'The shadow of time'
by Fabien Lemercier
- A humanistic director roams free in the wide fields of documentary
The Spanish director Mercedes Alvarez met Cineuropa in Paris to tell us all about the genesis of her first feature, The Sky Turns. From her original debut to the subject of her film, her choice to make a documentary, and her success at many festivals, the director narrates the whole adventure. Her humanist outlook and her strong convictions are manifest in The Sky Turns, where she gives free rein to her unconventional mind.
Cineuropa : Why did you make passing time the main theme of your film?
Mercedes Alvares : The film is about how fast time flies. Cinema is one of the few arts which allow to deal with time, show how it passes and the imperceptible traces it leaves on people and things without anybody noticing. The necessity to put this in a film also comes from the fact that cinema can stop time, freeze the image for us to look at it closely. The 7th art allows the artist to show the shadow of passing time by making people who really know how short life is talk about life and death.
Why did you choose Soria, in Castilla, as a background to illustrate that idea?
There are many ruins in this province, remnants of several historical periods now coexisting in the same space and time. There, you can really feel in your body the presence of these ruins. As I show in my film, different people, at different times, came to live here, and all this demographic history left traces (the Arabian tower, the Roman ruins...). The locals are conscious of the fact that each culture ends up disappearing to be replaced by another. Eventually, history repeats itself civilisation after civilisation. Like nature, it is cyclic. Soria is also very silent, which makes the presence of the past more obvious —while big cities relate to the future.
Why did you make a documentary, after your debut with a fiction?
I felt like coming back to the origins of film, to the innocent contemplative outlook people used to have on images. Now images are everywhere and each one is meant to rule out the others. On the contrary, when an image is still and the spectator can observe and interpret it at will, he regains the ability to really see. It is important to leave the spectator free, as Kiarostami does, for instance. As far as I am concerned, I wanted to refer to a tradition in documentary, starting with Robert Flaherty and trying, as the pioneers did, to just get out on the street and see what happens out there. The idea is not to obey pre-determined conventions but to experience reality and react accordingly. Making a documentary allowed me to avoid the strict rules which apply to fiction and research my subject more thoroughly. Besides, staying in the village led me to put in my film what I lived there and shared with the locals. In Spain, Vitor Erice's The Quince Tree Sun definitely opened new perspectives for documentaries, for Erice renounced using actors and written texts to privilege dialogue with reality. What is interesting with documentaries is certainly not apprehending reality with the grammar of fiction, but relating separate elements such as the village and the painter I filmed. My approach is close to Chris Marker's.
Was it difficult to finance The Sky Turns?
No, it wasn't, for it was commissioned by the Masters of the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, in agreement with Canal +. Later, the ICAA helped completing the 500,000-euro budget. I started shooting with a digital Beta and then shifted to a DV Cam. I think I will keep working between documentary and fiction. The success of The Sky Turns at international festivals was a great surprise but it made me realise that the public is sensitive to stories told in a subjective confidential manner but with a universal theme.
What do you think about contempory Spanish films?
The problem here is that films tend to be very academic on a formal point of view. Directors try to copy the Americans and movies are made to be sold. Arthouse works are rare and have problems finding screens, since American productions take over 80 to 90% of the theatres. Few screens are left available for Spanish films, and they are usually reserved to big national productions such as Almodovar and Amenabar's films. As a result, there is little room for other Spanish films, not to mention European productions. And when movies are left unseen, what's the point?