Miguel Eek • Director of The First Woman
“You don’t know what film you’ve made until it’s projected on the big screen”
- The Spanish filmmaker delves into concepts such as mental health and second chances in his latest documentary, centring on Eva, who is forced to face up to a new phase of her life
Miguel Eek (who was born in Madrid, but was raised in Barcelona, Stockholm and Majorca) is totally immersed in the world of non-fiction cinema, as not only is he now releasing The First Woman [+see also:
interview: Miguel Eek
film profile], but he also heads up the MajorDocs festival.
Cineuropa: How was the most recent edition of the festival, back in October?
Miguel Eek: It went very well because we had all eight of the directors that we’d invited, then we pressed on with the usual formula of providing a slow-burning experience with just a few films, without any competitive programming. It was a way to engross ourselves in creative processes, with people who also talked about works on the fringes of cinema. These kinds of encounters are very rare, as the usual thing at a festival is to go to the cinema very often, while here, the filmmakers formed a kind of family, which was beautiful to see.
Talking of festivals, you have also been selected at several of them with The First Woman…
It’s been a very strange year because we premiered it at IDFA, the most important documentary film gathering, which I was unable to go to. It was a bittersweet experience because everything was hybrid up until Málaga, and I couldn’t go to many events, even though at Full Frame and Docaviv, and various ones in the USA, the online element allowed me to gauge the reaction of the audience. But starting with the Málaga Film Festival, I was able to really feel the film, as an auteur: you don’t know what film you’ve made until you see it projected on a big screen in a big theatre, where you can hear the reactions of the viewers, their laughter, the way they’re breathing, their restrained excitement... The protagonist of my film has a difficult life, one of self-improvement, but her original outlook is surprising and makes you laugh: I confirmed this at the in-person screenings. I like movies that catapult you from drama into comedy. I spent the whole process of the pandemic in the presence of The First Woman: now, it’s finally being released in the cinemas, albeit governed by a massive bottleneck of everything that’s still pending a theatrical release. But overall, it’s been a very rich learning experience during these turbulent times.
The main character, Eva, was also the muse for your film, to a certain extent, wasn’t she?
I was very curious about broaching the topic of mental illness through a personal story. In City of the Dead (2019), I approached death through various people working in an institution, and so this time, I envisaged more of an ensemble film through the patients in a psychiatric hospital. However, while I was leading a documentary film workshop there, there was one individual who shone on her own merit, for various reasons: because of her enthusiastic nature, which makes her sympathetic to her reality and that of others. She’s a woman who was there but who shouldn’t have been there any more; rather, because of logistical issues, they couldn’t find a house for her where she could start a new life. She was still in this brutal place – someone who was already on the road to recovery, or at least someone who could lead a more normal life. That dream of starting over again and getting out was invigorating to me, and the mutual understanding and friendship that blossomed between us was what triggered my proposal to make a film about her alone. Eva understood that there was something luminous in her story, but at the same time, she had her own fears and suspicions, as it was a long and complex process, and at the end of the day, this is a film about our relationship. It wasn’t easy, but it was also a learning experience for me, as I learned about my own taboos.
Plus, shooting in a psychiatric hospital can’t have been straightforward.
I was lucky that the hospital managers understood the positive side of raising awareness of any story that was going on inside, eager to open the doors and let people inside so they could get to know it, because it’s a place laden with taboos. Film has contributed a great deal to creating this stereotype of it being filled with aggressive people… And it’s not like that: while I was there, I met people with so much love to give, who also wanted to be loved themselves, and they had some very tough life stories. I zoomed in on Eva, rather than trying to portray an institution per se, with no other users appearing, and we had quite favourable conditions. It was an immersive project that lasted two years, the patients gradually started forgetting about the film crew, and it slowly became more spontaneous.
But mental illness is not a comfortable topic to talk about…
Right now, the topic is all the rage, and there’s even interest being shown by politicians, who are talking about the subject more often, which I hope will work in the film’s favour. I also hope the movie will contribute to this much-needed debate, but four years ago, it wasn’t even on the agenda, even though we had support from the public funds in the autonomous communities and from the Balearic Islands’ TV channel.
(Translated from Spanish)
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