A Sense of Crisis: Directors Paula Ortiz, Mercedes Moncada, and Hanna Sköld at the San Sebastián Film Festival
“Life doesn’t have punch lines or a plot. It unfurls in ways that are somewhat random,” says Laurie Anderson. We’re sitting in a small room with fluorescent lighting and acoustically challenged walls. Anderson is wrapping up her last morning at the San Sebastián Film Festival with her newest hit, Heart of a Dog. She isn’t happy I showed up for the interview without having seen her film. I wasn’t happy myself, having missed the screening after several bus route missteps when I arrived in town the night before. If I hadn’t missed the film though, I wouldn’t have gotten the phone call that left me relatively indifferent about Anderson’s screening. My friend had died. And walking unprepared into an interview the next morning didn’t seem any worse than walking into an interview at all. It’s callous either way, how life goes on uninterrupted.
Despite the obvious beauty of San Sebastián, with bridges and boardwalks and ocean waves that crash against the shore, an atmosphere of melancholy shaped my first Spanish film festival experience. Even the tapas and wine tasted sad. I don’t mean to emote or project my mood unto the context of a larger situation or an entire city; but it seemed pervasive — the air felt thick along the whole of the Basque country coast.
I’m not altogether familiar with Basque history, but filmmaker Mercedes Moncada starts me off with an overview of the Spanish Civil War in the ’30s, the subsequent rise of Franco’s fascist dictatorship that lasted until the late ’70s, and the convoluted transition toward democracy that’s still misunderstood today. Moncada attempts to correct this narrative in her hybrid archival footage/docu-drama, Mi Querida España. The history of political turmoil in Spain also comes up in my conversation with another Spanish filmmaker, Paula Ortiz, whose film, La Novia [The Bride], is adapted from the 1932 Lorca play, Blood Wedding. Ortiz explains how the fundamental themes in the epic tragedy highlight many political issues in modern society today. “Crisis” is the word I hear most regularly during both conversations.
Political unrest, social unease, high unemployment rates, Mediterranean refugees — these aren’t just vague talking points or part of the unspoken backdrop at the film festival. Laurie Anderson says, “Film is about the things you can’t say because they are too difficult to say. But you can say them in images and in cuts.” I think of another filmmaker I met with in San Sebastián, the Swedish Hanna Sköld. Her premiere, Granny’s Dancing on the Table, is based on events in her own life, about how a young woman survives child abuse.
I begin to think of the grim undertones on San Sebastián’s picturesque boardwalks more as overt overtones on the cinema screens. Rather than escaping from reality, I’m presented with stories in small dark rooms just as real and inescapable. By the time I ultimately see Heart of Dog, which is, according to Anderson, less about death and more about love, the source of my San Sebastián sadness feels more like one indistinguishable reality.
“When it comes to all the suffering and sadness in the world, you can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. You have to look at it as it is. Call it as it is. And don’t pretend it’s not there,” says Anderson’s Buddhist teacher, who left a mysterious note before disappearing five years ago. When Arte TV asked Anderson to make a film about her philosophy on life, she didn’t think she had one, “and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t try to put it into a film for people to look at.” So, instead, she thought about the Buddhist teacher, about his practice on feeling sad as different than being sad. Her love story, Heart of Dog, is what emerged.
I emerged from the interview with Anderson rattled by the 9am Buddhism. I was prepared to compartmentalize, but instead, found myself committed to a week feeling sad in San Sebastián. But I think the wandering Buddhist would say I did it right — on second thought, he probably wouldn’t differentiate between right and wrong. I suppose he’d just remind me to “confront the sadness and suffering in the world, but to remember that we aren’t here to suffer.”
Below are my conversations from San Sebastián with filmmakers Paula Ortiz, Mercedes Moncada, and Hanna Sköld.
Paula Ortiz, The Bride
Why did you decide to adapt Lorca’s play Blood Wedding?
I don’t know why, but in Spain we don’t adapt our plays and literature as often as you do with Shakespeare or Chekhov. We have very rich literature, but we don’t touch it. And I think we should because it’s our identity. Blood Wedding is one of the most important Spanish plays from the 20th century, but it’s only been adapted once in the 1980s, as a ballet without dialogue. I read the play when I was fourteen. It’s a tragic, deep, powerful, and poetic work, and I always wanted to adapt it for film. But, I knew it would be a difficult project — too difficult for a first feature. But for my second feature, when the producers trusted me more, I was ready to try. Also, I felt the timing was right. Today, we are living a tragic moment, in terms of ethics and social sensibility, so I felt it was appropriate to tell such a powerful tragedy.
Do you mean it’s a tragic moment right now in Spain or throughout the world?
Probably all over the world, but particularly in Spain and in the Mediterranean countries. Tragedies are the stories we tell when the structures are falling down, when there is social and political crisis. And today, we are really living that. I think we should look to the classics, the essential stories, to ask the fundamental, ethical questions, and to reflect inwards. You may not get the answers, but at least you’re pronouncing the questions.
What question is the film most asking?
I think the movie asks about the main engine of our life — the social law versus the natural law, the desire or the duty, and the whether there is a reconciliation of the two.
Do you think people, particularly Spanish audiences, will embrace your adaptation?
I guess I’m afraid how Spanish audiences will react because of Lorca’s life and death. In Spanish culture, the political consequence of his death is still very much alive. He was murdered at the beginning of the Civil War by the fascists — killed in the middle of the night and thrown in the road. It was a huge shock in Spanish culture. You can’t kill a poet. He was such a symbol between the left wing and the right wing, and in a way, this is more powerful than his actual texts. This is probably why people are reluctant to touch Lorca. It’s very tricky, but now, two generations later, I think we are ready to tell his stories again.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Trial and error. I started with short films and learned from my mistakes. My main job is actually teaching literature and writing at the University of Barcelona. I have a BA and PhD in literature, and while getting my PhD, I also studied directing to learn some of the technical aspects of filmmaking. I worked with a very good technical crew on this film — my DP and camera operator are much more technically skilled than me. The key is to always surround yourself with people who are more skilled.
Can you talk about choosing your locations?
For Lorca, the landscape plays a symbolic role in the piece. So to create Lorca’s universe, I was looking for a very surrealistic landscape, an almost magical atmosphere. That’s why we shot in Monegros Desert in Spain and in Cappadocia, Turkey. This is a story that deals with the elemental. We wanted to create a timeless and spaceless environment and wanted to build the story in a very wide twentieth century style (any decade from the 1920s to 60s), and in a very broad Mediterranean location (anywhere in Greece, Turkey, Italy, or Spain).
And how about the actors?
All the characters are almost like archetypes, so it was very important that the actors had the right physical presences and aesthetics for the roles. I knew I wanted Inma Cuesta for the main character, the bride, because she is exactly Lorca’s description, similar to Nietzsche’s dichotomy between Dionysus and Apollo.
Which goes back to what you said about desire versus duty. Does this dichotomy represent women today and how, if at all, did you modernize the representation?
In terms of women in film, we don’t have many powerful female characters that aren’t a cliché. Lorca wrote women with whole human natures, including all the paradoxical sides, and who are always sources of great strength. It was very important for me to consider these characters against today’s time period. I wanted to try to create the essential human experience that Lorca wrote, and at the same time, I wanted the characters to resonate with a female experience of today.
How much were you doubting your vision as you were shooting?
Directing is an unconscious strength. I doubted every moment. Not only was I dealing with such a delicate text, hoping to measure up to the expectation of Lorca, I was working in such a delicate tone. For example, Lorca’s dialogue is very poetical and lyrical, almost like musical text. It’s powerful and beautiful, but it’s also very artificial and far away from normal speaking. So it was really challenging to capture the beauty in the lyrical and also keep the dialogue feeling natural.
Do you think you’ll go for something stylistically different or similar with your next film?
I always say I won’t be baroque but I always end up making things that are baroque. Even though I like big philosophical texts, I’d like to try to make something more simple and naked. I’d like to try something different next time, but we’ll see.
Mercedes Moncada, Mi Querida España
Why don’t you like to watch your screenings?
I’ve been involved in the whole process of the film already, from the initial idea until the end, so I’m more interested in feedback from different people in the audience, after they’ve seen it. Once the film is finished, there’s nothing I can do anymore, and looking at people watch the movie makes me uncomfortable. In a way, it feels like they are looking at me. It makes me nervous even though I know the movie is out there and is going to be seen by many different people in many different ways.
Do you think the film is mostly catered to Spanish audiences?
Even though I am Spanish, I’ve lived thirty years outside the country. What you see in this film is the history leading up to the democratic process in Spain, but what I see is the democratic process in different places in the rest of the world as well. I think there’s a version that could be made of this film in Finland, for example. In every place, there’s a similar process going on, but with different characteristics belonging to that particular place. Everywhere in the world, I think there’s a kind of crisis in regard to the democratic process. So it’s a film about Spain, but whether it resonates internationally with audiences outside of Spain is now out of my hands.
How do you hope it will resonate with or reach Spanish audiences?
There’s a great diversity in the people who will see the film, but I think the audience can mostly be distilled down to two main groups of people — people who remember the political landscape in the 1970’s and people who are just now voting in the elections for the first time. With the presidential elections coming up, I hope that both groups of people will see the film — the younger people because this is all new for them, and the older people because they may have forgotten what happened. The film is also about this, the loss of collective memory.
How is the history of the Franco dictatorship relevant to the upcoming Spanish presidential election?
Well, many of the social situations in Spain are anchored in the background. Some come from the beginning of democracy in 1977 and others come from earlier, from other centuries even. A lot of Spanish pride, which is pride transmitted from the politicians from a certain extent, is based on events from many centuries ago — the expulsion of the gypsies and the North Africans, the battle of the Knights in shining armor who fought for the nobility of Spain. Nowadays, everything has to do with the baggage from the past, whether it’s last century or the centuries before. It carries forward. When Franco died, there’s one kind of story that’s told and there are many lies involved in that story, including lies about how Spain achieved democracy and entered NATO. There’s a whole narrative of Spain out there, and I hope my film exposes a different version.
Censorship also played a large role in concealing the truth, right?
Right, during the dictatorship of Franco, there was very strong censorship. And since the inception of democracy in Spain in 1977, the democratic governments have continued to play with censorship. It’s not as if democracy suddenly appeared and left it alone. In the Franco years, journalists weren’t able to do their work satisfactorily because of the censorship laws. So telling the truth was assumed by filmmakers who were able to use metaphors and imaginations to get at the truth. They got around censorship with imagination. Filmmakers created ways to tell the truth in ways that weren’t available to journalists.
Your found-footage/hybrid doc film is a bit of an homage to that?
Maybe. I’m not a fan of the news because its immediacy limits the structure for ideas. I’m not a fan of conventional documentaries because many try to convince of some great truth. I’m interested in narrative play.
Were you always interested in filmmaking?
I don’t believe in any vocational destiny — that we’re born to do something, or that we study one thing and that we’re meant to do it for the rest of our lives. The people who are great chefs and say they’ve always wanted to be chefs, for example. For me, it’s not like that. I’ve always liked to watch cinema, and liked watching people, but filmmaking sort of happened to me. I most like to read, and that, in a way, brought out the desire to tell stories, to give a narrative to things.
Hanna Sköld, Granny’s Dancing on the Table
How did you develop the story?
It’s been really a long process for me. When I started, I didn’t think it’d be such a personal story. When I started to work with the animation, I started improvising a lot, and I always came back to certain scenes of domestic violence that are really personal for me. And those improvisations really shaped what the film became.
Is the film hard to watch for you?
It was vulnerable on set, but not so much now that I’ve processed it already. Now I can put it away, in a way. It’s important though for people to hear that the film is based on my story. There’s so much taboo and shame around the subject of domestic violence, so it’s been important for me to come forward and say it’s my own story.
This is a gross assumption, but I wouldn’t have thought abuse or domestic violence would be a taboo subject in a Scandinavian country.
Even though we’ve come quite far in Scandinavian countries with equality issues, domestic violence is still a taboo topic. Sweden really wants to have this self-image of being progressive, but it closes the door on wanting to talk about the subjects that may hold this image back. As a country, Sweden doesn’t want to necessarily confess it has a problem with domestic violence.
What was the writing process like?
I’ve been a part of different script writing workshops. In many ways they are helpful because they give you new ideas, but for me, for this project, I felt we developed too much. So many people gave so much input, and I started to feel as if I didn’t know what the film was about anymore. It came to the point where I couldn’t hear any more input. It was this moment, when I really asked myself what I wanted the film to be about, that the childhood scenes kept coming up.
Are happy with how it turned out?
The film has changed so much through all the different steps. It started out as something and is now so much closer to what I really wanted it to be but couldn’t imagine it ever being when I first started. Throughout the process, I’ve walked towards the core of the film.
How much would you say Bergman influences your work or your Swedish contemporaries?
Bergman is so big, so there’s this feeling that we live under his image. There’s been a period of Swedish filmmakers, especially younger ones, wanting to reject Bergman just to get rid of his shadow and not walk in his footsteps. Personally, I love the surrealistic parts of Bergman’s films and except for Roy Andersson, who uses surrealism, surrealism isn’t common in Swedish cinema, but it’s what influences me most. I think most young directors today are against the kind of theatrical acting that’s seen in Bergman films. They are generally more interested in real and naturalistic acting because they think it’s more authentic.
Do you like to work with people outside of Sweden?
I’m international in that my composer is from Italy, my cinematographer is from Poland, the sound designers are from Denmark, and the editor is also Swedish. It’s an international team, and for me, something happens when I get influences from people in places outside of Sweden. I’d like to try to make something in English one day, with English actors.
How did you finance the film?
With this film, I didn’t get any state funding right away, so I made a successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarer. It’s tricky with government grants, because sometimes it means people may try to interfere with your story. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to keep the core of the film, especially with this film, one with such a vulnerable process; I felt I had to protect it. I did end up getting state funding after I applied again, so I had both the crowdfunding campaign and the government funding.
Neither of which you had on your previous film?
Right. I released my first feature on The Pirate Bay to pay back the loan I took out from the bank to finance the film. It was incredible. They put the film up on the front page and I got hundreds of emails from audiences all over the world who saw the film and wanted to help, to translate subtitles, to organize screenings. One guy in Ukraine organized a screening and even invited me there to attend. I didn’t really understand what was happening other than this was kind of a movement. People want to be active participants, beyond just being the audience. They don’t want to wait for movies to come out. People really want to be actively involved in the process.
How do you find watching the film with different audiences?
I like to watch it with the audience because I love to feel what’s happening in the room. The film kind of becomes new to me when I experience it with an audience. I’m curious to watch it tomorrow with a mainly Spanish audience. I really have no idea what to expect.