“You love them, but there are so many boundaries and conditions,” Chilean director Sebastian Silva told indieWIRE last week about his experience growing up with live-in maids in his well-off family in Santiago. His experience with Racquel and Lucy as his family’s domestic servants is the backbone for his new feature, which he co-wrote with Pedro Peirano. “The Maid” (La Nana) took home two prizes in January at the Sundance Film Festival, including the World Cinema Jury Prize Dramatic as well as a World Cinema Jury Prize for Acting for Catalina Saavedra in addition to other nods from festivals around the world.
In the film, Saavedra plays long-time maid Racquel, who feels innately a part of the Valdez family after 23 years of service helping to maintain their household, sharing in the family’s good times and tribulations, and helping to raise their children. Though she is squarely a part of the household, there are barriers. While she prepares the meals and even disciplines the sometimes unruly kids, she still eats alone in the kitchen, and while she is shown genuine affection, she still wears a uniform and her proximity to the family’s routine and lifestyle is ultimately ruled by her status as a family servant. In the film, individuals within the household look to Racquel in varying ways. For the mother (Claudia Celedon) she has become the de facto head of the household. For the teenage son, she has gone from surrogate mother to an object of adolescent crush, while daughter Camila sees her as a bitter rival that is manifested by a psychological war that includes loud early morning vaccuming, accusations and ignored requests.
Over Racquel’s repeated objections, the couple decide to hire a second maid to alleviate her perceived abundance of work, which brings on a new front in the household’s silent war. A series of servants come and go, leaving after a rough hazing by Racquel. After the string of potential servants leave the family under what appears to be bewildering circumstances, the family brings in Lucy (Mariana Loyola). Again, Racquel brings on the hazing, however, Lucy’s humor and resilience is no match despite Racquel’s stealth warfare, and after an illness, she warms up to Lucy.
“It was strange growing up with a maid,” Silva, who now lives in New York, told indieWIRE. “They live with you, but they don’t share certain things like dinner and holidays. They’re sort of the third authority figure.” Silva, who said he based the entire film on the experience of his upbringing, said that while he recognized the authority of the maid at home – almost akin to a nanny – he and his siblings would challenge her leverage over them. “You can rebel against them because you know they have less authority than your parents.”
Silva said that the plot between Racquel and Lucy actually happened, and that Lucy even helped him develop the story. During Racquel’s illness, Lucy effectively took over Racquel’s duties while she convalesced. Though cold and jealous, Lucy turned on the charm and slowly won over Racquel. After getting better, she even invited Racquel to spend the holidays with her and her rural family. There, she experiences for the first time in her life what it truly feels like to be treated as an equal, and she even has a fling with Lucy’s cousin.
After returning home, Lucy misses her family and grows increasingly disenchanted with city life and domestic service. Racquel, now a much more cheerful person, plans a birthday party for Lucy, but the festive occasion quickly shifts when Lucy announces she will quit work and return home.
“Lucy was crying nonstop when she first saw the film,” said Silva who went on to say that she absorbed the political and social implications of the film. “Racquel, however, more saw the surface of it. They were the first two people who saw the film, and Racquel was laughing and Lucy was crying.”
The film, which has been a hit in Chile and even resulted in a commendation to Silva from the South American country’s president, has apparently struck a chord at home where maids are common in middle class and upper class homes. Probably to no one’s surprise, the structure is ruled by class as in other countries, but even more so in Chile where there are 250,000 maids in the capital of Santiago alone, according to Silva.
“Being a maid in Chile – they’re not Mary Poppins. They tend to come from a poor educational background. They take care of you, feed you, dress you, but they don’t teach you. ‘The Maid’ is not just a movie that my family can relate to, but it’s a familiar story for people of similar backgrounds.”
At the film’s premiere recently in the capital, organizers invited 300 maids to attend, which was an emotional experience, Silva noted. “It was very vocal. I’ve never been to a screening like that in my life. The Q&A was awesome. Many noted that the only time their job is noticed is when it’s not done – it’s just taken for granted.” Silva continued saying that the film’s release spawned domestic servant related programming on local networks, and said the feature divided critics at home, with some saying it lacked an outwardly political focus.
Back at home, Silva said after working for over two decades with his family, Racquel finally quit shortly after seeing the film. And now living in New York, where he is pursuing two new projects with one slated to shoot in Poland and another possibly in Michigan, he told iW his childhood and teenage years living with a domestic servant were his last.
“I don’t think I’d ever have a maid. Not that I don’t like people cleaning up after me, I do… But I don’t want someone living with me like that.”
Elephant Eye Films opens Sebastian Silva’s “The Maid” on Friday, October 16 at the Anjelika Film Center in New York, followed by a national roll out.