Wednesday, 2 May 2012

An Interview with Julia Solomonoff on "The Last Summer of La Boyita"

Deborah Shaw and Debbie Martin
El ultimo verano de Boyita/The Last Summer of Boyita is a film directed by the Argentine director Julia Solomonoff. It was co-produced by El Deseo, the Almodóvar brothers’ production company and was shown at a number of international film festivals in 2009. It is a simple yet profound coming of age story of two children, Jorgelina and Mario, set in the Argentine countryside. The film deals with the emotional journey of the two as Mario who has been raised as a boy begins to have periods and they discover that he is not like other boys. The Last Summer of Boyita belongs to a subgenre of films (Ma vie en rose, Berliner, 1997, XXY Puenzo, 2007, Tomboy, Sciamma 2011), that present gay/trasgender/intersex children as part of a natural world, while the adult spaces are shown to be repressive and anti-natural. They all offer a riposte to the discourses of the Christian right wing that utilize the language of nature to condemn anything outside hetero-normative practices. These films form a queer family corpus and have all interestingly, emerged from France and Argentina. The Last Summer of Boyita is being released in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures on 23rd April.
What follows is an edit of two interviews carried out separately and, coincidentally within days of each other in April 2012, between Julia Solomonoff and two Deborahs who both work on Latin American film – Debbie Martin and Deborah Shaw.
El ultimo verano de Boyita features characters with a rich emotional world conveyed through minimalist dialogue and beautiful images; can you tell us something about how you approached the subject matter in cinematic terms?
I had a few certainties when I started this project. I knew I wanted to work with a minimal crew and minimal equipment to try to keep the shoot as intimate and spontaneous as possible. I did not want to use big lights, and because I was working with non- actors (Tuto, the boy that plays Mario, has never been to a cinema before), I did not want to worry about the cost of celluloid every time the camera was rolling. Those were the 2 main reasons to shoot in HD.
The minimal dialogue comes from observing the world the characters live in. In the more urban environment, at the beginning and at the end of the film, there are more words, but once we are in the countryside the sounds of nature replace some of the dialogues.
The film is about bodies, skin, sexual awakening and also a certain raw decay. In the summer, life and death are pretty exposed in nature. Making this film was for me also revisiting a place I knew very well and loved very much, the hilly countryside of Entre Rios, where life seems to open, breath, explode in the heat. But it is also the search for a cool shade, the bliss of the ponds and the slow, refreshing arrival of the evening. Going back to that place was also going back in time, to a time of discovery, wonder and an almost obscene fascination with the exploration of life cycles.
You make important observations on class in the film through a focus on Jorgelina and Mario’s relationship to work and leisure. Would you say that class is as central theme as gender in your film?
To me, Jorgelina is not only discovering the deep transformations in Mario’s body, she is also becoming aware of the gap between her world and Mario’s. She is not only questioning what it means to be a boy or a girl, but also grasping her privileges as urban middle class kid and the burdens of rural working class. In a way, Mario is a boy because in the countryside and with elder parents, that is what is desired.
Maybe because I am Latin American, where both class differences and political struggles are probably more visible and more present in our lives and discourses, I cannot separate one identity from the other. I believe we are dynamic constructions of gender, class, ethnicities and cultural traditions. Sometimes we follow a continuum and sometimes we rebel against or question it; thinking of gender without class is impossible for me. That does not mean being determinist or oversimplifying, quite the contrary; it means taking into account how we are not abstract beings but very much interactive with a certain time and space, a milieu…how we follow but also how we react against, our continuities and contradictions.
That said, I strongly reject the narrow vision that equates urban with “progressive” and rural with “backwards” or that declares current times “freer” or more “tolerant” than others (The word “tolerant” is quite a symptom of our times). We tolerate what we consider wrong. But there is nothing wrong in difference, in diversity. It is something to embrace, to celebrate, not to “tolerate”.
In the country, when people slash a cow, their hands get dirty with blood, they hear the cows last breaths. In the city, we buy meat in a white plastic wrap… the aseptic wrapping gives us the illusion of not partaking in the cruelty (And no, I am not a vegetarian…I am an Argentine who eats her share of  “asado” every once in a while).
The urban violence is aseptic, but also deeper and harder to undo, because it is justified by science, ideas of “normalcy” and political correctness.
If Mario was born in a middle class urban environment in the 1080s, he would have been subject to a surgery before the age of 3 and maybe would only find out after decades of self doubt, feelings of inadequacy, fear and confusion.
It strikes me that this film takes a beautifully simple approach to serious themes; is the focus on a child’s eye view an attempt to challenge an overly restrictive take on identity and sexuality that many have in the adult world?
Yes, absolutely. I tossed and turned with this story for many years. When I realized that I should stay with Jorgelina’s perspective, that “limitation” became liberating. In a way, when I wrote the scene when her father tries to explain Mario’s case in medical terms and she covers her ears, I felt I found the reason to make this movie. I “discovered” that scene very late, during rehearsals. I knew I needed something like that but couldn’t find it…
Jorgelina teaches us that Mario’s future does not need to be tragic or feared. By seeing the world through her curious, candid, loving eyes we not only accept Mario, we love him.
Did you do anything aesthetically to create a child’s gaze?
To an extent. Generally we stayed at the children’s height, but without going too far. We wanted to recreate the children’s body language. They spend more time on the ground, sitting or lying on it for example. Dead time, time when nothing is happening, is important too, for example when Jorgelina is just looking at ants. It’s not just about the level of the camera, it’s about a gaze which is searching, discovering.
Can you say a little about the setting of the film?  The community that feature in the film appear to be of German-Argentine heritage. Where is the film set and is this an area that is familiar to you personally?
Yes, I was born in Parana, Entre Rios. A province with the oldest Jewish, German and Italian communities in Argentina. My maternal family is German/Italian and my paternal is Sephardic Jewish. I grew up going to a farmhouse identical to the one where we shot. I would play with the farmhand’s kids, who were beautiful, shy and quite dry.
When I first heard this story I was Jorgelina’s age. I overheard my parents talking about this country boy that my mother (a gynecologist) was treating. The terms were medical (my dad is a psychiatrist) but I figured out the essence and imagined the rest. It must have been then that I overlapped the story I heard with the son of the farmhands I used to play with.
How would you characterize the relationship between this location and Mario’s story?
The immigrant colonies that were formed in Entre Ríos in the nineteenth century were very much a culture of pioneers. That’s where the oldest Jewish, German and Italian communities are. One thing that came out of my research and that I felt gave the story more credibility is that cases of CAH (Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, which is Mario’s condition) are caused by two recessive genes, and more common in more endogamic or closed communities such as these. During my research I learnt of a case of a boy of 11, the captain of the football team, with a girlfriend, totally identified with the male role, who started to bleed, and whose family thought he had a urinary infection. And I gradually found that what seems to be a total surprise to the parents in these cases, generally isn’t. There are generally many signs that have been ignored along the way.
Is the location also important in terms of the role of animals in the film? I’m thinking especially of the focus on the horse and the relationship between Mario and the horse, but also between Jorgelina and the dog. It strikes me that these animal bonds give the children a means of escaping – even if only temporarily – the rules imposed by adult society.
Being in the countryside was always going to mean that animals played a big role. They also interested me because I was felt that there were several different ways of knowing, or types of knowledge in the film. Jorgelina’s way, which is more urban, and has to do with books and conversation, the word, and Mario’s way which is about direct observation, and having the whole of nature – meaning death, sex, pregnancy and decay  – before his eyes. Mario has a much more direct knowledge of life, but it’s wordless… so yes, I think the animals bring the idea of a non verbal form of relating. It’s about looking, touching, smelling and feeling. It’s another form of communication.

Jorgelina mentions that she is Jewish when offered some pig’s cheese; we later see her praying rather clumsily to the virgin, and there is no further mention of her Jewish identity. Were you seeking to make a comment on Jorgelina’s ethnic/religious identity, or is this, in fact a minor issue when faced with the enormity of the changes in identity when we reach adolescence?
I always thought of this film as a celebration of hybrid worlds: urban/rural, male/female, Jewish/Catholic and even HD/film. La Boyita, for instance, was a brand name for trailer homes that could float, a sort of domestic amphibious space: you only needed to add an offshore motor and there you went, floating away in this funny looking tropical igloo… and the pig cheese does exist, it’s a medley of grease, bones and cartilaginous tissue. Being Jewish was her best alibi against such gastronomical atrocity…
Manuel Puig (the Argentine novelist) has critiqued the way Argentine culture over-intellectualizes issues. I was wondering if you share this view?  I’m thinking of the time when Jorgelina’s mother’s friend says that she should see a psychologist, when in fact she’s just sad, worried about her friend and a little lovesick.
Yes, we Argentines have a tendency to overanalyze. And in this particular case, I feel that “send her to the psychologist” is a typical Argentine urban middle class reaction. These women are trivializing by reducing Mario to “interesting conversation material” a slightly sophisticated form of gossip and of course, Jorgelina rejects that.
Her silence is the opposite of Elba’s (Mario’s mom): Elba’s silence is one of fear, denial, shame. Jorgelina keeps the secret as a testimony to their bond, an intimacy that she cherishes...she discovers the meaning of privacy.
This film reminded me of two of my favourite Argentine films, XXY by Lucia Puenzo and La niña santa by Lucrecia Martel, and it struck me that they can be seen as sister/brother films, although each brings something special and wonderful to the new world experienced by children entering adolescence. Do you agree that there are some similarities between the three films?
Sure, we are three Argentine women directors from the same generation. Let’s say our films are cousins. The paradox is that the similarities are easier to see from the distance: they become more apparent to the outsider. Once you are inside the family, you see the differences more than the commonality.
What about other influences on the film, for example aesthetic ones?
I was very inspired by Víctor Erice’s films, especially in terms of the child’s gaze, a gaze which contains a certain darkness, fantasy and silence. My appraoch to the countryside, space and many other things was influenced by Erice…
The sequence where Jorgelina walks into the woods at night looking for Mario certainly recalls Spirit of the Beehive
Exactly. Of course, I had dreamt of having Ana Torrent play Jorgelina (laughs). We’d all have liked Ana Torrent to stay young forever to star in countless films! There’s another film that I love, My Life as a Dog by Lasse Hallström. Those two for the child’s gaze. Then there are others that have more to do with nature. I really like the films of Satyajit Ray, and the way he uses elements of nature metaphorically. And in terms of Argentine or Latin American film, I really love the work of Lucrecia Martel, one of our most important directors.
I use contemporary photography a lot too, for colour, texture, dramatic or narrative situations. There are two Argentine photographers who are really important to me, Alessandra Sanguinetti (who’s American-Argentine) and Guadalupe Miles, who both work with the body, and the intimate lives of girls. There’s another photographer who I love and I always use as a reference, and that’s the North American Sally Mann. She’s a very important source for me.
Mario gains a sense of confidence and self-worth over the course of this film, partially through his friendship with Jorgelina.  The open ending is perfect as Mario stays with the viewers and we worry about him and wonder what the future holds for him. Do you have a sense of what the future holds for Mario?
I decided to stay in that summer, to not go beyond it, because I wanted that decision to be his, not mine. When you get inside the story, when you believe in it, the characters become so real that there are certain things you do not feel entitled to do.
Going back to Jorgelina, it seems to me that you present her as a desiring being, and as not necessarily straight. Is it important to you to undermine that view we have of childhood as, at the same time, heterosexual and asexual?
Yes, absolutely. I imagined her to have an openness, an ambiguity if you like. And I don’t know if it’s her, or just the moment she’s in. I feel that the older sister (Luciana) because she’s now an adolescent, has clearly taken up certain positions. She’s very much the little lady, the ‘señorita’. And Jorgelina is not, she has another role. I always imagined, when doing the casting, that she would be a bit of a tomboy.

Can you say something about the production process of El ultimo verano de la Boyita? How difficult was it to find funding for the project? And, what was the involvement of el Deseo/Ibermedia and the other companies/funding bodies involved?
My first film, Hermanas, was very hard to finance. It took place in 2 countries (Argentina and US) and in two different decades (the 70s and the 80s). It was a “domestic” political drama, most of it happened inside houses so I thought (wrong!) that it wasn’t expensive… the funding was very hard and strenuous and it somehow burdened the shooting process, adding an extra weight to the already overwhelming expectations of the first feature.
When I decided to make la Boyita (a story that is previous to Hermanas but I did not feel ready to direct first) I knew I needed to go back to the joy I had shooting short films. I wanted an intimate and friendly environment. I shot Boyita with almost half of the money of Hermanas, and because Hermanas did well (not great, but well) the producers were ready to take the risk.
In both films I got help from Ibermedia, a very important institution that supports Iberoamerican co-production. I developed the script in a writers’ residence (Fundacion Carolina/ Casa de America) in Madrid and in the last days I called El Deseo and asked to talk to Esther García (El Deseo’s production manager), who I had met briefly on Isabel Coixet’s set and had seen Hermanas. I took the script with me (it was a 3rd or 4th draft I believe) and I told her the story the best I could…three months later she sent me an email asking what stage we were on…
That email was very timely, because around then I had visited Tuto (who I had known for 2 years already and had been recording snippets of his life in home videos) and this time I felt that he was approaching a crucial moment of transformation into a teenager… I saw him in the winter and felt that if by that summer we were not shooting, we would miss our opportunity; he would start to change his voice, maybe develop more manly features...
I showed the video to El Deseo, told them that all I needed was the money for the shoot, that I would not mind waiting for a year to edit and do post but I could not afford missing Tuto, who had become irreplaceable to me…
They were a key support and their faith in the project gave confidence to Lucia Seabra and Maria Teresa Arida (the producers), who had been involved since the development…
How involved are you in the distribution/exhibition process and has this process fulfilled your hopes/expectations?
I try to stay as involved as I can, because small films like mine do not have publicists, and a budget for advertising. They depend enormously on the love and care of the producers and distributors and their ability to get the attention and critical response. In the case of France, for instance, EPICENTRE, the co-producer/distributor did an amazing job and the film was very successful in both ticket sales and reviews. In some other countries I was not as lucky… live and learn.
But overall, it’s been a great ride; the film has been winning attention by excellent word of mouth and has won over 20 international awards. I am very grateful to see how different audiences respond in such a loving, emotional way to it.
Is it possible to talk in terms of a generation of Argentine filmmakers? Do you forge collaborations with other filmmakers, and are there any particular bonds with other women filmmakers?
Yes, certainly. I belong to a group of Argentine director-producers called PCI (Proyecto de Cine Independiente). It is a group of about 50 filmmakers that is now almost 15 years old, where you find Lucia Puenzo, Pablo Giorgelli, Ariel Rotter, Celina Murga, Ana Katz, Rodrigo Moreno…there is no aesthetic dogma or “alignment”, our reason to be is to defend independent filmmaking from development to exhibition, share information and fight for better institutional policies and transparency. Over the years we have grown and became a voice with relevant representation. It is less well organized than the French ACID but pretty similar in concept, I believe.  
I have been living for the last 2 years in New York, teaching at Columbia University, but I am still copied in all emails and try to stay as present and updated as I can.
On the other hand, my first short film won an award from  “La Mujer y el Cine”, an organization that has been active for over 25 years.  Their support meant a lot to me, and I have since been involved in this organization.
Can you tell us a bit about what you are working on now?
I’m writing a feature to shoot here in New York and in Buenos Aires. I’m also working on an adaptation of a novel called Las grietas de Jara which is a story about urban transformations, and how, with a certain level of political negligence, and a certain amount of corruption, whole areas, neighbourhoods and ways of life can completely disappear. I saw it happen in Palermo, in Buenos Aires. In five years whole streets can disappear, streets that have been there for 100 years. But the city is really just the backdrop for the film, it’s about individual responsibility, and it’s a thriller too – though what interests me about the thriller is of course the plot and the suspense, but really using it to ask these other questions, questions about power and space in the city.

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