Francisca Alegría’s latest short film is as mesmerizing and as visually captivating as its title suggests: Y todo el cielo cupo en el ojo de la vaca muerta (And the Whole Sky Fit In The Dead Cow’s Eye). Set in the Chilean countryside, the film opens with two equally bizarre events: the death of a great number of cows and the arrival of the ghost of Don Teodoro. Emetería, played by Raúl Ruiz’s muse Shenda Román, is a salt of the earth countrywoman who used to work for Don Teodoro. She’s lived long enough to know these inexplicable occurrences surely predict worse things to come.
With her long lingering takes, the Santiago-born filmmaker has an eye for capturing the eerie beauty of the countryside. Dusty streets feel desolate and welcome; empty fields look like oil paintings. “I have always felt connected with the rural parts of Chile, their landscapes, their people,” she told Remezcla. “The first films I made as a kid were in the Andes mountains, with my grandfather, my cousins and my sister.” Filled with folklore and an air of magical realism, And the Whole Sky skirts supernatural territory even as it grounds itself in the reality of grief and death surrounding Emetería.
Less than a year after she graduated from the MFA program at Columbia University, Alegría is traveling the country showing And the Whole Sky in some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Ahead of her short film’s screening at the Sundance Film Festival where Alegría won the Short Film Jury Award for International Fiction, Remezcla caught up with the promising filmmaker to talk about what inspired this project, the challenges she and her D.P. faced while shooting, and why her feature film debut will have singing cows. Check out our conversation below.
Where did the idea for this short come about?
This short was the combination of three images that I saw in different circumstances. The first one, a tarot card that showed a man coming back to his home town, unrecognized by the townsfolk. The second, a Chilean newspaper headline that read “55 Cows Killed by Lightning-bolt.”
“I like bending the limits of what we call “reality,” because I think it’s all about subjectivity and truth.”
The third and most important one: my grandmother’s never ending tear… Prior to the writing of the script, I had a conversation with one of my grandmothers, where she opened up to me and told me about a deep pain she had. She started crying at one point, and couldn’t hold back the tears for a while, even when she tried. I saw her tears as one endless tear, carrying the weights of the past out of her body.
And The Whole Sky has a very distinctive tone, one which those who grew up in Latin America easily recognize as “magical realism.” How would you describe it?
As you say, the tone is very close to what we would describe as magic realism. I am not sure one could categorize this short in that genre, because I believe that film works with different codes and magic realism was born in literature, but there are undeniable folkloric elements that are recognizable from our Latin American tradition. In a way, I like bending the limits of what we call “reality,” because I think it’s all about subjectivity and truth. A tear can become a river in my mind, and this mental image is as truthful as any other ordinary event.
What was it like to work with Shenda Román who is so wonderful in this?
It was an honor and absolute delight to work with Shenda Román. She embodies the strength and perseverance of Emetería, the protagonist. She was involved in the project months before we shot, and helped me shape her character as I worked on the script. She is a restless artist, who keeps inspiring and elevating our theater and cinema.
There are so many breathtaking shots in the film that seem simple but likely took some careful planning. Can you talk a bit about your favorite image/shot and what it took to get it right?
One of the shots that I enjoy the most is when Emetería listens to noises coming from inside the house and goes to see what’s going on. In this moment, the camera detaches from Emetería and wanders by itself, from the yard into the house. I like this shot for many reasons, but the most important one for me comes from the idea that the camera expresses a consciousness of its own. It becomes a presence.
“The camera expresses a consciousness of its own.”
Technically, the most complex thing was for the DP (Matías Illanes) to figure out a lighting set that would allow the camera to show almost everything in the entrance room. He had to plan for the lights to be hidden in key places. This allowed the camera to have as much space possible to navigate the space, since the room was very narrow. After the lights were done, the choreography was the next step to master. We did it eight times and we stayed with the seventh shot. I remember because I chose the one where moths fly in front of Emetería, as she sees the ghost.
You’ve been showing the short now in a number of festivals and I was curious to hear about audience and critic reactions. Has anything surprised you about how the film is read/received, especially given its, some would say, cryptic ending?
The film premiered at Telluride, and it went on to play at TIFF, New York Film Festival, Warsaw Film Festival, amongst others. Now, after two of the Sundance screenings, I have to say that the different audiences have reacted in a similar way. They connect with Emetería and her struggle, and they have accepted the fantastical elements as part of the character’s emotions and the world the film lives in. I have had a very good response, and I am grateful for that.
What can you tell us about your first feature film?
I started writing The Cow That Sang a Song About the Future before the short. So it is an independent film, with different characters, but it exists in a similar world as the short film. One fundamental difference is that the mysterious deaths of animals don’t have to do with unexpected natural events, they are victims of what we, humans, have caused to the planet. And also, agonizing animals sing in this one…