Elena López Riera on Turning the Tides of History in “El Agua”

The strongest force of nature in “El Agua” are not the floods that the residents of Orihuela fear coming through the small Spanish town as they have without warning once or twice a century to wreak havoc, but the lore of them that has been passed from generation to generation by the women in the village who have been led to believe that ever since a bride-to-be tried to leave, the water has risen in response to any further attempts to resettle somewhere else. It’s a consideration that Ana (Luna Pamiés) is only semiconscious of as she reaches the moment of thinking about what life might hold for her, young enough to dismiss all the tales of her village as old wives’ tales, but as the responsibility of adulthood creeps in, wary of tempting what so many others believe to be their fate and going against the wishes of her mother (Barbara Lennie) and grandmother (Nieve de Medina) who has made a life for them both in spite of such repression.

One doesn’t need to imagine how Ana can be convinced of something that can’t be seen when director Elena López Riera conveys the awesome power of the women’s voices in the community to pass along this myth, but just in general share their experiences in her beguiling feature debut, breaking up the coming-of-age drama with sit-down interviews that might be more expected of a documentary, as Orihuela locals speak to the curse that’s lingered over the place for centuries. If the folklore has gone unquestioned for years, gaining traction as fact when increasingly it might look to an outsider like the grip of a patriarchal culture, how Riera went about telling the story becomes as impressive as the story itself, spending the last decade embedding within communities and enlisting them as both cast and crew where their collective input and experience can counter the persistence of legends that thrive on being shared secondhand, and as she moves between narrative and nonfiction formally, interspersing news clips and employing documentary techniques, she can present at once how a myth can take shape around actual events as well as seize the opportunity to debunk it with the feeling of unmediated truth emerging from personal testimony.

“El Agua” is a special film, taking time both behind the camera to achieve and its gradual rollout into the world, which began last summer at Cannes and has played other festivals from Toronto to Tokyo before reaching the U.S. this week with an exclusive run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through August 2nd and López Riera kindly spoke about her process of blending filmmaking and cultural anthropology to yield such rich stories, lifting the weight of generations for women in the community to feel comfortable sharing their memories and having some luck with the weather.

Is it true this all starts with your grandmother?

Yeah, this is why I shot the film in the same town where I was raised and I was surrounded by these stories and this mythology that tried to explain why the river flowed every 10 years. It’s mostly my grandma and all the women that raised me who transmitted this mythology to me, which is great on one hand and on the other hand, it’s kind of heavy to carry on. [laughs] But I remembered the first flood I lived [through] when I was five years old in ’85 and I remembered it was quite something because it’s dangerous and at a certain point, I tried to do a fairy tale movie about these memories and these women I was raised by.

And the interesting thing for me with all this mythology is it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, what’s most important is the way you tell stories because every single person reappropriates the story for herself and himself. This is very interesting how every person fashions the story and adds some details and make a personal epic of the general story. In the oral tradition, different women tell the story in a different way. Some of them invent it, some of them never heard about the [original] story because it’s not like every one of these stories [is well-known] and I really like how they make the story their own – some of them assure you they see the ghost or whatever it is. This is super fascinating to me.

Was the idea to include some of the interviews you conducted there from the start or did that evolve over time?

Yeah, quite early. I know it’s a huge decision and we are not very used to these talking heads in a fiction film, but at a certain point, the interviews of these women were more important than the fiction part because for me the fiction part is the illustration of fairy tale books for children and the main thing the way [these women] tell the story because this is how my mythology and education was built. I can imagine people might not like this choice but it was important because it was also a way to return the dignity to these women speaking because during the casting process – it took a year-and-a-half of searching in the area and we met a lot of people, a lot of women specifically and the astonishing thing is most of them when I asked them to participate in the film, they answered me, “No, we are not able to talk.” And [I would say], “But you are talking [already]…” So that made me think a lot about how the word of these women was not respected because they felt they were not good enough to speak or [important] enough to be listened to and it became a political decision for me, just to put their speech in the most simple way.

It isn’t exactly voiceover, but a lot of times you’ll let the sound from one scene carry over into the next in a really interesting way. Was that something you had in mind from the conception?

I didn’t have a plan. I came from documentaries, so I try to keep my eyes and my ears wide open to what I see and what I shoot. With the camera, I’m really close to the actors and to the camera and to everything that happens, so I try to be open in all my senses and then it’s in the editing room where we find the film and all the elements that can help us build this atmosphere between the documentary and fantasy. We were just trying things and then becomes this film.

How did you find your fantastic lead in this? I understand it might’ve been at a festival.

Ah yes, my lead actress was just partying with friends in the town, drinking in the street and I just asked her just to come to the casting. [laughs] All the actors and actresses are nonprofessional, except who plays the mother and the grandmother because I wanted this family to be a little bit different from the rest of the town, so this is why they are also a little bit different in the way of playing a role. This distance was important for the film, and Luna was 14 when I met her for the first time, and she said, “Okay, okay, we’ll be in touch” — and then she never appeared [for the casting] and then we lost her for a year. But it’s like love when you are absolutely sure this is the person you need for your film, so we kept searching with my casting director and nobody was at her [level], and then she magically appeared one year later and then I caught her and told her, “You’re going to never leave.” [laughs]

Much of your crew weren’t trained professionals, either, but you’ve worked with them throughout your shorts. I would’ve never known this from the final product, but have you developed a way of working with them?

Yeah, I guess we are professional now. [laughs] But I’ve been wondering myself – am I a professional? Is my crew professional or not? We made three short films previously and I have this collective family thing where I really like to work with friends. We added some people obviously [to account for the difference] between a short film and a feature that’s big, but I worked with the same DOP, the same editor, the same casting director and really the area is where home is — all my family lives there, a big part of my friends — so it’s important for me to keep this family spirit in the [production]. We are not a very big crew and I really insist on this documentary way of shooting and to keep this intimacy with the actors. It’s important just to be a few of us [behind the camera] and not to intimidate [the performers] because they were not used to cameras and a big crew, so I really insisted on this cozy little crew and it works because it feels more free in this way.

And I didn’t have any film school, so the most important part of all this is to enjoy and be happy with this community spirit. We rehearsed for six months mostly with the young people and [the cast] never read the script [during that time] — [I only gave it to them] two weeks before the shooting and we were dancing and eating, trying to build this community that didn’t exist before because they never met before the film. Something just comes from human bodies when they feel this way, so we work in a very particular way of just being together.

Given the subject of this, did the weather cooperate?

Yeah, I feel like a witch now because it’s like I just conjured this storm. [laughs] The main question before shooting was how the hell are we going to shoot a new storm? Honestly, I didn’t have an answer. I thought [we might] just show the day after, but on the last day of the shooting — we finished on a Friday — and Sunday, we had this new storm coming and I was like, “Oh my God. We did it.” We took advantage of that and [to have] the real thing was also an important message to pass through the film [because] we have these kinds of storms more and more often because of the global warming. It’s not by chance that in my grandma’s time, you have this phenomenon every 50 to 100 years and now you have it every year. I didn’t put this in the film [explicitly], but I wanted it to come across that people prefer sometimes to just invent ghost stories or fairy tales more than taking responsibility for what we are doing wrong for the planet.

It’s so timely in so many ways. When it comes out so well, what’s it like to see it start to connect with people?

I hope it is, but it’s weird because I came from documentaries and shot more experimental film and now we do this feature film and it happens to go to Cannes and then [Toronto] and I understand that for some people, it may not be a very conventional film, but then I’m happy to confirm that audiences are much more intelligent than we suppose. They are not afraid of new ways of telling stories — they want that, so the experiences are nice and also what is interesting for me is a whole range of ages [I see in the audiences]. This is very beautiful and the connection when you try to do new things and you see that people are accepting of it, this is the most beautiful part actually of the process. The work and all the artistry and the handcrafted work we did with this community where I grew up can connect with people in other parts of the world, and we just tried to do it with love, so I hope people are receiving it with love as well.

“El Agua” will open at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, playing shows nightly at 7 pm from July 27-August 2nd at the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 2 with a 4 pm matinee on July 30th.

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