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SAN SEBASTIÁN 2018 Competition

Valeria Sarmiento • Director

"Telling women's stories is sometimes more important than writing a feminist tract"


- SAN SEBASTIÁN 2018: Chilean director Valeria Sarmiento tells us about her latest film, The Black Book — a period piece in the running for the Golden Shell

Valeria Sarmiento  • Director
(© San Sebastián International Film Festival)

Veteran director Valeria Sarmiento, who splits her time between Chile and Europe, is here at the 66th San Sebastián International Film Festival making her bid for the Golden Shell with her latest film, The Black Book [+see also:
film review
interview: Valeria Sarmiento
film profile
: a period saga adapted from a screenplay originally written for her late husband, the great Raúl Ruiz.

Cineuropa: What made you want to tell this story?
Valeria Sarmiento:
It’s a screenplay that Carlos Saboga wrote for Raúl Ruiz after Mysteries of Lisbon [+see also:
film profile
, based on a novel by the same author, Camilo Castelo Branco. I read it and was fascinated by this woman. I showed it to Paulo Branco and he loved it too, because he’s a big fan of the author.

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Was the fact that the story centres on a woman, and more specifically her emotions, also a factor?
It was a factor, yes. In fact, when writing the original screenplay with Raúl in mind, the writer imagined that Raúl would put the emphasis on the cardinal, because he’s a nasty character with lots of little quirks that he would find interesting. But I much preferred the idea of telling the nursemaid’s story, because I think that telling women’s stories is sometimes more important than writing a feminist tract.

Perhaps because filmmakers have always tended to overlook the female perspective, at least up until now?
There are some great directors who have made films about the fortunes of women. For me personally, it’s something very close to my heart. What with my lead actress (Lou de Laâge) giving such a sensitive performance, we made the film the way we wanted to do it.

You’ve had a very long career as a director. What was it like to be woman in that world, and what changes have you seen over the course of all those years?
Very often I would pitch ideas and the head honchos would say they weren’t going to fund two members of the same family. Little by little, as I kept on fighting, they started to come around. I had to show that I really wanted to make films, that it wasn’t just because my husband was also a director. In Chile, when we started out there were only three of us fighting to get our films made, but now there are lots of young women who are really good, and they’re out there doing it. That’s thanks to the film schools, because the unions have always been very sexist. In fact, there are now more women than men studying film, but it’s still hard for them to reach the same level. Let’s hope that changes very soon. Also, as far as festivals are concerned, most of the selection committees are made up of men. These things ought to change. Fingers crossed the equality agreements people are signing now will be effective. For my part, I’m too old to benefit from all of that — I don’t know how many films I have left in me — but we can hope.

The screenplay was written by Raúl Ruiz. What’s it like to take over his scripts and even finish his films?
It’s my fate. I couldn’t not do it — I can’t abandon him. I don’t think about how I’m usurping his point of view. I really enjoy it; it’s like a game.

How much weight does Ruiz’s artistic legacy carry in your work?
His legacy is that for 42 years I lived with this phenomenon who made 120 films. In terms of style, mine is nothing like Ruiz’s. For example, the pace of Mysteries of Lisbon is quite different. Raúl liked to linger over each scene. What I wanted to do here was precisely the opposite: to work in a very rapid way, trying to disorientate the audience.

These stylistic choices come through very strongly…
What I was trying to do is make the film like a short story. With the photography, for example, we worked with colours inspired by the famous Spanish technicolour, to create an almost artificial effect. The idea was to make the story less realistic through the use of colour.

It’s very obvious that the film isn’t aiming for naturalism but stylisation, which might disconcert some viewers…
In that case, they shouldn’t have come to see the film.

Can you describe your creative process for this film?
When I came across the screenplay I was working on another project, an adaptation of The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño, but the rights turned out to be very expensive. Paulo was very happy to accept the project, because for him, being from Portugal, Castelo Branco is a really big deal. The production took place in Portugal, with an amazing team. The director of photography, Acácio de Almeida, and I have now made five films together. Isabel Branco, the artistic director, had the job of recreating three different countries in one. It was Paulo’s idea to shoot in France, because he thought it would make the set more accessible and that the end result would be more relatable. To begin with I wanted to film it in Portuguese, but I had no problem with translating the script into another language. Apart from that, I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to work with these actors.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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