Aspen Shortsfest: Writer-director Alvaro Gago on making ‘Matria’
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Matria’ at Shortsfest
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Friday, April 6, 5:15 p.m.
How much: $20 ($15 for Aspen Film members)
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: ‘Matria’ closes a seven-film, 92-minute program Friday evening; it will be preceded Friday by a conversation with filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green (noon), the panel discussion ‘Outside the Frame: Getting Your Film Made’ (2 p.m.) and happy hour at Jimmy’s Bodega; Friday’s festival concludes with an 8 p.m. program and a 10 p.m. après screening event at D’Angelico Guitars; www.aspenfilm.org
As the filmmaker Alvaro Gago got to know Francisca Iglesias Bouzón, he was convinced he had to tell her story.
But rather than cast an actress to play her, or turn a camera on her for a documentary, Gago decided to try something new. The Galician writer-director prepared Bouzón to play a version of herself — a character named Ramona — and track her through her daily routine in a Galician village. The result is the extraordinary 20-minute film “Matria,” which plays Aspen Shortsfest this evening.
Gago met Bouzón when she was nursing the filmmaker’s ailing grandfather, in the village in northwestern Spain where his family lived for generations.
“She was coming every day to take care of him with a smile on her face and going beyond her duties as a caretaker,” Gago recalled. “He lived as well as he did because of her.”
The filmmaker and the caretaker connected, and as he learned more about the harsh realities of her daily life, and those of women in service positions in the region.
“I got close to her and that sparked my interest, so I started digging,” he recalled.
Last year, Gago asked Bouzón to partner with him on a film — a work of fiction based on her day-to-day experiences. She agreed to play the lead in “Matria.” He promised that she could walk away at anytime if she felt uncomfortable or wanted to quit.
“It was a risky choice,” he said. “At first I didn’t know if it was going to work.”
The result is a raw, unsentimental and empathetic work about sacrifice and a mother’s love. As Ramona, Bouzón says little. But her actions — stoically pedaling on a bicycle to a brutal job at a cannery, fuming with frustration under the thumb of an abusive boss, fainting briefly, hustling to attend to her domestic work, to feed chickens and to be a mother and grandmother — speak volumes.
“She was very interesting because she had so much to hide,” Gago said.
The director and his first-time actress rehearsed for more than two months, working with a script he wrote based on her experiences and extensive interviews he conducted with other women in the village. He didn’t bring a camera into rehearsals until about six weeks in.
He recalled an early rehearsal during which Bouzón peeled potatoes. After a half-hour of peeling, Gago said, they found a moment.
“Toward the end there was something that was emotionally interesting,” he said. “It was through action that she would get to certain things. … She was very in tune with the ideas behind the whole thing and with what we wanted to say.”
Before they started the film shoot, Gago and Bouzón developed a code of numbers that he would use to indicate certain emotions they’d discussed connected to personal trials she had endured. The code allowed him to be specific, but without exposing Bouzón’s privacy in front of his film crew.
The claustrophobic film taps into something universal about selflessness and service. In the handful of screenings the film has had so far, including its North American premiere at the Sundance Film Festival where “Matria” won the short film Grand Jury Prize, Gago has been gratified by the audience’s connection to Ramona.
“Once you turn the lights off in the cinema, there are no prejudices, no boundaries, no races, no sexes,” Gago said. “Everyone can feel the same things — fear and sadness and all kinds of things. It is reaching a lot of people and that’s very interesting to see.”
“Matria” is the fourth short film written and directed by Gago, who also works as a film editor. He’s planning to shoot a fifth this summer and is currently at work on two feature-length scripts, though he doesn’t know which he’ll end up trying to make.
“What I do know is that I like to do cinema that takes certain responsibility for the reality that it is depicting,” he said. “I’m committed to that. Whatever stories I tell, that’s something I don’t want to lose.”
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