A body that spins and twists, hence commences the debut feature film of the Catalonian filmmaker Meritxell Colell. It is the body of Monica, a 47-year-old dancer that returns to her native village in Burgos due to the death of her father. It’s there that she is reunited with her mother, sister, and a rural world at the verge of disappearing. After a long career as a film editor, Colell goes behind the lens herself to compose this beautiful tale that, as she explains in this interview, tells us about the passing of time, the influence of the family and of un-resolved guilt. Monica left her village to follow her dream of becoming a dancer. Now, at her return, she realizes that she left some of her responsibilities unattended. Colell has built a filmic artifact that works as an elegant and delicate piece of jazz. In the midst of the harmonic and the discordant, Facing the wind mixes documentary style with conventional fiction, joining two actresses like Ana Fernández and Elena Martín with performance that do not come from the professional scene as is the case of Concha Canal or the choreographer Mónica García. From this mixture a work of art emerges that gets under your skin, delicately exploring your emotions.
Facing the wind has some autobiographic elements as a starting point. Tell us.
Facing the wind is a result of a very personal impulse which is to portray my maternal family’s village and the way of life of my grandparents and the generation of my grandparents that is disappearing with them. Everything started there, from this desire to film the area and the way of life from more of a documentary point of view. And, at the same time, it also is a result of a need to shape an emotion that I had lived. I had left two years to Buenos Aires and, at my return; one feels a certain disconnection regarding the people you are closer to; like something has changed. Therefore, the fiction comes about amongst this idea of emotional distances and a way of life that is fading away.
There is a fundamental theme or idea that the film builds on which is the breaking up of the family.
Yes, the core of the film is family estrangement which is something very modern, due to the exile that many people live, like the case of character Monica’s self-exile. Monica’s someone who wants to dedicate herself to dancing and that can’t do it in her home country, this, like many other things produces an estrangement. Living in the city, far from nature and from the roots of the earth is also a type of estrangement. The film deals with this, especially, focusing on the relationship between mother and daughter. I wanted to talk about the return to our roots understanding roots as the mother, the home, the country, which has many different readings into it.
At the core of the plot there is also guilt.
Yes, yes. There are many things that have happened but haven’t been able to be spoken or lived. Therefore, there is something very intense in Monica that has to do with not being able to say goodbye to her father and how this brings about a feeling of guilt and shame. Guilt is something very ethical; there is some guilt because we are all Christians, but also some sense of shame, of realizing what you have missed being away. And this is not a feeling that she alone has, but you can see it to some extent in the mother’s character also. It’s in the failure to connect with her daughter, or in the feeling of not knowing how to get closer to her. This is something that is present, and we wanted to explore it in a silent way, in gestures, in glances, in their expressions, but never spoken about up front.
I don’t know if the film had a closed script before shooting it or if there were elements that you left to improvisation. What was your biggest difficulty in bringing together the transition from ideas to the correct storyline?
Let’s say that for me this is the greatest difficulty of films, how something that someone perceives by oneself at first or even from the spoken word or some very internal images becomes real. In my case it was just that, opening up to reality, to the reality of the actresses, to the area, to the team. In this sense, there was a very closed script, very descriptive and all, but we didn’t share it with the actresses. We shot without a script. And we were also open to change. Every day there was a change in the film’s shooting plan because the idea was that the fact of living together, of sharing a lot of our time together would better help us embody what was written. In this sense we worked on the essence of the scenes, both at an emotional and at an atmospheric level. We worked a lot on the characters, what moved them, how they responded to each other, but never on the actions or on specific words. Maybe the difficulty arises in how to find exactly what you’re looking for without saying it in advance, letting them find it themselves.
In accordance with this way of working, what did they contribute to the story that wasn’t previously there?
Well, precisely there is where the complexity of the film resides, those limits between what is true, what is of the actresses as their own, and what is of the characters. Monica always talks about this, about up to where the character is and to where she is as a person, and those limits are a little vague. In this sense, they have contributed a lot to me. How to say it? Pilar’s character is thought out in relation to my grandmother. Then, suddenly Concha interprets it and, for me, when I was writing it, what I was trying to do was connect with how my grandmother was, with those moments of reality. So the shooting process for me was to adapt to how Concha was, so as to let “her” truth rise forth. For instance, the scene when they pick up the objects of the house, in my mind was much more nostalgic, much sadder in a way. And suddenly Concha plays it in a much more practical way, more realistic, from the point of view of someone who has lived and knows when something is over and is capable of facing it and going on. Well, this is over, and, although it may hurt, we have to accept it, and it makes no sense to become too attached or fond of something. These are the kinds of things that I have learnt from her.
You combine non-professional actresses with professional ones; nevertheless, you achieve a harmony that makes it unnoticeable. How did you manage the adaptation or coordination to assemble these two ways of acting?
Look, I for one, and this is something I realized after making the film, wouldn’t make a distinction between professional and non-professional actresses, because, in fact, they are all very professional. I would say that there are actresses making a film for the first time, and actresses with a lot of experience in the field. I was very lucky to work with four actresses full of sensitivity, with lots of empathy and that work with active listening, understood as reacting to each other depending on how the other reacts. And to this I must thank the generosity of Ana Fernandez, and Elena Martín that were very brave to work without a script, something that most actors don’t do. We worked a lot with them rehearsing scenes previous to the ones which were going to be shot. For example, if a scene starts right when they are having tea and tidying up the kitchen, well, we had rehearsed the dinner and had staged it, in such a way that they would be in a specific point when we started to shoot. And that was our way of doing it, but the rest I owe it to the actresses.
There is an element that stands out, and that is the dance issue. Where does the idea of introducing this element as part of the narrative come from?
From the moment the film addresses and sketches the process of emotional transformation of the character, Monica, which is at the heart of the film, the aim is on how to make visible something that is totally invisible. That is where the idea of the seasons and the changes of landscape over time came about, as well as the idea of modifying the filming devices, but, above all, the idea of working with the body, with the transformation of the body. And there is nothing better than dancing to explain this inner transformation. I really like watching dancing, and I think it’s a great art to express in a physical way something that happens deep down inside.
I suppose this element wasn’t developed in the original script. In which way did this modify the story?
No, dancing was indeed in the literary script. It was at the very beginning, and, in fact, the work with Monica was also to make those images become reality, into movement to embody them. For example, in the starting scene: I was saying, well, our starting point is the idea of a fragmented body, that is broken, that is wounded, that moves in darkness and light, something very harsh. Then we talked together about what kind of mechanism and what kind of movement would be better to obtain this general sense.
Maybe it’s something that isn’t evident to the naked eye, but in your film there is a care given to detail, above all, for scene detail that are very valuable. How did you do this?
Yes, of course, details are very important. The idea of the film was that all of the areas, inside and outside, were to become more inhabitable as the film progressed. And that has to be built on that bread that is there, on those tomatoes that appear, and so forth. And there was also a very clear idea of the evolution of the color palette. Starting with autumn colors, very pierced with black, that mourning and seclusion black, continuing on to blue in winter, and ending in a red explosion for summer. With this idea of transformation of the color palette we played around with the spaces, with dressing them up with details. It is very important, because there was something very personal in all of those objects. Objects that were in my grandparents’ house, that we used to put there, but also, for example, when Monica starts to live in her room she did it with things of the actress that she really wanted to have and that made it more welcoming. Something similar happened with the clothes, there were things that belonged to my grandmother, but others were Monica’s, others Concha’s; it was like dressing the film in every sense, of personal objects and details of all the members of the team. Well, we liked this idea of a certain familiarity with the space as the film progressed.
Another very important thing is the use of sound. In the film there seems to be an almost musical use of sounds, first in the city and then in the countryside. How did you set this work up?
Yes, we went into filming with a very determined planning of the sound. Let’s say that one of my obsession was that the film could be felt, that it went through your skin, and that it passed through other places that weren’t only the mind and, for this, sound is essential. From there, we decided upon what type of sonority we wanted each scene to have, with that contrast between the city and the salience of interior sound that there is at the opening of the film and how, slowly, the interior sound is filtered and how it even transforms into the wind. There was an obsession in finding textures. Textures for the silence, textures for the wind, of having the actresses be very present, their breathing, their sound and all details. It was a meticulous job by Verónica Font, the sound designer and she recoded sounds and more sounds non-stop. The editing was painstaking work so as to retrieve all of the original live sounds and build the soundtrack.
A long part of your career you’ve worked in editing. How has this experience influenced the formal proposal of your film?
Well, I remember on the first day that I met with the producer, Carles Brugueras, he asked me, ‘are you a filming or an editing director? I said, ‘an editing one’. And he answered ‘ok, then we’ll get along’. I mean, it is not only how my experience in editing has influenced me, it is a way of seeing, of imagining. When you see movies in a certain way, more than seeing a type of framing, you see the relations between the images. Even in the script, you are also editing. We could say that maybe being an editor has given me the freedom to believe that everything could be built during the editing process, and that is very liberating, not having to narrow down to a necessary continuity in the action, but being able to move by impulses, by the feeling of the moment and then find new relations in the editing.
An idea that you wanted the audience to take with them when the movie ended.
Yes, but I think I wouldn’t want an idea to stay, but the feeling of having lived a piece of life in the countryside and of having participated in this piece of life, of having felt something very powerful. Of having felt cold, of having felt silence, and connecting that somehow with your own life, however that happens. That is what I would like, more than the audience taking a concept or an idea. It has been [only] eight people involved in the filming and the energy that generates during the shooting has a lot to do with a familiar atmosphere among all the team, of sharing together to create a film that speaks about time and the need of time to come to terms with oneself and with one’s origins. It was trying to recuperate that neorealist idea of working with time, with all of the elements needed, but with a very small team in an almost artisan way. And yes, it is true that a great team was needed because every day was truly epic being so few. It is a type of filmmaking that I am going to take to other projects.