Alum's Debut Film Stuns Audiences at Sundance Film Festival
Founder of the Oberlin film co-op, director Christopher Zalla, OC ’97, has been honored for his first feature film, Padre Nuestro. The piece won the grand jury prize for the best U.S. drama at the Sundance Film Festival late January in Salt Lake City, UT.
Padre Nuestro is about a youth, Juan (Jesus Ochoa), who hops onto a truck transporting illegal immigrants to New York City in an attempt to flee a pack of Mexican henchmen. Aboard, he befriends 17-year-old Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola) who is heading to Brooklyn in a desperate search to find his rich father, successful restaurateur Diego (Armando Hernandez). Pedro’s only possessions include a locket from his late mother and a letter which provides a scarce amount of information about his father.
After arriving, Pedro wakes up to find that his things have been stolen by Juan, who by then has started lurking around the city, claiming that he is Diego’s long lost son after hunting him down. Diego is far from rich, and is behind a restaurant only in the sense that he works illegally in the back of the kitchen as a dishwasher. Penniless, Pedro wanders the city with cokehead street rat Magda (Paola Mendoza) who later helps him find his father. The audience is confronted with the difficulties that face undocumented illegal workers in New York.
“On the surface the movie is a suspenseful drama about stolen identity, but on a much deeper level it’s a film about family relationships and the ambiguous nature of morality,” said Zalla in an interview with indieWIRE.com.
Born in Ksumu, Kenya, Zalla has spent much of his life globe-trotting, residing in Africa, Europe and South America; attending 13 different schools; and living in 21 homes. In South America, he lived for some time in Bolivia, where he picked up quite a bit of Spanish.
In the true Obie tradition of unexpected variety, a penchant for adventure and a fearless effort to experiment in the arts, Zalla has worked as a carpenter, a commercial Alaskan salmon fisherman and, now, as a Sundance award-winning filmmaker. Through his travels and experiences, he has developed a very international sense with a certain awareness of always being an outsider, on the fringe of society in a number of different countries. This contributed to his understanding in the making of Padre Nuestro.
Cinema studies was not an official major in the College when Zalla was an Oberlin student, but he was determined to find a way to pursue his interest. He met with President Nancy Dye to discuss raising money for filmmaking. By his senior year, a $22,000 budget had been amassed and the film co-op was officially formed. Film equipment — cameras and both 8mm and 16mm film — was purchased and members quickly filtered in.
In October 1996, director Jim Burrows, OC ’62, the mastermind behind Will & Grace, Friends and Cheers, returned to campus to lecture about his work. Dye introduced the aspiring filmmaker Zalla to the already established filmmaker Burrows, who invited Zalla to Los Angeles to watch him work. Another influence came from his former Obie housemate, Ed Helms, OC ’96, currently a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, who had spent a semester studying film at New York University.
After graduating from Oberlin, Zalla enrolled in film school at Columbia University, where he earned an M.F.A. He began writing Padre Nuestro while still a student, almost immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“Suddenly and profoundly, I could now see how deeply fundamental our desire for community was. We have put up all of these boundaries, these borders between each other, but ironically, we’re all looking for some sense of connection, of family,” he said.
While casting actors and actresses for his film, Zalla traveled to Mexico City in search of unrecognizable faces and names that were not well-known in the States. The goal was to recreate as realistic of a situation as possible, somehow maintaining the energy of Mexico in his film, and hopefully nudging the audience to identify with the characters’ struggles.
Zalla collaborated with producers Benjamin Odell and Per Melita to bring out New York’s “assault on the senses…oppressive, claustrophobic, overwhelming.” Despite the bombardment of material, he was careful to leave direction for softer, cloying moments that portrayed the very real emotions that affected his characters. Inspiration came more from a desire to represent a need for familial bonds and support and less from the stance of making a political statement.
Although a fairly green newcomer to the film scene, Zalla’s Sundance debut made a hugely noticeable splash.