Filmmaking in Between Cultures
Lina Rodriguez describes how she makes movies between Toronto and Colombia, as well as the past, present, and future
I was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, into a middle class family. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I felt like an outsider.
My mother said that it was part of the anxiety of being a teenager, and that it would pass. It did not. It couldn’t because I was growing up in a society with very specific expectations about the roles of women: what they are supposed to wear and what they are supposed to say when. It became clear that Bogotá couldn’t give me the sufficient or necessary space to be myself at the time, so I started to look for more diverse frameworks to understand the world and my place within it.
I found cinema when I moved to study film production as an international student in Toronto, thanks to the unconditional support and hard work of my loving parents. It was an incredible thing. After all these years of feeling lost, I finally felt at home. Cinema gave me a platform to explore and question the world through my perspective. Then I fell in love with a Canadian (my current partner in life and cinema, my producer and co-editor Brad Deane), and without having planned to immigrate to another country, I ended up staying and became a Canadian citizen.
17 years later, I live in between Colombia and Canada. My identity is and will forever be split, and it is from this perspective that I make films. Although my daily life is mostly in Toronto, I feel constantly divided between these geographical, emotional, and psychological spaces. Even if my accent is not that noticeable all the time, I still get asked where I’m from during most initial conversations in English. If I voice my opinions in a direct and passionate way, many attribute it to my “Latina” roots, which is a really frustrating stereotype. Nevertheless, I’ve established a myriad of relationships in the city and have accumulated multiple layers of memories and experiences that make me feel (partly) at home. My family is also dispersed across geographies: my brother immigrated to Australia, while my parents and most of my extended family stayed in Colombia. Considering that my parents sold the very house I grew up in in Bogotá and that I’ve missed significant moments of my friends and families’ lives (an endless list of births, funerals, weddings, Christmases, divorces, birthdays, baptisms, Sunday dinners), I still have countless memories of growing up in the city and a close connection to many places and people.
Although there are plenty of things in both cultures that are close1 and familiar, there are plenty that are not, which makes me feel like I both belong and don’t in Canada and Colombia at the same time. It is precisely because of this dislocated sense of self and my fragmented set of experiences that I’ve been so invested in exploring the idea of performance in my work. I see performance, both in front of the camera and in life, as prompted by expectations. Sometimes these come from who you are, what you look like, how people see you, or the role you have in a group. Other times, it’s a matter of deciding whether or not you want to feed into those expectations or (harder yet) change them. I’ve been tackling these very questions using cinema’s tools (sound and image) and reflecting on how we construct our identity, how we perform this identity (in front of others, with others, for others, and for ourselves), how we influence the behaviour of others.
As a filmmaker, inhabiting this in-between space has both posed challenges and provided advantages. Given that neither the Colombian nor the Canadian film industries offered me a whole lot of opportunities as I was starting out, I had no choice but to create my own. After film school, I made personal experimental short films, which I shot on Super 8mm and finished on 35mm, as well as several installations and performance art pieces put together with my own resources.
My first two feature films, Señoritas and Mañana a esta hora, were made independently in Colombia using a production model that I had to invent out of necessity, but that also worked for me at the time and has helped me grow immensely. Both films explore how we’re constantly negotiating expectations of ourselves and those around us in order to find our place in the world and construct a sense of self, as authentically as possible. They also reflect the work-in-progress nature of gender roles and the idea of family. I think family is one of the greatest laboratories to observe behaviour, hierarchy, and the performance of roles. It’s interesting for me to look back at my parents’ dynamic and realize that they were kind of using the good cop–bad cop strategy when I was growing up. My dad played things cool; my mom told me what to do. But then at night they would talk about it. Between the two of them, he’s condoning her tactics, but he’s keeping this appearance of coolness with me. Sometimes that worked for them, but sometimes they resented those roles.
"Everything we look at disperses and vanishes, doesn’t it? Nature is always the same, and yet its appearance is always changing" — Paul Cézanne
After I finished Mañana a esta hora, and as we were getting ready to go to Locarno for our 2016 world premiere, I realized that one of the unconscious reasons why I made the film was out of the curiosity and fear that I have for impermanence. Since I can remember, I have always felt like I am split between my memories of what has passed, the ephemeral seconds I’m experiencing right now, and the possibilities of what the future may or may not bring.
As I was preparing the film, I was looking for ways to illustrate the ache and beauty of the passage of time, so I decided to design it around a constant tension between presence and absence, what is and what has been, and what we hear but don’t see. I wanted the intimate way the film was shot; the juxtaposition between on-and off-screen sounds and dialogue (this was my second time working with Roberta Ainstein, a talented Argentinean musician and wonderfully sensitive Sound Designer); and the choreography of the actors moving in and out of the frame to invite the audience to reflect on the fleeting nature of the world. I also wanted to continue developing my interest in discovering the epic qualities in the quotidian by placing my focus not on the events themselves — however explosive or mundane — but on the small moments after and before the tragedy strikes the family that is at the centre of the film. During my discussions about the visual approach with my cinematographer, Alejandro Coronado, I looked at the work of several painters who, through composition, texture, and light, create a sense of melancholy or uncertainty. One of the painters included James Tissot, whose hazy atmospheric lighting bathes his sumptuous and elegant portraits of well-turned-out Victorian society.
I also saw a show of the work of Alex Colville at the Art Gallery of Ontario around this time. His paintings inspired me to further develop two themes that I was interested in exploring in the film: uncertainty (being in the present and not knowing what the future will bring) and melancholy (missing the past while missing the present, which creates a kind of absence).
There’s this wonderful quote by Colville that accompanied me throughout the shoot, and will probably stay with me for the rest of my life:
“I don’t intend to be menacing, but I do think of life being essentially dangerous. We never know what’s going to happen from one day to the next.”
The interesting thing with inspiration is that sometimes it’s subliminal. Certain things infiltrate your unconscious and come out during the creative process, without you knowing. My memories of what it felt like to share a house with my family as I was growing up somehow ended up seeping into the film. Although the house and dynamics of the family in Mañana a esta hora are not a replica of my own, there’s a sense of intimacy in how the characters constantly share and negotiate both their individual and shared spaces that certainly comes from my own experience. I remember that cuddling with my brother and parents while watching television was a common activity in our household (even if we fought constantly about who had reign over the remote control), and my parents’ bedroom was treated almost like a living room, a kind of social space that we all shared.
It’s not a coincidence that my family has been involved in every one of my feature films so far. Yes, I needed lots of help, but it was also a natural instinct. My mother plays the mother in my first feature, Señoritas, and an aunt in Mañana a esta hora, my dad appears as an extra and was part of the crew in both films, and I recruited my brother to be a sound assistant during the shooting of Señoritas, as he, coincidentally, was in Colombia on vacation at the time.
You could also say that a key source of inspiration for the film — and my filmmaking in general — is the present. I am interested in the process of discovery, so I work strategically to create space for the cast and crew to be able to be present, engage, and share something of themselves. It’s a romantic idea of how to make a film, but one I stand behind fully. There is no point in summoning a group of people to collaborate and share their present if there is no willingness and opportunity for them to take and leave something behind. For me, it’s vital we all create a “pre-history” before we start shooting, which is why I design a set of activities for the cast to do on their own (with no cameras around), like cooking a meal together, watching a movie, going out to a bar, grabbing coffee, getting a manicure, going shopping. I also hold a meeting before the first day of shooting where the cast and crew get to spend time together and do some fun improv exercises so we can become familiar with each other. Everyone builds their own connections and relationships independently, and with me as their director, so we can summon them on set. To perform, to be, to occupy a space at a certain time is inevitably connected to the turbulence of emotions and experiences of the present, in front of and behind the camera. I make films because I am addicted to the romanticism of that togetherness in the fleeting present.
I pushed this idea of using and incorporating the present throughout all aspects of the shoot. For example, the look and feel of the family house was a collaboration between me, the actors, and Iris (the Art Director and Wardrobe Designer). First, Iris and Paulina (the AD) conducted intimate interviews at each of the actors’ houses. I wanted to see what their fridges looked like, their closets, how their underwear was folded (or not). Then, Iris put together a proposal, based on the actor's real spaces and wardrobes, which incorporated some furniture and objects from their homes that had a personal history, which we ultimately used to furnish the locations. The idea was to create a new space that combined aspects of their personalities. For example, the green paint in the wall of the photo above was chosen by the film’s father and mother. I organized a day for the family to hang out in the house, for them to arrange objects and details to their liking. We took photos that were later used as “decorations” to further build the atmosphere of their house. This photo was included in a collage that Lena (the mother) put together in the parents’ bedroom:
Given that I face filmmaking as a process of constant discovery, and that I am interested in exploring the endless possibilities of form and content, the work of Claire Denis, Lucrecia Martel, and Chantal Akerman does not cease to inspire me. Although there are very different approaches and interests in their cinema, they are all uncompromising in their vision. You get a sense they are searching and looking for answers, not demonstrating what they already know. To make films, you have to be committed to being as sincere and present as possible and to putting oneself at risk of being part of the mess, of the danger that Colville talks about — not above it. Filmmakers like Pialat, Cassavetes, Pasolini, Ozu, Rohmer, Bresson, Godard, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Fassbinder are spiritual influences for me all the time.
I learned a lot making Mañana a esta hora, and I’m excited to continue developing my voice and changing my playground, so I can take more risks and discover new things. I’m currently developing my third feature, which I will shoot in Toronto in Spanish and English, which reflects on this in-between space that me and so many other immigrants inhabit. This will bring me into interesting territory, given that the Canadian film industry is struggling to deliver on its promises of incorporating more diverse voices and stories that represent the multicultural society we are so proud of as a country. It’s time for the industry to start asking some vital questions: What do Canadians look like? What languages do they speak? What does it mean to be Canadian?
Lina Rodriguez is a filmmaker. She has directed several short films, which have played at festivals that include the Images Festival and the New York Film Festival. Lina has also created film and video installations and performances that have shown in several galleries and festivals, including HYSTERIA: A Festival of Women (2005) and Scotiabank Nuit Blanche (2007). Her first feature film, Señoritas, had its world premiere at the Festival Internacional de Cine Cartagena de Indias and its US premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Her second feature, Mañana a esta hora, had its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival and screened at many other international festivals, such as São Paulo International Film Festival, Göteborg Film Festival, and Festival Internacional de Cine de Mar del Plata. The film also had a run in NYC at Metrograph and it has just been released in 6 cities in Colombia. Mañana a esta hora will play at TIFF Bell Lightbox starting August 18.
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RE: ISSUE 51 The Struggle is Real I have just read Deepa Mehta's filmmaking journey. Fascinating! I have watched all her films and did not realize the struggles she’s had, just to get through. Many of us assume that by the time we get to see such films, the directors must be successful and rich! But more importantly, I fully understand the sexism she has gone through to be where she is today. It really is sad that women have to face such hurdles and have to work twice as hard to be successful. I wish her the very best and look forward to seeing more of her films and perhaps meeting her someday, although it is very rare that filmmakers like her visit East Africa. My best to her! — Zahid R.
RE: ISSUE 51 Giving is Sharing This article reminded me why I contribute to TIFF. Thank you for all the good work you do. — Glenna C.
RE: ISSUE 51 Yass Queen I loved the piece by Deepa Mehta. I've heard her speak a couple of times, she's a very impressive woman. Good to hear how she began and how she kept going. Her father's remark about life is a good one and it likely applies to many other projects as well. — Ruth C.
1 “Es hora ya de acostarse/It’s time to go to bed” was an institutional campaign by Inravision (Colombia’s national public broadcasting organization between 1964 and 2004) which aired on national television everyday at 8pm during the ’80s and ’90s. It signaled the time for children to go to bed as the adult programming was about to start.
2 Intermittent (2006) This installation/performance studied motion and the moments of darkness in between light, during which cinema happens by using the simultaneous projection of four 16mm projectors. I was commissioned to make this project by the wonderful Roberto Ariganello (who is still dearly missed) for LIFT’s FILM IS DEAD! LONG LIVE FILM! programme.
3 N.N (2007) This performance occurred during the first Performance Art Festival in Bogotá. I decided to lay down on the ground with a white sheet covering everything but my feet for three and a half hours on the sidewalk near one of the city’s main intersections. My task was to trust my surroundings and not move, no matter what happened around me. The image of an anonymous, inert body in a country that has been in a civil war for the past 60 years proved to be a very arresting exercise. Some people thought I was really dead, others thought it was a play, and even more believed I was asking for money, or paying penance.