5 Questions With Alejandra Villalba García, the Mexican Director Taking Her Short Film to Cannes

Courtesy of Alejandra Villalba García

At first look, this is a happy, normal family. They go to church. They’re dressed impeccably amid their starkly furnished home. They eat meals together and say grace. But if you look closer, as director Alejandra Villalba García encourages you to do in her short film Microcastillo, you begin to see that something’s amiss. For starters, they’re all very quiet. Too quiet. This becomes increasingly uncomfortable. As if they were afraid of what those of us watching would think of their dialogue. In fact, the more time we spend with the mother (played by Nailea Norvind), it’s clear she’s aware that someone, or something, is watching her.

A kind of vintage-yet-modern ghostly short story, Microcastillo is headed to La Semaine de la Critique of Festival de Cannes after screening at the Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia. Not too shabby for a first short film. But Villalba García has such command of the eerie tone and the washed-out style of her film – it all looks like an old family portrait left out in the sun – that it’s no surprise she’ll be presenting her debut short at one of the most lauded film festivals in the world.

Ahead of her trip to Cannes, Villalba García talked with Remezcla about the personal origins of this cryptic short, what drove her to create such a distinctive style for it, and what it was like to work with Norvind, whom telenovela fans will know from her work in Quinceañera, Preciosa and La candidata. Check out highlights from our chat below.

When did you first decide to become a filmmaker?

I guess I did so officially, at least, when I enrolled in film school. But ever since I was a little girl I knew that the only thing I was into was making videos and taking photos. I don’t really consider myself a director yet—it wasn’t until I finished the short that I realized I was into directing. To be honest, I’m still learning everything to do with film, though I am very into the idea of directing something else I’ve written

The first film I was obsessed with was Jurassic Park and, in general, I think Spielberg’s films were what made me so excited about cinema. Afterwards, films like Donnie Darko, The Virgin Suicides,The Shining, Lost in Translation, American Beauty and Garden State made me see film as a tool that could change a person’s life. I understood that film could directly impact someone’s state of mind, or their way of thinking – I mean, that’s what happened to me when I saw them. Then I started watching Mexican cinema, films like Y tu mamá también, Amores perros, Temporada de patos and Luz silenciosa all made me want to create films here in Mexico. And right now, the directors that inspire me to continue doing what I’m doing are Michael Haneke, Yorgos Lanthimos, Amat Escalante and Roy Andersson.

How would you describe Microcastillo in your own words?

“A family trapped by a human-like force.” They can’t get out of their house because they’re being watched by something larger than themselves. I have a lot of theories about what is looking over them. It can be something as literal as a camera (and behind them, a film crew) or it can be the eyes of God and the social institutions that are all too ready to judge and punish those who deserve it, according to their values and rules.

Courtesy of Semaine de la critique Cannes 2017
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The short has so little dialogue. I was curious to hear how you worked with the actors to flesh out what Microcastillo is all about.

It was different with each and every one of them, but in general I started telling them a family anecdote of mine that inspired the short. I explained to every actor my idea of what every character was going through in this situation we were depicting. I talked to them about what their character was feeling and thinking, which they would have to express through their body language and especially through their looks, especially when they stare directly at the camera. Each character’s look represents something different: for the father and the priest, it’s a look of complicity. For the youngest daughter it’s a look of fear and curiosity. For the mother it’s a look of anxiety, threat, and terror—she feels asphyxiated. The only one who never turns to the camera is the eldest daughter. She’s all too comfortable with this world she’s living in that she’s not really aware she’s being watched. That’s just the way the world is for her.

What I wanted them to understand was the the family dynamics was based on a very clear hierarchy, and yet they were all being recorded by a camera at all times without their consent. It was also important to make it obvious that the silence throughout was a kind of violence—the most harmful one, actually. One of the short’s main themes is the failure of human communication and its centrality to what are, in my opinion, the main pillars of Mexican society: the family and the Church.

What was it like to work with Nailea Norvind?

Ever since I first told her this story, she wouldn’t stop sending me references of films and books that spoke to what I wanted to get at with it. She also went through something very similar and we have similar tastes so that meant we connected right away. She trusted us a lot, even though she knew this was our first stab at making a film. She was very patient and open to it all – for that I will be grateful for the rest of my life. She’s a great person; she taught me so many things about working in film.

Microcastillo has a very contemporary theme but its aesthetic is decidedly old-school – vintage, even. Can you talk a bit about your design choices for it?

The idea was to make it feel out of time, for it to have references to various time periods without really settling the question of when or where it was taking place. We wanted the color palette to be very dim. For everything to look like it was expensive but lifeless. With the art director and the costume designer we wanted the objects and clothes to feel foreign to the characters, like they’re putting on the idea of what an ideal family looks like.

In terms of the cinematography, the idea was to have just one source of light in each room, so that the image would look like a painting—at first glance it’d all look perfect. We wanted simple and fixed shots that gave the appearance that what we’re watching is something live, forbidden, and monitored—with no edits and no filters. The only shot that has movement is the one where both camera and spectator needed to quite literally follow the mother as she goes into a panic and tries to escape. And then the choice to shoot in a 4:3 ratio was to highlight the enclosure this family lives in and to limit what viewers could focus on, so that they’d see just what the camera sees.

This interview was conducted in Spanish and was translated into English by the author for Remezcla.