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A murderer or a hero? Those are the conflicting titles circling inside the mind of the lead character in Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer’s Contrapelo.

Co-written by Liska Ostojic, and loosely based on Hernando Téllez’s short story “Just Lather, That’s All,” Contrapelo centers on a Mexican Barber (Art Bonilla) who is kidnapped and forced to shave the leader (Eduardo Roman) of a drug cartel.

With the man responsible for so much of his country’s violence and deaths sitting vulnerably in front of him, the Barber, a man of normally strong pride and morals, is quickly tempted to play the role of vigilante.

In just under 19 minutes, Dunnet-Alcocer delivers an engrossing thriller that invites viewers into the internal struggle of a man who, by one quick move of his blade, could have either blood or lather dripping from his hands.

Dunnet-Alcocer, an American Film Institute alumnus, has already received the top short film prizes at the San Diego Latino Film Festival and the Phoenix Film Festival for his work on the film. And to top if all off, he could even add an Oscar to his shelf — the Mexican-born writer/director is one of 10 finalists shortlisted for the Best Live Action Short Film at this year’s Academy Awards.

Ahead of the nominations announcement, I interviewed Dunnet-Alcocer about adapting Téllez’s short story, the challenges of filming in mostly one setting, and why it’s important to humanize an antagonist.

ScreenPicks: Contrapelo was inspired by Hernando Téllez’s short story “Just Lather, That’s All.” Both your film and Téllez’s story deal with morality. In the short story, the Barber asks himself, “Murderer or Hero?” In the film, he prides himself for being an honorable man, yet he’s still faced with the temptation to kill a man who’s caused so many deaths. What is it about Téllez’s story and that theme that resonated with you the most?

Dunnet-Alcocer: “I read that story when I was ten years old, and both when I was a kid and now what interested me was the concept of choice. The idea that we are constantly choosing who to be. The barber is a man who lives in black and white. There are good shaves and bad shaves, good people and bad people. This idea of the world is extreme, and it leads to a bad kind of righteousness. He says he would kill every last one of them if he had a chance. The film gives him the chance, and he sees it’s not a black and white world.

“When I was a kid, the choice was between murderer and hero, but as I grew older, I began to think that some people’s choices are taken away from them, that we are creatures of circumstance.”

ScreenPicks: Unlike the short story, which is a very internalized narrative, the film has to show the Barber’s dilemma through his actions. Was it a challenge to make those changes when you adapted that scenario?

Dunnet-Alcocer: “Yes. It was very challenging. Every aspect of the film had to be working to externalize that process. The most crucial aspect was Art Bonilla’s wonderful performance. We were very lucky to have him.”

ScreenPicks: A more black and white film would’ve depicted the Drug Lord as a one dimensional villain. In Contrapelo, however, we’re given a glimpse of his humanity during a brief moment that he shares with his son. In that moment, we realize there’s more depth to him than we initially thought. How important is it to humanize an antagonist, even one as dark as the Drug Lord?

Dunnet-Alcocer: “I think it is crucial to do so. If we think of bad people as just bad people, as caricatures or one dimensional characters, it is easier for us to think we could never turn into them. That’s a dangerous way of thinking. Bad people, for the most part, don’t think they are bad people, they think they are right. I enjoy that moral complexity, and I believe it makes storytelling more engaging, more unpredictable.”

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ScreenPicks: Arturo may only appear in the film’s opening and closing scenes, but he’s still a key character who you could say is representative of misguided youth. Instead of leading him to a better direction, the Barber is quick to cut ties with him. Would you say that the opening scene is a reflection of how some guardians or authoritative figures are contributing to the problems of troubled youth rather than preventing it?

Dunnet-Alcocer: “Arturo is the barber’s son. The kid you are talking about, we left him without a name. But yes! I think that is the central question Contrapelo tries to make. I believe the Barber is just as responsible as the Drug Lord. The Barber takes the blade from the kid’s hand, and it is this action that allows the Drug Lord to put a gun on it.

“I believe in Mexico we are all responsible for what is happening, and we all have the power to change what is gong on. The Barber thinks that it’s ‘them’ that ‘they’ are responsible. At the end of the film, he realizes he and the Drug Lord are not that different.”

ScreenPicks: Most of the film takes place in one room and with only two characters. Can you talk about how you worked together with your cinematographer [Carolina Costa] to overcome those limitations?

Dunnet-Alcocer: “In a way, it removes the option of blocking to freshen up the frame and to make it dynamic. The film is essentially two guys in the center of a room, one standing and one sitting. If you don’t do this right, you’ll make a very boring movie, so we had to try and make the camera change whenever the emotional rhythm of the film changed. We wanted to experience the camera as a subjective character, always shooting what is inside the barber’s head. Editing was also they key process to bring this rhythm across.”

ScreenPicks: Making films can be a way for an artist to comprehend the world around him or her. Téllez’s original short story was set during a Colombian revolution. When you translated it to a short film, you set it during modern-day Mexico and focused on a current issue. Did this help you understand that issue better?

Dunnet-Alcocer: “I don’t know if I understand it more or less. I think it always changes and it is always confusing and spectral. The film, I guess, to me was a way of connecting to the people involved in this problem, the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys.”

ScreenPicks: So we’ve explored the idea of how a single decision to take one path over another has a profound influence on the person you become. You’ve opened up in the past about how you dropped out of Law school and left Mexico to pursue filmmaking. What would you advise to others who want to pursue the arts over more financially stable career paths?

Dunnet-Alcocer: “Get ready to be poor, and be relentless.”

ScreenPicks: Are you working on another short that you can tell us about? Or are you looking to do a feature next?

Dunnet-Alcocer: “Formally, I’ve made three short films. I guess I have, like most filmmakers out there, I want to make a feature film.”

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All 10 Best Live Action Short Film contenders are listed below.

“Ave Maria,” Basil Khalil, director, and Eric Dupont, producer (Incognito Films)
“Bad Hunter,” Sahim Omar Kalifa, director, and Dries Phlypo, producer (A Private View)
“Bis Gleich (Till Then),” Philippe Brenninkmeyer, producer, and Tara Lynn Orr, writer (avenueROAD Films)
“Contrapelo (Against the Grain),” Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, director, and Pin-Chun Liu, producer (Ochenta y Cinco Films)
“Day One,” Henry Hughes, director (American Film Institute)
“Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut),” Patrick Vollrath, director (Filmakademie Wien)
“The Free Man (Zi You Ren),” Quah Boon-Lip, director (Taipei National University of the Arts)
“Shok,” Jamie Donoughue, director (Eagle Eye Films)
“Stutterer,” Benjamin Cleary, director (Bare Golly Films)
“Winter Light,” Julian Higgins, director, and Josh Pence, producer (Innerlight Films and Prelude Pictures)

The nominees for the 88th Academy Awards will be announced on Thursday, January 14, 2016.

(All photos are courtesy of Alex Lombardi.)