Araceli Lemos’ mystical drama “Holy Emy,” which received a special mention for first feature after its Locarno world premiere, arrives at the Thessaloniki Film Festival this week, where it plays in the main competition just days ahead of its North American premiere at the AFI Fest.

The Athens-set drama, which screened in Locarno’s Cineasti del Presente competition, is the story of Emy, a young Filipina, played by newcomer Abigael Loma, searching for the missing links between her strange bleeding condition and her faraway mother’s healing powers.

The film is produced by Studiobauhaus and Utopie Films, in association with Nonetheless Productions and Ginedo Films. TVCO is handling international sales.

Speaking to Variety in Thessaloniki, Lemos said she was drawn to the idea of “a healer that is misunderstood, that is interpreted in different ways,” as she was searching for the inspiration for her protagonist. “I think that was the main thing artistically that I was interested in – this idea that you have this thing that is unclear and open to interpretation. Each person with their own experiences sees it differently.”

The film follows Emy and her sister, Teresa, who is secretly pregnant with a Greek sailor’s child, as they begin to forge separate paths in search of their own identities. After Teresa (Hasmine Killip) is embraced by the congregants of an insular charismatic church, Emy starts to explore the mysterious forces and abilities within her in order to learn how to live a life of her own.

Lemos took special interest in exploring the dynamic between the sisters, who are forced to find a way to survive in Athens after their mother returns to the Philippines. “I was inspired with the idea that these two girls, especially when they’re younger, they’re almost the same thing,” she said. “They’re like the two sides of one coin, and then their bodies have different destinies that are manifested through their different desires.”

For the director, the growing divide between them propels Emy toward the fateful moment when she must decide if she’s ready to sever the cord binding the sisters. “I find that kind of sad, but at the same time maybe liberating,” she said.

In developing the script for “Holy Emy,” which she co-wrote with Giulia Caruso, Lemos drew inspiration from a childhood in which healers would often come to her Athens home to treat her family’s ailments. “I met healers that were combining Western medicine with Chinese medicine, or crystals or just alternative types of medicine, and others that felt that healing would be intensified by using your faith and your psychic energy,” she said.

“I found that very intriguing, the idea whether it also comes from within – whether there’s this energy that can heal us, or other people can give us. I find that [to be] a beautiful image, the relationship between people and the energy they exchange.”

The world of “Holy Emy” took shape as Lemos walked the streets of her Athens neighborhood, which is home to a tight-knit Filipino community. On Sundays she would hear religious songs coming from basements and storefront churches and catch glimpses of joyful congregants from the pavement. She admitted it was a “scary moment” when she stepped into a charismatic church for the first time, fully aware of herself as an outsider. But before long, she became a regular attendee of the Sunday services, opening a window into the lives of her Filipino neighbors.

As the development of the film progressed, Lemos was unsure whether the community would embrace her and agree to play a part. It would take time for her to fully gain their trust, but in the end, she had no shortage of willing collaborators. Many of the film’s participants were employed in full-time jobs as live-in caretakers or cleaners, taking time off from their busy schedules to appear for auditions, rehearsals and wardrobe fittings.

It was a collaborative effort that helped the director through her first feature. In Thessaloniki, Lemos recalled those Sunday masses, where along with the rousing songs and testimonials the congregants at a certain point in the service would take their neighbors by the hands. “Immediately you are like, ‘Oh, I’m not just here alone, observing,’” she said. “‘We’re doing this together.’”