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‘The Second Mother’ Director Anna Muylaert on Why It Took 20 Years to Make Her Award-Winning Drama

'The Second Mother' Director Anna Muylaert on Why It Took 20 Years to Make Her Award-Winning Drama

Anna Muylaert is a Brazilian film and television director and screenwriter. Her first feature film, “Durval Discos” (2002), won seven awards at Festival de Gramado, including Best Film and Best Director. Her latest film, “The Second Mother,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where its two female leads (Regina Casé and Camila Márdila) shared the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting. The film’s European premiere took place at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Panorama Audience Award.  

“The Second Mother” refers to Val (Casé), a live-in maid who has to contend with the return of her estranged, college-age daughter Jessica (Márdila). Val is adored by the wealthy family she serves, but Jessica thinks that they are taking advantage of her kindness and treating her like a second-class citizen. Jessica’s educational ambitions also threaten the social order the wealthy family has become accustomed to. 

The film offers a politically astute and engaging narrative that places female relationships at the fore. It also challenges an ingrained class system and insightfully illustrates how such an unequal structure has the power to separate people while being endearingly playful and ingeniously thought-provoking. 

In an email interview with Women and Hollywood, Muylaert discussed the long road to making “The Second Mother,” why her younger character Jessica is a “superhero,” and about the sexism that her film’s enormous international success has engendered against her. 

W&H: Please give us your description of this film.

AM: It’s a social drama about a woman, Val, who could not raise her daughter because she was working as a nanny for somebody else’s son. The film starts when this daughter looks for her, and they have the chance to fix the past.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

AM: My love for my first son (I started this project when he was born, 20 years ago) and the comprehension of how sacred the work of a mother is, and the ways in which this [child-rearing] work is not valued in a society based on values invented by men — in which power, money and success are more important than the basic things, like educating a child.

W&H: Could you talk more about the film’s exploration of its female characters and how they propel the narrative?

AM: Although it’s not a film for women, all my [main characters] are female. One of them feels that she is better than the others. The other one feels she is worse than the others. And the third one feels she is not neither worse nor better than the others: By respecting herself and others, she has the capacity to turn everything upside down.

W&H: In what ways do you think the film emphasizes the importance for women’s experiences and female relationships to be featured on screen?

AM: I’ve always learned in school that history has been written by the powerful, by the winners. Now, I start to understand that history has always been written by men, reflecting the male mind and ambitions. Now, I think it’s more than time for women to show their side. It’s not only about being a female director; it’s about values. I am a single mother who makes films. What is more important? I am very committed to cinema, but inside, I have no doubts that educating a child is a hundred times more difficult and important than making any film. You don’t get rich or powerful for that, but you get stronger, you get wiser, you get more real. This is a female point of view, and I am saying it not as a housewife, but as a film director.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

AM: Getting to the right story — first big challenge. Working for months with no money — second big challenge. And now that the film is ready and has been so successful, I am facing a third big challenge: to face sexism for my success. I feel that men think it’s lovely if a woman makes a lovely film that nobody sees. But this is my first film that has sold to 25 countries and is making money. At this point, men are not used to dealing with women directors. They are treating me as if this success was not because of my talents, my efforts and my work, but because of whatever they are doing to make it happen. It’s disgusting.

W&H: How do you think the film explores the problem of class barriers?

AM: I spent 20 years to get to this story. I think the film explores it in a subtle way because all the social struggle happens within a mother’s heart. The character of the maid, Val, is the one that most prays for the separatist rules that are respected in the house. She protects her bosses more than she protects herself and her own interests. But when her young daughter, whom she hasn’t seen for years, comes back and starts questioning this situation, the mother gets really disturbed and angry with her. But when the daughter proves her capacities, the mother can’t help enjoying it. And the audience can’t help it either.  

W&H: Could you speak more about the young and out-spoken female character of this film and the ways in which Jessica could possibly be regarded as the voice of a younger generation of women?   

AM: Jessica to me is almost a superhero. She is clever, persistent and, most of all, she is centered. To be honest, I have never met a girl so young and so self-confident. To me, she is more like a utopia of what youth could or should be if they are trying to change the world for the better.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female filmmakers?

AM: Never forget your female side. Even in an aggressive business, we don’t have to behave like men to succeed. Work harder and harder. Show your script to as many intelligent people as possible. Be open to anybody’s opinion. It’s better to be sad after a script critique today than to be upset tomorrow if your film is not good. 

W&H: What would you like an audience to take away from “The Second Mother”?

AM: I think this film opens many possible debates. One of the most important morals of this story is that everybody has the right to citizenship. It’s not something to be conquered. It’s about respect and about self-consciousness. And also that the individual connected to his or her feelings is more powerful than those who are just obeying social laws in an automatic way.

“The Second Mother” opens in theaters on August 28. 

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