Artist Omar Lopex’s film a love letter to Tijuana

A man standing next to an old VW bug on a dirt road
Artist and filmmaker Omar Lopex
(Tayo Oyekan)

The dreamy ‘Ana, Who They Pulled Out of the River’ will be screened for one day only at the Mingei


“Ana, Who They Pulled Out of the River” opens like a vintage silent film. A drumroll segues into a piano and orchestra score. A grainy, black-and-white cityscape is slowly illuminated. A large moon rises behind a grand house on the hill, so clearly superimposed that it almost resembles Georges Méliès’ 1902 classic “A Trip to the Moon.”

To describe local artist and filmmaker Omar Lopex’s debut feature film as “surrealistic” would almost be an understatement. Inspired by masters like Luis Buñuel and David Lynch as much as it is by Mexican telenovelas, “Ana, Who They Pulled Out of the River” has been a longtime dream of Lopex, years in the making.

“I think a lot of people probably thought I wasn’t even actually making a movie,” Lopex jokes. “I think around year four, people ask you what you’re working on and you tell them the same thing. And then you’d see the doubt it in their faces.”

Featuring an all-woman, binational cast and shot entirely in Tijuana and Baja, “Ana” centers on a young woman, abandoned as a baby (in a Moses-like sequence in the beginning of the film, she is sent down the Tijuana River in a basket) and is now dealing with the return of her mother after 20 years. The film’s dreamlike feel is certainly intentional, with fantastical sequences throughout that reinterpret various world myths and folklore.

“When I had the movie in mind, after I had the script written, I really wanted it to have that go-go-go feel,” says Lopex, who has made a number of short films and started his own production company, Standard Fantastic Pictures, in 2013. “A scene ends and then you jump to the next scene. With feelings, you can move so fast because you don’t have logic weighing you down.”

And while the film certainly has an art-house feel — much of it due to being shot entirely on 16 millimeter black-and-white film — Lopex weaves in his own influences throughout. He mentions that his grandmother always had telenovelas (essentially Latin American soap operas) playing in her house when he was growing up. He says that while the influence is subtle, he did bring a telenovela-style sense of melodrama and immediacy to “Ana.”

A man shooting a film on a beach with girl holding an umbrella
Omar Lopex shooting a scene from his film, “Ana, Who They Pulled Out of the River.”
(Tayo Oyekan)

“It’s not necessarily a hurried feeling, but a forward speed that soap operas have,” Lopex says. “That things don’t have to make sense. You can really go beyond rational feeling.”

The cast certainly helps convey this sense of melodrama.

Sonia Quevedo brings a sense of primal urgency to Ana, so much that it’s surprising to learn that she’s not a professional actress, but rather a schoolteacher that Lopex found after she was recommended by one of the child actors in the film.

But if there’s a real star in “Ana,” it just might be the city itself. Lopex is unabashed in describing the film as his “love letter to Tijuana.” The film is peppered with shots of the city’s various neighborhoods and presented as idyllic and scenic rather than gritty and dangerous. Lopex says he wanted to consciously avoid the “three most cliched subjects” when it comes to presenting Tijuana on film: “drugs, prostitution, and the U.S./Mexico border wall.”

“I can’t in any way say what Tijuana is or isn’t, but I just think there’s a vision of Tijuana that people have on this side, the American side, that usually involves those big three,” says Lopex, who grew up traveling back and forth between San Diego and Tijuana. “It’s hard for people on this side to imagine that there are people in Tijuana who live there, who like living there. They’re not trying to get over here.”

Still, shooting among the bustle of Tijuana presented a challenge, especially when shooting on 16mm film where the amount of time Lopex could shoot a scene was limited. And while he says he could get away with a lot and improvise more while filming, certain locations he’d scout would often be completely different once he showed up to film.

“The city is kind of like an inception,” Lopex says, remarking on the seemingly endless construction in the city. “You’ll drive down one street to get somewhere and then the next month, everything has changed like the city has folded in on itself.”

Still, he credits the cast and crew, who stuck with him despite the fact that many thought he’d never complete the film.

“I think with any big project, you feel like it’s being held together with strings and at any moment it could fall apart,” Lopex says. “That’s the classic movie-making story so you’re just trying to finish it before it all collapses. This was like that, but I also had to convince these people to stay on board for six years. They were just so great and I appreciate that they trusted me.”

A part of the magic of surrealistic-style films is that they are a challenge. They can be beautiful and expertly shot, but, just like a dream itself, can leave the viewer grasping for the exact meaning. For audiences who will ultimately get to see “Ana, Who They Pulled Out of the River” when it premieres at the newly-redesigned Mingei International Museum, Lopex simply hopes they leave with “a feeling,” as if they’ve stepped out of a dream and back into the real world.

“I’m not trying to change anybody’s mind about anything, and this movie isn’t about convincing anyone of anything or saying one thing,” Lopex says. “It’s messy and it’s wild, and I just want them to feel that feeling. Even if they hate it, they have that feeling.”

Media Arts Center presents “Ana, Who They Pulled Out of the River”

When: 1:30, 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Monday

Where: Mingei International Museum, 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park

Tickets: Free (must RSVP)