Oscars 2022: Q&A: UCLA alumnus discusses class stratification in futuristic short film ‘Please Hold’
Erick Lopez plays Mateo in “Please Hold.” Co-produced by alumnus Diego Nájera, the film is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. (Courtesy of Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi/Scavenger Entertainment)
By Vivian Xu
March 5, 2022 7:58 p.m.
This post was updated March 27 at 10:00 p.m.
Please hold – the future will be here shortly.
Set in a sci-fi reality of the near future, the short film “Please Hold” is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. The project employs both comedy and satire to comment on privatized prisons and their convoluted bureaucracy. Following the wrongfully incarcerated protagonist Mateo (Erick Lopez) through his battle against a computerized carceral system, producer and alumnus Diego Nájera said the film borrows futuristic technological elements to criticize class stratification and its consequent injustices in the context of America’s carceral system.
Nájera spoke with the Daily Bruin’s Vivian Xu about critiquing technology through satire, constructing a plausible sci-fi reality and Latino representation on screen.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Daily Bruin: In the film, Mateo is dealing with the frustrations of AI technology, which parallels the frustrations of dealing with real-life bureaucracy. Why did the team choose AI in particular to parallel this frustrating process?
Diego Nájera: That’s also part of the pitch that (the writer) gave me, like, ‘Imagine being on the phone with Spirit Airlines customer service and trying to click your way to find a human being, but your life depends on it.’ Ultimately, automation is around the corner. There’s going to be less friction in some ways because of technology, but at the same time, you remove the human beings and you also remove an essential part of how we interact with each other.
These machines are not infallible, and they have been programmed by flawed human beings. That kind of indiscriminate use of technology might not make us better (and might) bring about some challenges. That’s what the movie is about, especially in this setting where we have already implemented systems that dehumanize people, and removing that human component makes it even worse.
DB: There are many futuristic elements in the film, but how did the team balance those fictional, futuristic elements with making the situation feel plausible and realistic?
DN: One of the cool things about the movie is that it’s five minutes into the future, where everything that’s sci-fi in the movie is actually based in real life. For example, there are certain private prisons where you can pay a fee and get a better cell or greater room. That’s a real thing that happens in California, actually. That was something that was very jarring (and) was implemented in our short, but it’s actually based on something real.
(It’s the) same with prisoners getting charged to make phone calls to their family members at indiscriminate rates. Some prisons have remote visitation rights or the ability to see their families in person, (but) in the interest of safety and health, to face them with a family member, they have to pay exorbitant amounts of money. It’s a way to put into the human eye someone who’s already facing a sentence and to particularly punish minorities and people of color who might not have the resources to pay for those kinds of interactions with their families. Those things are (present) in real phenomena right now that kept it grounded.
The other part was the idea for our sci-fi movie (to) not (be) like an Apple store, minimalistic, everything’s perfect (type of) sci-fi movie. LA County’s not renewing their prisons to add new technology – they’re slapping on whatever is affordable on top of infrastructure that has been built from 100 years ago. That was the approach for technology, like, ‘Oh, the technology is not sleek and it’s not a prison that looks fabulous.’ It’s like, ‘Okay, there’s some new things here, but it’s actually a very grounded, ugly and bureaucratic prison that feels (like) today.’
DB: You once mentioned that many films often don’t see a working-class Latino that is the hero of the journey. What does it mean for you to see this representation or help bring it onto the screen?
DN: Latinos are, especially in Los Angeles, we are everywhere. But unfortunately, both in terms of representation in the industry and also in terms of representation in front of the camera, we are still very absent and have been put in very specific holes and boxes. For me, it was like, ‘What is the Latino that’s (most) present ubiquitously in our society?’ It’s in the service industry – a lot of our food and services are provided by Latinos and we never hear what their stories are.
That was a great part of the story, that the hero of the story happens to be someone who works in one of these places. It’s a normal dude who is trying to go to work, and that’s when he gets arrested by mistake. That was just the idea of making your average Joe – which in our case is all Latino, because that’s the average Joe right now – be the hero of their own story.