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BERLINALE 2023 Competition

Lila Avilés • Director of Tótem

“To think about death is to think about life”


- BERLINALE 2023: The Mexican director finds beauty in last goodbyes

Lila Avilés • Director of Tótem
(© Limerenciafilms)

Mexican director Lila Avilés, also behind The Chambermaid, now barely leaves the house. At least in her new film Tótem [+see also:
film review
interview: Lila Avilés
film profile
, shown in Competition at the 73rd Berlinale, in which family members and friends gather to celebrate a birthday, or maybe to say goodbye. Tona is sick, he is in pain. But he has brought joy into many lives, including those of his young children, and now it’s time to give back.

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Cineuropa: It might sound cliched, but you’ve made a film about death that’s actually full of life. Was it hard to find all that warmth in a story that’s ultimately quite sad?
Lila Avilés: I think that life is a treasure. We don’t always see it or feel it, though. We have this most amazing planet, it’s fucking great, we are surrounded by all this beauty, and it’s just the same with this house. These things that surround us can be so precious, even when they are so simple. We are simple too – we are humans. That’s part of our appeal. But we get so immersed in our work, in social structures, that we forget we are a part of this social consciousness too.

We look around and say: “Ok, this is a table, this is a cup.” Doing all that gives us a sense of order. But not everything needs to be organized. Sometimes, it’s just about being able to breathe. When it comes to moments that are so fragile, so hard, you have to treasure them too.

But people find it so hard to talk about dying, about loss. Here, everyone just accepts it. They are not pretending everything is fine, they see Tona’s pain. They are being honest.
Look at me now – I am giving an interview, being all philosophical and polite. But I can also be quite aggressive. There are all these layers to how we behave, to our relationships with family and friends. Do you know the band, Buena Vista Social Club? They were amazing and then they broke up. Someone asked one of these men, who was already quite elderly, why they went their separate ways. He said: “I don’t know anymore!”

Sometimes, all it takes is to openly address things, to admit that you are not feeling that well and that’s fine! We all go through similar problems. When faced with pure chaos, sometimes all we need is some time. Not to mention that we all work things out in very different ways.

There is something else you show here in Tótem: a child’s perspective. I remember that too – hearing fragments of conversations, seeing things but not fully understanding their meaning. Do you remember it too?
I had such an active imagination as a child. So active. I was able to spend hours just being by myself. Sometimes, when I was at my grandmother’s house in the south of Mexico, I would listen to all these magical stories. Stories about La Xtabay, this woman who appeared to men and tried to lure them in. They just seemed normal to me. I believed in them, in a way, but my daughter is so different. I don’t know, maybe it also has something to do with being a young mother, or a daughter, with thinking about her, about me. About our stories.

Do you think people can be inspired by seeing others celebrate the end of a life like that? By trying to feel joy, even though in a situation like that we have been trained to feel pain?
To think about death is to think about life. And about love. I’m no neuropsychologist, that much is clear, but we can’t be afraid of that darkness all the time. We tend to think it’s so bad, but it’s not. If you close your eyes, you can’t see the light either. But there is beauty in that as well.

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