BARCELONA –  Spain’s Chema García Ibarra is hardly a stranger to big fest selection: His shorts have played Cannes Directors’ Fortnight (“Attack From the Robots From Nebula 5”), Sundance (“Attack,” “Mystery,” “Protoparticles”), Berlin (“Mystery,” “The Golden Legend”) and San Sebastian (“The Disco Shines”).

Now, championed by the ECAM Madrid Film School’s Incubator program, and having been put through Greece’s Oxbelly Screenwriter’s Lab, “ García Ibarra’s first feature project, “The Sacred Spirit,” has made it to Toronto, as part of its 2019 Filmmakers Lab. In his debut, half of Spain sets out in search of a missing girl, while a Spanish ufology assn. holds a night sightings session. One of its members, the weight challenged José Manuel, will determine the fate of humanity.

Mixing costumbrismo – local social detail – with touches of cinéma-verité and low-fi sci-fi, seasoned with a singular sense of surreal humor, García Ibarra, highlighted by Variety as a talent to track, has been described by Spanish docu-maker Óscar de Julián as “like an illegitimate son that Werner Herzog had on a trip to the Mediterranean.”

“The Sacred Spirit” is produced by Spain’s Apellániz y de Sosa and Jaibo Films and France’s La Fabrica Nocturna. Variety chatted to Chema Ibarra about his first feature project.

You’re fond of sci-fi concepts set in provincial environments. Your style’s not exactly naturalistic but does give local social detail. Will audiences find these elements in your first feature?

I like this idea very much: go to your grandmother’s home, look for an old photo album, open it in a random page and pick one random photo: now imagine that image as a frame of a sci-fi movie. I don’t know anything about your grandmother, but probably that photo would be a First Communion picture, a group of people around a table in a dining room or someone lying on a towel on a beach: you need to make a beautiful, exciting and poetic mental exercise to make that image part of a sci-fi film. That confrontation of universes –the “domestic” and “fantastic”– is what I am really interested in. I would like “The Sacred Spirit” to have one foot in both of these worlds.

And that link’s where a sense of mystery –a deep-rooted idea in all your shorts– emerges….

When “mystery” frees itself from the “resolution,” it becomes disturbing and attractive. A case in point: the third Mystery of Fatima: the last of the three messages that a Marian apparition dictates to some children is kept hidden for years, generating a mystique around it that disappears in thin air when the Pope reveals the mystery in 2000. All the beauty of that image – a hidden text dictated by a luminous being –  is destroyed by its public reading.

You’ll direct “The Sacred Spirit”like your shorts? Tell us how you work. 

I like that each frame to be useful, to build sequences with the least possible number of frames, so that each one is essential. I try to do the same with all the other elements involved in the film, from characters to dialogues. Is it necessary for this character to say this? Can he say it with fewer words? Can he say it with no words?

Why do you always work with non-professional actors? 

I’m interested in real physical features, regional accents, people wearing their real clothes, real spaces rather than constructed ones, and so on. I’m a documentary filmmaker making fiction movies. I don’t like conventional acting at all: The voices all sound the same to me, I see the same gestures over and over again. As I know that the characters will be played by non-professionals, it determines the scriptwriting process: that is why I make films with characters that speak little, hardly move and do not express “physical” emotions: I’ve never written a scene in which someone cries or has a fit of rage, for example.

What’s your ideal audience?

I try to think about what would happen if I hadn’t made my films but saw them as part of an audience. I think I’d like them very much! As a viewer I am quite open. The only thing I can’t stand is solemnity, the lack of a sense of humor. Anyone who shares this vision is welcome!

You attended Greece’s Oxbelly Lab and will now go to Toronto’s Filmmaker’s Lab. What are your expectations about these industry initiatives?

Writing this film has been very lonely work. So it’s always refreshing to hear other voices and opinions: Maybe what I thought was funny isn’t so funny, or what I thought was perfectly understandable turns out to be cryptic. It’s fantastic to hear opinions from people who come from opposite worlds –from mainstream to the arthouse– to know how your film is perceived in both worlds. Thanks to the meetings with filmmakers like Lucrecia Martel or João Pedro Rodrigues that I had at Oxbelly, I now think that my movie is better. So I hope to collect new opinions in Toronto that may result in new sequences or tweaks.

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