Last Thursday, I sat down to speak with filmmaker Alexis Gambis who recently wrapped on Son of Monarchs (SOM), his second feature and the first produced by Labocine. Set amidst today’s political stress, Gambis’ film stars Tenoch Huerta who plays Mendel, a young New York-based neuroscientist who responds to national aggressors on his identity by revisiting his childhood home in Mexico after the death of his Grandmother Rosa. However, to journey home means to trade one concern for another, for what awaits Mendel is what awaits all in old habitats: ghosts of decisions made by a stranger self and bittersweet reminders of more carefree days.
Mendel and Simon playing in the fields of Michoacan
In Son of Monarchs, these ghosts live in Angangueo, an idyllic village flush with conifers lording over houses with red tile roofs, flanked by two churches with clocks perpetually out of sync. There, tucked into the foothills of the Sierra Chincua, Mendel discovers a chasm between him and the people from his former life, characters who seem like they’ve been plucked from folklore: the angry brother who blames Mendel for the death of their parents, the stoic, hard-working uncle Don Gabino, the childhood love Brisa, and the spiritual old friend Vicente, whose own performative rituals on butterflies inspires Mendel to later turn to them for answers. Like many of the characters in Gambis’ films, Gabino, Brisa, and Vicente were borne from real-life encounters. In an earlier trip to Mexico, for instance, Gambis met a young girl donning a set of blue butterfly wings, the only blue wings among a crowd of home-crafted orange Monarchs. She eventually inspired Brisa with the line: “I am just a butterfly. This is how I like to be.”
Brisa and Mendel Dialogue, Angangueo, Mexico, 1989
Mendel: Why do you have strange wings? Are you from somewhere else or sick?
Brisa: I am just a butterfly. This is how I like to be.
Mendel: Do you want to marry me?
Mendel: Because I am a bear and I can protect you.
Brisa: Butterflies don’t marry bears.
Brisa with blue monarch butterfly wings accompanied by her monarch and caterpillar friends.
As a trained biologist, Gambis has been taught to seek out aberrations, and it is these aberrations that take center stage in his films. In SOM, adulthood has slightly pummeled Mendel’s, thus requiring him to embark on a quest to reacquaint himself with them. The journey that ensues is documented with loose delineations between fiction and “reality” with several scenes deviating off-script, a trademark of the director’s storytelling style.
As a filmmaker, Gambis further challenges these delineations by superimposing one onto the other until reveries are indistinguishable from physical absolutes. In his short Courtship (2010), a biologist turns into a fruit fly in bed post-coital romp. In another one of his films Insan (2017), a speech-impaired Emirati discovers an innate ability to communicate perfectly with the Arabian oryx. SOM plays too, and through careful editing, fixed national boundaries fluidly metamorphose into butterfly wing patterns and back again until you are unsure which is which.
“I look for ways to take scientific data outside of the confines of the lab so it can infiltrate people’s imaginations, where it echoes with their personal lives, culture, and politics,” says Gambis. “That’s what I do, that’s my experiment.”
Mendel (Tenoch Huerta) working in the lab)
Prior to producing this feature, Gambis conducted another experiment: shooting a series of three shorts to explore the idea that would eventually become SOM. These shorts, deemed The Monarch Triptych, include: Mi Hermano, Los Mimos Monarcas, and La Que Sueña. Each plays with a different story that’s ultimately held by the SOM container. In Mi Hermano, a boy learns about the meaning of death when butterflies carrying the souls of the dead arrive to his hometown in Michoacan. In Los Mimos Monarcas, a professional clown portrays the last Monarch butterfly who, following the death of her partner and the rest of her kind, shares one last message with humanity. In La Que Sueña, a young Mexican biologist living in New York ruminates on transformation.
Together, these shorts also gave form to a question that had long been percolating in the back of Gambis’ mind. What is identity to someone living at the intersection of multiple allegiances, and how absurdly tragic is it to envy an animal--a butterfly, for instance, who is able to cross and re-cross borders with ease while humans cannot?
Between dark New York cellars amidst conversations of the gene-editing tool CRISPR and the sterile comfort of university labs, SOM turns an inquisitive eye to the question, analyzing it not from the vantage point of policy or legislation, but rather from someplace more quantum in comparison: the life and research of Mendel, whose cross-breeding of inner turmoil with butterfly research eventually propels him into a moral conundrum. Reprieve, as he comes to realize in the film, can only be found when he introspects his personal transformation over the years and excavates his past.
Shot over the course of five weeks, SOM splits time between New York City and Central Mexico to capture Mendel’s transformation, one that aptly mimics the migratory path of the monarch butterfly. While the skeleton crew stayed mostly the same throughout production, Gambis opted to hire locally to fill out the staff, resulting in a predominately immigrant and Latinx set with 80 percent of the production directed in Spanish.
In Mexico, the team was able to snag front row seats to Michoacán’s monarch butterfly reserve. Spanning a surreal 14,000 acres, the reserve becomes home to the millions of butterflies who collect like snowflakes on magnificent Oyamel firs at the end of their yearly migration. To get the shot they needed in the day they were allotted, the SOM team arrived on site so early that morning the butterflies were still fast asleep, colonies huddled like dead leaves hanging en masse off the trees. For hours the crew sat quietly with their equipment, careful not to disturb the butterflies, waiting for the sun to heat and defibrillate them back to life. Finally when the clouds parted and the sun rays splayed squarely over Michoacán, the butterflies awoke, yawning and spreading their wings free and wild into the cool Mexico sky.
Mesmerizing shots abound, the next stage of the project is to navigate post-production, which will involve collection of butterfly lab footage, drone shots of the U.S. and Mexico border, editing, sound, and color-grading. The film is set to premiere later this year, rounding the festival circuit with the end goal being a grassroots screening tour across university campuses.
Monarch butterflies arrive in the mountains of Sierra Chincua, Michoacán in Mexico.
About the author
Christina is an Imagine Science Fellow and contributing writer at Labocine. She earned her Bachelors at New York University's Stern School of Business and comes from a professional background in marketing and customer development. Since migrating out of the corporate world, she has worked in post-production on the documentary, Resistance at Tule Lake (about acts of protest during Japanese-American wartime incarceration) and had a stint in TV production before joining Imagine.
In the privacy of her New York apartment, she likes to read and practice animation on her too-small Wacom tablet. View Christina's work at stina-lu.com.