READ ME Editor Ella Kemp interviews Alcarràs director Carla Simón about family, peaches and slow cinema.
So often when filmmakers offer the world loosely autobiographical stories, audiences must trudge through overly sentimental, although undoubtedly cathartic, retellings of traumatic childhoods in saccharine ways. Carla Simón knows there’s nothing worse: the Spanish filmmaker does mine her early years for storytelling, but shines a light on quiet communities and rural adventures in her sensitive, spacious films.
Where Summer of 1993 announced Simón as a major talent in personal filmmaking, focusing on her childhood in the countryside after losing her parents, Alcarràs somewhat broadens its scope by looking at an entire family in a similar countryside, forced to reckon with external forces trying to rip their home, work and sense of selves from this land.
Simón is calm and lucid when talking about the upheaval of such communities, patient when it comes to the transformation needed in the film industry to recognise stories beyond bustling cities. We spoke about harvests, peaches, children and slow stories, in a gentle conversation humming with authenticity.
Let’s talk about your experience going from the countryside more towards the city to become a filmmaker – that transition feels relevant to what Alcarràs is dealing with.
Yeah, it is. I’m from another village in the mountains, while Alcarràs is in the interior of Catalonia. Nature there is very different because it’s man-made. Where I’m from, it’s wild nature. But what happened in my village is what happens to Mariona in Alcarràs.
I couldn’t know everything I wanted to know from my village, culturally it was very limited, and I decided to study something that was only in Barcelona, audio visual communication, which is the closest you can get to studying film. I was born in Barcelona actually, so Summer of 1993 tells the story of me going from the city to the village, then I did the other way around.
I still have a country girl inside me. I live in Barcelona but I just had a kid. So what do we do? Do we stay, or not? Having a childhood in a village makes you feel very free.
When you make art, in England at least it’s very hard to make any kind of art if you're not in London. Do you find that as well in Spain? Is that something that has to be in Barcelona?
Films travel but I’m still not leaving Barcelona, because everything is happening there. Cultural life is in Barcelona, that’s why I moved there and felt so good because suddenly everything is on offer.
We need to work on this, I say “we” because everyone should start fixing this somehow. We should also give cultural offerings to small places. I was so happy because when Alcarràs was released in Spain, a lot of small villages wanted to see the film so a lot of small cinemas reopened after many years of being closed, and some of them even stayed open afterwards. The film talks about them, so people needed to see it. Old people that usually wouldn’t usually drive to the cinema got the chance to see it.
Alcarràs is so kind to every generation in a family, but your films have a way of making children in particular feel safe, free, and listened to as storytellers. What keeps you so protective of a child’s point of view?
Because I had a tough childhood, I’m always sensitive to children’s points of view on things. Their point of view is very cinematic because they can’t understand everything, so it’s very mysterious. So when you tell a story from their perspective, you’re always discovering things with them. That’s truly what cinema is all about.
I like to guide the audience through them, and there’s also something important in that I’m part of a big family like the one in Alcarràs. Up until now, I’ve been the new generation, throughout my childhood and teenagehood, until I had a child. Now, my point of view about family will probably change because I’m part of the middle generation and I don’t have any grandparents.
I’d like to talk about your casting process – you work with non-professional actors, so how do you know you’ll get the feelings you need from them, especially when you’re dealing with such a sensitive and personal story?
We spent over a year to find all the characters, from over 9000 people. Our team went to small villages, only in the areas where people cultivate the fruit grown in the film. They went to village festivities, to cooperatives, to high schools, places where there were a lot of people without masks!
Because nothing is usually shot there, it was exciting for everyone. It was more difficult to find the men because they were working. They were like, “If you want to make a film in the summer, don’t count on me because I have my harvest to do.”
How did you convince them?
It was hard, sometimes we didn’t tell them it was in summer at the beginning, until we knew we liked them! We were looking for people who could be similar to the characters in terms of family structure so they could have some kind of relationship to the characters.
Iris is quite bossy in real life, timer complains a lot and he has a teenage boy so this relationship could work. Mariona has this strong look and a great relationship with her grandfather. We’d improvise things, I’d see how they could listen and connect, how they could get into the game.
You mentioned the harvest, I’d love to know more about how that works: making a film around a fruit.
We had to shoot this film in 2020 and then COVID came, so we thought we’d push it a little and shoot in August, or beginning of September, but with all the people of all ages we couldn’t do it, so the peaches didn’t wait for us. We had to postpone for a whole year, just for the peaches.
We went back to shoot the following June. You’ve got so many fields and so many kinds of peaches, so I picked the ones I liked and then had to ask when the peaches were picked.
What was your criteria for choosing the fields?
It was important for them to not look huge, so you could feel they would be for a small family. But I like the idea of an open shot that gives you a feeling of a place, so I picked three different fields and asked when we could schedule around when they would be picking the fruit. But we got into one field and the peaches weren’t ripe, so we had the art department hanging more peaches so we could pick them! But generally, we just try to film in the right time.
Your films fit into what some people might call – as a compliment – slow cinema, alongside the likes of Kelly Reichardt, in the way that your films are quiet, and thoughtful, and there is space for us. Does that resonate with you?
When I defined Alcarràs in the beginning, I said I thought it was an action film: many things happen! And we’re portraying a whole family. Coming from Summer of 1993, the rhythm of Alcarrás is quite fast. But I do understand what you mean in terms of slow cinema, for me it’s more about films where nothing very big happens. For me, this is life. You don’t live like in a film. I like to portray everyday life.
Nothing happens but many things happen: if you pay attention and make the audience work to pay attention to small details, so much happens in small gestures and in things that are meaningful. I really like these kind of films, because it makes me say there. Attention works differently than in action films, but I find it more interesting.
Which filmmakers working in that kind of realm inspire you as a film lover?
For Alcarrás, it was important to rewatch a lot of neorealistic films from Italy as our approach was very similar, with non-actors and keeping the camera very close to them in the stories they portray, and they have a lot of rural cinema.
I always like to talk about Claire Denis because I can see a lot of love in the way she films people. In terms of the cinematic experience, I love Lucrecia Martel and the way she uses sound. She was a big inspiration for Alcarràs in terms of capturing so many things happening at the same time using sound.
You’ve mentioned Summer of 1993 and Alcarràs as being part of a trilogy. What can you reveal about the third chapter?
It has to do with family, and then I’ll go to something else. The new one is called Romería and it’s about the research of roots, about family memory. It’s something that really worries me as I lost my parents when I was a child, and there are some things I’d like to know about them but can’t access. The idea is to talk about what you do when you don’t have these memories.
Alcarràs is now playing in UK cinemas, and will be released on MUBI at the end of February.