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Amalia Ulman Brings Us ‘The Grifters,’ with Compassion and Laughter, in ‘El Planeta’

The director, writer, producer, and star of the Sundance 2021 hit tells IndieWire about her debut feature, the droll tale of mother-daughter con artists starring Ulman's own mom.

Ale Ulman and Amalia Ulman appear in El Planeta by Amalia Ulman, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Carlos Rigo Bellver.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“El Planeta”

Sundance

El Planeta” is a graceful willow of a movie. The distributor is tiny; it was made on a whisper of a budget, with a crew of five, in black-and-white. It’s also the kind of movie that makes you want to talk fast, so people can learn how great it is before their attention spans are flattened by the tsunami of awards-season marketing.

The debut feature of Argentine-born Spanish artist-turned-filmmaker Amalia Ulman, Sundance 2021 premiere “El Planeta” is all her: She’s the director, writer, producer, and star, one of only three named characters in the film. (One is her own mother, Ale Ulman, making her acting debut.) Within the sleepy coastal city of Gijón, inside the autonomous region of Spain known as Asturias, they portray mother-daughter grifters María and Leonor, who execute disastrous romantic and financial schemes in the guise of rich people. “Where do you want me to work, McDonald’s?” Amalia moans as the hopelessly unambitious Leo. In the film’s opening scene, Leo’s desperate hope for quick cash is through arranging a “golden shower” situation with a sugar-daddy hopeful (played by filmmaker and comedian Nacho Vigalondo). That falls through.

Ulman said the film draws from her family’s own financial stress in a post-crisis Spain, but also from the true story of Justina and Ana Belén, penniless mother-daughter con artists who ran up tabs in the thousands that they promised to settle at local businesses but, of course, never could.

“In 2017 or 2018, my mom sent me a picture of them and she was like, ‘Haha, I saw them in the street!'” Ulman said over a Zoom interview. “I looked up their story and thought it was funny not because of what they were doing — they were just saying they were rich — but more of how it represented the city, that weird hierarchy of people. As immigrants, we have never been allowed to [get away with that] ourselves. These women got away with that because they’re Spanish.”

Ulman said the tabloid sensation of the Beléns struck a chord with her own experience as an immigrant from Buenos Aires. “In Spain, there are a lot of people who might look or be poor but they are actually royalty from some weird village,” she said. “That’s a world I’ve always been excluded from. Most immigrants in Spain have to live off their savings and work hard.”

Now 32 and living in Brooklyn, Ulman makes bracing performance and video art that challenges notions of class and gender and often involves Ulman inhabiting a twisted version of a recognizable modern-day persona. (Her website displays a massive volume of work.) That scrappy, DIY sensibility was integral to the making of “El Planeta.”

El-Planeta-Carlos-Rigo-Bellver-Credit-Pablo-Paloma

Shooting “El Planeta”

Pablo Paloma

“It was not the idea originally [to cast my mother],” Ulman said. “The problem was budget. My mom, as you can see in the film, is very photogenic. She’s one of those natural actors. She’s always camera-ready. We did some tests, and she was great at it. So I said, ‘OK, we’ll do it together.’ Because no one else is gonna care about the film as much as we will, and for such little pay.”

Ulman raised the money herself via art-world connections. When she pitched “El Planeta” to would-be investors in Spain, she met resistance for not being sufficiently Spanish — even though she only obtained an Argentinian passport this year.

“That was the big problem in getting funding because the story was done from a different vantage point, and people were not happy about that,” she said. “My kind of class discussion is not welcome… it’s still very macho and old-school, and they would assume that fiction is bourgeois and that only documentary is political. A lot of people told me, ‘Why don’t you make it as a documentary?’ I didn’t fall into that category, and I also didn’t fall into the big mainstream pictures they do shoot in Asturias, like big romantic comedies. They didn’t think my portrayal of the city was realistic enough.”

Ulman’s vision of Gijón is emptied of its tourist clamor. Although the film was shot in 2019, it looks as if it could have been shot during the pandemic. The streets have a lonely limbo vibe, a layover for the existentially stuck.

El Planeta

“El Planeta”

Utopia

“The politicians there have a very North Korean mindset,” Ulman said. “Everything has to be very pretty-looking for it to be nice or welcoming. For me, I was being truthful to what it is to grow up there. But still, really loving my city so much [is why] I went to shoot a film there.”

The movie ends with actual red-carpet footage outside the Princess of Asturias gala, where Martin Scorsese received a prize for his contributions to the arts in 2018. The tourists and locals waving in front of the camera didn’t mirror the attention received by the “El Planeta” production, but even the film’s small crew drew interest from a population of less than 300,000.

“Institutionally-wise, we didn’t get any help, but people were extremely friendly about the shoot,” she said. “It was a very fun thing to do, because a lot of old friends, high-school friends, ex-boyfriends, my mom’s ex-boyfriend were involved in the movie.”

Ulman also wove in her own backstory: In 2013, while traveling from New York City to Chicago via Greyhound, the bus collided with a tractor-trailer. She was injured and now has a slight limp, which she decided to bring into the film.

“There aren’t disabilities of that kind [in film] that are not being in a wheelchair or something, but something that affects your day-to-day and makes it a bit shittier,” she said. “I’ve never included my disability in my work before. So I thought, ‘Why not?'”

Ulman and her mother also lost their home after the 2009 global financial crisis, so “El Planeta” emerges almost as a cathartic, fantastical recreation of real-life events.

“I thought that would give us agency to make a comedy and not do it from a place of guilt,” she said. “It was beautiful that from something that was just bad in general, my mom and I were able to create something new out of it. It was creative instead of dwelling on that loss.”

Released by Utopia Distribution, “El Planeta” is now playing at IFC Center in New York before expanding to Los Angeles October 1.

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