Natalia Almada, who won best director at Sundance this year for her mesmerizing film “Users,” is eager to continue the cinematic journey she began in that work with plans to next explore the boundaries of human endurance and the desire to discover the unknown.
“Users,” which is screening at the Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX) and Visions du Réel in Switzerland, is a visual essay about technology and progress, their often disastrous impact on the world, the wonders of nature and questions about what the future may hold. It is also a cinematic letter to her children.
Becoming a mother was one of the inspirations behind the film – to examine the changes that it brought to her life and the ways it made her look at the world differently, Almada says.
Having spent much of her childhood growing up on a farm in Sinaloa, Mexico, she never imagined having children in California’s Silicon Valley, where she lives with husband Dave Cerf, who also worked on “Users” as composer and sound designer.
“Users” is Almada’s first film not made in Mexico, and while there’s not a lot of dialogue, it’s also her first English-language pic.
While the filmmaker had previously shot all of her previous documentaries herself, she teamed up with her brother-in-law, cinematographer Bennett Cerf, on the visually ambitious “Users.”
“He’s amazing at moving the camera and doing things I never would have done on my own,” she says. “He really kind of pushed me.”
Compared with her own more static style, with Bennett “it was suddenly three-dimensional in a really great way.”
“It’s a gamble to work with family, it’s risky, and yet for me it felt like it gave us an opportunity to know each other not only as family,” she adds.
Almada was encouraged to take on the challenging project after having made her first fictional feature film, the award-winning “Todo lo demás” (“Everything Else”).
“I think making fiction kind of took away any fear I might have had, so I suddenly had this sense of possibility in terms of what I can do with the image.”
Almada’s husband Dave also did the sound design and music on “Todo lo demás” but he was much more involved in “Users,” she notes.
“I feel this was more his than the other one. ‘Todo lo demás’ is set in Mexico; it’s about a woman in her 60s. It’s Mexico City 100% and that wasn’t his world, whereas this is really his world.”
Working closely with Bennett and Dave made “Users” much more of a collaborative effort. “Even the ideas behind the film, the sensibility, I think they bring a very unique sensibility because of their experience.”
Almada also managed to work with renowned flutist Claire Chase and the Kronos Quartet, who came onboard for the music, which was recorded at Skywalker Sound.
“That was kind of a COVID blessing because they couldn’t travel and they’re San Francisco based. Skywalker has this massive soundstage, so we could work there socially distanced. We got super lucky. And then Dolby came on board to do the Atmos mix, which we could also do at Skywalker with [Oscar-winning sound mixer] Lora Hirschberg.”
Among the many themes Almada explores in “Users,” landscape and environment are of particular significance.
She recalls how her grandfather in Sinaloa built the first irrigation system in the region. “They would have thought, ‘We made land that was dry green.’ And that would have been thought of as progress and amazing and life.” Yet maybe it wasn’t all great, she adds. “Maybe it had a negative environmental impact. You could think the same about pesticides. Pesticides come along and it’s the cure. It allowed us to do something we couldn’t do and people didn’t foresee that it might be damaging in any way.
“There’s something about [California’s] Central Valley that reminds me of Sinaloa. You see these very green, full-of-life areas that shouldn’t be that way. So then you think, where does that water come from? And then looking at those landscapes covered with solar panels. Again, you think, that’s amazing, that’s fantastic. We need renewable energy, but is that our new landscape?”
It’s not about whether “it’s right or wrong, it’s about the ambiguity.”
That ambiguity is also at the heart of Almada’s film, whose images are often beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
“On the one hand we have this progress and we solve problems and we’re inventive and there’s imagination. Technology represents so much of the amazing thing about humankind and what we can do.
“And then there’s also this kind of humility we have to have, in the sense that, we don’t always foresee what the consequences might be. Some forces are bigger than us. The force of the fires – we can’t beat the fires. How do we negotiate those things and hold those contradictory things together and kind of think about them and both create responsibly the new technologies, and also consume responsibly?”
Almada is set to continue her visual exploration of environment and the human desire to discover and push limits in her next project. She also plans to continue her collaboration with Bennet, Dave and Kronos. “It’s such a great mind challenge to work on a film like this. There’s something about that that I think I want to push further.”
“I’ve been looking at the edges of things, the limits, a lot around the environment. I’ve been interested in space and the Mariana Trench, and also the barefoot Tarahumara runners and the deep-sea divers – pushing to the limits of what we know is possible.”
Again thinking of her children and the future, she asks, “What will they have to discover?”