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SAN SEBASTIAN  —  The slums of Rio (“City of God”) and Casablanca (“Horses of God”), and now low-income youth, juggling love, broken families and bills in the proudly modern city of Barcelona: For many middle-class spectators, Spain’s “A Thief’s Daughter” will present as bracing an only-half-known reality – as the earlier-mentioned films.

At its get-go, a group of young women don headscarfs to clean a dusty basement. They look for a moment like Maghrebi immigrants in Spain. But then Spain’s youth, after recession, are like a new native immigrant class. And the delight and pain of “A Thief’s Daughter” are in the details and the cumulative portrait of a heroine for whom there are no easy fixes. Variety talked to the film’s director, Belén Funes, on the eve of this year’s San Sebastian Film Festival, where her debut, sold by Latido Films, world premiered in main competition Wednesday, topping an El Diario Vasco critics’ poll. Prizes could be in the offing.

Fiction exposes spectators – it’s one of its pleasures – to worlds unknown. Here that universe is low-income survival of today’s youth as it attempts, despite circumstance, to have a life, a love life, a united family. But the chances of success are not at all certain. Could you comment?

Sara is fighting to be part of a society that has driven her to social exclusion. The welfare state has turned its back on her. So, if you think about it, she’s got no choice but to become a warrior. I think that when it all comes down to a question of raw survival, we stop thinking too much about reality and start to fight. I believe in fighting; in fact it’s what I believe in most: in people’s power to change their own destiny even if things are against them. And even if, statistically, the chances of success aren’t very high.

A Thief’s Daughter is also about pain, the hurt parents can deal their children. “You have to leave. Whenever you’re round I think I’m going to die,” Sara tells Manuel. There’s the possibility – though that’s left open to the audience – that’s she’s attempted to form her own family early in life to compensate for her lack of family in the past. Again, could you comment? 

We wrote this film because we wanted to talk about the feeling of abandon and what we must do to not feel abandoned. After the research phase, after talking with girls who had lived through situations similar to what Sara goes through, we were surprised that many of them had been mothers very young. I think that perhaps that maternity is linked to the need to show the world, to show yourself, that deep down within you there is room for love.

One of the film’s attractions is its enormous amount of seemingly authentic detail: One example: What Sara and her friends eat, their diet. They rarely seem to eat a square meal, they snatch sandwiches on the go. How much research went into the film? Or is this a reality you know well?

Much research went into the film. It’s also a world I know well because of where I was born and grew up. I like to write based on reality and I take it to obsessive limits. For example, the hearing aid Sara uses is a real device, especially made, which worked perfectly. Sara has very little in terms of income and we adapted all her life to suit such a circumstance: from the food she eats to the clothes she wears. I think we were spot-on, in terms of rigour.

One singularity of the film is that Eduard Fernandez, one of the finest actors of his generation, plays the feckless father, actress Greta Fernandez, his daughter in real life, plays. What were the consequences of having a real-life father and daughter? And how did you direct them?

All the consequences stemming from that situation were positive. I like that because it brings something very genuine to the film. It gives something special. If you take a close look, you’ll see the remarkable physical resemblance. When Sara says she can’t forget him because “she carries him in her face” it’s not a lyrical reflection, it’s absolutely true. Directing them was all about constantly striving for something close to “non-acting”. They are two magnificent actors.

What were your major guidelines when directing “A Thief’s Daughter”?

Steering clear of any kind of solemnity and working with techniques grounded in documentary-making. We wanted to make a clean film, transparent, something that was moving because of its day-to-day grimness. We had professional and natural, non-professional actors working together; so we had to think of the best way to do things so all of that could work. With Neus (DOP), we designed a very intuitive way of working, which was all about giving actors absolute priority and making the camera fall into line with what they dictated. We would improvise. To shoot like that, you have to have time, and my producer fought hard to make sure I did have time.

Three young Barcelona-based or at least trained women directors will screen at San Sebastian: Leticia Dolera, Lucía Alemany and yourself.  Bulwarked by institutions such as L’Escac, there is an exciting generation of young female cineastes emerging in Barcelona, and increasingly at the forefront of its filmmaking. Do you feel any sense of identity with this generation or esprit de corps?

I have lots of close female director friends, so for me it’s not so much a question of feeling part of a generation, or anything so abstract. I truly feel part of a family in which we’re all devoted to filmmaking, all wanting to tell stories. We have very clear, very different, sensibilities, but I think we’ve been able to create a solid fabric of cooperative work: we share actors, scripts, ideas.

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