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SUMMER 1993 (2018) Birds’ Eye’s Mia Bays interview with writer/dir Carla Simón

Photo credit: Agusti Argelich

Carla Simón’s debut feature, SUMMER 1993, produced by Inicia Films and Avalon, premiered at the Berlinale 2017 where it won the Best First Film Award and the Generation Kplus Grand Prix Jury Award. It also won the Golden Biznaga at Málaga Film Festival, the Jury Mention at Istanbul Film Festival, and the Best Direction Award at BAFICI, amongst others.

“A thoughtful and moving family portrait.” The Hollywood Reporter

A 6-year-old orphan goes to live with her uncle’s family in Carla Simón’s sensitive, understated autobiographical debut, SUMMER 1993. Striking a careful balance between narrative and atmosphere, the writer-director paints a vivid portrait of a light-filled summer when a little girl has to face the loss of her mother and integration into a new nuclear family. The film parcels out just enough information to satisfy attentive viewers, and though the main character is a moppet, it’s decidedly not a kids film, as acknowledged by the first feature jury’s top prize. Finding the right audience may be difficult, but this delicate sleeper is worth the effort.

Carla Simón grew up in a small Catalan village. After graduating in Audiovisual Communication at the Universitat Autonoma of Barcelona, she spent a year at the University of California where she made her experimental shorts “Women” and Lovers”, before moving back to Spain and completing an MA in TV Fiction.

Awarded with the prestigious scholarships of Obra Social “la Caixa”, Carla then moved to the UK to study at the London Film School. There, she wrote and directed the documentary “Born Positive” and the fiction “Lipstick”, both short films selected in numerous international film festivals. Her graduation project, “Las Pequeñas Cosas” received a Distinction and exhibited at several festivals internationally.

MB: You studied in the UK, US as well as Spain; how do you think these experiences influenced your work?

CS: In each of these places, I studied alongside students from all over the world and, consequently, I started to consider the question of cultural difference, which in turn made me look more closely at my roots in Catalonia. I also felt the absence of my family when I was abroad, which, creatively and emotionally, pushed the idea of a film about my family story to the fore. In other words, a film about what I knew seemed like a sensible project to develop. Studying abroad also helped me develop in other ways: in California, American self-belief rubbed off on me, and, while in the UK, I discovered a more critical or reflective approach to the creative process which really helped me evolve my ideas.

MB: Do you remember the moment that you knew you had to become a filmmaker?

CS: It is a little unclear but I remember a teacher in my last year at high school screening films that we then discussed, including Haneke’s Unknown. The idea that film could be rich in themes, meanings and messages fascinated me and sparked my interest in filmmaking. And I have always been interested in the arts, and with filmmaking you have all the arts in ‘one’: you need to know a little about art, architecture, literature, theatre, music. Finally, I think it was a desire to tell stories, especially about my large, extended family, which motivated me to become a filmmaker.

MB: At what point did you realise that your first feature would tell your own story? Please talk us through that process.

CS: It was in London, actually. My initial idea was to write a film about my mother from when she became pregnant with me up until her death, about six years [later]. This was an excuse to get to know her friends and learn more about her. But I put this idea to one side and made Lipstick, just after my grandfather died, a short film about two siblings finding their grandmother. This made me realise that I should be telling my own story, even though I do not remember much about my mother. I then started developing this story as a short, but there were too many ideas.

MB: Why did you decide to begin with the aftermath of your mother’s death?

CS: Making Lipstick made me realise that how kids react to death was an important topic that needs to be discussed more widely. I spent three weeks with my parents talking to them about the time when I joined their family – the summer of 1993.

MB: How did your family react to your decision?

CS: My parents were very cool and supportive. My mother read every draft of the script. For my younger sister – who remembers very little – reading about our new family dynamic for the first time had big impact.

MB: What was the hardest part of your story to adapt? And can you talk about when truth is helpful and when is best to depart from truth and embrace fiction?

CS: The most difficult part was the fact that I had no real memories of my mother. I had pictures of her but no personal memories. You can appropriate other people’s memories, but you do not live them. Confronted with this absence while developing the feature script really forced me to put it on hold. I then decided to shoot Las pequeñas cosas (2015), a short film that draws upon on my mother’s letters. Making this enabled me to get closer to her memory and to understand how my family felt about her death.

MB: The subject matter must have been very demanding for Laia and Paula, who play Frida and Anna, respectively. How did you approach directing them, especially given that they could not read the script?

CS: The actors spent a lot of time together in the two months leading up to the shoot, building intimacy just doing normal, everyday things. From this process, the children started to believe in their familial relationships and could no longer easily separate fiction from reality. These improvisations could last for up to a couple of hours, with me just feeding them instructions as I shot the action. It was a way to create moments, to create shared memories in preparation for the film. Shooting the film on location, I spoke a lot to guide Laia and Paula through each scene but they would deliver the dialogue in their own words. My voice was taken out in post-production. During sequences when the children played, for example, they had a lot more freedom. This was very beautiful.

MB: The cultural context around the time your parents died is very interesting. Can you talk about this?

CS: Following the end of Franco’s dictatorship in the mid-1970s, the transition to democracy was a very happy, liberating period in Spain, especially for the younger generation. It was a period of major experimentation; artistically, sexually, with drugs and so on. However, as a consequence of this period of liberation and the ease with which drugs began to flood in to the country, Spain suffered a heroin crisis. This was pre-AIDS and then in the 1980s, AIDS struck and the disease spread very quickly amongst intravenous drug users.

My mother was never a heavy user and decided to quit because she wanted to start a family. Sadly, after I was born, she was diagnosed with AIDS, at which time there were no drugs available that were effective against the virus. These became available in 1996. Consequently, tens of thousands of people died and, since I made the film, I have received many beautiful messages from people who shared very similar experiences, losing one or both parents. I was lucky; not everybody was able to start over with relatives and build a new family.

For many, including myself, losing parents or relatives to AIDS was a shameful secret, a social stigma many wanted to avoid. I was only made aware of how my mother had died when I was 12 years old. I think most of the people in my village remained ignorant of this fact right up until the release of the film.

MB: Has the film opened up conversations about this difficult period in Spain’s recent history?

CS: Not within my family, as we had talked about it a great deal already. It has been difficult for my grandmother, however, who is a lot less forgiving than me. It was also quite a shock for my mother’s friends when they suddenly discovered I planned to tell everyone by making a film about it! They had not really discussed my mother’s death and what caused it, but I think ultimately the film will help reduce the stigma around HIV. I am not HIV but I have a close relationship with it, so I think I am well placed to help people to overcome their shame and to reflect upon the past.

MB: What have you learned making your first feature and do you have any advice for filmmakers who get an opportunity?

CS: The biggest challenge for me was managing my expectations and frustrations while making the film, because I quickly realised that it was impossible to replicate the very strong mental images I had developed around what it should look like. This was really shocking and difficult to come to terms with. Instead, I had some actors, a script, locations and a camera, and a period of intense filming, and was forced to find the most important element to best tell my story. Initially, I was very disappointed with what I had shot and it took me some time to appreciate its quality.

The part of the process I am most proud of is how we worked with the actors to create a family. I placed a lot of emphasis on this and I think the considerable time we dedicated to building trust and intimacy is reflected in the film, though it was difficult to prove. Going on family walks, for example, was very useful at the time!

MB: Who do you draw inspiration from, in film and beyond?

CS: There are two Spanish films – Cría Cuervos  (1976) and The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) – that were big influences in the way that they explored the complex psychology of children. Claire Denis is another big inspiration; I think the way she uses the camera is amazing; she makes little stories so full of emotion. I also like Alice Rohrwacher who directed The Wonders (2014) and has another film out at the moment. Outside of film, the photographer, Sally Mann and her off-kilter family photos have also shaped my work.

MB: What now?

CS: I am working on an ensemble piece about a rural family who farm peaches. It explores  how stories and ideas about family are transmitted across generations. The film will be set across  four seasons and in the region that I grew up in.

MB: Following SUMMER 1993, is the Spanish film industry supporting you?

CS: I hope so but it is difficult to be certain. Summer 1993 was a success in Spain but I think film funding has as much to do with the project in question than it does your past track record, when starting out.

Learning about different countries and cultures through film is a beautiful thing, and I think it is important to support films set in or about places that people are perhaps less aware of, like Catalonia. I am also keen on co-productions; Catalan is an official language in France so a French/Spanish co-production could be an interesting option, for example. This way you get to work with producers from different countries who bring differing perspectives on how the film should take shape, which makes for a healthy and productive situation.

There is the additional issue of gender imbalance: compared to male directors, historically, women have struggled to make second features and sustain a long-term career. But hopefully all the current discussion around gender in film will help the situation.



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