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CANNES 2019 Critics’ Week

Cesar Diaz • Director of Our Mothers

"I didn’t want to give a history lesson, I wanted to give history a human form"


- CANNES 2019: We met with Cesar Diaz, the Guatemalan director now settled in Belgium, whose first film, Our Mothers, is being presented this year during Cannes’ Critics’ Week

Cesar Diaz • Director of Our Mothers

Cesar Diaz, the Guatemalan filmmaker who has studied in France and Belgium,  has taken the plunge into feature films with Our Mothers [+see also:
film review
interview: Cesar Diaz
film profile
, a title selected to participate in Critics’ Week at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, focusing on the identification of the countless individuals who disappeared during the Guatemalan conflict; a war which tore the country apart for almost 20 years. 

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Cineuropa: Where did this project come from?
Cesar Diaz:
I was scouting for a documentary location in a village where a massacre had taken place during the civil war. The women in the village immediately confided in me; a genuine intimacy was created, based around some truly tragic events. It shocked me. I also wanted to tell a more personal story, something close to my heart - the relationship between a mother and her son, the search for a father - and that’s how the film was born. I had two subjects in mind which needed to coexist. I had to find a balance; to bring to life and develop both of these narrative threads at the same time. 

Faced with the identification of Ernesto’s missing father, are Ernesto and his mother able to embody History in its wider sense?
I wanted to start with an individual, with the intimate, so as to broach something bigger and more universal. It was crucial that the viewer could connect emotionally; I didn’t want to give a history lesson. I needed human journeys and characters.

To begin with, I only wanted to work with amateurs. But I quickly realised that this film needed the input of a real actor. They were the ones who were going to carry the story. But at the same time, I wanted to deliver this story - which really took place, and in the very same village where we shot the film - as if it were a document. 

Moreover, we asked ourselves a lot of questions - my Director of Photography and I - on the way in which the mass graves, the bodies, the bones should all be filmed. We did numerous tests, and we wanted to avoid anything overly aesthetic – and not just with regard to our story and our point of view. This reflection on how the historical “document” and the accompanying fictional elements should be articulated was ongoing on the film set. We felt a real sense of responsibility, because this is a story shared by many people in Guatemala. 

I was especially conscious of not wanting to victimise the women we filmed, and who had lived through these atrocities; to avoid any kind of paternalistic discourse and to give them back their status as heroines. These women are still standing. They’re inhabited by an incredible life force.

Are they the guardians of memory?
Yes, and they’re also the ones who hold the social fabric of the country together. They also pass on knowledge. Without them, the country would collapse.

As he pieces back together the skeletons of the deceased fighters, Ernesto contributes towards the writing of this story. How did you go about filming these shots, which are especially striking at the beginning and the end of the film?
I did a lot of background research at the Forensic Institute so as to understand the scientific procedures. And each and every time I saw them put the skulls in place, it was as if the skeletons were suddenly reincarnated; as if the person was coming into being. I wanted to convey this feeling by filming the operation from above. 

By giving identities back to the dead, we allow families to begin the grieving process, to move on. It also sends the message that they didn’t die for nothing, even 40 years later. 

This is especially important because people don’t know anything about the Guatemalan genocide, but they do know about the Chilean and Argentine dictatorships… 200,000 people died and 45,000 went missing and the world knows nothing about it. Why? Because they were Indians. We had to re-humanise the victims.

Once we’ve all finished killing each other, what do we do with our dead? How do we heal our wounds? We need to take a look at the scars of our past. It has to start with individuals, to repair the country.

How did you go about working with the actors?
We worked hard on the mother-son relationship. We tried to reconstruct their past and even to imagine any possible ellipses in the story. This meant that when we started a scene, we knew exactly where the characters were at. We brought flesh and bones to the story and Armando Espitia and Emma Dib were able to form an immediate connection. I sometimes had the impression that my characters were living independently, without me.

Is it difficult to shoot a film in Guatemala?
It’s difficult in terms of security. It’s a very violent country. We were accompanied by the police and protected by private security guards. Politically speaking, we didn’t get much feedback, but the screenplay wasn’t circulated very widely, and it was also a Belgian-French production. That said, as there’s not really much in place in terms of the film industry, it allowed for a certain sense of freedom. And then the team, who came from Belgium, France, Mexico, Guatemala, really did well in finding a common language.

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(Translated from French)

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