It's playing out like a telenovela

Times Staff Writer

It would be easy to think of Luis Mandoki's "¿Quien Es el Sr. Lopez?" (Who Is Mr. Lopez?) as the Mexican "Fahrenheit 9/11" in reverse. Superficially, at least, the comparisons are tempting.

Like Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit," "Sr. Lopez" presents a documentary portrait of a politician who's been adulated by some and loathed by others. In "Fahrenheit," of course, that figure is George W. Bush, depicted as a bumbler reading stories about pet goats while the twin towers went up in flames.

In Mandoki's film, center stage belongs to Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador: former Mexico City mayor, front-runner for Mexico's July 2 presidential election and, depending on whom you ask, either the country's best hope for a democratic future or the second coming of Venezuelan leftist strongman Hugo Chavez, considered the Antichrist on Wall Street and in the White House.

There's another parallel between the films: "Fahrenheit" was released ahead of the 2004 U.S. presidential showdown, in hopes of swaying voters against reelecting Bush. Mandoki, a Mexican-born, veteran Hollywood director best known for romantic dramas such as "White Palace" and "Message in a Bottle," rejects the idea that his film's overall favorable depiction of Lopez Obrador may be serving as campaign propaganda.

Nevertheless, reversing his earlier decision to keep the film under wraps until after the election, Mandoki has decided to release "Sr. Lopez" on DVD, in three parts, beginning with the first installment Thursday, to help Mexican voters decide about Lopez Obrador, he said. Although he acknowledges it could aid the candidate's campaign, Mandoki insists his film isn't partisan.

"People ask me, 'But you're not objective.' Nobody's objective, you know? Death is objective," Mandoki said, holding forth at a cafe here. "But for me, it's very obvious that, for the first time since I was born in this country, there's a good possibility of someone who really is going to help this country, who's going to make this country become a better country, in many ways."

Mandoki, who was given virtually unrestricted access to the candidate, said his movie offers an intimate look at the left-leaning Lopez Obrador, who in some ways remains an enigma despite his decades-long public career.

Recent polls have shown the Democratic Revolutionary Party candidate maintaining a modest lead over his two main rivals, the centrist-right Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party and Roberto Madrazo of the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party, which dominated national politics for seven decades until the election of President Vicente Fox in 2000.

"In my interviews with [Lopez Obrador], there's a very human interaction where you see not so much the politician in a meeting or an official interview but a man talking about who he is, about what he thinks, about different issues, but from a different place," said Mandoki, who was born here in 1954.

The documentary is being shot on an $800,000 budget, what some studios probably spend on cappuccinos. The crew consists of a couple of camera men, one sound technician and a few people in production and post-production. Mandoki is financing most of the film out of his own pocket and said he's not even covering his expenses.

There has been at least one serious falling-out over the project. Mandoki's former producing partner, Lynn Fainchtein, parted ways with him after he decided to make some of his footage available for the candidate's morning television show and release the film before the election. (Fainchtein confirmed the split in e-mail messages.) "She got very upset with me," Mandoki acknowledges. "We haven't talked."

In one sense, the project might translate easier in Hollywood than in Mexico.

For decades, Mexico kept a veil over its ruling establishment. Most media served as a mouthpiece for the government, which routinely bribed journalists in return for favorable coverage.

Few Mexican celebrities would have considered criticizing the powers that be, for fear of reprisals.

Today, it is still considered risky for a successful actor, director, pop singer or star athlete to get involved in politics -- especially on behalf of someone like Lopez Obrador, who is popular among poor and middle-income Mexicans but eyed with suspicion by the country's business and political elites.

"You know, like, last election, Bruce Springsteen, Sean Penn, all these famous entertainment figures went out to try to get the vote against Bush and for Kerry. That's like part of the culture in the U.S.," Mandoki said. "Here, I think because of the PRI culture, everybody's afraid to say, 'I'm going this way.' Because if for any reason he [Lopez Obrador] doesn't win, are they going to lose jobs, are they going to lose possibilities, are people going to block them?"

By many accounts, there never has been an in-depth documentary about a Mexican presidential candidate, partly because there was no real contest, only a rubber-stamped ritual, until the late 1980s.

In addition to footage of campaign rallies and other public appearances, "Sr. Lopez" will contain behind-the-scenes glimpses of the ex-mayor and his coterie, plus interviews with him at the small Mexico City home Lopez Obrador -- a widower -- shares with his three sons. Mandoki said he also is including footage shot by film students "who covered it with Super 8 cameras and who have fascinating shots that nobody else has."

Mandoki already has allowed some 15-minute segments to be shown on Lopez Obrador's campaign-sponsored morning TV program. Nonetheless, he considers his movie to be an examination, not an endorsement. He said he has had complete creative control of the project since he first pitched the idea to the candidate and started filming last year.

Lopez Obrador "said to me and to [his aides], don't ever tell Luis what to do or what not to do," Mandoki said. "And he said, 'If ever anybody tells you what to do, don't listen.' "

Cesar Yanez, spokesman for the candidate, said Lopez Obrador and his staff regard the film as an independent project.

"We didn't think in terms of the campaign, or of a film that would help the campaign," Yanez said. "I thought more than anything of a film that would serve as testimony, more than one that would help or would capture more votes. That never was the point."

Mexico's contest for chief executive can't match the global stakes of its U.S. counterpart. But for high drama and colorful dramatis personae, it has played like a telenovela.

Mandoki began shooting last spring, just as that drama was reaching denouement of Act 1. At that time, Lopez Obrador was battling legal charges that, as mayor, he had ignored a judge's orders to halt construction of a disputed hospital access road. The standoff escalated, and the then mayor was facing the prospect of serving jail time and being effectively barred from the presidential race. Just as the crisis was prompting mass street protests, the allegations were dropped, clearing the path for his candidacy.

For Mandoki, the project represents a further reintegration into his native country. After the success of his 1987 breakthrough film, "Gaby: A True Story," about a wealthy European-Mexican girl with cerebral palsy, Mandoki moved to Hollywood.

Two years ago, he and his family returned to Mexico City, and he reconnected with his Latin roots by making "Innocent Voices," based on the experiences of a boy growing up during El Salvador's civil war. Although he has continued to work on Hollywood projects, he said the documentary is taking up most of his time.

Mandoki plans to distribute DVDs of "Sr. Lopez" across Mexico through major retailers such as the Sanborns restaurant-department store chain and CD emporiums, for between 45 and 49 pesos apiece, roughly $4.50 to $5. He said he tried to obtain a theatrical release but gave up after two Mexican distributors passed on it.

Already, the film has attracted much attention in the Mexican press, and reactions should start flowing faster after Tuesday, when it will receive its first public screening at a 1,500-seat Mexico City theater. Lopez Obrador is expected to attend.

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