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Program 34: José

Directed by Li Cheng

In Spanish with English subtitles.

WARNING: Strong sexual content and nudity.

José is a tender romance and a vividly-observed character study about a young gay man struggling to break free of his stifling environment and learning what he truly wants out of life.

José (Enrique Salanic) is a 19-year-old living with his mother (Ana Cecilia Mota) in their working-class Guatemala City neighborhood. They struggle to make ends meet; she sells homemade sandwiches on street corners, while he earns money chasing down customers in a busy intersection for the small restaurant where he works. José’s only other social connection seems to be through hookup apps, which provide an outlet for the feelings he otherwise keeps hidden.

Guatemala is a religious, deeply conservative country, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ issues. Surrounded by poverty and violence, circumstances aren’t conducive to living as openly as José otherwise might. But he begins to question his semi-closeted existence when he meets Luis (Manolo Herrera), a migrant construction worker in the country only temporarily, with the intention of leaving once that work runs out.

Meeting up in motel rooms that rent by the hour, the two men find an intimacy with one another that seems impossible outside those walls. José had never dared expect more for himself, but their connection is enough to slowly shake him out of his routine, and the reserved young man begins to open up, if only slightly.

Luis gently pushes José to leave with him, but he remains susceptible to cultural forces that feel beyond his control. And there are the pressures of his mother, who fears her son will lose his way if he abandons her.

Drawing inspiration from extensive interviews he conducted with marginalized young people living in Latin America, Li Cheng directs his story with great sensitivity and a gritty realism. Working with mostly non-professional actors, he gets wonderfully naturalistic performances from his cast. There’s an authenticity in the film’s portrayal of their lives, showing us the resilience it sometimes requires to chase after happiness, despite your circumstances.

~ Adam Lubitow

Awards & Accolades

  • Jury Award, Queer Lion for Best Narrative Feature – Venice Film Festival
  • Jury Award, Best Narrative Feature – Wicked Queer Boston LGBT Film Festival
  • Jury Award, Best Narrative Feature – Kashish Mumbai Int’l Queer Film Festival
  • Jury Award, Best Narrative Film – Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival
  • Special Jury Prize – Nantes 3 Continents Film Festival (France)
  • Special Jury Prize –  Bratislava International Film Festival (Slovakia)
  • Centrepiece Gala – Vancouver Queer Film Festival
  • Official Selection – Outfest LA LGBT Film Festival

Dates & Times