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Chilean Director Sebastian Lelio Talks ‘A Fantastic Woman,’ ‘Disobedience’

One of the brightest lights of Chile’s golden generation of filmmakers, Sebastián Lelio emerged into international prominence with his fourth film, 2013’s “Gloria.” This year, he returned to the festival circuit with two films: the Spanish-language “A Fantastic Woman” and “Disobedience,” his English-language debut, with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams.

How quickly did these two productions come together?

After “Gloria,” I decided I wanted to dedicate some time to writing. I first got involved in the writing of “A Fantastic Woman” from Berlin, where I’m based. And around the same time, I was receiving a lot of offers to direct and to write, and among them “Disobedience” was the one I really felt fascinated by. I wrote the two of them and I shot them back to back.

Your last three films are about the lives of women one usually doesn’t see in cinemas — a fiftysomething divorcée in “Gloria,” a transgender woman in “A Fantastic Woman,” and two Orthodox Jewish lesbians in “Disobedience.” What is your attraction to these characters, and how do you get into their heads?

After the premiere of “Disobedience” at Toronto, I found myself answering a lot of questions about this “trilogy” that I supposedly made, to my great surprise. But really, it all came from an organic place. I’ve been just following what intrigues me and my own intuition. I like the idea of seeing a film where no one else sees a film. I felt that strongly with “Gloria,” which came about when there was a woman I saw in the streets of Santiago at a red light singing in her car, from my mother’s generation. I felt really connected to her struggle, the process of becoming invisible in a youth-obsessed society. “A Fantastic Woman” comes from a very similar place — a woman who is somehow on the borders of society, whom society rejects, and what the film tries to do is to put this character at the absolute center.

Is there a danger in portraying groups you’re not a part of, whether the transgender community or the Orthodox Jewish community?

It’s both a great opportunity and a trap. In the case of “Fantastic Woman,” I wanted to make it a more complex animal than just a “cause” film. Even though I was sympathizing with the character’s struggle, I didn’t want to be trapped at that level — it’s important, but it can be quite basic. So you have to find ways to elevate that and turn it into a cinematic experience, and make the social aspect of it part of a complex narrative. In the case of “Disobedience,” the very secretive way of life and religion and tradition that the North London Orthodox Jewish community has was a huge invitation to explore an unknown world. And also a possible trap, and I tried to overcome that by portraying it, hopefully, with great nuance and detail and texture.

And I had to overcome that to get to what I cared most about, which is characters and people. You want the spectator to see human beings, rather than just Orthodox Jewish women, or a transgender woman. Cinema is empathy machinery, and we multiply our life experience through cinema. When it is good cinema, it almost counts as a personal experience.

From Paulina Garcia to Daniela Vega and Rachel McAdams, you’ve been able to draw very unexpected performances out of your lead actors. How do you build a working relationship that allows that?

I love actors. And I love writing characters, but in a certain way I see the characters as a beautiful and necessary device to get to the person who is interpreting them. I need characters, but after a certain point I don’t care about them anymore, because it’s all about the artistic battle that the actor is giving in front of the camera. That’s the biggest source of cinematic emotion in a film. So I just ask them to trust me and try to create an environment of cooperation, and I promise them I’ll take care of them in the editing so they know they can be daring and foolish, so that there is space to get lost, to explore. I really depend on that level of commitment from their side — I don’t know how I could make a film if the actors aren’t willing to jump into the deep with me.

In “Disobedience” you return to one of the major themes of your earlier films, religion, which wasn’t really present in your previous two. What role does religion play in your life and work?

I grew up in Chile, which is a very Catholic country. I went to church as a boy, and then I quite quickly stepped away from religion. But I remained fascinated by the need people have for religion. So early on I felt like I wanted to take these things that are blueprints of life in Chile, and subvert them, or try to see them in a different light.

But later on, I’ve become more interested in people’s belief systems, and how we can create our own conceptual prisons. One of the things I connect to most with “Disobedience” is that the antagonist isn’t necessarily coming from the [religious] community. The community has its complexities, its struggles, but it’s not portrayed as the antagonist. The antagonist is within the characters, because of their systems of belief. In this case, it’s Orthodox Judaism, but you could translate that into any character because we all depend on some system of belief, and we have to find some way to observe it and find distance from it to understand ourselves as human beings. If you want to progress or evolve, that usually involves [reconsidering] a system of belief that was useful to you at some point.

What you didn’t know about Sebastian Lelio

AGE: 43 HOMETOWN: Born in Argentina, moved to Chile at age 2 CURRENT RESIDENCE: Berlin FIRST COLLEGE MAJOR: Journalism HOBBY: Chess

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