INTERVIEW BY MERVE ARKUNLAR
TEXT BY GÜNEŞ SÖNMEZ
Producer, director and writer Carla Simón’s films are filled with a certain kind of intimacy and sincerity, that feels uncannily familiar to audiences. The 35-years-old Catalan director’s first film, Estiu 1993, was met with critical acclaim on the festival circuit, winning the Generation Kplus and Best First Feature awards at the Berlin International Film Festival, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2017. Its release having been delayed due to the pandemic, Alcarrás won the Golden Bear at the 2022 Berlinale, being the first Catalan-language film to do so. Despite living in a challenging era, in which human worth is determined by fanciful attributes, celebrated through award ceremonies and public appearances, outward persona was not that of an ‘award-winning director’, but that of an artist who still feels thrilled at the prospect of untold stories and yet-to-be-discovered worlds. Perhaps this is how she achieved such rapid success in the industry? Certainly, the authenticity that captivates audiences in her films is a direct reflection of her own personality. Through this, the director reaps the justly deserved benefits of telling her own story, in her own words and in her own time.
Simón considers realism to be the foundation stone block of cinema and each title in her filmography engages in a similar emotional dialogue with the audience. Shot before her feature length films, Simón’s first short, Born Positive, is the beginning of a long journey through her life story, even if she sometimes gets lost in thought along the way. The works that follow Born Positive are also inextricably linked by her wish to ‘reflect reality’. Within her artistic universe, Simón’s two feature-length films dif- fer from one another, in a fundamental way – Estiu 1993 focuses on a loss, that turns Carla’s life upside down, in a documentary-like narrative, whereas Alcarrás tells a completely fictional story that includes real spatial elements. Though one is autobiographical and the other not, both movies are essentially connected, through a thread of real and fictional characters’ desires to ‘find their roots.
In her stories, Carla Simón makes sure that her problematic observations, regarding society, are heard loud and clear without getting lost in the commotion. Moreover, she tries to rediscover the concept of family structure and ingenuously find her roots, or rootlessness. During her explorations, she creates gargantuan images, much like the windmills that Don Quijote tries to battle only to fail, yet she is unable to move away from a naïve tone of realism, creating a more harmonious picture.
Stories that move beyond the realm of personal experience reveal the familiar ways that people are attached to one another, through the candour of amateur actors, that the director likes to feature in her productions. She ‘prefers’ to work with such troupes, because their candid portrayals are not the result of chance connections, but rather the long hours Simón spends with her actors, and the earnestness and sincerity that fosters her desire to capture ‘real feelings’. The tableau of the dinner table, around which the whole family comes together to share a special moment, a depiction of the happy family frequently encountered in Mediterranean culture, is indispensable to the director. Used in all her films, as a point wherein the story unravels, this highly distinguishable scene is a symbol of what Carla imagines when she thinks about her own family. That moment we’ve all dreamt of as kids, when our feet didn’t even reach the pedals of the family car and we were travelling to a magical world with our equally small friends... Carla Simón’s cinema promises to deliver us these all-too-familiar moments and the Proustian longing they inspire – the longing to openly feel your feelings, to make time for yourself and to live in the moment, together with your loved ones...
Carla sees film as a storytelling medium that enables us to explore life and open new spaces for discussion. With her characteristic language and stance against the industry, she wishes to enlighten us through images. Perhaps she wants to remind us about the moments we forget, to succumb to apathy and cynicism these days, which paradoxically, we all feel at the same time. She continues to practice the doctrine of consciously leaving a legacy for future generations. With each new film, Simón always employs a newly-acquired style or contrives an original theme, with which to express herself and her story. Her latest project, due to premiere this Autumn, is also a film where she discovers new depths, regarding herself and her art.
Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales project brings together innovative and influential contemporary directors, to give them space to rediscover womanhood. The 24th commission from the project, Carta a Mi Madre Para Mi Hijo (Letter to My Mother for My Son), is a short where Carla Simón meditates on the life of the women in her family. Here, she turns her lens to the transformation of both womanhood and motherhood, from generation to generation, as well as the communication between generations. Moving beyond the unvarying language of realism found in her previous films, Carta a Mi Madre Para Mi Hijo takes place across three different timelines simultaneously, transferring Carla’s pregnant mother to the present day, uniting her with her daughter and grandson, on the shores of Catalonia. A tribute to her parents, both of whom she lost at an early age, Simón tries to give her son the roots she herself didn’t have, with this film – a symbol of the latest stop on her visual journey, to mesh together documentary and fiction in a single frame.
The excitement of the questions we’ve asked ourselves during the preparation of this issue – like, ‘What is reality? Is there a definition of reality left that includes all of us?’ – was magnified after the interview that follows this introduction. This was due to the fact that Carla Simón is an artist who has a unique perspective on the world we live in today – and who will be considered to be one of the ‘romantics’ of her age, by future generations. Using the latest technology, while filming, doesn’t come naturally to her – instead, she yearns for the intimacy of the world before the internet. The reality of the outside world doesn’t envelop Simón and so she creates her own world, without surrendering herself to the one outside.
We all long for something. Simón suggests that we make peace with this longing, sit and talk with it, shed well-earned tears every now and then. She adds: Don’t worry, you’re safe here now.
Like your previous films Estiu 1993 and Alcarràs, your new project, Carta a mi madre para mi hijo is a story from your own life. Sharing personal moments with others must be an intense experience. Do you feel the need to put a distance between that moment and the emotions that come with it, and your persona as a filmmaker, while you expose your memo- ries, feelings and childhood on screen?
I don’t put much distance between them actually, as you can see. [Laughs] For me it’s a way of communication, as it would be with the production of any kind of art, it helps me to explain myself somehow. There are some projects that need more fiction, like some parts of Alcarràs, which has even more fiction in it than Estiu 1993. Others can be more directly connected to what I am feeling, or the moment I find myself in, and that’s the case with this project, Carta a mi madre because it is short, but also it has been short in time as well, which means that it’s a more direct expression of what I felt at that moment, or where I was emotionally. Even now, when I think about this project – if I did it again, after I had my son, it might be different. Even if they are films, these kinds of projects are more like painting or writing for me, because they are a type of art that is ‘quick’, unlike filmmaking, for which you need money, people etc, for it. So, for me it’s natural that I can do both – some projects are more truthful and honest to my life and others are also true, but may need to go through a process in order to turn them into fiction for people to follow and engage with the characters.
When did you have the first feeling or a first instinct, that you should pursue a career in cinema?
I was not little – it was my last year of high school. Actually, I wanted to study journalism, because I wanted to travel. And then I took this subject in school, where we watched films and discussed them afterwards. I remember that I saw one of Haneke’s films, called Code Unknown, and I really liked it, but the surprise was the debate we had afterwards with the other students. I realised that, yes, you can tell a story – but you can say much more about human feelings and the world, you can reflect on life. The realisation of the potential of films to speak to audiences made me decide to study film.
Your film is listed in the 2022 selection of Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales short film series. How does it feel to be a part of this project? What made you choose the story Carta a mi madre para mi hijo and turn it into a short film??
When they called me from Miu Miu the thought of saying ‘no’ didn’t occur to me, because I already knew the project and many directors that I love had done shorts for them – and I knew that it was very free. Usually, when they ask me for a collaboration like that, it’s hard for me to see how they connect to me and I always end up saying ‘no’. I can’t see a way to create something in- teresting for them. But with Miu Miu it was different, it was totally free. I had the opportunity to talk about where I am right now. Also, the way to use their clothes was free and it could explore something that I wanted to explore. Plus, they work with a selection of great directors that serve as inspiration for my work. Before presenting Alcarràs, I never imagined that I could be a part of this project, so I am very honoured to be in this series. It is nice to be involved in a project that gains a new dimension from every director participating in it.
How do you define the vague boundary between reality and fantasy in your films? What elements do you use to construct the visual language of your stories?
The language I used in Alcarràs and Estiu 1993 is very rooted and connected to the characters: very direct and documentary. Tone is very important in my films and I always try to find a tone that is realistic. When you are watching a film, there is a script that we follow, but my idea is [to give the viewer] the feeling that you are watching things that are happening by chance, in front of the camera.With this short, I felt like exploring something that is less realistic – it made sense because I constructed this tale for my son, about my mum, which didn’t happen - and felt a bit more unique. So, it was very interesting for me to explore something new, in another language.. It was very interesting to explore the magical dimension that you mentioned. Estiu 1993 and Alcarràs have their own poetry, but they are linked to this magical world. However, with the Miu Miu project, it was very important for me to explore this, but I also want to explore this with my new work.
The theme of this issue is ‘Impersonatopia’. We find ourselves questioning the meaning of reality, trying to adapt to change, in a world where physical realities seem to fuse with different virtual realities and indeed, sometimes realities even become completely virtual. As an artist who transforms her personal past and her own world into cinematic creations that are viewed by others, how does this change affect you?
That is a difficult question [laughs]. I always say that I should have been born in another time, maybe in the 80’s where we didn’t have the internet yet. I think I would have been happier, but more importantly I would be more connected. I have a thing between the virtual world and my films, I never know how to fully incorporate it within my stories. I don’t know if it’s because I am more romantic or... I don’t find it very cinematic, so I always avoid it. Actually, in Alcarràs, which is set in the present day, we were forced to put phones [into the film] – somehow [laughs]. Of course, people realised that it was forced, because it doesn’t come naturally to me, to portray people like that. I think there are many stories that wouldn’t happen now, because of phones: The Little Red Riding Hood couldn’t happen, because she would just send a message and say ‘come and get me’ – similarly, Hansel and Gretel wouldn’t get lost [Laughs]. I think there are many stories that would be super different these days. For me, there is something about the over-communicating that we have now that is very hard to incorporate with my stories. I always feel a bit disconnected to the reality that we live in now. When I think about my son, I realise that I have a challenge. Even with Whatsapp, I can’t cope – I have three hundred messages to answer.I have a problem with going along with the normal of today. There is something that I feel doesn’t belong to me yet, and maybe one day I will find a way to integrate it. It also changes relationships and I still like to keep the presence/core. I love the idea of spending time with my family like a family does or like I do with my family.
Is staying true a common feature of your favourite narratives produced in cinema and literature? What have you watched or read recently that left an impression on you?
Well, over the past few months I wasn’t able to watch anything, because I had my hands full with my son [laughs]. However, before my son was born, I went to the cinema very often. I went to a film festival in Barcelona, where I saw the latest Miguel Gomes film – he is a filmmaker from Portugal and made a film during the pandemic – I also watched some Spanish films, released by my friends. I was able to catch up with European films as well. I usually watch independent cinema, but I am very pro watching the classics, when I can, because I learn a lot about film history that way and connect with the films that have stood the test of time. Sometimes, I watch TV series as well, but I have mixed feelings about them, because it sometimes feels like I’m only consuming something. I am currently reading an Italian book by Natalia Ginzburg. I started with The Little Virtues, and I love her because she talks about family a lot which is where I find common ground with. I’ve read Family Sayings and now I’m reading another of her books, where she talks about her own family. Usually, when I consume culture is that I always look for things that relate to my current project. For Carta a mi madre para mi hijo, I watched some films that were set by the sea, because we had set some scenes in a house next to the sea, or we re-watched some films like Maya Deren’s... For example, I had to shoot some Super 8s and I re watched some of Jonas Mekas’s films. Depending on the project I am preparing, I look for references.
The age of artificial intelligence has delivered original stories, without human involvement. AI can even create a storyboard from a script and produce animations. Screenplays written by AI are used to create CGI-rendered footage to make films that have next to no human input. What do you think about telling stories about people in an artistic setting, with less human contribution? Would you consider using AI in your productions?
Well, I hope that if this gets developed, it won’t be the only thing people can watch. Because, for me, it is very important to have things made by humans with humans. For me, the beauty of making films is that you try to control things, but can’t – and, in the end, something comes to life on screen, which is worth capturing. When something is programmed, you can control everything and this cannot happen. Interactions between people or emotions that you cannot expect before filming, for me, are what are interesting to shoot and look for. I always work long hours with actors, building relationships, before shooting. So, when we are shooting, something which is not written can happen, all of a sudden. It’s the little things that are not written, that are improvised, that you can capture and this is life. For me, this is what is important. The progress we are talking about is interesting for some stories maybe, but for the ones that talk about people and try to portray life as it is, I think it is very complicated...
Coming back to the Women’s Tales project, how do you interpret the recent rise in interest in women’s narratives and, with this project in particular, cinema? What are the potential strengths and limits of this frame of mind?
I see it as fixing historical imbalances – cinema has been a very masculine job and all the stories have been told from the male perspective. Finally, women are entering the world of cinema. I think that, if we are the half of the world, then we are the half of the stories. We are not there yet – we have to work a lot more, but we are on the way there. This is super important: not only to have female directors, but also female storytellers. It is about how we represent women and how we represent men. We complain about how men portray women, but it is equally important how women represent men too. As female filmmakers, we sometimes talk among each other about how, ‘yes, it is a question that we always have to answer’. However, it is always important to address this, for the sake of future next generations.
In your new short film, Carta a mi madre para mi hijo, you focus on your own pregnancy and the communication and transfer of experience between women from different generations. What do you think has changed about being a mother? What do today’s children think about motherhood?
I can compare it with my mother’s generation, because I see that many things have changed, at least in Spain. For me, women are having a confusing moment, because we want everything: I want everything. Fighting with breast-feeding, whilst doing interviews and finishing a short [film], is quite difficult. We are becoming super-women, who are trying to figure out a more respectful way of raising our children. At the same time, it is hard, because we don’t want to stop working. It’s a complicated time. I think that my conclusion – and, indeed, the conclusion of everyone who becomes a mum – is that whatever you do, it will be fine. However, it’s true that there is a lot of pressure this way – you spend a lot more time with your child,- but you also work more. The idea of conciliation between motherhood and work is a bit difficult and really complicated, but this is what I am seeing, as I start my maternal life. There is pressure on how you should raise your child today. We’ll see what happens. Also, there is a big difference; we have what our mothers didn’t have, which is men contributing to raising a child. It is complicated for both, but with shared parenthood, it is more possible to achieve our goals, if you are that kind of a couple.
What was the most unforgettable family moment or memory you had? Or you recently remembered and somehow thought of making a new project out of it? Depiction of a family in Carla Simon’s vision...
There is something that I always think will change in the future, but deaths in my family are very important. Not only my mother’s, but also my grandparents and aunt. Every film or short film I make is connected to someone who died. What I mean is that the absences in my family have always been a source of inspiration. In Alcarràs, for example, if I had to emphasise one scene, it would be the one where the whole family gathers and eats snails, because it was some- thing we did all the time and it is the image that comes to my mind when I think of them. Gen- erally, when it comes to family, I think of family meetings with a lot of people and many things happening at the same time, which was something I wanted to portray in Alcarràs. It’s the same with the images in Estiu 1993, there is this big table, at one point, where they meet to have lunch.
My next project is about family but more about the memory of family, which has a lot of significance, in the Miu Miu tale. It is very important to have a memory of your family to build and define yourself.