Why Netflix needs to fund more original Spanish-language films

On the breakout success of Roma.

January 16, 2019

Yalitza Asparicio, the lead actor in Alfonso Cuarón’s highly acclaimed Netflix film Roma,  just finished her training to become a teacher when she was scouted for the role of Cleo, the film’s resourceful protagonist. In an interview with Hollywood Reporter, Cuarón recounts how Asparicio not only had no idea who he was, but when he asked her to lead the much-lauded film—which the New York Times called a “masterpiece of memory” and a “personal epic”—she agreed, apparently telling him she had nothing better to do while waiting to hear back about teaching prospects.

It was a risk to place the success of the film on the shoulders of a first-time actor, but Cuarón was determined, and the resulting film, carried by Asparicio, is one of the most important pieces of cinematography in 2018. The film is also yet another opportunity for Netflix to flex its muscles as a significant producer of culture, in addition to a universal streaming service. And there’s a lot that could be gained for viewers and for Netflix, particularly if the media giant amplifies the artistry of not just established international voices like Cuarón, but also the unheard voices of emerging talent.

Roma, in case you haven’t seen it (and you really should), is a story that requires your full attention. The significance is in the cinematic details, like the way class hierarchies are represented through characters’ daily routines, rather through sweeping plot points (though we get plenty of those as well). It’s the story of a young Indigenous woman, Cleo, who moves from Oaxaca to Mexico to work as a domestic worker for a white upper middle class family. Cleo, especially for the children in her care, is often as much a part of that family as all the other members, until the illusion is periodically disrupted and she is asked to fetch tea, or food, or is reprimanded for not cleaning dog shit quickly enough.  

The character is based on Cuarón’s nanny, a woman whose life and world he wanted to honour. But it’s not only deeply personal narrative that makes Roma so special. Roma is a work of mastery and a success because it brought to the small screen (and at select theatres) the untold story of one woman, whose life reflects the experiences of so many women like her in Mexico—indigenous women who left their homes and communities to work in cities. And it brings to mind the way a history of violence and colonization manifests not just in riots and political upheaval, but also in life’s intimate moments and daily rhythms.

We need more stories like Roma, because the best way to combat politics of division is to remind us of our collective humanity.

We need more stories like Roma, because the best way to combat politics of division is to remind us of our collective humanity, and by listening and honouring people whose stories are different than our own, whether they live next door or halfway around the world. In the process, these kinds of stories also lead to hella’ interesting artistic innovations.

For Netflix, funding and producing more content from artists in Spanish-language cinema presents a lot of opportunities. Yes, primarily in subscriptions and cash value (Spanish is, after all, the fourth most spoken language in world), but also in cementing its reputation as a real cultural powerhouse and disruptor. Though the company’s main concern might be their bottom line, bringing a wide range of storytelling tools, styles and perspectives to the small screen opens up a world of artistic prowess, while exploring different human experiences. And it doesn’t always have to be through serious epics.

In La Tribu (or The Tribe) a comedy by Spanish filmmaker Fernando Colomo, a seemingly heartless exec loses his memory and is reconnected with his mother while finding his groove (yes, there are a lot of dance scenes). The films kicks off with a zany and hilarious opening scene, and when you add in an impossible to forget original reggae song and an approach to costume design inspired by 80s “mom-core,” you get a film that brings quirkiness, hilarity, and a surprising amount of heart to the small screen—all of it delivered with a perceptible Spanish flavour. It’s also a story that unabashedly celebrates women, particularly the strength of older women and their friendships, something that frankly, we still don’t see enough on screen.

In the Peruvian film Soltera Codiciada (How to Get Over a Breakup), directed by the relatively lesser known cinematographers Joana Lombardi and Bruno Ascenzo, we get a perspective on dating life in Peru via María Fe, a writer whose relationship of six years ends over Skype. The story, based on the real life experiences of the screenwriter of the film, María José Osorio, is predictable, but underrated. Soltera Codiciada is funny and deliciously unapologetic in its commitment to flawed characters who go through embarrassing and difficult experiences, but are still deserving of love. It’s a film that has the kind of fresh and relatable sensibility of Set It Up or The Incredible Jessica James (though it’s hard to rival the charm of Jessica Williams).

With its vast reach, Netflix can also afford to fund more projects from emerging cinematographers from around the world.

As viewers, we’re forced to question: would we have had the chance to see Soltera Codiciada if it wasn’t on Netflix? Honestly, probably not. It’s not a film made by big directors and it doesn’t feature big actors, and yet…it has something relevant and interesting to offer, a story about a woman who is confused by a lot of things, but not by her love for her craft, her friends, or her city, Lima. Though thematically different from Roma, both films are rooted in place and culture.

Roma and other films like it are the kind of original, innovative filmmaking we need to see more from Netflix. With its vast reach, Netflix can also afford to fund more projects from emerging cinematographers from around the world. At the end of the day, it’s us, the viewers, who benefit, because compelling stories hold a power that extends far beyond the length of the film: they help us understand what those experiences might really feel like. That’s the beginning of empathy—something we need to see more in 2019.  


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