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SUNDANCE 2021 World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Amalia Ulman • Director of El planeta

“I don’t understand this crusade against humour”


- We had a chinwag with the artist, who has made her feature debut with a film shot completely independently, and toplined by the director herself and her mother

Amalia Ulman • Director of El planeta

We set up a video call with Argentinian artist Amalia Ulman (1989), who is usually a resident of New York but who, at the time of the call, was in Kentucky attending a screening of her movie El planeta [+see also:
film review
interview: Amalia Ulman
film profile
, which was presented a few days earlier at the Sundance Film Festival, in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. This feature debut stars the director herself as well as her mother, Ale Ulman, and was shot in 2019 in Gijón (Asturias, Spain), where she grew up.

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Cineuropa: Did your mother have any acting experience before stepping in front of your camera?
Amalia Ulman:
No; my mum is very different from the part she plays. She’s really fond of indie cinema, and she used to take me to the Gijón Film Festival when I was little. It was fun working with her because I come from a fine-arts background: she likes fine arts as well, but she doesn’t fully understand them. On the other hand, she does understand film: she got all of the references and took it very seriously. I myself went to acting classes in Los Angeles, and I had a teacher who had studied under Lee Strasberg, and my mum even came along to some of them. We didn’t have any acting experience, although I had been in front of the camera before during my performance pieces. However, I knew my mum was photogenic, and she’s very funny.

Was your film shot before the advent of the pandemic?
Just before it, yes, in October 2019. The post-production was done in New York, and I had the good fortune that one of the editors is virtually my neighbour, and therefore that made everything very easy in terms of delivering the files. We didn’t have to use couriers; we just went round to each other’s houses.

Could it be said that El planeta is a black comedy? It tackles thorny subjects with a sense of humour…
Yes, absolutely. The reactions at Sundance were incredible: they’re comparing it to films that I like a lot, such as Paper Moon, so I’m happy that I’ve managed to align myself with a type of cinema that I enjoy, because it must be really irritating to make a film and for it then to be compared to something you dislike. And a bit of humour is always needed, even though it’s been left to one side in independent cinema, where there are many movies that are labelled as “indie” simply because of their subject matter, but they’re actually boring and are lacking in humour. I don’t know why there’s this crusade against humour, as if you can’t use comedy if you want to be taken seriously – I think it’s a real shame. But actually, making comedy is much more difficult, because keeping up that balance is complicated.

Why do you use bumpers between sequences? They bring to mind silent film.
They’re a nod to my work as an artist, as I spent ten years doing that, making video essays, so for me it was important for my film to be related to my prior work somehow, not only in terms of the subject matter, but also in its aesthetics.

The Sundance Film Festival started out as a gathering for independent film, and your film is an example of that: you produced it, directed it, wrote it and starred in it. Did you feel total freedom while making it, bearing in mind how difficult it is to get any given movie off the ground?
It was indeed very complicated to make, especially when I came up against the problem that in neither Asturias nor Gijón did I receive any type of help, even though I attempted to get some, in every way possible: that hurt quite a bit. And even though we had a limited budget, in the end I’m grateful that I had such freedom. It was tricky to get as far as the shooting stage, but the shoot itself was wonderful, even though I only had a five-person crew. But they were fantastic, as they all did a thousand and one things out of love for the movie.

What did you learn by making El planeta? What has film taught you?
What I enjoyed the most was working in a team, which is something that I’d never done as an artist: I always do everything myself, on my own, although sometimes I get help from professionals to complete certain projects. But I like working in a team, that’s what I’ve learned – sharing good news with a group of people who are like family to you. That makes it more bearable than doing it completely alone.

Is your feature also a love letter to the city of Gijón?
Yes, I love it so much – I visit it at least once a year (my mother still lives there), and the film is a love letter to the city: I see it as another character in the film. The protagonists are the mother, the daughter and Gijón. That’s why it’s the only place I could have shot El planeta.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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