Canana Films aims to keep it real

Mexican prod'n company takes risks, seizes opportunity

Canana, which means bandoleer in English, seems a fitting name for a production company that has played a key role in the revolution of Mexican cinema.

Run by Mexican actors Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna and producer Pablo Cruz, the Mexico City-based shingle is breathing new life into the nation's ailing film industry.

While some production companies here focus on shooting Hollywood-style features, Canana is keeping it real with socially minded stories that offer an authentic take on Mexico.

"We don't have studio dreams, we just want to focus on what's important," Cruz says. "Cinema is the only way to document what's truly happening in our times because the news programs are fake, the soap operas make no sense, and comedy shows aren't real."

"Cochochi," one of Canana's recent productions, is as real as it gets. Shot in northern Mexico's Sierra Tarahumara region, Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman's drama features an indigenous cast speaking in their local dialect. "Cochochi," which follows two brothers on a journey to deliver medicine to a faraway community, won the Discovery Award at this year's Toronto film festival.

Cruz and Garcia Bernal came up with the idea to form Canana in 2003 while traveling on a flight from Spain to France, where Garcia Bernal was to receive the Chopard Trophy at the Festival de Cannes. Back then, Cruz was running Barcelona-based production company the Lift. Both were enjoying successful careers abroad, yet they wanted to give something back to their native Mexico.

"We wanted to concentrate on the energy that was going around (in Mexico) and to put it into some sort of shape and make things happen," Garcia Bernal says.

A week after they agreed to put the wheels in motion, Garcia Bernal asked his "Y tu mama tambien" co-star and longtime friend Luna if he wanted to join the new production venture. Luna enthusiastically accepted.

Fast-forward two years to Los Angeles, where Cruz was seeking a U.S. production partner. Great news came in October 2005 when Focus Features president of production John Lyons said his company had pacted with Canana in a term deal. The agreement gave Focus worldwide rights to Canana's planned slate of features, including modestly budgeted Spanish-language films in Mexico and higher-budgeted English-language pictures.

Their first project, Cary Fukunaga's Spanish-language thriller "Sin Nombre," is in production in Mexico. Canana is executive producing the picture with producer Amy Kaufman. Focus will handle the film stateside and Universal will distribute overseas.

Focus believes it has found an ideal Mexican partner in Canana.

"There are so many filmmakers, screenwriters and actors in Mexico — both up-and-coming and established — that (Canana) can bring to our attention," Lyons said after announcing the agreement.

Cruz oversees Canana's day-to-day operations. He maintains daily contact with Garcia Bernal and Luna, who must juggle their busy acting careers with Canana's growing slate of productions. Under the Canana label, Garcia Bernal and Luna made their directorial debuts — Garcia Bernal with his feature film "Deficit" and Luna with the documentary "J.C. Chavez," which explores the life of legendary Mexican boxer Julio Cesar Chavez.

In addition to the shingle's current projects in Mexico, such as Gerardo Naranjo's upcoming drama "I Am Going to Explode," Canana is co-producing pictures in South America. In March, filming begins in Paraguay on Marcelo Tolces' dramedy "18 and a Half Cigarettes." In June, in association with Uruguay's Control Z Films (the producers of the award-winning "Whisky"), production starts on Adrian Biniez's romantic comedy "Giant."

On the distribution end, earlier this year Canana released "The Violin," a small Mexican picture that distributors balked at because it was filmed in black and white. "The Violin" grossed one of the highest per-theater averages in the history of Mexican cinema.

Canana's success is due in large part to its penchant for risk taking, as evidenced by its decision to release "El Violin" when no other companies would go near the film. It also took a big risk when it launched Ambulante, a touring documentary festival created to support a genre that gets very little play in Mexico. The annual docu fest has performed very well.

Next up, Canana is looking to make its first foray into television production with "Ruta 32," an ambitious drama series that reportedly has drawn interest from MTV.

After just several years in the making, Canana stands at the forefront of Mexico's new wave of cinema.

"I can safely say, and without being pretentious, that we are very proud to be part of this revolution," Cruz says.