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It's playing out like a telenovela

Luis Mandoki hopes his film on a presidential candidate will help sway Mexico's voting public.

April 17, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — 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.

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