Few phenomena in Spanish film have proved so striking in recent years as the emergence last decade of a new generation of Catalan filmmakers, very often women, making resonant movies grounded in highly specific local realities.
Think Clara Simon’s “Summer 1993,” a Berlin First Feature Award winner, or Pilar Palomero’s “Schoolgirls,” which walked off with best picture at this year’s Spanish Academy Goyas.
For years, prominent Catalan auteurs – José Luis Guerín, Marc Recha, Isaki Lacuesta – have made movies straddling documentary and fiction.
Sold by Beta Cinema, “The Off-Job Men,” directed by Pompeu Fabra U. alum Neus Ballús, drinks deep from both traditions.
Its stars, Mohamed Mellali, Valero Escolar and Pep Sarrá, are real life plumbers who, in a fiction-set up created by Ballús, play employees at Instalaciones Losilla, a small handyman firm on the outskirts of Barcelona. Over six days, Moha, a Moroccan new recruit on a one-week trial, is put through his paces to see if he’s got what it takes to replace the past retirement-age Pep as Valero’s partner.
The characters, however, are fictional constructs, steered by Ballús and painstakingly prepared over two years of workshops during which the plumbers honed their improvisation skills. Valero, in particular, plays a dyed-in-the-wool racist attempting to veto Moha whose sculpted physique is a constant reminder to the middle-aged boss of his own drooping pecs and pillow-shaped belly.
As the plumbers are sent off on a different job each day, visiting a cross-section of Barcelona’s populace, “The Odd-Job Men” plays out as equal parts situational comedy and observational relationship drama, engaging with what Ballús describes in a director’s note as “one of the more pressing challenges of our time: How to understand one another.”
“The Odd-Job Men” is produced by Miriam Porté for Distinto Films (“The Wild Ones,” “The Great Vázquez,” “Yo”), in co-production with Ballús’ label El Kinògraf and in association with France’s Slot Machine.
Variety talked to Ballús in the build-up to Locarno, where “The Odd Job Men” world premieres in main International Competition before segueing to September’s Toronto Festival.
In a producer’s note, producer Miriam Porté observes that “The Odd-Job Men” is “a documentary film structured like fiction.” The characters, for example, are creations but inspired very much by reality….
Yes, as in my debut feature, “The Plague,” I’ve always been very comfortable moving midway between the two without having to come down on the side of documentary or fiction, which would be difficult because my methodology draws from one and the other. “The Odd-Job Men” is crafted and written from the point of departure of the characters. I worked for two years with the plumber-actors, on improvisation sessions and getting to know their universe and its conflicts. It’s as if the film were work for hire, but working for the characters.
How did that doc-fiction mix affect the shoot?
I had a structure, what I wanted to shoot, but the actors didn’t know what we’d do the next day. I’d set up a situation, anticipating the conflict it would spark. But the dialogues aren’t written, they’re made up by the actors who moved and talked freely in scenes. It was like trying to construct fiction from millions of documentary elements: the plumbers themselves, locations, the secondary characters, the stories.
The film’s central issue is people’s fear and disavowal of others, channelled through Valero who opposes Instalaciones Losilla’s hiring Moha claiming that “the people we work for don’t like foreigners.” He makes that claim just as an aged client is actually warming to the attentive Moha, explaining to him how he keeps fit….
I knew the central theme of the film that I wanted to develop. I’d also heard the actors talking about Catalans not liking foreigners. Since I’d encouraged Valero to improvise, he didn’t feel he had to play himself. And since he’d witnessed and heard so much racism on the job, he had his character react in the same way. Moha and Valero actually became friends off camera.
The racism is nuanced, running from structural hierarchy – Moha is automatically made to sit in the back of the van – to taunts – “It’s not my fault that you don’t speak Spanish,” Valero tells Moha, though Valero has problems pronouncing Castilian Spanish himself – to stereotyping – as when a photographer at a studio shoot insists Moha should pose stripped to the waist for her in noble savage style…..
Very few people these days call an immigrant a “moro” to their face. But we all know a Valero, or scores of them. Somebody with whom you think you can identify until they suddenly come out with outrageous assertions. One idea of the film was to depict day-to-day racism as authentically as possible.
Beneath its guise of light comedy, there’s a lot going on in the film….
I tried to find a balance between the comedy and drama about human prejudice, without forsaking a sense of lightness and the several layers on which the film can be read. That balance was one of the film’s biggest challenges.
A sense of democracy also plays throughout the film, from the first job, where the plumbers discover human hairs blocking a tube in a luxury flat, to a more macro level…
In a larger picture, I attempted to convey the fact that there’s nothing ordinary to daily life – it’s extraordinary. Embedded in the workplace micro-aggression and mini-conflicts are large human dramas. You don’t need big dramatic fireworks to explore them. The film’s an invitation to explore day-to-day existence with more curiosity – because what happens is very much out of the ordinary.