The Neighboring Scenes showcase returns to the Film Society of Lincoln Center January 26-31, with a program highlighting the range of contemporary Latin American cinema. Particularly encouraging is the strong presence of women—among them Lina Rodriguez, with an exquisitely written drama, This Time Tomorrow, which premiered in 2016, in Locarno; Laura Huertas Millán, with a hybrid film, Black Sun; and Marília Rocha, whose earlier documentaries won acclaim in her native Brazil, including a top prize at It’s All True International Film Festival.
Rodriguez and Rocha’s films are notable for delicate performances, and for breathing energy and nuance into mundane moments. A contemporary urban carpe diem, This Time Tomorrow centers on a tightly knit Colombian middle-class family, and the sudden maturity they negotiate when a tragedy strikes. Rocha’s Where I Grow Old, her first fiction feature, focuses on the challenges, sympathies and dreams that Europe’s young face as they emigrate to Brazil. In both films, understanding and trust must constantly be reaffirmed, and uncertainty, be it economic or existential, is a given. Meanwhile, Millán’s Black Sun borrows a page from psychoanalysis and opera to present an enduring family trauma.
I’ve interviewed the three filmmakers by email.
Lina, it’s been noted in reviews that your film avoids “miserabilism,” an adjective used to describe what western viewers expect from South America. Do you run into presumptions about what South American films are like?
Lina Rodriguez: Indeed. My feature films do not conform to certain colonialist expectations, i.e. that Colombia should be exotic, poor or underdeveloped. I’ve been told by potential distributors that This Time Tomorrow could take place anywhere and that there’s nothing specifically Colombian about it, which they saw as a problem. It’s funny, because when we premiered the film in Bogotá a few months ago, many audience members told me how excited they were to see precisely such a Colombian film. It’s interesting to look at the Argentine or the Mexican cinemas whose filmmakers, for the most part, make films that represent different milieus. Colombia is also a complex country. We need a range of voices to ask questions about our realities. I hope that the international funding system and film festival and distribution circuits open up to accept a more diverse range of films from the Global South.
In your case, representing the Global South is even more nuanced, since you’ve lived for years in Canada, yet have filmed your features, Señoritas and This Time Tomorrow, in Colombia.
Lina Rodriguez: When you leave your country of origin, you end up inhabiting an in-between space, between your memory and the present. As a dual citizen, my identity is forever split. It is from this perspective that I make films.
My early work, a mixture of experimental shorts, installations and performance art, didn’t fit in any of the official funding categories. Since neither the Colombian nor Canadian film industries offered me opportunities, I made my films independently, with very precarious budgets, mostly from grants from the arts councils in Canada.
Shooting in Colombia brought challenges and opportunities. I had no real connections with the Colombian film industry. To shoot Señoritas, I had to start from scratch, with the help of my co-producer and co-editor Brad Deane. I used mostly my circle of family and friends in Bogotá. For my second film, I brought back some initial collaborators and incorporated new ones. Ultimately, these challenges forced me to develop a production model and helped me grow immensely. I’m now looking forward to shooting my next film in Toronto and turning my attention to a Canadian reality. This will bring me into interesting territory, given that the Canadian film industry is struggling to deliver on its promises of incorporating more diverse voices and stories that represent the multicultural society the country is proud of.
Marília, in your film, the transcultural experience becomes part of the plot. Your characters are suspended between Brazil and Portugal, a country that exerts a strong pull on Brazilian filmmakers. I’m thinking Walter Salles’ Terra Estrangeira (1995). What drew you to this story?
Marília Rocha: In 2012 I met some Portuguese women who came to live in Belo Horizonte. I was intrigued by the young ones, who seemed adrift. This was the apex of the global financial crisis, which had just reached Portugal and other European countries. Around that time, I read an article in a newspaper about how the Portuguese prime minister had recommended that young people emigrate, in search of opportunities. There was an exodus of Portuguese youth, who saw no opportunities back home.
Brazil received thousands of such young expats. Francisca Manuel, one of the film’s protagonists, was living in Belo Horizonte. We also did casting in Portugal, where we filmed dozens of young women seeking to leave their country, and who had all kinds of hopes and fantasies about Brazil. The film owes a great deal to them, both to our conversations and to their feelings. Beyond that, the relationship between Brazil and Portugal is fascinating, a mix of enchantment, identification and familiarity, but also of prejudices and mutual misunderstandings. I wanted to show these in my film.
I asked about cultural preconceptions, but could you also speak specifically about being a woman in the Latin American film industry?
Marília Rocha: I can speak about Brazil, which doesn’t seem that different from other countries. For sure, the past few years have created a very special moment in Brazilian cinema, as a result of public policies [of promoting film], initiated only a decade ago. Thanks to these initiatives, we have a film production that is diversified in all kinds of ways, with a plethora of styles and themes.
In terms of numbers, women’s participation in this landscape has changed quite a bit. But numbers often conceal fundamental areas that change very little. Women often play secondary roles, on film crews, but how many directors, producers, or cinematographers are actually women? Even when we do develop great projects, they rarely receive the same attention or renown as those by male directors.
When, for example, Where I Grow Old won the main prize at the top national film festival in Brasilia, in 2016, I heard that this must have happened because there were women on the jury. Which is to say, some justified the film receiving a prize by diminishing its actual value. The market is certainly quite sexist and chauvinist, and this reflects not just on production, but also on how women continue to be portrayed onscreen.
All three films feature remarkable acting work by women. Laura, you actually appear with your mother and aunt in Black Sun, which is based on your family’s history of depression. How did this come about?
Laura Huertas Millán: At first, my film was supposed to have an omniscient narrator, the opposite of an intimate journal. But the more writing I did before the shoot, the more it was evident that the reality and the logistics of the project—the fact that it is also my own story—were actually a very important part of it. This made me reconsider the subjective point of view. After seeing in some of the rushes the similarity of my aunt and my mother to myself—our shared features and voices—my onscreen presence seemed like a powerful tool to visually convey complex ideas, such as legacy and kinship. Nevertheless, the film was never supposed to be strictly about me. So there was a long negotiation, especially in the editing room, to find the right balance, and to create an immersion in a subjectivity that results from three different voices.
How about you, Lina, what’s your directorial process like?
Lina Rodriguez: I spend a lot of time putting together the cast and the crew. I then design opportunities for all of us to create a pre-history, before we start shooting. It’s an opportunity to reframe, to look for what people—be it actors or non-actors, who occupy the same space in a specific time—bring to what I’ve written. It’s very important that actors build their connections and relationships independently. It not only creates a very intimate energy, but also adds a layer of freshness. Writing my own characters and plot are definitely also a big part of it, so is the editing. I intentionally open up “holes,” so I can discover and re-discover things.
Black Sun is a family story, but also alludes to a broader—political, systemic—violence. Laura, can you speak of this specifically Colombian context?
Laura Huertas Milán: I knew that I wanted to link history and intimacy, to talk about history through a woman’s body. The project gradually unfolded as a reflection on trauma. Is trauma lived in solitude? In very concrete terms, how does trauma affect a community? Can it be passed down the generations?
I started to dig into my family’s chronology of displacements, and realized that my grandparents on both sides were deeply affected by La Violencia, i.e. the civil war between 1948 and 1958. Both sides of my family moved to Bogotá to escape violence. These stories have been kept in silence for years. It is not easy to unearth them. I feel grateful that Black Sun could also be a space to think about where we come from as individuals, and how we deal in the present with past injuries.