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Oscars Best Director winner Guillermo del Toro on how movies erase our lines in the sand

The Mexican director, an unlikely winner for his supernatural romance The Shape of Water, makes a heartfelt plea to support immigrants.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

From 2014 to 2016, the three Oscars for Best Directing were won by two members of a trio of Mexican filmmakers, who rose up through the ranks of first the Mexican film industry and then the American film industry together, who supported and befriended each other, as each rose onto Hollywood’s A-list in very different ways.

The 2014 award went to Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity, while Alejandro G. Iñárritu won in 2015 for Birdman and in 2016 for The Revenant. But the third member of their trio, Guillermo del Toro, seemed unlikely ever to win an Oscar. His movies, steeped in horror and dark fantasy as they were, weren’t the sorts of things that typically catch Oscar’s fancy.

That was true until 2018, at least, when his The Shape of Water — a supernatural romance between a woman and a fish-man — racked up 13 nominations and became one of the unlikeliest Oscar frontrunners of all time. Del Toro started winning prizes from groups as diverse as the Golden Globes and the British film academy, and it seemed as if he might, indeed, win an Oscar.

And then he won two — for Best Directing and Best Picture — and even del Toro noted how strange it was that he got this movie made. During his Best Directing acceptance speech, he thanked his studio, Fox Searchlight, for thinking that his movie’s weird blend of romance and fantasy and thriller and musical (yes, musical) would be a good bet, and, of course, he thanked his family and other colleagues.

But he saved his most heartfelt thoughts for immigrants. As an immigrant himself, he said, he and others in the industry who have come from all over the world are “living in a country all of our own. Part of it is here, part of it is Europe, part of it is everywhere.”

But he continued by saying that this ability to tell stories that help us empathize with those who are nothing like us — be they a different gender or race or social class, or be they a fish-man — is key to cinema’s appeal. “I think the greatest thing that does and our industry does is erase the line in the sand. We should continue doing that, when the world tells us to make it deeper.”

And if there’s one reason The Shape of Water has been so embraced by the Academy, it just might be that: Here’s a story about what it means to no longer fear the other, but to embrace it and realize how much the other is just, ultimately, us. “Everyone that is dreaming of using fantasy to tell the stories about things that are real in the world today, you can do it,” del Toro said later, accepting the award for Best Picture. “This is the door. Kick it open and come in.”

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