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    Gay Actor Shines in Guatemalan Romantic Drama

    By Gary Kramer–

    Out gay actor Enrique Salanic makes an indelible film debut as the title character in director Li Cheng’s excellent romantic drama José, opening March 13 at the Roxie Theater. As a gay teenager eking out a life with his religious single mother (Ana Cecila Mota), José works at a restaurant and spends what little free time he has hooking up with guys he meets via an app—when his phone can get a signal. When José has a tryst with Luis (Manolo Herrera), he falls in love. However, while Luis wants José to run away with him, José is conflicted about leaving his mother alone.

    José is a sparse drama extremely well told by director Li Cheng (who co-wrote and produced the film with George F. Roberson). Much of the action consists of following José around town, at home or at work, or having sex, often in a rent-by-the-hour establishment. Salanic gives a remarkable performance, expressing José’s tenderness with Luis—kissing him in bed, or being affectionate during a motorcycle ride—as well as his emotions and longing in reflective scenes of him alone.

    In a recent interview via WhatsApp, Salanic explained that he created a backstory for the character after talking to people from different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds: “José realized he can’t go to university because he doesn’t have the economic resources. He may think he’s experienced sexually, but he’s only had spontaneous sex. Luis is something different. He changes José’s heart and mind and the way he sees his life. That changes his perspective in how he behaves from that point on.”

    He continued, “It was a very huge responsibility to convey the emotions. Most of the time you don’t see José happy or smiling—but you don’t see him crying either. He goes through life knowing not that he has to be tough but that he has to endure and accept whatever life throws at him.”

    Being gay in Guatemala is difficult and the actor indicated that his native country is a conservative, homophobic place, where members of the LGBTQ community are often killed for being queer. He acknowledged this, but also the strength and inspiration he got from the interviews he did.

    “The people I met knew how to behave and move in a homophobic and conservative society,” he said. “They knew what to say, do, and how to be. It was impressive that all those strategies made them survive and some have become activists, who have come out to speak up for others who cannot do the same.”

    He added, “I am openly gay. The director was concerned about bringing the film to Guatemala. And he asked if I wanted to become a martyr. I appreciated his concern, but at the same time, I am aware of the process of having loving parents who have accepted me and I feel very fortunate, while I know many friends who have come out and most are kicked out of their houses or face a tough economic situation. There are so many people who want to come out but are afraid to because of society. That’s why I feel it is important to be openly gay. José doesn’t have a father. I have parents and siblings who support me, and I am privileged to have good partners. Life has been kind, which in José’s case, is the completely opposite.”

    Moreover, Salanic is Mayan, and he feels his background was equally important for portraying José on screen. He observed, “Coming from an indigenous background gave me more courage to do [the film], because the thought is that indigenous people are just part of their culture, and that they can’t be intellectual. This was to show that you can do whatever you want and achieve your dreams. Indigenous people aren’t seen on the big screen.”

    The actor then discussed his heritage and how it influenced the film. “In the Mesoamerican lands, homosexuality was OK because you could handle the feminine/masculine duality. But there are other parts of Mesoamerica where it was not accepted at all, and you were punished. There were cultures that did accept it versus Europeans who came and were punished. There is the scene of José and Luis in bed, looking at each other, that resembles Mayan kings. This reference came from Black Rocks, and it’s an archeological museum in Guatemala City. This rock could have many interpretations and one is that they are two Mayan kings who just or are about to kiss each other. I told Li [the director] about it and he put that in the scene in the film.”

    © 2020 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer

    Published on February 27, 2020