Sundance Winner Alvaro Gago Talks About TIFF Filmmaker Lab Project ‘Matria’

Credit: Alvaro Gago

In Alvaro Gago’s “Matria,” a 2018 short film Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, Ramona works in a canning factory, under the orders of a remarkably termagant, foul-mouthed female factory foreman.

Ramona hardly exchanges a word with her husband, but manages the household and her job – a punishing daily routine – and yet still manages to have a life: Her relationship with her daughter and grandchild affords her some emotional dignity.

Selected for the 2020 TIFF Filmmaker Lab, which runs Sept. 10-19, Gago is now in advanced development on a feature length version of “Matria,” which he and his long-term producer Mireia Graell, both London Film School alums, put through the Madrid Film School’s Screen-Incubator and are now fine-tuning at the Toronto Festival’s Lab.

A portrait of resilient womanhood, and a challenged life lived successfully, Gago insists, “Matria” and his latest short, “December 16,” about a girl’s gang rape, trace a direct through-line to the social-issue movies made by Eliás Querejeta which formed part of Spain’s process of progress from dictatorship to democracy.  “When I make a film, even if nothing is going to change, I need to think that something might change by doing it,” Gago says.

Variety interviewed Gago this summer as he advanced on his anticipated feature debut.

A recent trend among young Spanish filmmakers has been a blurring of the lines between documentary and fiction. Have you noticed that, and why do you think that is?

In Cataluña there is a strong documentary tradition, and alumni from there tend to intersect between documentary and fiction. There is an emphasis on detailed research when writing a story or making a film that is very specific to a place. It’s a trend across all of Spain in recent years, telling more local stories that use regional languages. In fact, at this year’s Incubator there is a Galician, a Basque and a Catalan project (this last one partly shot in Colombia), and all three projects will be shot in their respective regional languages. Filmmakers want to build a story with maximum detail while being faithful to the people, cultures and languages of the regions. It’s one reason I make films, to be in contact with people who I might not otherwise ever meet.

What else is pushing you into filmmaking?

What do I want to get out of it? Well, I’m not in filmmaking to become rich, I just want to live comfortably, enjoy my work, my family and friends and wine. I have no financial expectations in my work. I don’t think that’s a good motivator in filmmaking, or in general.

Would you say “Matria” is political?

Yeah, it’s political, but I think all films are political, from the time it’s set to its theme or its characters. It’s also political in how you decide to shoot the production of the film. It’s important not to be outspoken or direct too much in one way though or focus an extremely narrow political view on things because then you are conditioning the audience too much. But when I make a film, even if it’s not likely to change anything, I have to believe that something might change because of it. And I want to stand with people that I like, like Ramona, and the many Ramonas out there.

How are you financing, do you have money from Galician public broadcaster TVG or is it still in development?

This was supposed to be a year where we worked on organizing the financial details of production: asking for money from the regional government and TVG and then going to Spain’s ICAA central agency Institute of Cinematography and the Audiovisual Arts and to broadcasters, but with the current situation the regional deadlines were pushed back as were the application windows for national funding. We were applying for both, so I guess it hit us even worse. So, for the moment we don’t have any money in place. We are waiting to hear from broadcasters and Agadic, the Galician Agency for Cultural Industries, which is the organization that controls funding in Galicia, as well as TVG. Meanwhile we are working on the script, and I think it’s really coming together.

Are you writing on your own or with someone else?

I am writing by myself, but my producers are very involved in the screenplay in the sense that I go to them for input, even if it’s my words on the page at the end of the day. I trust them completely. I’ve also gone to Dimitris Emmanouilides, a Greek writer I worked with at a film lab in Greece about a year ago, and Pablo Berger, director of  “Blancanieves” here in Spain. But the actual writing I’m doing on my own. In the future I would like to try out co-writing, but I just haven’t found the right person or project for it yet.