#LFF2018 : Interview With Celia Rico Clavellino, Director of ‘Journey To A Mother’s Room’

One of the many standouts from this year’s LFF First Feature Competition was ‘Journey to A Mother’s Room,’ an accomplished mother-daughter relationship drama, anchored by two remarkable performances by Spanish actresses Lola Dueñas, known for her roles in Almodovar films such as “Volver” (2006) or “Broken Embraces” (2009) and recently seen in Lucrecia Martel’s “Zama”(2017), and Anna Castillo, a popular star from many Spanish TV series which jumped into the big screen with Icíar Bollaín’s ‘”The Olive Tree” (2016). This finely observed debut, next to Carla Simon’s excellent “Summer 1993,” confirms that there is plenty of room for very personal and intimists female filmmakers in Spanish cinema, beyond the new wave of horror and genre renovators that characterises the majority of country’s most recent cinematic output.

We caught the film’s lively director Celia Rico Clavellino for a chat about the gestation of her first feature; her working methods; artistic preoccupations and her interest in exploring small everyday details and familiar love gestures.

First, I would like to know a bit more about the origins of the film’s story. Is it a personal or fictional story?

The story is not 100% autobiographical, but it is very personal and departs from my own emotions and worries. I come from a village near Seville. I left home to live in Barcelona and the relationship with my parents has been via telephone since. They call me often and I don’t always have time to talk. I say I will call them later but I don’t. I feel bad about it, because I know they are always there picking up the phone anytime they are needed, but I cannot reciprocate that. Starting from that sort of self enquiry and also imagining how I may be when I become a mother, I developed an interest in exploring the meaning of love gestures between parents and their children.

There is also a very personal element around the world of sewing. It’s been a very close universe to me because my mother is a seamstress and for me motherhood is strongly linked to sewing clothes, to dress, to protecting by using all those fabrics; to hide under the skirts of a round table. After I left, my mother used to send me parcels with packs of food and she always separated those packs with clothes, meant as gifts, without telling me. For me that is a very powerful image that embodies motherly love. I wanted to pay tribute to all that.

Personally, the thing that I found most affecting in your film is how well you describe that long distance relationship between mother and daughter. How did you work on capturing that everyday intimacy on that relationship, those tiny details that often go unnoticed?

This is something natural to me. I normally pay attention to the small details of everyday living. Those are the ones that move me the most. If I see, for instance, that your pen fails (referring to what was going on with mine) and you find a way to resolve this. I am normally more interested on that than in what you are telling me. I think I can get a better definition of the way you are through those small details. When we talk, we often tend to lie or to cover ourselves with masks. So, at a personal level, is those sort of things what interest me and move me. When I write I don’t make an effort to look for them, they come to me naturally, they become my language. I build everything from there.

I also think that big conflicts -in film it seems you often have to create and explain them in order to develop the events of the storyline – for me have to do with those everyday details, smaller things. Because they are the ones that prevent us from being as brave as we would like to be, when we have to deal with them.

When I saw the film the audience seemed touched and impressed by that emotional material. In San Sebastian, where it premiered, ‘Journey To A Mother’s Room’ received several prizes…

Yes, we were given the Youth Audience Award, the Critics’ prize and a Special Mention from the Jury of the new directors prize.

Now you have been selected for the First feature competition here in London, and imagine that your film will be in great demand across the festival circuit. Have you been invited to many other festivals?

Tomorrow I am going to Warsaw international Film Festival; in Spain we will launch it in many national ones and there may be others that we cannot confirm yet.

I wanted to know a bit about your background. You are the director, writer and producer of the film.

Yes, i did the production design too.

And I also saw in your IMDB page that you have got some experience as an actress. Which of those different facets you are more interested in?

The part that I prefer is writing. I studied audiovisual communication, but also Theory of Literature and Comparative Literature. That’s perhaps why I connect the most with the element of writing. That meticulous frame in which I describe all the details is where I use the imagination to develop each character’s storyline and development. How do they feel? What is happening to them and how can I translate all that into the film? Writing is the most satisfactory moment. You are imagining that journey to a mother’s room, but doing it “in your own room.”

Another of the film’s most impressive elements are its two excellent lead performances. Can you tell us a bit about the casting process and your method to work with the actresses?

With Anna Castillo, we did some casting auditions time ago and I discovered her in one of them. I had not yet seen “The Olive”, which she was the protagonist of. I felt in love with her incredible vitality and spontaneity. She was very different from my character -very introverted and energetic- and I thought it would be very interesting, as the character is fragile as she’s going through a grieving moment, that Ana Castillo, being the opposite, could perform it so all that grief and fragility appeared as repressed, but at a given moment it could surface.

And with Lola Dueñas. She is younger than the character and she is not a mother. On our first reunion she told me how much she liked the screenplay, but advised me to look for another actress, because she did not fit the profile I was looking for. However, I was very interested in working with her. I thought that the motherhood aspect could be built from the physical presence. She gained weight to perform the character. Lola’s eyes have a very beautiful quality. A very naive, almost childlike, tender look. As her character is very worried with her role as a mother, but at one point in the film she also begins to connect with herself and who she actually is. Not just as the provider for her daughter, but also in terms of “who I am?” “What do I wish?” “Who would I like to be?” At that point there would be possible for her more tender, naive, inner child side to flourish. That’s why I wanted to work with Lola. Apart from the fact that she is an actress I really admire and, as you are never sure if you are going to be able to make a second feature, I thought that I would take the opportunity to work with her, in case no other one in the future arises.

To prepare her character, she learned how to sew with my mother. We were living two months in my village when she got immersed in the village’s life. We were looking at the way of life of these women, other local seamstresses, etc. She incorporated a lot of things she observed in those surroundings. As an actress she has an enormous ability to absorb what she sees around. And we built the mother’s character that way.

And about the relationship between them two? Did you intervene on it or just left them getting to know each other?…

They came two months before shooting to the village, living in apartments located one on top of the other. We tried to share our lives for the majority of time. They were always together and became good friends. They came very often to my house, sitting at the round table with my mother, as a family would. This chemistry between them developed because we share our lives all that time. The fact they were able to meet my mother and see how I behave with her. In the moment in which she embraces her daughter near the end, Lola told me she saw me once doing the same with my mother and she did a sort of mental radiography of the embrace. She wanted to place her arms and body posture replicating that mental image. The fact they were welcome to enter my privacy, helped them a lot to forge their own relationship and in turn their character’s. Apart from the fact, of course, that they are two great actresses, so it really didn’t take much effort.

As a first time female director, how did you find the process to bring your project to completion? Is there any help for new directors and, in particularly, for new female directors in Spain?

Luckily for me, the project’s financing which is always the biggest challenge has been coming in more or less reasonable instalments. There was never any questioning of my capability for making this film just for being a woman. I wonder what would have happened if instead of an intimist mother-daughter relationship drama, I had wanted to shoot an action film. But the type of film it was, and also because its dossier and production notes were linked to a short that I did before called “Luisa No Está En Casa (Luisa Is Not At Home,2012), whose style and tone showed I could film this way.

I also went to the Berlinale Talents, the script station of the Berlin Film Festival which provided some help. So I never felt deprived of support. In fact, you accrue more points for grants and public financing if you are a woman. And also, for being a first time director. Without these grants it would be very difficult for beginners to make any film at all. Things have gone well. I believe making the second feature may prove more complicated.

I spoke to Carla Simon (Summer 1993, 2017) last year and she told me a very similar story, with a bit of luck ‘Journey to a mother’s room’ could have the same commercial career…

She’s a good friend. We were together at the Berlinale talents. And I don’t think so, because “Summer 1993” was a phenomenon that doesn’t happen often.

Despite the film intimate dramatic tone, you seem to use the world of the seamstress as a way to add a lighter note of joy and colour, particularly with that order for outfits the mother receives from a competitive dance group. Was that your way to balance things out to prevent an emotional overload?

More than alleviating the drama, there was this idea to let the light in, to bring a positive part into it. I was thinking not so much in comedy, but in how a creative act, in this case sewing, can help us getting out of moments of emotional fragility or upset. For me, anything creative, making a movie; a dress; create with a pen and paper; anything in which departing from zero you build something, is potentially healing. So I like the idea that through sewing this mother could connect with her vocation; her profession. And that will be what would reactivate her and bring hope and light into her life.

Especially because the film explores the idea of how far a mother sacrifices herself for her daughter, forgetting about her own life and how when her daughter leaves she needs to relocate that tension back to herself. That is not an easy process. I thought that a nice way to show this is, as this mother always sews for her daughter, adding a particular moment in which she could sew for herself or for others, so her whole world ceases to revolve around her daughter. Sewing for others helps her unhook from her daughter and realise that there are other people she can interact with. When your daughter leaves home and you have always been supporting her, you feel that person needs you. When they fly away and you are left alone, you may feel useless as you can no longer help anyone. So this is the way she relocates that instinct into helping others, which will allow her living the emptiness in her life from a different, kinder, position.

The absence of the father figure is a bit blurred, but essential for the story as it makes the mother-daughter bond grow stronger. Even when the daughter is thinking on going away she still considers how lonely she will leave her mother behind. How did you introduce this element in the storyline?

When I started writing, I killed the father from the beginning. Afterwards I began realising why I needed that absence. On one side, because I present the story as that of two people who live together, share that home round table, as if that was an extension of the uterus. Two bodies together that at the same time are two and one. This is something that can only be lived by mothers. With fathers, no matter how strong the bond, there are two bodies, whereas maternity implies a body split in two. I wanted to explore that from a physical perspective, from those ideas of the round table, of leaving home.

On other side, the fact of leaving home when you leave a mother on her own, is not the same situation than when you leave mother and father. I needed to kill the father to be able to focus in the relationship between the two. The absence of the father helped me because the two of them had something to resolve, as they are going through a moment of grieving, which is something that brings them both close and apart, because they are still incapable to talk about it, afraid to hurt each other’s feelings. The distance would allow each other grieving separately, so when they get back together their respective processes will be over. We sometimes need to separate ourselves from our loved ones to be able to explore who we are.

How did the London Film Festival premiere go last night? How was the first reaction of the London audiences?

It was lovely. You could tell the audience was moved and had connected with the story. Also, as there are plenty of Spanish immigrants here, they felt it was very autobiographical. For me that’s very rewarding, because I began writing it from my own universe (sewing, etc.) but realising that something so personal can also be so universal and can touch so many people is something very revealing. There were a lot of laughs. The film maintains that balance between the drama which leads to a more nostalgic mood, and lighter, dedramatising funny moments. Those moments are build from tenderness rather than comedy, but they provide points for the audience to relieve their emotional connection. I always thought how tender it seems that a mother learns how to use whatsapp, writing very clumsily, but she does it because is the only way she has to keep communicating with her daughter. In the clumsiness of writing badly there is comedy, but that’s always dealt with from the perspective of tenderness.

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