Cinematographer Emiliano Villanueva on How ‘A Cop Movie’ Blends Documentary With Fiction

·4-min read

Audiences taking in cinematographer Emiliano Villanueva’s images in Mexican documentary hybrid “A Cop Movie” are not likely to appreciate that he and the director, Alonso Ruizpalacios, risked life and limb, shooting on some of the toughest street locations they could find to create the Berlin film fest sensation focused on the emotional lives of two police patrol grunts.

“These were really dangerous areas,” says the DP, whose work with Ruizpalacios is screening in the documentary features section of the Camerimage Film Festival, describing the more traditional doc approach he used to chronicle the routines, dangers and joys of daily police work. “Guys were looking at us.”

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But with filming and lighting that is so precise and street shooting scenes that also involve actors, audiences may well overlook the real risk the filmmakers faced – along with the unscripted moments that emerge.

Such is the way when a doc so effectively blends elements of fiction film and reality that audiences are unable to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

“We were trying to push the boundaries of the worlds, fiction and documentary,” Villanueva says, “a way to blend the two genres without feeling too artificial or pretentious. But also questioning the formats and questioning what’s true and what’s fiction.”

As “A Cop Movie” begins, we see a patrolwoman answering a call that clearly signals danger to her as she steps into a crisis situation without knowing who or what she’s going to encounter – and turns it all around to emerge as a hero.

But it’s clearly staged, with cinematic shots, colors that pop, and evocative lighting…or is it? Her voice is clearly natural, conversational, unrehearsed. There’s no acting here…but is that her voice?

Later, as we learn we’ve been seeing actors performing the real events that two real cops described in an interview, we soon move beyond that setup to see the actors on real streets doing real police work.

“We were discussing that boundary – how we’re going to jump from this fictional documentary mockup to the real street shots of the police patrolling the streets,” Villanueva says.

But the confusion is just what he and the director wanted, says the DP, describing a mischievous approach to playing with genres and expectations – while also balancing ethical and political issues.

The film, produced by No Ficción for Netflix, evolved into a distinct style, says Villanueva, as he and the director studied scores of docs that blended verite filming with fiction elements and performance.

And, Villanueva adds, “Alonso wanted to have this mix of voiceover and lip sync. To make people believe at first they’re watching a documentary but suddenly everything is so perfect that it can’t be a documentary – but it can’t be fiction because each of the characters is speaking in a natural way. It looks really real but is becoming really weird…”

The effect creates a fascination for the story of lowly patrol cops Teresa and Montoya, who, following family tradition, join the police force only to find their convictions and hopes crushed by a dysfunctional system.

The couple’s (real) connections form a kind of safe zone to which they can retreat from a system that immerses them in both moral and physical hazards that would overwhelm most people.

Villanueva, who is currently filming a TV police show set in the 70s, says the approach he adopted with Ruizpalacios was a first for him. (“It’s also with Netflix and they say, ‘We want it to look like the documentary you made.’”)

And he confesses there were many times the two of them thought they must be crazy to approach such a serious subject and characters this way, “talking about a really difficult theme here in Mexico – the police. Here all the cops are really corrupt. If we see one on the street we really just cross to the other side.”

And they were clear from the start that “A Cop Movie” had to be honest – a doc “that talks about the police but doesn’t justify them – and doesn’t create an apology for being a cop.”

But the doc also had to be entertaining, Villanueva says, taking on heavy topics with a light hand, “not too scientific or anthropological.” So far, critical and audience response suggests the filmmakers got the balance just right.

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