Bolivia has only submitted 11 films for Oscars consideration under the category of Foreign Language Film -- and two of them have been directed by Rodrigo Bellott, the gay director of Tu Me Manques, this year's selection from the South American country. His 2004 film Sexual Dependency previously received this honor.
Tu Me Manques might seem a surprising choice for a country that has not yet recognized marriage equality and where homophobia and transphobia remain a deadly issue; at least 64 LGBTQ people were killed in the past decade, according to a 2017 report, in a country of around 11 million.
The bilingual film takes aim at this stigma. It centers on Jorge (Oscar Martinez), a conservative Bolivian man who travels to New York to meet Sebastian, the former partner of his son Gabriel, after Gabriel's death by suicide. Jorge is homophobic at the beginning of the story, and his quest to learn more about his dead son turns into a journey of confronting his own prejudices.
Count Bellott, who called the film's selection "mind-blowing" and "a huge political statement for the country," among the surprised.
"I started making this movie because I thought my country was homophobic. And the fact my country chose it, knowing that it's a gay film, it just flips my mind," Bellott said in a recent interview with The Advocate. "You know, it says that some change has happened."
Pictured: Jorge (Oscar Martinez) seeks answers about his dead son.
Tu Me Manques may have played some role in this change. The 2019 film was adapted from Bellott's 2015 play of the same name. Bellott penned the screenplay in response to the real-life horror of losing a partner with an unaccepting father to suicide -- an experience that is mirrored in the film through Sebastian.
Originally meant to be a one-night production, the play was extended for months due to its popularity. Its message inspired hundreds to share coming-out stories in a phenomenon referred to as the "Tu Me Manques effect," reminiscent of the It Gets Better movement. It excelled at the Bolivian box office as well, pulling in $32,334 after its August 22 release, according to Box Office Mojo. (The Lion King, by comparison, grossed $22,055 there.)
While critics have heaped praise on the film -- it currently enjoys a rating of 100 percent on the reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes -- "needless to say, there's also a lot of homophobia," Bellott said. The filmmaker noted with disgust that a conservative politician, in order to boost his platform before Bolivia's presidential election in November, used the conversation around Tu Me Manques to champion conversion therapy, the discredited practice of trying to change the sexual orientation and/or gender identity of LGBTQ people.
For many, including Bellott, the incident showed the work that still needed to be done to move the needle for LGBTQ acceptance in Bolivia. It was also a humbling moment for the filmmaker, who saw -- through the embrace of the film and the backlash to the antigay politician -- the great strides that had been made in his native country since the play debuted in 2015.
"Once I came to Bolivia, and I opened the film, it actually allowed me to see how much work that goes on unrecognized has been done by activists in my country," he said. "From the time I started the project to now, it's been five years and it feels like it's like a different country and it's because of people who have been working silently via political work, activism, and social work."
Pictured: Jorge (Oscar Martinez) and Sebastian (Fernando Barbosa) in Tu Me Manques
Bellott shied away from calling himself an activist. After traveling throughout the country to conduct Q&As at Tu Me Manques screenings, he credited the individuals he met as being the true changemakers. He witnessed again and again how audience members passed the microphone around the room to share their coming-out stories -- many speaking for the first time about the subject in front of family members. Even one of Bellott's leads, Fernando Barbosa, who originated the character of Sebastian in the play and now on-screen, found the courage to come out through giving life to this role.
Parents have been particularly inspiring at these events. Bellott recounted that one woman in particular, who had three LGBTQ kids, shared with the audience how she had begun a support group with other rainbow families through WhatsApp in order to brainstorm how to fight bullying and ignorance in their schools and communities.
"It's parents like that who are making a huge difference," Bellott said. "With my film, I don't feel responsible for this. I just feel like I'm part of something bigger, you know? That I've actually finally found a community in my country."
"Unfortunately I'm the one who has more visibility," Bellott added. "So that visibility comes with a huge responsibility. And that's one of the greatest lessons I'm learning."
As awards season shifts into high gear, Tu Me Manques and its message of the need for acceptance are also growing to affect an international audience. The film is already a standout among the American LGBTQ film festivals; it won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Screenplay at Los Angeles's Outfest this summer, and it holds the coveted place as the closing-night film at NewFest in New York City next Tuesday.
Will the Academy also take notice? "Being the underdog, having a new outlook, I think we actually have a chance," Bellott's manager confided to him in a recent call, as recounted by the filmmaker.
Bellott remains skeptical of his odds. Bolivia has never been a nominated contender at the Academy Awards. However, the country has recently begun investing public funds in filmmaking, and a nomination for Tu Me Manques would bring about "huge visibility for the country" and its burgeoning efforts to foster cinematic talent, Bellott said.
In addition to honoring Bolivia, Bellott acknowledges how a greater platform for a film like Tu Me Manques could have the power to influence hearts and minds around the world, particularly in places with antigay attitudes and laws.
"When you see a story and it moves you to tears, and you see what love is, what gay love is, when you see tenderness and you see humanity, it's easier to articulate, 'Oh, this is it? Oh, I'm not against this,'" Bellott said. "That's why I think art is such a beautiful tool."
Pictured: The many Gabriels in Tu Me Manques
In its art, Tu Me Manques also raises awareness of suicide in the LGBTQ community. Like the play, the film has cast several actors as the bespectacled Gabriel, who appears throughout the story in flashbacks. Eschewing realism, Gabriel's death scene -- he jumped off of a building -- taps the power of the theater to heartbreaking effect: dozens of men fall one by one to the floor on a stage. It's a painful and effective metaphor for a crisis that is impacting an entire community, particularly LGBTQ youth, who are far more likely to take their lives than their straight peers.
"One queer kid takes his own life every 40 seconds. And when you start doing the math and you start picturing what that means, it's shocking," said Bellott. He has witnessed firsthand the lethal impact of stigma and silencing surrounding both LGBTQ identities and suicide.
"It's so interesting how people try to cover suicide. It's shame. Homosexuality in life was one thing, and the other one is in death. It's a double denial that infuriates me," he said.
It is this denial -- cultural, societal, and personal -- that he hopes to help overcome with stories like Tu Me Manques.
"When you grow up in a country where you don't see your reflection, you tend to think that you don't exist or even worse -- that you don't deserve to exist. This is why visibility is so important," said Bellott. "We are many. We exist. ... We are loved. We are loving."
The need for this acknowledgment of existence -- and the pain caused by its denial -- is reflected in a poignant exchange in Tu Me Manques between Jorge and a friend of his late son, Rosaura (Rossy de Palma), which gives meaning to the film's title. "In French, they don't say 'I miss you.' They say 'Tu me manques.' I miss you in me," Rosaura tells the grieving father. "As if an essential part of the other is missing in you."
Tu Me Manques will mark its New York premiere as the closing-night film at NewFest on Tuesday, October 29, at 7:30 p.m. The ticket includes admission to the closing-night party and a Q&A with Bellott, Martinez, de Palma, and Barbosa.
Watch the trailer for Tu Me Manques below.
If you are a trans or gender-nonconforming person considering suicide, Trans Lifeline can be reached at (877) 565-8860. LGBTQ youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at (866) 488-7386. You can also access chat services at TheTrevorProject.org/Help or text START to 678678. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 can be reached 24 hours a day by people of all ages and identities.