In Clandestine Childhood (Infancia Clandestina), writer/director Benjamín Ávila drew inspiration from his personal exiled childhood during Argentina's Dirty War as the son of two Montoneros guerillas. The film, which took prizes at both San Sebastian and Havana Film Festivals last year, is set in 1979 during the family's return from Cuba to fight in the Montoneros counteroffensive operation under new assumed identities. Benjamín spoke to LatinoBuzz about what it meant to see memories from his formative years unfold on the big screen.
Clandestine Childhood is being released in NY and CA on Friday, January 11th, 2013.
LatinoBuzz: What did the actors take away from spending several days with former Montoneros?
Benjamín Ávila: I wanted the actors to have the chance to physically live that era. The most complex challenge for an actor is the ability to give dimension to the story from the time that it happened, not from the present. For them it was important to get rid of all the WHYS and be able to answer them by themselves. So I decided to have the actors meet a couple of former guerrilla members to do a training drill for two days, the way it was done back then, as well as for them to have a chance to talk and for the actors to be able to ask anything they wanted.
It was very productive because their body changed, as well as their stand before history. It also helped me to confirm some doubts that had arisen during the process of writing the script. And from that moment on, the improvisations we did were very important in defining some scenes of the film. Particularly the argument scene between the grandmother and mother. That improvisation came after the work we did, and some glorious moments emerged as a result, very complex and incorrect that served to give another dimension to the movie.
LatinoBuzz: Was there a particular audience for this film that was most important for you to see it?
Benjamín Ávila: Not really. But firstly, it is a film that I made for my brothers. And for the children of the disappeared and those killed during the last dictatorship in Argentina. They are the primary audience, but the story is not constructed so that only they understand. On the contrary, I wanted the film to move people, to it would provoke feelings and ideas, without sacrificing the cinematic and artistic construction. Luckily, for all the feedback that I receive from the people who have seen it, I think we have achieved that goal. It's a film that provokes many emotions, that endures for days within the people who see it, and that generates the need to reiterate the questions that were supposedly already answered.
LatinoBuzz: When was the first time you realized that 'Infancia Clandestina' was the story you had to tell?
Benjamín Ávila: I always knew it. Since I was 13, I knew I wanted to work in film. I also knew back then that one day I would film my childhood. Somehow I made a tacit commitment at that time with myself, with my family, and with my own story. Therefore it is very important for me to have completed this process. It is a feeling of a debt paid, like I "had to do" this film. It was a duty rather than a necessity. Now that the film is finished I feel a relief, that of mission accomplished. Now I can be at peace.
LatinoBuzz: How much of what was going on were you very much aware of and how did you process that as a young boy?
Benjamín Ávila: My older brother and I were very aware, even though we were 7 and 8 years old at the time. I always think we were like the kids living in the street, who have a very conscious relationship with their environment. We knew what was happening, what we could and could not say. Although we were doing and saying what we were living, we could not have a dialectical discussion nor a real argument. We understood it all.
For us what we lived was not anything special, but it was normal. It was our life. We could not imagine anything different. This is why we were never traumatized. Even nowadays I miss that lifestyle. That clear and powerful bonding we all had. What was traumatizing was everything else: the absence, the persecution, the disappearance of my mother and not knowing anything to this day, not having been raised with my younger brother (Vicky in the movie). It was not until three yeas ago that we started having a life of ordinary siblings. And it cost a lot to have it…
LatinoBuzz: You were a child of Montoneros, so your childhood was unlike many others yet in the film we largely see this sweet portrayal of this blossoming first love between Juan and Maria –just like any teenager experiences. How much of that was Benjamín wishing that childhood was that innocent?
Benjamín Ávila: What you need to understand is that living in hiding was not something different to normality. It had parameters that were unusual, but we lived them like any other, even inside the house. I remember many common and normal family moments. Like waking up too late at night to watch the matches of the national team playing the World Cup youth soccer, Maradona’s first in Japan, and the matches were at 4 or 6 am. I remember going out at 7am in the morning with all the neighbors to celebrate the championship. My mother chastising me because I was late for school, or because I hadn't made my bed. Family barbecues, like any other Sunday, and so on, thousands of memories as normal as any other.
LatinoBuzz: What happened to “María”?
Benjamín Ávila: Maria never existed at that time. I had my Marías, but in other places and other times!
LatinoBuzz: In writing such a personal story what was the hardest thing to
write and did you avoid anything?
Benjamín Ávila: The most difficult part was at the beginning, trying to detach myself from my own history. Because several things were clear to me: the subject of film, that I did not want to be the protagonist of the story, that the most important part was the reconstruction of a routine
that has never been shown but that was not only mine but of many. That's why I took anecdotes and stories from others… Writing the script with Marcelo Muller, a dear Brazilian friend, helped me to achieve that distance I wanted for the construction of the story. With him I was able to rule out what wasn't important to the film’s story even if it was personally very important to me, and so we achieved that distance even though I deepened what remained. It was as if Marcelo pulled out to keep it to the essential, and I pulled inwards to deepen what remained.
LatinoBuzz: Was the casting difficult? Were you looking for yourself in
Benjamín Ávila: The casting of the children was complicated. We did it with María Laura Berch, an incredible casting director specializing in children, and we elaborated a very clear, yet complex, strategy. We saw over 700 children in total for all the roles, and it took us three months as planned.
But most importantly, we wanted to cast very homely, to give the kids the idea of what the shooting was going to be right from the beginning. And as I do my own camerawork every time I film, I decided I was going to shoot the casting so the kids could get used to my presence close to them and behind the camera from the beginning. And it worked really well.
With the adults it was very different. I saw Ernesto Alterio in the TV series "Vientos de Agua" by Campanella miniseries and compared to other roles I've seen him perform, I found the construction of his character wonderful. Something similar happened with Natalia Oreiro, she is very famous in Argentina but because of roles in comedies or romantic comedies, but seeing her in Caetano's "Francia" I noticed a dramatic profile in which I was very interested. With Cesar Troncoso, he was recommended by Luis Puenzo who had worked with him in "XXY" the film he produced, directed by his daughter Lucía Puenzo. I had seen him in "The Pope's Toilet" and I had loved his role. And it was always a dream that Cristina Banegas play the role of the grandmother, and luckily we did it!
LatinoBuzz: Was seeing the film for the first time like looking at
photographs of your childhood?
Benjamín Ávila: No, this film has a lot of traits that belong to my childhood but they're for the most part, changed or modified. What does happen to me, is that I see through them my own memories. That happens to me, but it's something very intimate. The photos that appear at the end, which are from my family in reality, is the moment that moves me the most as I get haunted by the echoes of that wonderful past that was destroyed at the moment portrayed by the film.
My production company is called Room 1520 in tribute to the last scene of Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders, where the young kid (Hunter) is reunited with his mother after a long time in that same room… My childhood accompanies much of what I do.
LatinoBuzz: How many details from set design and wardrobe to how the actors who played your parents looked and acted did you involve yourself or were you able to separate yourself?
Benjamín Ávila: The shooting process was very intimate, intense and emotional. All of the staff, technicians and actors, we were involved in a special way. I have a way of working which at first puzzled the team. I like getting carried away by what is happening and then decide each scene based on the actors, the set and the light.
I operate the camera, I always do it when I'm the director, and I like to approach it as a documentary, finding the images based on what happens, as it happens. In that sense, each take was a particular universe of its own, unique and not replicable. Of course some takes came out really bad. But others were magical … and those are the ones remained.
On the third day of filming something happened that made the whole team realize the scope of what we were doing, and from that moment on, everybody trusted my working technique. It happened that we were shooting Juan's (played by Teo Gutiérrez Moreno) first sequence where he burns the photos, near the end of the film. A tough sequence due to the mood that Juan had to reflect (as he just learns that his father was killed and had just hopelessly cried with his mother), and with children you don't work from a rational place but rather from the body directly, something very natural to them. So, I asked Natalia Oreiro to stand off-screen next to me, and that at moment I said 'action', for her to scream inconsolably, begging for help. On the other hand I told Teo that regardless of whatever was happening, he should not take his eyes off the fire, and that he should run out when I called his name. We got ready and at the moment of saying 'action' Natalia started to scream, heart wrenching, and all that I wanted to happen to Teo, started happening to me with the camera on my shoulder. I began to cry inconsolably (if you look carefully at the scene, the camera moves because I'm crying), as if it was an ancestral cry from some other time, and at some point I yelled at Teo and he perfectly did what he had to do, as usual, an he ran. I said 'cut', gave the camera to my assistant and as I was leaving I saw Natalia crying uncontrollably, everyone saw me and realized I was crying. I went to the video assist and as I entered everybody was very excited, they saw me crying. I asked to see the take… At that moment, everybody including actors, technicians and me, realized that we were doing something more than professional, but also very personal.
LatinoBuzz: Were there any films that influenced the look of the film?
Benjamín Ávila: Absolutely. For the tone of the performance and the gaze of the kids, "My Life as a Dog" by Lasse Halstrom. All of Krystof Kieslowski's filmography, and the political view of the films that Ken Loach made in
England such as "Raining Stones", "Riff-Raff" and "Hidden Agenda".
LatinoBuzz: What's the next project?
Benjamín Ávila: I am writing for a TV series of 40 single chapters. Additionally, I am adapting a novel by Elsa Osorio that I've been wanting to do for 12 years. I'm adapting it with her to make a miniseries of 13 chapters. It's about 40 years of history and involves many characters. A different look at the people who survived or were involved in Argentina's dictatorship.
For Screening times in NY and CA visit: http://www.filmmovement.com/theatrical/index.asp?MerchandiseID=314
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Written by Juan Caceres and Vanessa Erazo, LatinoBuzz is a weekly feature on SydneysBuzz that highlights Latino indie talent and upcoming trends in Latino film with the specific objective of presenting a broad range of Latino voices. Follow @LatinoBuzz on twitter.