Ariel Rotter Turned a Family Secret and a Box of His Grandma’s Photos Into a Film

Courtesy of Miami Film Festival

After playing Romina, a deliciously heartbroken bride on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the Oscar nominated Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales), Érica Rivas will be seen next in Ariel Rotter’s La luz incidente (Incident Light), playing Luisa, a woman losing herself over the death of her husband. While Romina was all outward rage and high-pitched crying, Luisa is a woman consumed by her silent grief. When the film opens in 1960s Argentina this widow, mother of baby twins, is trying to piece her life back together. Both her mother and her mother-in-law are trying to get her out of the house, encouraging her to take up that kind stranger who’s wooing her and offering her a fresh start — after all, what else could a housewife do in her position back then? He is pretty charming at least. Upon hearing she’d lost both her husband and her brother in a car accident, he smiles: “Ah, tu vida es un completo desastre. Solo te falto yo!”

Rotter’s film, shot in black and white, feels like a family portrait come to life. The types you’d stare at in wonder as a kid, amazed at the fact that your grandma could ever have looked that young and pretty. As Rotter found out, there really is a lot one never learns about one’s family. A number of black and white photographs in his grandmother’s house is what led him to ask himself what secrets his own family had been keeping. There was a story no one was talking about and he was intent on trying to piece it back together in any way he could. La luz incidente is that attempt though don’t push the director to give you more specifics. He feels very protective of the film and the family story it’s tracing. Just know that Rivas’s performance is the type that should keep reminding us all what a great actress she is; she even won the Silver Astor Award for Best Actress at the Mar del Plata Film Festival for this performance last year.

Ahead of the film’s U.S. premiere at the Miami Film Festival, we sat down with the director to talk about his most personal film to date, working with the talented actress, and turning family history into cinema.

On Building A Family Past On Screen

“It’s a period in time I only knew through black and white photographs that had been put away and which no one really wanted to even look at.”

Well, the film for me, was a journey of sorts. Towards a possible family past. That is, the story I’m telling here is taken loosely from a series of events at the heart of my own family history. And I built a fiction around them. Like a fiction that would fill in the gaps of those lost memories, because it was a phase that was very painful to revisit, and for that reason, not a lot of people wanted (or could even) remember much about. So in a way, those themes the film is tackling were integral to my childhood. They have to do with who I am, who I grew up to be. In a way the film serves a long-lasting need to work through those issues and at the same time, it was a very grueling process, given the lack of distance.

It’s a period in time I only knew through black and white photographs that had been put away and which no one really wanted to even look at. I used to sneak peeks at them. And those portraits started to build a world within me, of possible stories, driven by an anxious desire to know more. The film is a type of a game of sorts, a jigsaw puzzle, of blending those various elements together to see who were those people in those photos. Who were those characters who’d chosen to live these lives?

On Bringing Films To Life Like a Medium

“What you have to do is manifest what’s swirling in your mind, in your heart, and translate it into a film.”

You see, many times people think that directors are somehow in charge of all the filmmaking decisions when it comes to a film. That they are in absolute control of everything that happens. But in my own experience, the opposite is the case. I think directors are tied to what a film already is. When you start any film project what you’re doing is trying to uncover the film. What you have to do is manifest what’s swirling in your mind, in your heart, and translate it into a film. But the film already exists even before you shoot it. That’s how I see my job; to be a kind of medium, bringing forth the film. In terms of the look of the film, for example. It never occurred to me that the film could be shot in color! It was always in black and white.

On Working With Érica Rivas

The films I love most — the ones I enjoy watching — are the ones where I am an active audience member. Where I’m invited to add something to the film in front of me. I like films where I’m not given everything in some sort of watered down way. I get so bored by those films that try and explain away everything. Personally, the cinema I gravitate towards is the type that keeps me wondering what is going on in a character’s mind. It has to be me who somehow adds to the interpretation. So that leads into why in the film you’re often just watching Luisa, trying figure out what it is she’s thinking and feeling at any given moment, tracking her small gestures and facial expressions — realizing the subtle work Érica is doing. She is an actress I had in mind while writing the part. So I approached her years before I had a finalized script. I told her a bit about it was gonna be about. I slowly fed her bits and pieces of the character, immersing her slowly into the world I was trying to evoke. Then, I even gave her a handkerchief that had belonged to my grandmother which I’d taken when we were all clearing out her house after she passed away. In that it was a very collaborative experience, bringing her into the process and into this story. And she was pretty game even as I kept constantly tinkering with the script — all the way through shooting, even.

Courtesy of Miami Film Festival
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And for her, given that she’s not only a great actress but also a novelist who’s incredibly eloquent and rather comfortable with outward expression, it was an interesting challenge to push her to do this more minimalist approach. To tackle the scenes in ways that didn’t emphasize any specific moment. And since I was sort of finding my way into the story and the film, she had to very patient and trusting.

On Valuing Ambiguity

Filmmakers are always dealing with the human condition. And that, by definition is ambiguous and contradictory. The process that we see Luisa going through, and what made it interesting to me, is that she had to have this double movement; forward towards this new family unit that’s starting to be established, and at the same time, backward forcing herself to deal with the grief that she’d kept at bay. Given the urgency of the matter, she sees herself in a race of sorts that requires her to be pushed and pulled in both directions. So for Érica it was quite the challenge to embody that at the same time. And that’s what you see in that final image which was left intentionally ambiguous.

La luz incidente is playing at the Miami Film Festival which runs from March 4-13th, 2016. This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by the author for Remezcla.