Aspen Film Academy Screenings: A director’s personal story of childhood trauma in ‘Summer 1993’

"Summer 1993" will screen Wednesday at Aspen Film's Academy Screenings at the Wheeler Opera House.
Courtesy photo |


What: ‘Summer 1993’ at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2 p.m.

How much: $20; $15 for Aspen Film members; free for members of the Academy and associated guilds

Tickets: Wheeler box office;

More info: Also at Academy Screenings on Wednesday, ‘Human Flow’ plays at 5 p.m. and ‘The Beguiled’ at 8 p.m.

Orphaned after her mother dies of AIDS, 6-year-old Frida tries to find her place in the world in “Summer 1993,” a deeply personal film by debut writer-director Carla Simón based on her own life.

The Spanish-language film, which plays today at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings, explores Frida’s raw emotions over the course of her first few months with her uncle’s family in Spain’s countryside.

Simón, 30, wanted to do more than make a film memoir of her own experience losing both of her parents to AIDS and leaving Barcelona.

“My approach was not to explain my story, but more to talk about how children face death,” she said in a recent phone interview from home in Spain.

“Summer 1993” is a patiently paced and subtle character study that demands — and rewards — close attention from audiences. It won the Best First Feature prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and made the National Board of Review’s Top 5 Foreign Language Films list for 2017. Spain also selected “Summer 1993” as its entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category for the Academy Awards, though it was left off the Academy’s shortlist announced last week.

“It was a surprise to me that it reached as many people from so many different places,” Simón said of the film’s global appeal. “My producers always thought that this could happen.”

Though the story is autobiographical, Simón had to do research to write it.

“Because I was so little — I was 6 — my memories are very mixed up,” she explained. “I could only remember emotions and feelings that I had at this time.”

So as she began the screenplay, Simón spent a few weeks in her adoptive family’s home, interviewing them about their memories and digging though photographs of her childhood.

Some shots in the film ended up replicating those photos, which inspired the summery aesthetic of Simón’s film.

Her first draft was a disjointed collection of memories, Simón said. So she dug further into her research.

“I had to read a lot about children’s psychology, how they face death, how they react to the adoption process,” she said. “That helped me understand the psychology of the character, why I did what I did. It helped me to put those memories in order and put Frida on an emotional journey.”

In the film, as Frida timidly settles in to life in the country and without her parents, we see her act out, attempt to run away and play occasionally cruel tricks on her 4-year-old cousin. We also get glimpses of the 1990s AIDS stigma, as in a scene where Frida skins her knee on a playground and sends her playmates’ parents into a panic.

She wasn’t seeking catharsis in making the film, Simón said, but the process did help her better understand her childhood.

“It is my story and I’ve told it many times in my life,” she said. “So it becomes a tale, like it didn’t happen to me. So making the film was a way to reconnect with this part of my life.”

Simón elicits complex and winning performances from the children in her cast — Laia Artigas as Frida and Paula Robles as her younger cousin. The kids didn’t read the script, Simón explained, and she cast them based on how they interacted while out of character. They spent several weeks rehearsing and preparing their characters, improvising scenes that might have occurred before the action of “Summer 1993” began.

After this widely acclaimed and auspicious debut, Simón will have the opportunity to tell the stories she wants to on film. For now, she said, she plans to stay close to home in Catalonia. For her next project, Simón is thinking of setting a film in the community where her uncles grow peaches.

“I want to branch out a little bit from my own story,” she said, “but I do have a big family — it’s my main source for stories.”