In a small Argentine town, a young woman named Alba sets out on a solitary search for her sister who has disappeared without a trace. That brief description of Verena Kuri and Sofía Brockenshire’s film One Sister (Una hermana) feels like it could lead into a number of different stories we’ve seen before: those Law & Order procedurals, those nightmarish visions in Twin Peaks, the marital mind-games of Gone Girl. But rather than rehash the central stories at the heart of these narratives — what happened and why — One Sister opts instead to focus on the local.
This means highlighting how the disappearance of Alba’s sister is all too familiar for many families in Argentina. And an even deeper focus on how the crime haunts Alba herself. This is not a detective story though there are several clues. It’s more a haunting portrait of the futile search for justice that Alba experiences as many in the town appear indifferent to her sister’s unexplained absence. Set against picturesque if inhospitable vistas, One Sister is a frank and unflinching character portrait carried by the strength of Sofía Palomino’s performance whose anger and frustration spills out of the screen.
One Sister is screening at the Venice Film Festival in the Biennale College Cinema section, a program that helps develop micro-budget feature-length projects. That’s how Kuri and Brockenshire, two Argentina-based directors born in Germany and Canada respectively but who have made Buenos Aires their home for many years now, got to produce their first feature.
Remezcla chatted via Skype with the co-directors ahead of their movies’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Check out some highlights below.
The film seems to have changed a bit from the original description that was released when you were announced as part of the Biennale Venice Cinema College program. I was curious to hear how the movie came about and how it’s changed into the film in front of you today.
“In Argentina, many women disappear every day. And in many cases, they never find them… We realized that it was more important to show the searching of the sister.”
Verena: It was an interesting development process for us. I don’t know if you know but in Argentina, many women disappear every day. And in many cases, they never find them. For us, when we started to shoot, we realized that it was more important to show the searching of the sister. More than just making a thriller with many different layers. And so we concentrated on her a lot more. It felt somehow a bit more authentic. Like it made you feel more what’s happening when a situation like that happens. You probably noticed the hand-held camera at the start when the protagonist is asking if they’d seen her sister. And those are real people: they didn’t know. They really thought she was looking for her sister. It made it more real and that was really important for the actress and also for us.
Sofía: And this whole experience at the Biennale Venice College. This whole process was an exploration. From the production space, from writing and then with shooting, everything started to change from the locations we found, or according to things we were dropping or putting in. This idea of a missing woman that we incorporated afterwards, we were working with a local myth or legend from Argentina but it wasn’t from the region where we were filming in and we couldn’t adapt it. And then the idea of the railway station we started to work with it. We found the film, in a way. We discovered it as we were going along. Rather than having it locked in a script.
Speaking of that, I wanted to ask about working with the lead actress, Sofía Palomino. So much of the movie rests on her expressions. She really carries the film. How did you come across her?
Verena: Well, we had a very good casting director. And she’s an actress but she’s doing a lot of castings in Buenos Aires. So we contacted her. We found Sofía through regular casting.
Sofía: She was the first girl that we tested. And what I remember about that moment is that she came with her own questions. We’d sent out a short log line. And she prepared to talk and that was very memorable about her.
Verena: And we are very honored with her performance.
The film doesn’t really function like a regular whodunnit. How much of the backstory or the answers behind what happens did you share with the actress?
Sofía: I think we worked with a lot of ideas about her background and her sister. What that household was like; her relationship with her mother. But I think there was also a lot of space to play with. We also had a book that we reference. It’s called Chicas muertas. It’s about cases of missing girls in small town. So we gave her that and it was kind of tonally what we were looking for. But there’s more stuff that’s shown than it’s told. There are specific elements of information that are there, but this is not a detective film. It’s more about feeling. And how she responds to what’s going on. It was a mix. She did have things she knew, but at the same time we left a lot of stuff open so she could use it in herself and see where that would take her.
What’s your working relationship like?
Verena: Well, we’ve been working together for many years. We studied together at the Universidad de Cine in Buenos Aires. At the beginning we didn’t work together but then we started to connect. We did a short film together and then we started a production company together, NABIS. So we are quite used to working together. She’s more like my sister now. We started this project a long time. But then we had to do other things—you know how it is. You write, then you don’t have time. Then you go back to it. But we finally started putting a lot of energy into it and now we’re here!
Speaking of NABIS Filmgroup, I was intrigued by this commitment to produce arthouse films in Latin America. Tell me a bit how that came about.
Sofía: NABIS really grew from friends who have common interests in making and producing their own projects. In Argentina there’s a very healthy arthouse independent movement and producing was very restrictive, there are very small budgets. It can seem very daunting. But it’s also it’s something a lot of people do. I think NABIS is less about doing as much as possible. It’s more about picking projects that speak to one of us and seeing how we can make them come to life. It’s very homegrown. It’s very homemade. That’s how we see filmmaking. Not something on a large scale but something more small scale.
In reading the descriptions for the movies you’ve produced, it struck me that these are projects that are often set on “backwater towns,” or on “the outskirts of Buenos Aires,” in an “isolated resort.” Does this search to produce films in marginal spaces come naturally to you?
Verena: Well, we are very attracted to these places. All of us. Maybe it’s because we are kind of foreigners there. And we get attracted more easily. Lucas [Valenta Rinner], he is the other director and producer, his recent film is called A Decent Woman. He gets crazy for these places in Buenos Aires. And the city is filled with those. I mean, I’m German but I don’t feel so inspired in Berlin. And it’s a great place, but I don’t see that many stories. But in Buenos Aires there’s always something to tell.
What are your hopes for the film?
Verena: What I hope is that — well, we did something kind of radical: to change the script and to decide to just show the searching and nothing else. For us it was the most representative thing to do. For me it would be good for people to see that when they watch the movie. I don’t want them to think that there’s something missing. That’s my question right now: how will the audience respond? I hope they understand our motivation.
Sofía: I hope that they can take something with them when they leave the cinema. I actually like what you said that you’re still kind of digesting the film because if I were to hope for something it’d be that. You know, to have a room full of strangers take something with them as they leave, that would be the most wonderful thing that could happen.