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Set in Melilla, an autonomous city of Spain situated on the north coast of Africa, Violeta Salama’s debut feature “Alegría” premieres at this year’s Guadalajara Film Festival before playing out of competition at the Seville European Film Festival in November.

The heartfelt family drama centers around Alegría – curt matriarch and host to her niece’s upcoming wedding – and the varied relationships with the women in her orbit. “Alegría” stars Mexican actress Cecilia Suárez (“The House of Flowers,” “3 Caminos”), whose aplomb and comic timing anchors a film filled with familial chaos and clashing traditions.

Salama co-wrote with Isa Sánchez, drawing from the director’s own experiences growing up in Melilla. Indeed, “Alegría” plays at once as homage to a city whose vivid contrasts and blended culture perfectly reflects the contour of the characters’ interconnected dramas. The women of “Alegría” paint a mural of strength, love, courage, compassion and trust, and at last show their bond is unbounded, finding the self in selflessness.

Latido Films handles international sales to “Alegría.” Variety spoke with Salama ahead of the film screening at the Guadalajara Film Festival.

“Alegría” was filmed your hometown. In what ways is Melilla itself part of the story?

Melilla is one of the main characters of this story; it has always been from the very first drafts of the movie. It is a city with a population of 80,000, is 12 square kilometers and surrounded by a fence. Inside, three different communities have found a way to coexist. I can’t imagine this movie in any other place. Melilla is also my hometown and I have a special feeling for it. While writing the script I knew exactly where I wanted to shoot every scene, even Alegrías house, which was shot in Sevilla, is a recreation of my grandmother’s house in Melilla.

The film centers around a family’s preparation for a traditional wedding, and this close proximity brings out frustrations, old and new. Can you talk about the role of family in “Alegría?”

Family is the only thing capable of disarming you. You can feel that you have everything under control, that you don’t care about what people think of you, but when family comes there is nothing you can do to help the power they have over you. Alegría has lived her life how she wanted but deep down she misses family, the feeling of belonging to a group. The family she has created with Dunia and Marian is not enough when she has to face her daughter and brother because her main problem is she doesn’t know how to deal with their way of life; she can’t separate family from religion. And she blames religion for that. The role of family in Alegría is to pull the trigger for the characters to face their contradictions.

In certain scenes, the film’s musical themes are played in reverse, giving the moment a weight and memory. How did you choose to approach music and score in the film?

For music I wanted something very acoustic, to give importance to the inner thoughts of the characters. It had to help us to understand what is going on with them, all the things they won’t say. Those specific scenes where the music plays reverse are showing those feelings we can’t easily explain, that mix of nostalgia, desire, blame. And it was very important for me to make the music personal to each woman. They all have their own journey in the movie and the music had to accompany them.

Despite her low status, in many ways Dunia is the heart and soul of the film. How did you develop her character as a foil for Alegría? Moreover, how did you balance the characters to reveal truths about each other?

Dunia is the daughter Alegría would have wanted to have, and it is the same for Dunia. Alegría is very proud of Dunias dreams, and Dunia admires Alegrías way of life, her independence, but when family comes to open up all the wounds, this relationship is in danger. Dunia is always looking up to Alegría – when she sees how she suffers with Sara, how she starts to question her past choices, that experience helps Dunia to be able to decide her own path. Also, Alegría enjoys being Dunia’s mentor, but she knows they need each other. That is why she can see her mistakes by looking Dunia in the eye. She is always honest and that sometimes is too hard for her. I really love this relationship; we could have made a movie just with the two of them.