Few have captured Tijuana’s cool new vivacity as perceptively as Aaron Soto, a 40-year-old filmmaker raised in the rural outskirts of what was once “the world’s most visited city.”
Sharing his Escandalos Productions trademark with filmmaker Cathy Alberich and musician Edgar Guerra, Soto combines the occult imagery of Alejandro Jodorowsky with the lethal-babe factor of Richard Kern, along with elements of b-movies, horror, cyberpunk, surrealism, and a touch of Mexican mysticism. It’s a dissociative aesthetic that is distinctly tijuanense.
Soto’s work began to gain traction with his 2001 short Omega Shell, a cyberpunk-acid western (shot on a $200 budget) that became the first Tijuana short film to garner attention on the international-festival circuit.
Three years later, Soto removed his fantastical lens to create what would be his breakout piece — 33 1/3 — a 16-minute film about a record enthusiast; it went on to win awards across Mexico.
These days, when he’s not working as a coordinator for the Mexican edition of Canadian horror magazine Rue Morgue, he’s programming Mexico’s leading horror-film festival, Feratum Film Fest, and making music videos for transborder artists such as the Electric Healing Sound, Inkjet, Dancing Strangers, Shantelle, Dani Shivers, Silent Lune, Orlando, and Murcof (ex Nortec Collective).
In anticipation of his second feature film, a horror movie based in Tijuana, Soto talks to the Reader about zonkeys, VHS, and one unique border town’s violent coming of age.
Chad Deal: I was recently reading a story about [TJ indie jazz band] Madame Ur y Sus Hombres, and the article made a point of stating how unusual it was for a Tijuana artist to never mention the city in their work. Do you think Tijuana pride is prevalent and/or important? Do you have it? How does it come through in your films?
Aaron Soto: I don’t think it’s a pride thing. We’re loud in anything we do. There’s nothing discreet or quiet about Tijuana. We are the town best known for the “lady and the donkey” show. Over-the-topness surrounds us. I think it’s very simple. We were destined to be ignored by our own country, so we scream to get some attention. For many, this could come out as pretension or some kind of pride, but it’s a way to confirm our identity. We don’t belong to Mexico, and we don’t belong to the U.S. We’re our own universe: Tijuana. I don’t feel this way anymore, but I can understand that feeling.
I made reference to the city in my work because, to this day, I haven’t seen any film treat Tijuana the way I see it. TJ isn’t just a tourist attraction or “the happiest place on Earth.” I find it ridiculous to walk downtown and still see a donkey painted as a zebra. TJ is like any other provincial city in Mexico. The difference is the way it makes you feel. The chance to be creative from both sides of the horizon is very exciting, and people can project that energy.
The reason I put that title of “Tijuana” in the “Unámonos” [by Shantelle] video is because, if I don’t let you know, you will never find out. It’s not what you expect from TJ. There’s no border reference or hip cowboys in the video.
I love the city, and it inspired me to be who I am, but there’s nothing that inspired me more than to see a new generation of artists fighting for the city. It’s overwhelming. I’m really grateful to have the chance to be a small part of that. Reality is cooler than fiction. I hope someday I can make Tijuana: The Motion Picture.
CD: Occult imagery is a common theme in your videos. In what ways do Mexican folklore and mysticism inform that aesthetic, and where else are you drawing these ideas from?
AS: Well, early in life I discovered El Topo: A Book of the Film in my father’s library. I was, like, seven years old and didn’t understand a single word, but I fell in love with the images. It was very hypnotic. My father was kind of like a con man from Mexico City — one of those con men that are very cultivated and have an adventurous life. He was a red-note [violent-crime] journalist who studied film and theater. He didn’t want to belong to the system, so he stayed on what you can call the wild side of the golden age of Mexican cinema and radio. You know what I mean? He smoked weed with comedy legend Tin Tan, and he even attended film class, with [Spanish surrealist] Luis Buñuel as his teacher.
So, even though he wasn’t all serious about art, when he flew to Tijuana, he was one of the first people that brought all that knowledge and culture from Mexico City. Imagine all those stories about taking classes with Buñuel and attending premieres of those crazy Jodorowsky films — regular stories at dinner — and I was only seven years old.
I guess I developed a taste for the unusual. Plus, it was the late ’70s, and my parents were into metaphysics and all that crazy New Age shit. It was normal for me to think as a surrealist, but it was the geography that made me want to dream and create my own fantasies.
For most people, downtown Tijuana was the essence of the city. All the business pioneers and first families were raised in the north area, but not my family. My grandpa was a local farmer. He owned land south of the city, almost outside of the city, so my main playground was empty lots and faraway hills. The rest of the city was a mystery to me, and I loved that feeling. You know those small-town stories where the kid wants to leave the town to explore the big city? Not me. I wanted to stay there and explore the esoteric side of rural life.
CD: What films did you watch as a kid that fed into your approach to filmmaking now?