‘Transforming Fear Into Love’: Lila Avilés on Her Oscar-Nominated Film Tótem

By 26 November, 2023

Lia Gómez Lang caught up with Mexican director Lila Avilés after the screening of Oscar-nominated film Tótem at the BFI London Film Festival.

S&C: Lila, you’ve been screening Tótem worldwide, the film has just received an Oscar nomination and last night it premiered at the BFI London Film Festival, how are you feeling?

Lila Avilés: I’m feeling grateful and it’s tiring but it’s good to be tired. It’s a good thing! The screening yesterday was wonderful. We have been travelling a lot since we premiered in Berlin. It has been almost a year. What has been nice is that there’s something in the film that enters each of these places.

S&C: The film was incredibly moving. There was a real intimacy, particularly in the cinematography, that helped you to feel Sol’s experience. Could you speak a bit about creating that feeling of closeness?

It’s all about feelings and I love that as a spectator and also when I read books – I love to be wounded, I love to feel it. Right now as human beings we’re facing all these layers emotionally by society, like don’t be so sensitive, don’t feel. I want to feel and to have emotions. For me that’s wonderful. With this film I wanted to go down that path to find what is important in the film and, to become better as a filmmaker, to guide it. Sometimes these kinds of films can go one way and it’s hard. What I love about Tótem is that obviously there was a lot of hard work and it comes from a super personal story but it starts from a seed and then it grows into a new place. I really love that about cinema. I’m the worst, for example, when it comes to pitching, because I love to see how a story moves throughout the filmmaking process. With The Chambermaid I could not pitch at all and with Tótem I also couldn’t.

S&C: What were the difficulties you faced whilst pitching?

I cannot pitch! I cannot define my story by its meaning.

S&C: So I guess you’re driven more by your personal connections and the feeling you’re trying to communicate so definitions can be limiting?  

Yes exactly. I love that kind of mystery as a filmmaker – I’m a super intuitive person, my mind and my heart are so connected. I would never forget a face but I easily forget numbers and names, I’m super abstract. So somehow, that’s also the beauty of filmmaking, that everyone is super different and I like that Tótem has that value. That you can connect with the characters and that’s it – it doesn’t want to go further, it’s just to be there.

S&C: What’s very clear about your filmmaking is that intuition guides it. You almost can’t pin down what you’re creating through all these mediums and layers. There’s something more mystical about it like you say, an element of magic about seeing emotions play out and really connecting with them on screen. It’s also just very hard to create this!

Yes! That’s why this film was super tough to pitch. There is a prejudice against intuitive filmmaking. For example thinking a film is too small, too big, too documentary. Even for me, a short film is a film – it’s not a “short film”. When I was writing I knew that it was all about the characters.

Linguistically – I know it’s hard if you’re experiencing the film through a translation so you cannot fully appreciate this – but it’s truly Mexican. I’m very obsessive with words and making them feel real. To maintain the energy and the rhythm, the vibe and emotions was super hard. And I’m happy that with this second film I’ve gone through this process.

S&C: That comes across strongly. You mentioned obstacles with regards to pitching – what other obstacles have you faced and learnt from with this film?

One obstacle was moving on from The Chambermaid – they wanted me to make The Chambermaid 2, 3, 4. I’m so grateful that people have been super open and have really appreciated how different these films (The Chambermaid and Tótem) are. As a filmmaker you don’t need to repeat. There’s something about the story and not just you as a filmmaker. With this second film I found that value and for my next films I will try to be closest to whatever the story is asking of me. With Tótem I didn’t want to do workshops, I didn’t want to pitch, I didn’t want to do a lot of things –  I just wanted to understand it. It’s been important for me to keep playing and to find what the story is asking of me. Maybe for the third one I’ll need to take a different approach… 

S&C: Do you enjoy the writing process?

I enjoy it a lot. It’s that moment that you’re yourself – it’s easy! It’s also beautiful, you write thinking about how you’re going to do it through the filmmaking. It’s a long journey with filmmaking and it’s nice that you have this initial stage. My mother always told me ‘el trabajo nunca te abandona’, work doesn’t leave you alone, and it’s nice when you work a lot to think of it as something that stays with you. Obviously, there is a lot of fear because you’re throwing yourself into it and guiding a lot of people. For me it’s about transforming that fear into love and it’s always that thing that you need to change and to find – that’s the wonderful mystery about cinema. You also need to be confident, because you have all the work you have made during the writing process, not only in your script but your notebook, the everyday, even in what you eat. It’s nice that when the time comes you just go for it! I always think about gymnasts, they work so much and then it all builds into this huge moment.

S&C: And that’s the inevitable thing about production – no matter how you imagine the story through development and pre-production, when you’re actually on set anything could happen. You have to adapt during all states of filmmaking and it’s really nice to hear you describe this as such a beautiful thing.

I also think that there’s so much pressure. During workshops I have encouraged youngsters to try to go deeply through the filmmaking process, but also taking away that serious pressure. Less pressure brings more fun, and I think that’s better for all.

S&C: I couldn’t agree more – production is a stressful environment and the moments you have fun with cast and crew a lot of creativity forms. Going back to Sol and her character, what made you want to tell this story from a child’s perspective?

Children are wonderful. Childhood is destiny and it’s a wonder when you’re young. Those first years are so profound and your personality will explode from those years onwards. I was a young mother and my daughter for me has been everything.

S&C: It was beautiful to see your dedication to your daughter at the end of the film.

Yes and she went through that journey. I wanted to do something wonderful as a filmmaker obviously, because I have my ego, but also for our story. Also for me, being a young mother and for my mother, family and friends, to play with them. I’m super happy that I could make this and that’s the beauty of filmmaking, that it starts one way and changes along the way. Having this personal element meant I was so close to the film and it’s beautiful when you take away the pressure and you change it. I think that with young girls and boys, childhood is so wonderful. It’s been so nice walking around London and other places screening this film and seeing children play. They simply are, and that’s nice. When we start growing, we start to be more difficult.

S&C: I really found that in the characters of the parents. Of course, their love for Sol is so deep and has a seriousness about it, but they also have a childlike quality about them. Also, with the family there is so much play, which is something we don’t see so much in adult life, just playing and having a silly time. The performance scene really encapsulated this.

I also think it’s about presence and those stupid moments that are the wonder.

S&C: Amongst all the playfulness in the house, there is a real quietness to Sol. How did you go about capturing that and shooting those scenes of quiet intimacy?

What I love about Naíma is that she had no previous acting experience and when I met her she had this kind of past life. She loves to talk, she loves ‘sobremesa’ (the relaxed time spent after a meal, talking at the table). When we finished eating she wanted to talk a lot. I felt safe when I was with her in that connection, but also she was super sensitive. She can really hear. We created a real back and forth. She had a feeling about a lot of different things in life and I loved that. And if you have that, then the acting is easy.

S&C: Do you feel like she brought a lot?

Yes but also more than bringing a lot, I think it was her sensitive part. When I was young I was a super observational child and I think we really connected through that.

S&C: It’s interesting to hear you describe how you were as a child, whilst you’re telling the story through this child. It’s important to be an observer, you can really tell that Sol just wants to be, and it’s beautiful.

With the film’s title, obvious associations in English are ‘spirit animal’ and ‘clan’. Could you speak a bit more about your interpretations of the word totem and how this fed through the themes of your film?

I love these words that have multiple meanings. With Tótem we have been travelling to a lot of parts of the world – Australia, China, Turkey, Jerusalem, Colombia, Egypt, London, France, Spain, New York, for example. We’re so happy that the film is travelling so much and what makes me super happy is a lot of people telling me what their ‘totem’ is. It’s crazy. Sometimes I have been so surprised by people’s interpretations. For me it’s about the clan, the family, connecting with that animal part of yourself, a connection that you cannot describe. It’s a feeling, it’s an energy and we need to give attention to this part that lives there, that we forget all the time.

Tótem is available in UK cinemas from 1 December, via New Wave Films. Read the S&C review here.

Lila Avilés – New Wave Films

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