I saw this movie by chance at the Abu Dhabi film festival after a psycho journalist harassed our poor shuttle driver into changing his course from the Emirates Palace to Vox Cinema where the film was about to start. After admonishing the reporter for his unnecessarily abusive and derogatory remarks (yes, I’m afraid I’m that person) I decided that lunch could wait. I had to see the film that sparked such a heated altercation.
Ironically, the film itself takes place in 1979, during the period of Argentine’s Dirty War. It is about a twelve year old boy, Juan, whose parents and uncle, members of the group Montoneros, changed their names and identities so that they can return to their country without alerting the military to their goal of launching a counter offensive. At home he is Juan, at school, Ernesto. The film follows the boy’s adolescent journey in which the nostalgia and romance of his youth are constantly laced with the ever present and real danger of his country’s political struggle.
The film is beautiful in every sense of the word. I don’t know what it is about subtle filmmaking that just stirs me. Considering the subject matter, Clandestine Childhood could have easily been dark, both literally and figuratively. Instead, it is all romance, amusing character interaction, and gorgeously shot scenes. And when tragedy does occur, it is handled delicately so that it does not contrast too much with the rest of the film’s tone. All characters were all well defined through their interactions and relationships and make for some very entertaining scenes. The actors were fantastically cast and played off wonderfully off each other, including the beautiful Natalia Oreiro, who showed magnificent range as Juan’s mother, and Ernesto Alterio, who, as Juan’s fun uncle Bevo stole most of the scenes he was in. Juan himself was played by Teo Gutiérrez Romero. I was very impressed with this talented young man. The entire film was riveting, but I think my favorite scenes were the ones where Juan engages with his baby sister.
The film ended to a round of applause from the pleased audience. Benjamin Avila, writer and director of the film then engaged in a Q & A session where we learned that the film was based on his own life story; on how he and his brother had to live under an assumed name during that period in Argentine. I was equally intrigued and stirred to see an audience member approach him with tears running down her face. I don’t speak Spanish but what I gathered is that, like Avila, she was able to emphasize all too well with the characters in the film. As the director comforted the audience member with kind words, I scheduled an appointment with him.
Clandestine Childhood is Argentine’s bid for the 2013 Oscar’s. In his interview below, Mr. Benjamin Avila reveals the secret to creating a subtly dramatic and touching film which reflects a highly controversial subject matter.
Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Now I took a look at you IMDB page. Many of your films are political or historical. Obviously you are quite affected by the events of your childhood. Would you say this is your main inspiration?
Well, this movie in particular was based on my childhood, so yes, directly. The others…maybe in reference. My documentary, Nietos, the grandchildren, is not about me, it’s about missing children who were found through the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo organization. But I knew the story perfectly because…Victoria, the baby, in this film? I didn’t talk about this today in the Q & A, but Victoria, Juan’s sister was based on my baby brother. He had been missing and we found him through the organization Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
How old was your brother, when you lost him?
Like Victoria, he was a baby. Nine months old.
And when you found him?
Five years. There are still many missing grandchildren. We are still looking for them.
Can you share where he spent, those five years?
In my particular case, he knew who his father’s family was. He’s my half-brother, but we didn’t have any contact with him, and the family who raised him “supposedly” didn’t know us. But my particular case, is very particular. Generally the babies were kidnapped and grew up with people in the military.
They were adopted?
No. Paperwork was faked so that the children would be registered as theirs. But some children grow up and understand that they are different from their parents; either physically or even emotionally. So they start asking questions. Until today, 171 children were found. But more than 300 are still missing.
Do you think your film will cause more children who were born in that period to question their parentage?
Yes, absolutely. This is why we included the Victoria in the film.Also, we are now living a new period in Argentina, this is why I am able to make this film. Ten years ago this film might have been considered as too revolutionary. Maybe twenty years ago, it would have been completely unacceptable. But now we can make this film, we can have this debate. We can debate a lot of things now, not just the sadness of the loss.
Is it because the government is more free?
No. I think it is because our Society has grown up, and can now accept the story of the film. This acceptance of history enabled us to discuss the matter in a different way, in this movie. I think the discussion now is more mature, not just good or bad, black and white. The grey areas can be managed better.
You’ve done both short and feature films. What would make you choose one format over the other?
I did one short film, which was sort of the naïve seed of Clandestine Childhood. It’s called Veo, Veo (I See, I See). We made it in 2003 because I had won a prize and I had to make another short with that prize money. So I decided to do a project that was close to the feature that I eventually wanted to make. I wrote the story with Marcelo Muller, he’s also co-wrote Clandestine Childhood. Also, with my ex-wife, she’s a filmmaker too. It was to get nearer to this story, to work with kids.
What was the prize that you won, and for which film?
The short film was La Gotera, which I shot in Cuba. It’s a story about a woman in her sixties, and how she was left by all the men in her life: her father, her husband, her son. It won the first prize in the Taormina Film Festival in Italy in 2002. It was incredible because this had been the first time the festival was competitive. Abbas Kiarostami and Todd Solondz were on the jury so it was exciting. It was very international. I was very surprised to win.
With this movie, one thing I noticed was that you used a lot of close up shots to great effect. Did you do this to make the audience feel closer to the characters, or is it because when we are kids everything seems bigger?
We developed how boys see the world. And I don’t know why, but I think that they, well, what I remember from my childhood is that everything is either like this *brings his palm close to his face* or very far away.
Nothing in between.
Yes. I play a lot with the focus. I also remembered angles I saw things from; when I was a kid I’d lie down on the floor, so I remembered that and I tried to play with the focus to develop that.
It’s a very specific style. I think I’d instantly recognize any of your other films now, even if I didn’t know you were the director. It’s very intimate.
Yes. I was even more surprised when I saw it on the big screen. Because it’s bigger, closer, than I thought. It was done on purpose, but I liked it even more on the big screen because you have to move your head to see everything. You’re very close to the characters. There’s this scene when Juan was talking with his mother, where they are all so close, and then suddenly you see them both from far away, in the last shot of the scene.
That was one of my favorite moments in the film.
Yes, and I just wanted to ask what was your favorite scene?
This is the first time that I did something I really liked. It never happens, with my short films, my documentary, I only liked particular scenes. But this film, I like it all. I really like the dream with his uncle. In the script, it was even better, but we cut it.
Really? I thought it was very good.
Yes, I really like it, but in the script it was longer. There was something disrespectful in the scene. The police appeared, and the kid stood up and kicked them out, telling them that he wants to talk to his uncle, and so they apologize, tell him they’ll come back later, and leave. So it showed that he’s trying to control his dream, because he wants to stay with his uncle. It was very good in the script but when we shot it, it wasn’t good enough so we deleted it. But I like the scene. Also the one in the mirror labyrinth with Maria.
The was a great one, seeing them from so many angles.
Yes, I really liked shooting the reflections. Then there’s the scene where Juan first saw Maria, when he fell in love.
Yes, I remember. It was more of your close ups where audience can see everything.
Yes, and the sound was also really close. It was the only part of the film where we made the sound as close as the image.
Speaking of sound, the music was very lovely. Who was the composer?
His name is Pedro Oneto. He is a very young composer. In my opinion, he’s going to be one of the biggest in Argentina in the next few years because he is incredible. We worked together so many times. He’s a very close friend. A very good person. Also very creative. He’s an incredible creator. I know him very well, and he wants to be very cerebral, he wants to think about everything but he actually does much better when he just lets the music flow. So I kept rushing him, telling him to improvise, that I needed music to edit immediately. Because I knew that when he improvises he opens his soul, he doesn’t need to think. That’s how the music for this film was created, from his improvisations. And then we worked on those. He wrote it, he plays piano, and orchestrated it.
There were several instruments, correct?
Only three, the piano, the cello, and the violin. We had discussed how the music would be. I wanted it very simple because everything else is simple. We didn’t want, didn’t need an orchestra. Rather, the sounds had to be pure.
It fits with the pureness, the simplicity, of childhood. You either love, or you hate. Or like you mentioned, things are either very close or extremely far away.
It’s interesting because, with regards to the point of view, a lot of people mentioned that that’s how they remember their childhood. And I talked with some child psychologists and they agree that that’s how children see the world. So it was good to hear that.
I also really liked your use of animation in the film. It almost felt like Juan was censoring what was happening for himself, like the situation was too much for him to see clearly, as a child. Is that accurate at all?
Absolutely. What you’re saying is exactly what I had in mind. The entire film actually, the script, was written from a child’s perspective. If you review the scene’s you’ll realize that each scene is extremely important, no fillers. This is because we decided to only write scenes that Juan, the child, would remember the rest of his life.
Now that you mention it, I realize that. But you don’t feel it, watching the film because the transitions, the editing, was very well done.
It’s the way we did the narrative. We decided early on the structure of the script would not be linear, it would be more like a wave; up and down between the two identities: Ernesto and Juan. It’s also an emotional wave, because you are moving between extreme happiness to extreme sadness.
There’s always something happening.
Emotionally, yes. You know at the beginning, when I was talking to Marcello, he’s my Brazilian friend who helped write the script, when we were discussing the film, he asked, “Well, what is the conflict?” And I told him it was an internal conflict between the two lives Juan was leading: the one outside his home, and inside his home. He wasn’t convinced at first but I think it works because viewers, like Juan, can never relax. The movie is always in conflict, he’s facing the reality that his family might get found out at any moment, he and his family might get killed, and he gets confronted with that at moments where everything else seems perfect.
I have to ask you about Natalia Oreiro, the main actress. She’s very talented. I think you mentioned in the Q & A that before this film she only ever did comedy?
She is most famous for doing romance and comedy, yes. But before this film she did another one called France by a good Argentinean director called Adrian Caetano. It was her first dramatic role. She surprised me, so I thought she might be good for Clandestine Childhood.
So you offered her the role, there was no audition?
No. Actually, none of the adults auditioned. I’d seen their work, I met them and told them I wanted them. For me, it was my opera prima. But the rest of the cast felt doing the film was a risky move because their characters were so different than the roles they were used to playing. Except for Christina Banegas, who played Amalia, the grandmother. She’s an incredible actress. It was an honor to have her. But it worked out for the best. Not just on screen. It brought us closer together, made us trust each other very much and take care of each other. I worked with them very closely on set. It was nice.
Last question. Was it hard, making such a personal film?
No. It was not difficult emotionally, but the writing was difficult because it was hard to separate my own life from the film. Marcelo and I would argue on whether to keep scenes in as we wrote the script. I wanted to keep it true to my life, but he’d point out scenes he didn’t think worked and I’d ask him why. Then there were scenes we had to add that didn’t exist in real life, like the love story. I think up to the first draft, it was difficult. After that, I was able to detach myself. Marcelo helped me do that. On the other hand, I had to keep reminding him that this wasn’t meant to be drama, this was a family film based on my life. I always told the cast and crew that this isn’t a drama, it is inevitable drama. We can’t avoid the drama, but it’s not the point, nor the tone of the film. He wanted it to be more dramatic. But the drama is already there. What we wanted was to depict the life of these people. So he and I really were a good balance.
I would like to thank Benjamin for his precious time and for indulging my questions. Also the Abu Dhabi Film Festival press office for setting up the interview.
Clandestine Childhood will be released in the Three Rivers Film Festival in the US on November 8th. For more information check out its release dates on IMDB.