Among the films in World Cinema Dramatic Competition at this year’s virtual Sundance is the darkly comic “El Planeta,” the debut feature of Spanish-Argentine artist Amalia Ulman, who has worked in video, sculpture and performance art.
Ulman is best-known for her 2014 performance art piece “Excellences and Perfections” (more on that here), which was included in a group show at the Tate Modern. Her multidisciplinary art involves the use of social media, magazine photoshoots, interviews, self-promotion and brand endorsements as devices for her fictional narratives.
“El Planeta” has even caught the eye of filmmaker-artist Miranda July, whose own body of work includes fiction, monologue, digital media presentations and live performance art.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect because I only knew Amalia as a multidisciplinary artist — but from the very first scene, my heart started to pound with that feeling of discovery … a brand new, totally modern, cinematic voice,” said July.
“‘El Planeta’ is such a pure work because Amalia knew she only needed what she had: Her mother, her history, her subtle humor and particular aesthetic, and of course her own mesmerizing self,” she added.
Set in the gray northern Spanish city of Gijon during the height of the country’s economic crisis in 2009, “El Planeta” revolves around mother and daughter grifters, played by Ulman and her real mother, Ale Ulman, who resort to ever more desperate schemes to survive.
Despite her total inexperience, Ulman’s mother proved to be a natural in front of the camera. “She’s very photogenic and used to be a ballerina; she has this graceful presence,” Ulman noted.
Directing her mother was a challenge at times. “She didn’t want to always put all her energy in the dramatic scenes, but she’s a clown; she’s very funny so she enjoyed doing the comedic scenes,” Ulman recalled, who also noted that her mother studied method acting to prepare for the role and is a movie buff so she understood all the cinematic references.
Writing, producing and directing her first feature film was not much of a stretch for Ulman. “I’ve been working on fictional narratives that have a beginning, a middle and an end so they have similar structures to a film,” she said.
While not autobiographical, “El Planeta” incorporated many of their personal experiences. Ulman was brought to Gijon as a baby where she grew up even though she was still considered an Argentinian throughout her life in Spain.
She shot “El Planeta,” in black and white, not only because of her micro budget but also because the city of Gijon is often gray and overcast so “it looks black and white, even when you shoot in color,” she said.
The film is named after the restaurant they scam but also reflects the macro aspect of their personal struggle, which pales in significance when compared to global issues like climate change and the current health crisis, Ulman said.
Her next film will be set in northern Argentina and deal precisely with climate change, among other themes, she said.