A Torturous Triptych: Director Alex Kahuam on Enigmatic, Female-Led Horror ‘Forgiveness’

Alex Kahuam’s art-horror feature Forgiveness is a deeply personal project that asks difficult questions of its audience. Rejecting the use of dialogue, Kahuam instead forms his own cinematic language through a subversion of the senses. Throwing a spin on the proverb ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’, he weaves together a narrative of madness and mortality, as three women struggle desperately against fate.

Vampire Squid writer Skye was excited to get the opportunity to speak with Alex about his film before it hits the screens at this year’s Grimmfest.

Skye: For those who haven’t seen your film, how would you summarise it?

Alex: So, there’s three women stuck in a hospital. One is blind, one is deaf and the other one is mute. They have to find a way out or they’re going to be trapped there and killed by demons, spirits, crazy men, assassins and serial killers. There’s a bunch of stuff going on inside the hospital, which is a metaphor for many things. But I don’t say that explicitly!

Skye: Yeah, that’s what I saw whilst watching! For me, all of the other characters seemed like projections of their own mind.

Alex: Yeah, there are a lot of metaphors within the film. So, you’ve got to be very smart when you watch it. You can’t be a lazy audience member where you’re expecting everything to be easy. You have to think “Oh, this is what’s going on”, or “This is my interpretation”. It’s okay if you get something different from it than other people. At the end of the day, it’s an art film, which is what I wanted since the start.

Skye: It’s obviously a very visual film, with almost no dialogue aside from the last segment. Was this quite a challenge? Or did it allow you to express things in a different way, since you had to find ways to translate your ideas without using words?

Alex: Yes, it was a huge challenge because I usually use a lot of dialogue in my movies. I’ve done two movies before this one, as well as another two next, and they’re very different. But there is always dialogue. So, for me, it was new grounds, new territory.

I originally wanted to do another film before this one. It wasn’t an expensive film, but we needed a couple of million dollars, and I wasn’t getting the funding. So I thought “Why don’t I wait for this, and in the meantime, what do I have available to me in Mexico City that can I use?” I live in LA but was born in Mexico City, and I’ve known a lot of people in that city throughout my life, so that’s where everything started.

My rule was that I wanted to do something completely different, to capture everything I was feeling in the moment and put it into a film. I couldn’t see, talk or listen. So that was the whole point of the film, to grab it and to say it with a meaning. To tell the actors that there are no lines so you have to embody your character physically. But the actors love the fact that there is no dialogue as it’s like theatre, and that’s why they wanted to do the film. They were like “This is different, it’s a challenge, and there are long takes.” Yes, it’s a lot, but we’re all on the same page.

The lack of dialogue forced you to really watch it. It made you really focus on the watching aspect, which is pivotal to films.

Skye: So how did the idea for this film come about in the first place? And what made you want to write it?

Alex: So, like I said, there was a moment in LA where I wasn’t getting the funding. But the actual idea came when I was driving on the freeway and was involved in a car accident. As I was driving, this guy hit me, and I was sandwiched. Nothing happened to me or the other drivers. However, in that moment it hit me and I was like BOOM, I just had to make this film.

Maybe it sounds like a movie, but after the crash, the idea of the three women in the hospital came to me. I also had another script at the time, similar to it but with a linear story-line and involving human trafficking, so completely different. But I knew that I needed to do something involving life, death, heaven, hell and forgiveness. After all, the whole film is about forgiveness, which is why it’s the title.

The three women are being punished and desperately seeking redemption, but in a way they can’t get there. I also knew the location very well so was sure that I would be able to shoot there.

My team thought I was crazy when I told them what I wanted to do, but that’s what filmmaking is all about. You need to do things differently. You cannot just do the same things that everybody else is doing. When people watch it, they go “I’ve never seen a film like this!?”, so that for me is a huge compliment.

Skye: I agree! It’s about taking leaps in the film industry to make yourself recognised. With the final product, was it how you envisioned it from conception, or did you take different directions when you began filming?

Alex: I think, in a way, it was how I envisioned it. In post-production, we didn’t change many things, though the visual effects were really tricky because we used a lot of tracking and long takes. On set, however, I wrote different scenes because I saw how amazing these two actors were together.

For example, the dancing scene between the two actors in chapter two. Whilst this was written in originally, the scene later on when the guy brings her roses, wanting to escape with her, was something that I wrote differently. There was a great chemistry, so I was like “I need to have more”.

That’s the cool thing, because sometimes you shoot a film and in post-production you make all of these changes, but here we had a clear objective of what we wanted, and followed it through. Also, we didn’t particularly cut, so what you see is what we shot. Once you start doing long takes, you’re trapped. Unless you choose to do jump-cuts or whatever, but I didn’t want that. I wanted it to be like some sort of poetry, you know? Sometimes you feel the cuts, and sometimes you don’t. We’re not perfect. I try to be perfect with my filming, but the cool thing is that there are a lot of visual things that you don’t realise happen, and that’s the beauty of it.

Skye: What made you decide on the three-chapter structure with the epilogue and prologue, and how did that structure help you tell the story? I found it interesting how you selected this literary form for your film.

Alex: When I wrote the script, it felt like a novel. Originally, I didn’t have a prologue and epilogue. However, when I was writing and reading it through, I was like “Wow, this is like a book!”. Since there is no dialogue, you have to imagine many things as if you were reading it. I also really love films by Lars Von Trier, where he plays around with the literary form. It’s not really influenced by him, but I wanted to do something similar with my film. Though I haven’t done it yet, I’m also I’m thinking of writing a book based on Forgiveness.

Skye: That would be really interesting, to have them side by side, so you can read it and then watch it, watch it and then read it! Why were you drawn to the horror genre in the first place? Who are your biggest influences?

Alex: You know, I love it because it stays with you. It’s one of the few genres where you watch it and you keep thinking about it afterwards. Whether it be Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Exorcist, you keep thinking about it and how horrible it was, and then you continue re-watching it until it becomes this amazing experience. With other genres, I have the same experience, a similar one, but not the same. If you want to watch something and have fun, then you go watch a horror film.

Skye: Yeah, it’s the adrenaline rush that you don’t always get with other genres, where jump-scares literally take you out of your body. With romance or comedy, it’s sometimes difficult to get that same ‘WOW’ factor.

Alex: I agree, the experience is great. When you go with a bunch of friends, or it’s like a great icebreaker too for a date! I love the big screen, and it’s amazing that now after COVID technically we can go back to the theatres. It really hurt me when we couldn’t go for eight to ten months, but it’s nice that we’re back!

Skye: Speaking of COVID, did that interfere with filming at all?

Alex: It interfered with another project I had. I did a proof-of-concept and short film called Red Light, with Ted Raimi, which hopefully we’re doing next year. We were pitching it to studios, and then the pandemic happened. Everybody was like “We’ll see you in 2021!”, and so I said to my producing partners Ted Raimi and Marco de Molina, “We’re stuck right now, so let’s do film festivals!”.

It was a massive success. We had 30 official selections, a world premiere at SITGES in Spain, and we were at BIFFF in Brussels, which is awesome. We were in great core festivals, and now a lot of people are talking about it. So while the pandemic has slowed down the process for that film and other projects I have, at the same time everyone is engaging in the concept that is ten minutes long. Now it’s another story, and I’m really excited for that film. It’s going to be completely different; there’s dialogue to tell the story. There is also going to be a LOT of gore, and Ted Raimi as a serial killer. So yeah, it’s looking really good for next year!

Skye: I also saw you were working on another film called 165 Days in Quarantine?

Alex: Yeah, so that’s another project I have. We shot that during quarantine. It’s also a concept. But actually, it’s funny that you mention it, because I spoke to my other producing partner and we’re thinking of shooting a whole feature in a couple of months. It’s going to be crazy as there are going to be a lot of long takes once again. There are a lot of projects going on right now: Red Light, 165 Days in Quarantine, Stay With Me (another script that I’m currently writing and want to shoot), and I have about four other features.

There are a lot of stories that I want to tell, but as you know, it’s always challenging with the financing. It takes time, and I’m just like “Ahh, but I want to shoot!”. But like I mentioned, it’s looking really good for next year, especially after the success of Forgiveness with the festivals. Right now, we have nine official selections, which is awesome. The UK has embraced the film, we were at Frightfest and Grimmfest, and now we’re going to Ireland for the IFI, which is really cool! I would love to be there at Grimmfest, to be honest, and I was planning to go. But when I went to Frightfest, the US made it so difficult to travel, and I’m like “Guys, let me go, let me go!”. I did have a great time in London – I love the UK. I mean, you guys have a beautiful country. So, I mean, I really wanted to go back to Grimmfest, I really did. Hopefully next year, or another time, but I’ll definitely be there!

Skye: Do you think you’ll continue within the horror genre, then, or branch out into other genres? I saw that one of your early shorts was a comedy.

Alex: I have four horror scripts, but I also have a crime thriller. I mean, the thriller part I cannot get rid of, as I really love how it brings stress and builds tension. If I were to do a comedy, though, it would be a comedy thriller like that of Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino, where you’re both laughing and stressed. I also have other scripts, two drama thrillers. Like I said, it has to have the thriller aspect!

My friend wants me to direct a documentary, and documentaries are really interesting. So I heard his story (I can’t talk about it a lot), but I thought “Wow, this is not cool”. It’s going to be controversial as well. So yeah, while documentaries aren’t my ground, it’s a very interesting story. Even if it doesn’t happen, I like it for a film, but I can’t say much.

It’s cool because suddenly a lot of other projects are coming together. I have projects that I’ve been working on for the last three to four years, and development for two years. Now, there are people inviting me to other projects too, which is pretty cool. But yeah, I always tell new filmmakers: don’t quit, just keep going and eventually it’s going to snowball. It’s going to get bigger and bigger and bigger to the point where, sure, financing is going to be tricky, but it’s going to be less tricky than before. So yeah, everyone out there, continue making films and never quit.

Any artist should never quit, because the world is difficult. I’ve been in LA for ten years, and I’ve had both ups and downs, but it’s way better than it was before. You have to continue pushing for your dream. It’s just the way it is. I’ve seen a lot of people leaving and saying “That’s it, I’m going to be an accountant” or “I’m going to be this”. I’m thinking “What are you doing? You’re going to be this person, you don’t want to be”.

I get it, though – the game is hard, but I always say stay on the road. Gather yourself a great team, friends and family, and keep going. At the end of the day, your crew is your family, and if your crew believes in you, you’re going to be able to continue. So I’m very lucky to have a great crew. Everybody is the same. We’re making a movie together, and I appreciate the group a lot. I mention this because I wouldn’t be here without them. This film was really challenging to shoot, and we had a really strong crew, so thank you to all of you guys involved.

Skye: It sounds like you’ve got lots of exciting stuff in the pipeline and you have a strong crew. When I was watching Forgiveness, one of the things that stuck out was seeing the juxtaposition between the violence and then something as casual as tying a shoelace straight after. Can you tell me about those elements of contrast in the film?

Alex: Yeah I know, some scenes are like “Whaaat?!”, and I like that. For example, when I mixed the girl who is tied up with Ave Maria playing over the top. They’re both completely different – you have a church song and then you have a torture scene, and you’re thinking “WOW”. But I like the contrast because it provokes a reaction from people and they go “What the hell!?”.

I know it’s a very weird film, but I like how people will think about it afterwards. It’s a film where you’ll either love it or hate it, and since the beginning of the script, I knew that it would divide. It’s part of the game, especially with this film. I read reviews of both sides, and it’s eye-opening.

Skye: At the end of the day, every bad review is still a review. It’s still getting your film exposure!

Alex: Yeah, it’s really interesting. For example, with the negative reviews, I can see that I really pushed some buttons there, but I love it.

Skye: Yeah, some of the scenes were so intense and raw that I couldn’t even imagine having to act that out.

Alex: Yeah, it was a huge challenge, but everyone had fun. The cool thing is that we didn’t cross the twelve hours. Every day we did eleven, we were ahead of the schedule. The actors saw the playback and knew exactly what to do. For this type of film, it’s kind of weird, as it never happens. When people don’t believe me, I say “Guys, ask the crew!”.

Skye: How many days did it take to shoot the film?

Alex: Originally, we were supposed to shoot for four weeks, but we shot the whole film in eight days. It was really quick.

That’s why I love this film. It’s different in every way. It was a different film when shooting it, and it was a different film during post-production. With the next film, we have a schedule of four to six weeks, so it’s completely different! But I love it. It’s the adrenaline. It’s like a horror film where you’re thinking “We only have eight days, guys!”.

I think the actors did a phenomenal job, especially since they didn’t have a long time to prepare. What, a couple of days? It was a tough performance for the three leads, with some really challenging scenes. Alejandra Zaid, Alejandra Toussaint and Jessica Ortiz did a great job with the short amount of time that they had to prepare and shoot. But that’s filmmaking – it’s teamwork, and it’s great. And now both the actors and crew are very excited about Grimmfest and really want to go. But again, it’s travelling, but we’ll be there next year or some other year, for sure!

Skye: If you were to sum up Forgiveness in a few words, how would you describe it?

Alex: I would say it’s a challenging, bizarre film. It really is. I love it, I love the final result, and I love that people watch it and they think about it. I would say that in the next seven years I want to do another film like it, to go back to this language of no dialogue –although not right now, as I have other films on the way. Still, it was a fascinating experience. These types of experiments give you so much insight and really help with the next films. The use of visual effects, long takes, no dialogue and one location. It really gives you so much creativity for the next ones, so actors can see it and go “Oh OK, that’s where you’re coming from”.

Thank you to Alex Kahuam for taking the time to speak with us about Forgiveness and the other projects he’s working on!

Forgiveness is being screened at Grimmfest on October 8th at 5:00 PM. It’s also available as an online exclusive for the virtual festival on October 17th from 1:30 PM to 11:30 PM. Find out more and book your tickets here.


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