Meet Rodrigo Plá – consummate director of La Demora

Rodrigo Plá

Wow.  Everyone is talking about La Demora down here in FICG27.  Fresh off its Berlin world premiere and jury win, the third film by Rodrigo Plá (Desierto Adentro, La Zona) is a masterful and moving piece about a struggling, single mother burdened by having to care for her aging Alzheimers-prone father, and who out of desperation attempts to find a way out.  The character-driven film is remarkable for its indelible performances and understated, moody and immersive atmosphere.  Rodrigo and his writer and partner Laura Santullo were so kind to respond to my questions, and in reading the responses below, it gives you an idea of the very thoughtful and deliberate approach in which the film was conceived, down to the very last detail. I’m thrilled to share with you the exclusive interview below.  I translated and edited Rodrigo’s answers into English as best I could.  Read the interview in full and in Spanish here.

CD: Congratulations on your world premiere in Berlin.  The Forum section in Berlin is supposedly where you find the most ‘daring films’.  Why do you think your film was selected in this section?

RP: I guess La Demora, although it’s a simple story, is relatively risky in its structure and form.  The plot is not shaped by the actions of one person who wishes something and makes a journey in search of that desire. It’s more like the narrative shows an irrational stall that interrupts and transforms a common and ordinary life.  Maybe that’s why the film is a two act story.  The idea was to avoid constructing a plot from the aspect of analyzing what happens. This effort is demonstrated from the script to the entire process in the creation of the film, and as a result there is a sobering, subtle way to guide the viewers’ emotions towards an unequivocal direction. We preferred to leave the character motivavtions much more subtle.  The construction does not emphasize the causes or consequences, because actually the act that is most important emerges from the character’s will.    For us La Demora is something of an experiment and perhaps that’s how the Forum programmers recognized it.

CD: The theme of taking care of our elderly is more and more relevant ( I also have a grandma in the same situation as Agustin), is this primarily what motivated you to tell this story?

RP: If there is anything sure in life its change.  In film we try to reflect with honesty what concerns us at every stage.  And nearing your 40s, your own mortality and that of your parents is naturally a big concern.  More specifically, with the film I wanted to capture two moments, that ‘impulsive’ act of the daughter, and second, the stubborn man who insists in waiting hours and hours, as if holding on to one last hope.

CD: The atmosphere is quite immersive, tell us about collaborating with your D.P. Maria Secco and your film score:

I try not to use concrete examples when going over process with my collaborators.  Eventually after talking it through there might be a reference, but the more abstract, the better.  My tools are the words and emotions, then whatever is is generated between what I think and what comes out of the script and the reinterpretation of what someone hears, given their cultural baggage and experience relative to it, that’s the creative act that forms the film.  This process has some risks because none of us have the exact science or formula.  You work with a lot of uncertainness, in constant doubt and regularly questioning yourself.  Maria Secco was key to the film.  She was there for location scouting to get to know the natural lighting of the sets and to shoot angles.  She used her imagination and made suggestions.  With such an inherently emotional story we wanted to avoid being melodramatic so we chose to use a camera approach that created some distance, that was a bit cold, which would contrast and result in some equilibrium.  We also chose to tell the whole story exclusively via the two characters, who would always be centered in the frame, leaving secondary characters in the margins.  It was decided that characters that only appeared once would even be only shown from their backs, or just a reflection or partly, or outright out of frame.  For the score we felt that we needed to balance out the camera’s approach and inversely, recoup that emotion from the script but again without overdoing it.  And for this approach Alejandro de Icaza was instrumental.  He practically subconsciously introduced sounds, a car alarm when she became agitated, the infuriating noise of construction work, the ambulance siren from a distance that comes with the arrival of caretakers who come to the rescue, and the signature music which reminds us over and over about the moment of abandonment.

CD:  Your actors, Carlos Vallarino and Roxana Blanco, are impressive and deliver such weight and naturalism to their roles, how did you find them and what kind of direction did you give them?

Roxana Blanco is an amazing actress well known in Uruguay and I was already familiar with her work.  Carlos Vallarino on the other hand is a retired architect and this is his first acting role.  I found him through a long casting process.  His ability to penetrate, to imagine and hold scenes, made him a fantastic and unexpected gift.  Both of them brought an immense sensibility to the roles.   Roxana’s precise methodology collided against the imperfect and lax approach of Carlos, all of which generated an energy and chemistry to the character’s internal crisis.  She would tense up against his dialogue or gestures and appear to be obligated to stay lucid and ready to adapt to any unexpected changes he might deliver. And Carlos would take on a sense of blame or fault, which in turn, to a certain extent, affected his confidence and made him feel he was indeed a burden. Oddly enough this created a relationship which was expected between father and daughter.  There was improvisation which wasn’t laid out in the script, and lots of on -ocation set rehearsals.  The actors would adapt to the space and learn how to relate to one another, and simultaneously we had the opportunity to recreate said space according to any needs that would arise. .

CD: The title, La Demora is translated as The Delay, do you think there is anything lost in translation?  I feel that the title’s meaning transforms itself organically over the course of the film – the delay can be taken as her hesitation to run away from her problem (her dad) but it also in the end works very casually as if is was some traffic jam that prevented her from going back to him.

RP:  It was in the moment that I came to the decision to use title towards the end, by placing it in the end, the story comes full circle and serves something like an epilogue.  In a way it synthesizes and breathes air into the drama and journey of the characters. What happened was only a delay, a momentary detour on the way to her natural and final destination. It is a bit like a game as if to say that it’s not a big deal when in reality a lot has happened – she’s transformed and has had an arc, she’s not only a daughter but a daughter and mother to her father. 

Meet Jose Álvarez, the soulful filmmaker of Canícula

Top Doc Director, Jose Alvarez

Nothing beats the physical thrill of absorbing a high sensory image on the big screen, and in this past year’s Morelia Film Festival I had one of those unforgettable moments watching Canícula, a remarkably cinematic and revelatory documentary by Jose Álvarez about the Totonac people in Veracruz, Mexico.  My visual senses were so intensely activated by the rich photography its as if spillover stimulation tickled my sense of smell during a scene in which pristine vanilla bean trees are dazzlingly captured; I could almost smell the vanilla!   This fine mexican documentary is screening in next month’s Guadalajara Film Festival and mini-major doc fest True/False.  Check out the interview with the endearingly soulful filmmaker below.  Note:  Yours truly translated, but I’m also including  Jose’s unedited answers in Español because it sounds so much prettier!

CD: Tell us about the special meaning and significance of the word, Canícula  

The name of the documentary Canícula (Dog Days), has to do with the hottest 40 days that occurs in many parts of the world, in particular this zone in Ciudad Sagrada de El Tajín, Veracruz.  It coincides with a special season for the “Voladores” (or “Bird Men”), because it represents the time in which their fellow dead Voladores come down from the heavens.  For this reason they wear red Volador pants which symbolizes the blood and sacrifice, and ceremonially they ask the gods for rain, a bountiful harvest and health for their children and families.  As they spin and lower from the top of the pole circling around, they disperse prayers and blessings they’ve acquired from the heavens.  It may also represent the fire that comes from the sun, necessary to bake the mud and shape the clay of the beautiful ceramics the tribal women make.

~El nombre del documental Canícula (días de perros) tiene que ver con la época de los 40 días mas caluroso  que se viven en muchos lugares del mundo y en especial en esta zona de México, Ciudad Sagrada de El Tajín, Veracruz, esta época para los voladores representa el momento en el que bajan del cielo los voladores muertos, es la época del sol sangrante, por esa razón usan los voladores pantalones rojos haciendo referencia a este símbolo de sangre y sacrificio, a las peticiones que hacen a los dioses para que haya lluvia y fertilidad para sus cultivos,  salud para sus hijos y bienestar para sus familias.

Bajan desde la cima del palo volando y girando dispersando todas las bendiciones y favores a su pueblo que obtuvieron del cielo.  En algún lugar también representa al fuego que viene del sol que necesitan las alfareras para cristalizar el barro de sus piezas.

CD: Your documentaries spotlight the rich diversity of indigenous communities of Mexico (Flores En el Desierto).  On what social activist/awareness levels do you feel your films being out in the world, operate and give back to those communities.  And what expectations, if any, do these communities and people who agree to be in your films hold you to?

The people who see my films can easily engage with what they see as long as their hearts are open, they are willing to experience other human realities, and as long as they don’t reject different ways of life.  It’s the respect as well as the admiration of being able to witness original cultures like the Wixárikas or Totonacos maintaining their way of life, their faith, community, work, love, family and death.  Audiences can make a trip to lands far away yet be as close as we the filmmakers and be able to marvel at their millennial wisdom, a striking counter example for the otherwise chaotic times we are living.

The Flores En El Desierto documentary has proven to be of great help for the Wixárikas  (Huicholes) in regards to bringing awareness to their ongoing struggle they wage against the Canadian mining companies that come in and exploit their land, their center of sacrificial ceremony, and threaten ecological destruction as well as impose their imperial culture.  In my opinion, Los Totonacos like the Wixarikas have made these films.  We merely provide the instrument.   There are great producers and photogenic personalities in front of the camera.  I’ve always made the effort of making films as least intrusive as possible since I’m most interested in working FOR and WITH them.

~Las personas que ven mis películas se involucran de manera fácil con lo que ven en ellas si es que tienen abierto el corazón, si quieren ver estas realidades humanas, si no rechazan la existencia de otras formas de llevar la vida, el respeto, incluso la admiración por ver a culturas originales como la Wixárka (Flores en el desierto) o los Totonacos (Canícula) desenvolviéndose en sus vidas cotidianas, en su fe, en su comunidad, en el trabajo, en el amor, la familia o la muerte, los espectadores podrán hacer un viaje a tierras y formas muy lejanas para estar tan cerca de ellas como nosotros que las filmamos y maravillares con su sabiduría milenaria, ejemplo para nuestros tiempos de caos.

Por ejemplo, Flores en el desierto ha sido un documento de gran ayuda para los Wixárikas (huicholes) en esta lucha que mantienen contra las intensiones de explotación de mineras canadienses dentro de las tierras donde están sus centros ceremoniales sagrados que generarían destrucción ecológica y cultural absoluta. Tanto Los Totonacos como los Wixárikas han hecho estas películas, nosotros hemos sido meros instrumentos para que se realicen, son grandes productores, grandes y fotogénicos personajes frente a la cámara, siempre me he dispuesto a hacer películas poco intrusivas, me interesa trabajara para ellos y con ellos.

CD: Clearly the viewfinder has so much to do with not only the context but the experience of what you are showing us, the angles, the focus, closeups, etc. In a way your films demonstrate a unique transportive quality. How much do you think about where to place the camera  –  as it relates to the ‘outsider looking in’ to a world unfamiliar with the audience ?

The film’s cinematographers, Pedro González Rubio (Alamar), Fernanda Romandia (Flores en El Desierto) and Sebastian Hofmann(Viaje Redondo) were totally free to photograph this colorful and intense reality in order to relate the gaze of a young child as well as say an elderly woman, in essence, encompassing the spectrum of our human existence.

When it appears that the camera knocks and pries open the door into the soul, its simply because there is something there to share.  In the context of making films, not only does it provide an opportunity for the world to see them, but also an opportunity for their eyes to meet the world as well.

~Los fotógrafos Pedro González Rubio, Fernanda Romandía y Sebastian Hofmann han sido libres para retratar esta realidad tan colorida, tan intensa, para adivinar en esas miradas desde la de un pequeño niño hasta la de una mujer anciana, los rincones de la existencia humana.

Cuando parece que la cámara toca la puerta del alma y esta se abre, es simplemente porque algo quiere decir, porque en el contexto en el que hacemos estas películas les abre a ellos una oportunidad también no solo de que el mundo los vea a ellos si no de que ellos miren al mundo.

CD: Your films are not only impressive in the ethnographic/anthropological sense but the divine cinematography that allows one to be captivated by the mesmerizing beauty of nature, and the unwavering spirituality of the indigenous who persevere a sacred connection with it.  Is this conscious on your part as far as making the films cinematic form so elevated and visceral?

I’ve had a lot of luck finding these amazing cinematographers who bring a keen understanding and who have embraced an approach that seems to pinpoint this language, but also the paradises these cultures inhabit are so beautiful that it could possibly be enough to take a camera and shoot or photograph.  What I always aim to express is the language of their land, people, music, art, ceremony, history and faithful existence.  I believe that what I’m in awe of, is also what will awe the audience.  It has much to do with the manner in how we ingratiate ourselves, become close to, and how we enter into this Mexico so wonderful and rich.

~He tenido mucha suerte en encontrar a estos extraordinarios fotógrafos, sin duda, que han entendido y han propuesto de forma muy atinada este lenguaje, pero también  los paraísos que habitan estas culturas son tan bellos que bastaría poner la cámara y grabar o filmar.

Lo que quiero plasmar siempre es el lenguaje de sus tierras, gente, música, arte, ceremonias, historias, su fe vivencial y pienso que lo que a mi me asombra de este acercamiento será también lo que asombre a los espectadores, tiene mucho que ver con la manera en la que nos acercamos y como entramos en este México rich maravilloso.

Canicula’s FB page here and trailer here

Industry subscribers –  you can catch both Flores en El Desierto and Canicula at Festival Scope