie, but it’s really good that it's opening conversations and raising attention.
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