In feature debut Calloused Hands, writer-director Jesse Quinones presents a sensitive and richly modern view of American life and the American Dream filtered through the struggles and experiences of one mixed-race family. At the centre of a tense intersection of cultural and contemporary concerns is the young Josh (Luca Oriel), a twelve-year-old Miami boy who studies for his bar mitzvah at the insistence of his grandfather while his mother’s troubled and abusive boyfriend piles on the pressure for Josh to excel as a baseball player.
For Quinones, this was a very personal project, inspired heavily by the experiences and people of the filmmaker’s own formative years. Speaking to FilmDoo, Quinones reflects on his award-winning film and the issues it embodies.
How much did you draw from your own experiences of growing up in making Calloused Hands?
I drew on my own experience quite a lot in the making of Calloused Hands. If I had to give it a figure, I’d say roughly 80% of it is true to life, and the remaining 20% is poetic license. They say history and memory are two separate things. So I tried my best to honour how things literally happened, but in some cases paid more attention to how they made me feel.
The stories of these characters seem informed by an intersection of social, cultural and economic issues. To some extent, do you think our personal conflicts are always going to be a product of this wider context of national concerns and environmental influences?
I’m a firm believer that the more personal you make something, the more political it becomes. Growing up I was only able to understand things through the prism of my own experience and those experiences affected me in a very deep way. But as I became older, I was able to look at those times and the people in my life with a degree of objectivity, and understand that some of the things people do are a result of the context.
My stepfather Byrd (played by Andre Royo) for instance, was a very flawed man. But he was not evil. I thought he was back then but I see things differently now. Byrd was a black man born into poverty in Oakland in the ’60s. He grew up dirt poor and the world expected very little from him. Nobody in his life would have blinked an eye if he had become a dishwasher, or a handyman, or a cleaner, or a builder – or any similar honest, honourable job. But the problem was he expected more for himself. Much more. And that gap that lived within him, between what the world wanted from him and what he wanted from him, is what made him tragic. He wanted that American dream so bad, but he didn’t know how to get it.
In many ways he was a lot like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, the little man trying to get that big dream. That was my pitch to Andre when I first approached him about the part in fact. I told him: you are Willy Loman, just the Miami version from the hood.
The film premiered back in 2013. With regard to the dynamics of class, culture and identity explored in this film, how do you think the situation in America has changed in these last few years?
Unfortunately, it looks like the situation in the states has gotten worse. I have been living in London the past 17 years and I hold to the belief that to truly understand a place you have to be on the ground experiencing it first hand. I haven’t been back to the states since my film premiered in 2014 so I can only go on what I hear and see. But I stay in touch with a lot of friends from back home and it sounds grim.
The Trump election is very disappointing, although not surprising. I think for many people outside of America, they don’t realise there is a massive chunk of people in the middle of that country who will never set foot outside the US in their entire lives, who have no sense of what is happening in the rest of the world. They have this view that the world is a very dangerous place and that notion gets perpetuated by selective reporting. The US can be very insular; I don’t think people are aware of how much so. Even still, it was disappointing.
In terms of class, culture and identity – well, many who are proud of their cultural or racial heritage will, I’m sure, be feeling very misrepresented and marginalised by some of Trump’s uncompassionate policies, and his racist rhetoric. What a huge step backwards. I was so excited after the Obama election. I felt it was one of America’s finest hours.
Would you say that your Jewish heritage still holds a prominent place in your day-to-day life?
I definitely describe myself as Jewish if someone asks, and I try to do the big Jewish holidays and uphold familial traditions, but aside from that I’m not practicing in the sense of attending synagogue regularly.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this story?
One of the best compliments I ever received about Calloused Hands was a couple years ago at a film festival. This woman came up to me and told me that she had grown up in a violent home where there was domestic violence. And she said that watching Calloused Hands was the first time she saw a story that reflected her own. That, for me, was so special. I think for anyone that may have had it tough, it’s a film that they can relate to. And for anyone else, it’s a window into a world they perhaps didn’t know.
What have you been working on recently?
At the moment I’m working on my next feature film. It’s called Cagefighter and it’s about a London-based fighter that begins suffering panic attacks. Similar to Calloused Hands, it’s a sports film but not about sports if that makes sense. But this will be on a much bigger canvas. It’s still very much character driven but with a bit more spectacle and action within it. We just picked up a sales agent, we have some very exciting cast attached, and a few big pieces of the puzzle so it looks like we are set to shoot in 2018.
Watch Calloused Hands on FilmDoo