The 56th Chicago International Film Festival is excited to welcome director Ignacio Márquez to our fair city for the premiere of his film The Special. In this thoughtful and uplifting debut, the profoundly charming Chuo is having to navigate the challenges of early adulthood with Down Syndrome. He feels a growing need for independence from his father José, who struggles to provide and care for his son as he grapples with demons past and the disappointments of dreams deferred. When Chuo lands a job at a small graphic design studio, he begins to find community and discover purpose and a sense of self. Long parted by an ocean of silence and shame, father and son must navigate how to fulfill the promise of Chuo’s dreams and build a common future. Below, Márquez explains why he’s eager for Chicago audiences to experience his masterwork.
You’ve been working with people with Down Syndrome for over 15 years. What drew you to this community? What motivated you to work with them?
I feel a deep connection with people with Down syndrome because of their naive and frank way of understanding the world and of behaving in it. They are absolutely transparent as they express what they feel without any type of filter. I sit with them, conduct myself and express myself with such fullness that I feel that I am touching joy in its most honest expression. It is a tremendously luminous back and forth relationship because the connection between them and me is totally reciprocal. They have taught me frankness in its purest form and have given my life a touch of light that I was not aware of and that I do not want to lose.
Tell us about the casting process. What made Rúper Vásquez and Greyber Rengifo so ideal to play father and son?
In Greyber’s case, I had the opportunity to teach a film workshop for people with Down syndrome while writing the script, and I was struck by his improvisational and playful skills. People with Down syndrome have a natural predisposition for playing that is the essence of acting; it is not a coincidence that in English the verb “play” is also used to describe acting. Well, in Greyber’s case, that gift, that natural predisposition to play, is manifested in capital letters. He achieves a truthfulness in his actions from playing that makes him live each fictional situation to the full. This is impressive because his life has nothing to do with that of Chuo, his character. This enhances his performance because it is full, at all times, with dedication and a singular conviction.
In Ruper’s case, I was torn between choosing an actor and training him as a percussionist or working with a percussionist and training him as an actor. As the script evolved, percussion began to play a more prominent role, so I decided to work with a musician. I leaned towards Ruper because he is a very particular musician, not only as a percussionist but as a singer. He has a very subtle and meticulous relationship with his art; it contains a very particular human dimension, It is heartfelt, honest but not simple, which gave the character the sensitivity he deserved. I have known Ruper for a long time and I approached him with the project, without casting and without yet having full confirmation of the resources we would have for the production and his answer was: “let’s try it together and if along the way you feel that I am not the one for the role, you tell me with total honesty, we shake hands and you continue with your search…”. That is Ruper and this is how he began to humanize “El Chivo’’.
How much did you have to rehearse with them? How much leeway did you give them to tap into their own experiences for the role?
We rehearsed for three months, in individual sessions and together. In order to respect Greyber’s capacity for improvisation and play, we did not work so much on the scripted scenes, but rather we created a dynamic between Ruper and actress Brenda Moreno (who plays Melissa) to establish bonds of trust and empathy between them. So we played various games to strengthen their relationship by creating situations that were analogous to the script but were not taken directly from the script. With Ruper and with Brenda we rehearsed several scenes from the script with me playing Chuo to dig deeper into their characters and thus give Greyber the strongest possible base when he joined the shoot. We channeled our work with Ruper through music and through singing since these are instruments known to him so we could use music as a conduit for his performance. During the filming we took a reasonable amount of time to prepare each scene before recording it, taking the script as a point of departure but not necessarily as a point of return, always open to their ideas as well as those that arose from me as in relation to what that they themselves proposed.
How has the pandemic affected not only this community but your country’s Afro-Venezuelan community?
It is complex because Venezuela has a majority Afro-descendant population and we are a country that does not recognize the tacit racism that surrounds us. This Afro-descendant population lives under difficult circumstances every day. The question arises of what we prioritize when it comes to the country’s health, if on the pandemic or the economy. This question has no immediate answer.
What do you hope audiences take away from your film?
I hope that they will let themselves be held by the hand by Chuo and “El Chivo” and enter their world… and that their final impression about that father and son duo is the same as the initial one…
What other films are you excited to see at the festival?
All of them. I am an inveterate cinephile and the festival selection is of a very very high level … I intend to spend 12 days full of movies!
What are some of the challenges Venezuelan filmmakers face today?
Contemporary Venezuela is very complex, a kind of a dystopian or absurdist work of fiction that is very difficult to explain. We have the largest devaluation in the history of Latin America, two presidents, two congresses, an international blockade, the largest exodus in history and, yet, even in the midst of this devastating panorama, many of our filmmakers continue to insist on telling our stories … a very adverse time and, paradoxically, very conducive to creation!
The Special is available to stream Oct.14-25 in the United States. A Q&A will livestream on Tuesday, October 20 at 9pm CT with director Ignacio Márquez. Access is granted to all ticket holders via the streaming platform.