Interview: Barbara Sarasola Day, “Belated”

Latinbeat is well underway, and we've seen a lot of exciting films from veteran filmmakers and first-time directors alike. Barbara Sarasola Day straddles both categories. Though she has worked in Argentinean film for years—her first job was with fellow Latinbeat director Santiago Loza—her film Belated is her directorial feature debut. FilmLinc Daily sat down with Day to discuss her filmmaking method, the depiction of gender and sex in her film, and the New Argentine Cinema movement's gender parity.

For the most part, the film focuses on a small cast of three characters. How did you balance having a focused story while avoiding the film feeling claustrophobic? Was that a challenge?

It was a challenge, especially because the three main characters... are pushing and telling the story. The point of view is more that of the one telling the story, of the director, because we’re always following all three characters. So, it was a challenge, an experiment. More an experiment than a challenge: eLt’s see what works to tell this story.

There’s such focus on these characters’ very specific emotional lives and behavior. How did you prepare for that? Was there a long rehearsal process?

I wanted to focus more on the gestures and the body language and the relationship between the bodies in space, rather than plots and turning points—different emotional states. In the first place, the actor who plays Joaquín is Colombian, so more than rehearsing, it was about knowing each other, trying to understand how to talk to him. We worked very much in a code between us. What different things in life meant to each other. Knowing that was a very strong tool to work out the motions. And we did most of that by Skype—hours and hours of talking and talking. And we would do some experiments like, “I want you to tell me about this and this and then play this scene that’s not in the script, that’s from the past of the character.” So, he would go alone somewhere with a camera and talk to the camera and then rehearse this scene and send it to me. I would watch it, and then we would talk about it.

Did you use the same process for the other two actors?

With the other actors it was something similar. My mother was very ill, so I couldn’t travel too often to the rehearsals. I’m from Santa in the northwest of Argentina, while the actors were in Buenos Aires. So they rehearsed things that weren’t in the script. We worked a lot with memory. They wrote letters that the characters wrote to someone else, telling them things in the past, or a personal diary of when they were teenagers or childhood memories. And they rehearsed different moments in their marriage, so that they had a memory of a few happy moments, moments when they were just about to break up, strong discussions, some small tragedies. When we were on set, before shooting, we were rehearsing the characters’ background. Even in the physical relationships, in the proximity, they had a memory of that.

You spoke about the importance of gesture. Was there specific blocking, or did you let the actors move freely on set?

You know, that’s why I wanted to work with a handheld camera; it’s a very free-style camera. To be able to just follow was great. And what we worked on a lot on the set, in rehearsals just before shooting, was trying to eliminate as many words as we could.

How did you develop this rehearsal technique? Do you come from the theater, or did you develop it in your short films?

I read a few books. Now, I find it interesting as a method. I’m sure that a lot of people work with a method like that. For me, there was a need because of my personal circumstances at that moment.

Were there any filmmakers who mentored you or inspired you?

Well, I’ve been working in the film industry for many years. It’s not that one day I woke up and I was a director. I served a lot of coffee. A lot, for years and years. I’ve had the opportunity to watch a lot of people, to observe the way they work with actors. I also have a lot of directors who are really good friends. And I believe you can’t work with only one method with all of the actors. It happened to me with three actors—they were all completely different. Luis is really mental. Maria’s a dancer, so she understands more if I talk about physical sensations. That’s easier for her.

The locations themselves are incredible. How did you find them?

Those were all places where I grew up. I’m from there, from Salta. The house belongs to distant relatives, but I used to go very often during my childhood. All those corridors and rooms, I played there in my childhood. And also the lake. I looked for other places, but I ended up there again. There are lots of places like that in Salta. That kind of house is like all the houses. And they go from one generation to another.

Were you drawn to tell a story where you grew up, or did you write the story and then realize that would be a good location?

What those characters were passing through at that particular moment in their lives and the fact that this was my first film—I felt more comfortable shooting in places I knew personally. If there was something of myself in some of the characters, and something personal, it made sense to use a place that was also significant to me. 

These locations had very interesting, complex soundscapes. How did you go about creating them?

When we were filming, we paid a lot of attention to sound and at the end of the day we would go and escape for a few minutes. One night we went to the lake at three in the morning with the sound guy and we were like, “Okay, we have frogs...” I love working with sound. I love it. I wanted to reproduce that sound universe of those places that’s so particular—the insects, the birds, the doors that don’t close very well because they’re too old. Then we worked a lot in post-production as well. It was a huge job; there’s the clothes, the sound of the actors breathing. I’m very happy with the result. I discovered during the process that I love working with the sound. And I’m also very happy with the music. It’s very precise work. It’s not full of music.

In terms of the story, all of the characters are subject to these strict gender roles: the women are mothers or prostitutes, and the men engage in violent activities like hunting or cockfighting, and there’s an anxiety about homosexuality. Did you go into the story wanting to explore the idea of those gender roles?

There are lots of places where you find these characters, but in Santa it’s very typical. All male dominated societies have these very closed roles, nearly stereotypes. For me, they’re not stereotypes. Salta is a very conservative, very catholic, traditional place. Very old aristocracy. Things are changing of course. But sometimes you feel very heavily that the choices you have, as a woman, are having lots of children or becoming a nun. So I wanted to think in a loud voice about that.

You mentioned the idea of aristocracy, as well. Do you feel class plays a large role in the film?

It’s not a theme of the film, but yes it does. You see there’s no connection with the working class. The characters live in this house, and there’s no real connection. Just if there’s something related to the estate and the work and the things they have to do. In Salta, social classes are very marked. The character of Ernesto—he’s the boss, he’s the owner. One of those people who feel like kings in a small, tiny kingdom. Showing himself in a vulnerable way—he can’t handle it. He’s the kind of man who can’t talk about what he feels. That’s his big limitation. Denying is a way to survive emotionally.

In the film, sexuality is associated with creating life in the couple’s attempt to conceive, but it’s also associated with violence. Was there a particular idea regarding sexuality that you wanted to explore?

Sex is the way we express ourselves, and it’s a way of communication. But it’s a way we express ourselves with no defense at all. I wanted to further this path—the moment of sex as something mechanic. When there’s something that gets emptied in a way. That happens sometimes in long relationships. There are moments when it’s like, “this is something we should do, we must do.” And also the violence at the end, for me, is not sex. That’s why I put a sound effect, because I wanted to make a distinction between sex and when one becomes violent, that turn. Because it starts okay, but it ends as something completely different. It’s more about showing to the other person watching that he’s a man. And in that need to show his power to the other, to reconfirm himself as a man, he’s forgetting the other person. His wife becomes an object.

Female directors are very well represented in the Latinbeat festival, but that’s not always the case. Do you feel that you’ve faced specific challenges as a female director?

I’m very lucky to have started working on films and making films in Argentina in this period of time. I proudly say that in Argentina, it’s nearly half and half. Nearly. There were probably directors that had it harder than me. For me it was like, “Oh, she’s a girl. Nothing strange.” Probably for the ones who came before it was a bit harder. That’s one of the characteristics of the New Argentine Cinema as a movement—there are many female directors there.

Your debut film has done so well. What will you do moving forward?

Making your first film is hard and takes a lot of time. I’ve been lucky because I had a lot of support, but it took a lot of time and I did a lot of work. What I’m doing now is reading things and trying to get out of all of these years of working on this film. I’m working now on another project and deciding whether that’s the next one or not. Because it takes so much time and so much energy. It’s like being married for four years. You wake up with the project, you go to sleep with it. So, you have to be in love with it. I can’t imagine working on a film if you don’t deeply believe in the story you want to tell.

Belated screens Friday, July 19 and Sunday, July 21 in Latinbeat with director Barbara Sarasola Day in person for Q&A.

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