La Mission is the story of Che Rivera, a MUNI bus driver, former inmate and recovering alcoholic, who builds low rider cars. Che loves his son, Jes, an academic achiever he has raised on his own. Then he finds out Jes is gay, and love turns into disgust. He beats his son up and throws him out of the house.
The movie, filmed in the Mission in less than a month, was written and directed by Peter Bratt and stars his brother Benjamin Bratt as Che. The brothers grew up in the neighborhood and have always wanted to make a film about the Mission, which they say had a big influence on them.
The Bratts’ mother was an indigenous Peruvian who was involved in Native American activism. For Peter Bratt, movie making is about social justice, and in La Mission he wanted to explore the presence and acceptance of violence in our daily lives.
Mission Loc@l: You shot this film in San Francisco in 26 days. Did you super storyboard it out or do you improvise?
Peter Bratt: I super storyboard every page, and of course when I tried to show my storyboards to my DP, who’s a 70 year-old accomplished man of many, many films, he said, ‘Oh, no no I don’t need to see your story boards,’ and of course sometimes we got into situations on the set, running out of time on a location, and he would say, ‘Can I take a look at those storyboards?’ So they would get us out of jams, but then even when you plan things out on a low budget film, you lose hours, so we’d shoot one scene that was scheduled for a day and the day’s running out, and the story boards go out the window.
ML: What was it like for you working in the Mission having grown up there? What kind of changes did you see in the neighborhood?
PB: Benjamin and I being local boys from San Francisco and having always been inspired by the Mission and what takes place in the Mission and the people in the Mission, have always dreamed about setting a story there and making a film there. So when the opportunity came along, not only were we overjoyed, but we enrolled as many friends and relatives as we could in the process in front of and behind the camera
Benjamin Bratt: We saw it as a necessary first step to reach out to many of the community leaders and tell them of our intentions, not necessarily to ask their permission, but to let them know our intentions were honorable that ours was a goal to tell an honest story – one of many that exist in the neighborhood – about the people and the neighborhood we love. At the same time we wanted to encourage the community’s participation. We got people involved behind the camera and, most proudly, we have a number of actors who were not actors when they were hired to actually play roles within the film. What that created as an end result was a real point of pride for the community which was our ultimate intention.
My brother likes to set the example of Showtime at the Apollo when you’re a bad act you get booed off the stage, we can’t afford to be booed out of the neighborhood because it’s a place we love and still consider ourselves very much a part of. So at the end of the day, we’re proud we captured the essence of the place, the flavor, the spirit the cultural pride, the vibrancy the passion for life that exists even in the face of the everyday adversity.
ML: You say you’re interested in transformation and how people change. Why did you use homophobia in the story as a way for that change to occur?
PB: As the writer, I was really inspired by the idea of exploring how, not just as a Latino culture, but I would put this to the dominant culture as well, how we view and define power, and how that specifically relates to masculinity. So for me I was drawn to what will it take to change, to change this idea of power that we do have. Certainly on the heels of Obama’s election, who was elected on the platform of change we can believe in, what does that mean when you take that down to the individual level. What intrigued me was how does a character like Che change an attitude or a behavior that he’s cultivated over his entire life. What I find is that process is really, really difficult and often times emotionally if not physically very painful. So to me, there was great drama in that, and the fact that Benjamin’s character found out his son is gay, you know he could have found out a number of things, but that kind of thwarted his idea of who he was as a male, particularly a Latino male in a neighborhood where he has kind of earned his stripes by being this tough badass. Really that catalyst sends him on his introspective journey that we see is sometimes painful, but always interesting.
BB: It’s always been a bit of a paradox growing up in a city that is arguably seen as one of the most liberal, progressive and open cities in the country and yet being very aware of the homophobia that existed especially as a child of the 60s and 70s. It’s not unironic that we choose that issue as the catalyst to set Che on his introspective journey. It’s interesting to point out that the Mission district on its border abuts the Castro, which is the gay Mecca of the world, in some senses. As filmmakers, part of what we’re examining is the fact that there are really no bridges between these two neighborhoods even though they’re neighbors.
BB: Oftentimes, the general idea is that being Latino and being gay, they’re mutually exclusive ways of identifying oneself as though there are no gay Latinos. On some level that speaks to the taboo nature of the issue itself, in that within Latino communities and certainly in African American communities and other minority communities it is still very much an untouchable or unspeakable issue that doesn’t even come up in general conversation, so ours was an intention of actually bringing the issue up as a form of discussion among a lot of other issues that need to be discussed within our communities.
PB: What’s interesting when we first put the story out there that we were going to make this film we got reactions not just within the Hollywood community even from gay white executives, but even in the progressive community like oh, yawn boring, we’ve dealt with this subject. The underlying assumption there is because the dominant culture, the white culture, has to some degree explored homophobia in films like Brokeback Mountain and TV shows like “Will and Grace” and many others, that therefore other communities, other cultures, have also dealt with it. And so it kind of speaks to how the white experience is perceived as universal, and I think a lot of progressives and people on the political expression thought similarly. But when Proposition 8 in California came to the fore, Latinos and African Americans turned up in record numbers to support the proposition banning gay marriage, and I think that sent shock waves throughout the progressive community, and I think really brought to the fore homophobia is still a huge taboo subject within the community. As filmmakers and dramatists we thought what a rich terrain to explore. (Editors note: The Mission District voted against Proposition 8.)
ML: You mentioned multiple identities. How were you trying to bring that out in the film?
BB: My experience is that certainly within Hollywood but I would also argue in the greater American culture, the Latino community is seen as a monolithic entity, which has always struck me as odd because Cubans are as different from Mexicans or from Puerto Ricans or Peruvians as an East Indian American is from someone born and raised in Kentucky.
When you label someone as American it’s understood and readily accepted that you can be anything under the sun, and yet when you refer to someone as a Latino, a very specific image comes to mind and it’s often associated with a stereotype.
PB: There are blond blue-eyed Latinos, there are full blooded Indio Latinos like Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia. There are Latinos who look puro Africano in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. In our homeland, Peru, where our mother is from, there is a huge Japanese Latino population. So it’s interesting to open up that conversation and realize there are so many different complexities not just of race, but of sexual preference, and class. When we talk about the dominant culture, you can have films that span different genres and niches, but when it comes to Latino film making, there seems to be this idea that there should be one kind of Latino film, and if you have gay content in a film that is an urban drama, well, what is this film, is it urban, or is it gay or is it art house? It can be all the above.
BB: It was by choice for Peter to create a character who was in a very obvious way proud of his cultural heritage, and in particular of his indigenous background. Within the label of Chicano is a political consciousness an understanding by calling yourself that you’re a mix of a lot of different cultural influences. You’re embracing the Spanish heritage on some level, but more importantly you’re acknowledging the Indian heritage in your bloodstream. That’s something that’s alive and well and thriving, thank God, in the Mission district today. It’s depicted in the murals, it’s in the literature, the art, the Aztec dance groups. It’s one thing I hope will continue to thrive in the Mission because there are a lot of external pressures that are changing the face of the neighborhood.
A lot of these interactions are harmonious but of course a friction is going on when you displace people who call this home. We’re talking about class issues, of course, and we’re talking about race issues as well. None of them are easy or easily solvable, but they are issues that we choose to focus on and bring up as a point of discussion in the movie.
ML: How did you create the character of Che? It was based on someone you knew, right?
PB: Benjamin and I always dreamed of telling a story in the Mission and we felt someone like Che was the perfect vehicle as a low rider who could take the audience on this journey and give them an experience they perhaps have never had before. What makes him so interesting is he’s a flawed character, but like the real life guy, who is a MUNI bus driver, who is covered with tattoos, who started one of the first low rider clubs, who has a past and who has some of the alpha male qualities that Benjamin’s characters portrays. As flawed as he is, he loves his people, he loves his cultura, he loves La Mission, the neighborhood. We felt he was the perfect vehicle and metaphor to take the audience and give them this experience, so we used him as a template for Benjamin’s character.
ML: What are you proudest of about the movie?
BB: We intended it as a love letter to the Mission, and what we’re most proud of is the folks we made it for have embraced it as their own, and rightfully so. This is their story; this is their neighborhood and on some level, their experience—the celebration of the vibrancy of life, the passion for living. That in the face of adversity, there’s always time to celebrate each other and have a laugh, put on music and to dance, that spirit is very much alive and keeps the Mission strong and going.
La Mission opens in San Francisco on Friday, April 16. It will open in Santa Cruz and Sacramento on April 23. There is no international release date yet.