Xavier Grobet, ASC recently checked in from New Orleans, where he is working on Focus, a feature film starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie. Smith plays a veteran grifter who falls for his beautiful young apprentice. But Xavier told me about a different, more personal project he’s been involved with, directed by his mother.
Xavier is the son of an architect and a still photographer. His boyhood bedroom was adjacent to a darkroom. He struggled over which parent to follow, and eventually chose the camera.
Xavier and his mother share an interest in anthropology. Xavier’s earliest professional experience was as a camera assistant on the crew of Eduardo Maldonado Soto, the director of his school, Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica, and a well-known documentarian. Prior to emigrating to the US, Xavier shot numerous documentaries, including Le phénomène El Juli, Un maestro… Xavier Francis, A Mexican Buñuel, Los Años Arruza, and Blossoms of Fire (2001), about a community in southern Mexico where women are in charge, which was directed by Les Blank’s longtime editor, Maureen Gosling.
Xavier’s mother, Lourdes Grobet, is a well-known artist in Mexico whose subject matter includes the world of Lucha Libre, or Mexican wrestling, a subculture she was photographing long before its current trendiness. Essayist Ruben Ortiz Torres says, “I find it hard to distinguish the history of Mexican wrestling from Lourdes Grobet’s photographs of it.”
In a funny coincidence, Xavier’s professional path crossed his mother’s path during the run-up to Nacho Libre, the 2006 Jack Black comedy, which Xavier photographed. In the course of their research, the filmmakers contacted Xavier — and asked him to get them in touch with his mother. One thing led to another, and Xavier ended up shooting the film.
Four years ago, Lourdes created an art project titled “Equilibrio y Resistencia.” This project brought her to the Bering Strait region, where she fell in love with the locals. About 140 Inupiat people live there on the smaller of two tiny islands, one part of Alaska and the other part of Russia. The International Date Line separates the two islands, which are less than three miles apart.
“Equilibrio y Resistencia” addressed the bifurcated Diomede Islands, and the impact of the line — 0° longitude — on the lives of the inhabitants. At the height of the Cold War, they were forced to leave the larger island, where a Russian military installation now sits. This short film also came out of the expedition: http://vimeo.com/24611852
Eventually, Lourdes decided to make a documentary film, her first. The project was an opportunity for Xavier to return to documentary, and to reconnect with this family. With funding from the Mexican Film Institute, the family travelled last November and spent three weeks making the movie. Xavier’s brother, a musician, composed the music and helped with the audio. The film is set to be released in October 2013.
“It was really quite humbling,” says Xavier. “It was a really interesting project, and we’re very proud of it. I don’t think many people know what really happens up there, and that’s one reason we wanted to portray it. These people have strong communities. They’re connected to the Internet, and they have cell phones and video games. They are connected to the world, and it’s transforming their lives drastically, in both good and bad ways. They’re eager to see what’s happening outside of their communities, but they are losing many of their traditions. And I think it tells us something about the globalization of the entire planet.”
The camera was a Sony PMW-EX3. “It’s a little prosumer camera,” says Xavier. “It’s very, very reliable. Because it was going to be me, myself and I doing everything, I was looking for a camera that was easy to handle. I devised a system where I could be self-sufficient. I could handle my SXS cards, batteries and tripod without the help of an assistant. I started looking online to learn about ways to use the camera, and I found a setting for a low contrast picture profile that allowed me to capture a flat, low contrast image that gave me more color grading possibilities in post. We did the color timing back in Mexico this year at a company called Chemistry with colorist Jesus Dominguez. I was very surprised with the performance of the camera. There was a lot of room to play with the image, and I was able to get the final image I was looking for. The results are great.
“This project was very special to me, not only because we went to the end of the world and had an amazing experience with the Inupiat people, but because the director was none other than my mother,” says Xavier. “I had the chance to shoot another movie at the same time my mum’s project was happening, and I turned it down. How many times can you have the opportunity to shoot a documentary about the Bering Strait that’s directed by your mother? I don’t think anyone has had that offer before!”