Natalia Almada Used Her MacArthur Genius Grant to Make a Film No One Else Would Finance

Natalia Almada’s Todo lo demás (Everything Else) made its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival, as part of Lincoln Center’s commendable new “Explorations” series. Gloriously textured, Almada’s new film draws on the autobiographies of both the filmmaker and her leading lady, Adriana Barraza, who stars as Doña Flor, a bureaucrat who speaks precious little in the drama’s slender 98-minute runtime. Everything Else is a minimalist journey into boredom and despair; while the middle-aged Flor centers Almada’s frame, her transient experience is used as a way to depict Mexico City at large, with all its tensions and tangential side stories. Flor’s radio is typically tuned to the evening news — one sad story after another — and the sense of disappointment in the modern state is oppressive, even while viewers are left, to Almada’s credit, to judge for themselves.

Almada’s background is in documentary; El General (2009) interrogated her own family’s relationship to Mexican president Plutarco Elias Calles, her great-grandfather, while El Velador (2011) took an inside-out approach to the narco-violence Almada now sees as carrying too much weight in cinematic discussions of Mexico. I had the pleasure of chatting with Almada over the phone, as the MacArthur Genius grant-winning director couldn’t make it to her own premiere, having just given birth to a baby daughter a few days before the NYFF screening. Here are the highlights.

On Switching From Documentary to Fiction

I think all my films are, formally, pretty different, and I like that. Obviously, there are things that will continue with me regardless of making fiction or nonfiction, and I think I’ll always be in the middle, trying to work with those. I love the immediacy of documentary and the ability to work alone. It’s something I absolutely love to do.

On Using New (or Old) Models of Financing

I don’t think a film like Everything Else could have been funded through investment. I would love for it to get a theatrical release in arthouse theaters and reach the public, but it’s not a film that’s motivated by its commercial potential. I tried some investment approaches and it was very hard, because I don’t have access to that world, and the script is “weird.” All the kind of things you look for in most narrative fiction films, it doesn’t have so clearly spelled out. But not all films should be dependent on that investment model, or on “commercial viability.” When you’re working outside the marketplace, different kinds of films will require you different freedoms. All kinds of issues come up: is there government censorship, you know, other issues arise — it’s not that the other system is perfect either.

In my case it was important to find a way to fund the film that was not through private investment. If my film doesn’t sell any tickets, that’s okay — it can have a great museum run, or small arthouse theater, and it’s fine. There’s no investment owed on the film, and it’s the film I wanted to make.

On Funding Films in Mexico vs. USA

My documentaries have mostly been financed through grants and foundations within the US. All part of public television services but also Sundance, Creative Capital, etc… So all foundations. And I think there’s quite a bit of support — of course it’s never enough, but — there is support for documentaries in the non-commercial world. They all went to POV, they were all television broadcast. In fiction, that wasn’t an option — in the states, fiction filmmaking is primarily funded via investment. Now, most investments, even if there’s an investor willing to take a high risk, they’re ultimately looking for a return on their money. It’s not sufficient to say, “My film is about an important social issue, therefore…” you have to make an argument about sales, about return on investment, on recuperation.

In Mexico, we have a lot of government support, and there’s a great government grant that allows us to make fiction films, without that commercial drive. With this film, it’s tricky, because it’s a corporate tax incentive — you have to get companies that are not film-related to support your project. Together you’ll apply to the equivalent of Mexico’s IRS, and the Film Commission, so projects that are reported can be funded through those companies’ taxes. In our case, I struggled a lot to get that to happen, so I ended up using a MacArthur Genius grant to shoot the film, and then I applied for that Mexican government grant money.

On Casting a Veteran Actress as the Leading Lady

The part was not written for Adriana Barraza, but she came onboard pretty early. We ended up shooting around her schedule so we wouldn’t lose her, because she started a big TV series right when we finished. And she doesn’t have the same story as Doña Flor but she’s afraid of the water, which connected her to the character. She knows how to swim but she doesn’t do it. So she brought a genuine fear of water, a fear of swimming to her performance.

Adriana has so much experience, and that process with backstory, and who her character is – she brought it a very personal thing. Something that was for her to own, and for her to share with me, or not. So we talked about the nuances of emotions: when Flor is very angry in a scene, versus when she’s more frustrated, or bitter, or who knows? Adriana was fantastic in terms of finding the right gestures or looks to adjust that expression of her character. I loved it – I dreaded working with actors but I found her to be so exciting and so fulfilling to work with.

On Finding Time to Improvise

We don’t rehearse a lot; a lot of the acting, for example, is improvised. Adriana did a lot of improvising to bring the character to life. We didn’t request very much, we’d just kind of set the scene and go for it. When we were working with non-actors, like in the office scene, for example, improvisation was very helpful for us – they wouldn’t know what their situation was or who their character was, but they’d pull it together. Adriana’s amazing for that – she has an acting school in Miami, which enabled her to really work with the non-actors and kind of understand how to guide them, in a very intuitive way, through the scenes. I hadn’t thought about it but it works, given that her role is that she’s a bureaucrat who’s in control, and the people who are there don’t have control, that kind of difference in the acting really came through – I do think it had to do with that.

I think my biggest fear doing a fiction was working with actors; one of the biggest things I did was I took an acting class. The language behind documentary – the kind of searching for truth and sincerity, that you look for when you’re making a documentary? You look for the same thing in acting. And the language is the same. When I made that connection, I was like, “Well, I’ve spent years behind a camera watching people, and I can think in a heartbeat if that person is being sincere or fake. Because you’re trying to document a character as they decide they’re gonna fake it; you’re watching them saying, “Oh my God, what is this person doing? They’re terrible! That’s now who they are!”

So, when filming actors, it’s gonna be the same: I’m gonna know when the acting is coming from a place of sincerity. The process of making a fiction film is much more cumbersome, it’s harder to make the argument for improvisation, and the argument becomes about time: “I want a lot of time to shoot that basic scene, because I need to improvise.” A lot of fiction films are enslaved to this rigorous production schedule, and that becomes a burden. I want to find ways to work that engage both practices.

On “The Violence of Bureaucracy”

I had made three features before this; the last one was called El Velador (the Night Watchman). For me, it had a lot of fiction qualities in it – the way it’s observational and open-ended in terms of the narrative; for me, the main character is sort of like a white canvas, you can fill in the details to the story. So I wanted to kind of push that further and see what it would be like on the fiction side; it spoke to a lot of the documentary elements. So that was one of the formal curiosities I think I had about fiction; I also wanted to make a film about violence, again; there’s been a lot published about the narco-violence in northern Mexico, and I wanted to look at the violence of bureaucracy. It’s hard to film: the nature of bureaucracy is that is is hard to film. So, to get access to a government office probably would’ve been impossible. An observationally-shot documentary like that, filmed in a real government office, would probably not have been allowed. We would have been allowed to take some photographs for a couple hours (laugh).

Hannah Arendt talks about the inner violence of bureaucracy, against the bureaucrat? She also writes about violence against a society – civilians or citizens who suffer from being impotent against the bureaucracy. She also talks about how the bureaucrat becomes a cog in the machine, and therefore invisible; that’s the idea that really interested me. What happens if you’re someone who’s been invisible in their society.

How do you live with that invisibility?

So, Flor is a character who’s been in that position for so many years – she’s embraced it, and suddenly she has to do something kind of a like a coming of age, where she’s breaking away from it, but doesn’t know how. So her coming out from that place is kind of awkward, painful and difficult.