Interview: César Díaz on Digging Deep Into Guatemala’s Past for “Our Mothers”

In the opening moments of “Our Mothers,” Ernesto (Armando Espitia) can be seen silently piecing together a human skeleton, part of his work as a forensic anthropologist in Guatemala where his job takes on new dimension recovering bodies that were never identified as victims of the brutal civil war in which the government sought to rid the country of its indigenous Mayan population. As part of the Medico-Legal Institute of Guatemala, Ernesto is as much a sleuth as a scientist and César Díaz’s eye-opening drama unfolds as a detective story when he’s approached by Nicolasa (Aurelia Caal), an elder from the Mayan community who takes three buses just to see him, hoping that he’ll come to Satexa where all the men in her village were rounded up and tortured decades ago, leaving any number of wives, mothers and sisters to wonder about the fates of their loved ones after army trucks carried them off, knowing in all likelihood that they are dead, but never receiving any closure.

Diaz, whose mother became a guerrilla fighter after his father went missing, invests more than a little of himself in Ernesto, who becomes even more driven to help Nicolasa after discovering his own father might’ve crossed paths with her husband before he disappeared, and before the young lead of his film began his investigation, the filmmaker traveled down this road himself first to gain a better understanding of what exactly was lost when entire generations of men who fought as rebels or were simply bystanders from rural communities essentially vanished without a trace and children born out of the sexual abuse that occurred when soldiers would storm into the villages grew up with their traumatized mothers. Although the film is a work of fiction, Diaz brilliantly gives voice to the women that endured such pain, creating a parallel story to Ernesto’s with that of his mother Cristina (Emma Dib), who struggles with a decision to testify against the government in a present-day trial regarding the genocide, and more directly enlisting the same villagers that he spoke to for research for the film to give testimony to Ernesto on screen, creating an undeniable cinematic experience.

“Our Mothers” generated plenty of international acclaim in the year following its premiere at Cannes Critics Week, where it picked up the Camera d’Or prize for best first feature, and ultimately became Belgium’s submission for the Oscars, Diaz’s adopted home for some time after moving from Guatemala to study at the renowned French film school La Fémis. After a celebrated festival run, the film is being made available to stream starting today through Outsider Pictures’ Virtual Cinemas, which will split the proceeds with your favorite local arthouse and Diaz will be appearing for a pair of LiveStream Q & As over the weekend on May 2nd (4 PST/7 EST) and May 3rd (1 PST/4 EST) that you can register for here, but fortunately we were able to catch up with the director beforehand to talk about how he developed the drama, working with professional and nonprofessional actors and sensitively approaching a real-life tragedy.

How this come about?

The initial idea was trying to explore the relationship [between] mother and son. This is actually my thesis from the film school and later on, I discovered the [Forensic] Foundation’s work with the missing ones, trying to identify the bodies and give them back to the victims. I realized how science could be so important there because the problem with the missing ones is you always have the hope that he or she will come back at some point. But when you’re sure that loved one is dead, you can mourn and move forward. This is why the foundation’s work is so important. There was my own personal story with my missing father, but then I [learned of] the foundation’s work and the last layer for this project was [visiting] the real victims’ village, which was when I discovered their story, which is very close to the story of the film, so I tried to involve the whole village in the process. I realized how strong and how powerful those women were and how they just hold the whole society [together] because they still are looking for justice. They’re still there to remind people what happened, so there were many layers.

At what point did you start engaging the village?

Actually, I wanted to [cast] the main character from those women, but very quick I realized this is not ethical because I do not think you can just bring a victim to the fiction, and after editing say, “Thank you very much. You are going back to the village, and that’s it. And I will see you around.” But I really wanted to make them part of it because they very quickly understood my purpose and they believed this is a way to remind [the public at large] or to look for justice, so I wrote this scene in the film where they are looking at you and they don’t need to say anything because you know what happened there.

That was one of my favorite scenes in the film. I understand you did camera tests with your cinematographer, trying to find the right way to present an atrocity, which that scene alludes to, but also in how you approach scenes with mass graves. What was it like getting the right presentation for this?

It’s very hard because it’s a matter of point of view from one side and how do you represent that in a cinematographic way, but also the distance with the subject, which is the distance that allows you to go beyond the real facts and create artistic gesture. I was always trying to move two steps back to try to look at the whole picture and try not to revictimize the victims and then try to get my point of view very clear to transform it in a cinematographic way.

Right before shooting, you’ve said you cut a third of the script – was it a challenge to find out what was most important to convey?

At some point, I was wondering if I should change the point of view because the mother’s story was so powerful and she had a very strong conflict because she wasn’t active during the civil war, but at the end, [the character of] Ernesto has another kind of conflict because he has this heritage of social justice and a missing father, so I was tempted to change the point of view. But I wanted to represent my generation because I wanted to be as honest as I can with the audience and with myself. I’m obsessed with the relationship between the intimate stories and personal stories with the history of a country and I think this relationship made me find the right scenes or made me find the right moments to put it there.

You certainly found the right actors – how did you find Armando?

I [originally] wanted to [cast] nonprofessional actors, but I opened it to a mass casting, just welcoming people to join us and after 500 people, I realized I was looking for something very specific. I was looking for someone that can not only be, but he can represent. So I hired a real casting director and she introduced me to a bunch of Mexican actors — and Mexico [could be] a real partner because they have an industry and also because during the civil war, most of the Guatemalans went there in exile, so having this different accent from Mexico is not weird in Guatemala.

Armando was the first one that I cast and the casting was very weird because we were not just [auditioning with] scenes. We were just taking coffee and then I was asking about the relationship with his mother and how he deals with worrying, and we had a very strong connection. He started sharing very intimate things about his life and I realized that he has this density and this deep personality. I didn’t even recognize him from “Heli,” Amat Escalante’s movie — at the beginning, I was just with Armando Espitia and I didn’t know who he was.

When you put professional actors in a context where they’re living out the experience of their character, is there something that excited you about that?

Actually, what was really exciting is when you put professional actors in front of nonprofessional actors, they are not allowed to lie because in front of you, you have someone that’s real and true, so they are not allowed to do this lazy work that sometimes they to do represent, but not live the scene. It was amazing how Armando managed to deal with it.

You also have the international crew that you’re bringing into Guatemala. Is it interesting to see them interact with the community there?

It was hard [at first] because also most of the equipment coming from Belgium got stuck in the Guatemalan customs, so we had to start shooting without the equipment. Sometimes, we had to build our own lights and [other] things that don’t exist in Guatemala, we had to build. But just to work with friends that know me and knew the project for a long time, that’s actually [invaluable] because they can talk to me in a very straightforward way. Virginie [Surdej] the [cinematographer] came to me and said, “This is not working. We have to think of something else” or Pilar [Peredo], the art director, she is a very close friend also, so I was working with a crew coming from everywhere, but they were very close to me and that allowed me to manage it. And this was very funny because after many weeks of working, I was [speaking] a mix between Spanish, French and English, and the Guatemalan crew [started] talking a little bit of French and the French and Belgians were talking a little bit of English. It was amazing and very funny.

This film really has traveled the world. What’s it been like to accompany it?

It’s really amazing because I never expected going to Cannes. I never expected the Camera d’Or and all the other prizes, and of course, I wasn’t expecting to represent Belgium for the Oscar entry, so I was really surprised and I’m grateful. Every time we go to a festival or get a prize, I’m surprised and moved. I remember being in China at the Pingyao Film Festival and at some point at the end of the screening, a guy just stood up and he was crying. He started talking about his his missing father and there I realized the film has a very universal theme. I realized how powerful movies can be.

“Our Mothers” is now available to watch online through Outsider Pictures’ Virtual Cinemas, with proceeds split with your favorite local arthouse cinema. A full list of theaters is here.

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