Official Selection: Documentary Feature Mexico – Opening Film
Dir. José Pablo Estrada Torrescano
The Richter Scale says: We all wish we had the best possible relationship with all our relatives, but things are typically more complicated. Our family members are supposed to be the people who are closest to us, which is why we resent them when they don’t offer that closeness we wish for and when we find out about things that in our minds we should have known all along. A complicated relationship is one we all eventually want to put into perspective and a way of doing that is through cinema. Filmmaker José Pablo Estrada Torrescano, grandson of María del Carmen Torrescano (whom he always called “Mamacita”) promised his Mamacita he would one day make a movie about her. Now that he has been studying abroad for so long, he is ready to make this film that will allow him to explore the life of a woman he always felt should have been there more for him. The first thing we see is some old footage of José Pablo as a child giving a speech at one of his Mamacita’s events. He says it’s the only video of him and Mamacita together and it’s the only time she’s invited him to speak at one of her events. She didn’t pay much attention to him until he began to study cinema and she decided she wanted a film made about her.
José Pablo establishes exactly what this film will be about with that first scene. It’s going to be about him as much as it is about her. It won’t just be the story of his grandmother, but about how he comes to grips with who she is. Aesthetically, the film is like a home movie, very warm and with a sense of spontaneity, but with enough discipline to feel like it has an actual structure. The film is made up of interviews that José Pablo conducts to his aunts, the maids of the house and the people who work at the beauty clinic she founded. Th structure includes aspects of a traditional documentary, like the interviews and the tour into the life of this 95-year-old woman, but it turns into something more interesting once the filmmaker brings his own side of the story into it and with that contextualizes a lot of what he’s exploring, including his Mamacita’s relationship with her own parents and grandparents (and the fact that she was conceived under very delicate circumstances) as well as the loss of her daughter, José Pablo’s mother. This is how he understands why this woman keeps her distance from the world. It almost becomes a reference to Tim Burton’s film Big Fish and this idea of understanding someone who was very distant.
Through the documentary, we get to know this very proud woman who is very sure that everything she says is right and that her work has benefitted everyone. We spend plenty of time at her beauty clinic, where she makes women feel better about their bodies. “The body is the temple of the spirit, keeping it young, beautiful and healthy is a human obligation” is what Mamacita always says (that quote is on the clinic’s website), and that gives us an idea of this woman’s values and what she wants to give to the world. Cinema cannot be more personal than this and it’s a film in which José Pablo Estrada Torrescano does what every artist should do with his work and something most human beings are afraid of doing: being able to be entirely vulnerable.
Virus Tropical (Tropical Virus)
Official Selection: International Feature
Dir. Santiago Caicedo
The Richter Scale says: Every artist uses a medium to express themselves in some way. In the case of Paola Gaviria, an artist from Ecuador, it’s through a graphic novel in which she uses black-and-white images (very aware of the lines in her characters) to portray her life as we’re sure she lived it: quite surreally. Paola wrote a series of graphic novels that detail different parts of her life and now the first of those graphic novels has been adapted for the screen by writer Enrique Lozano and director Santiago Caicedo, using the designs that Paola made to create one of the most irreverent animated films that has been made in the last few years (even though the narrative might remind someone of Persepolis, in which a woman is also expressing her life through a graphic novel). Tropical Virus begins with illustrations of a city that lead to a couple making love and then the trip that the sperm makes to the egg it fertilizes: this egg resulted in Paola, our protagonist, the youngest of three girls born to a father who always wanted a boy and a mother who by this point had had her tubes tied, which is why the doctors would initially say that this baby was just a “tropical virus”
The film explores Paola’s life from birth to leaving home to live on her own for the first time, and as such, it’s an episodic narrative. Paola tells us of her parents, her two older sisters, Claudia (with whom she always felt a certain distance for being from a different generation) and Paty (who initially loathed her, but then practically raised her). There have been plenty of films with similar stories, but the animation adds a new dimension which allows the film to explore these characters’ feelings in more exaggerated ways and to present certain events with a somewhat twisted sense of humor. The way babies are born in this world is particularly clever, since they basically pop out through an explosion of blood and the doctor catches them (this image is very funny when you see it= and there’s also a scene in which Hilda, Paola’s mother, gives a speech about how difficult it has been to be a mother and wife in this family and we see the walls exploding, so to speak, along with her. Another neat trick is Paola’s sudden voice change when she decides she is no longer a child. Even though the animation is in black-and-white, the use of shadows is very meticulous, painting a character’s face black when it’s in shadow and white when it’s lit up. Details like this make sure the story is grounded somehow.
The film does become tedious at times, which does tend to happen when a film has this distinct a style and it’s telling an episodic story, but Paola is always a striking and likable character and she’s surrounded with characters of such idiosyncratic designs and distinct personalities that they captivate the viewer even through those lulls. Paty, the middle sister, is a particularly fascinating character, a woman that first lost her place in the family as the baby and wound up having to be a mother figure to this baby sister, and it’s through her that we get a sense of warmth throughout. Even though GIFF has had an Official Selection for Animated Short Films for a long time, it’s rare having an animated feature-length film in the Official Selection and it brings a different flavor to this year’s festivities.