Focusing on female protagonists, Spanish director Elena López Riera shies away from old tropes of promiscuity, desire, and the sealed fates they typically dictate in her first feature film, “El Agua.”
Sold by Adeline Fontan-Tessau-headed Elle Driver for international and distributed in Spain by Filmin (“Lucas”) and producer Maria Zamora and distributor Enrique Costa’s Elastica Films (“Alcarrès”), the film keeps one foot planted firmly in reality, using found and documentary-style footage dispersed throughout to highlight a raw narrative. The other foot loosely traces the boundaries of ominous lore that’s woven through the narrative like fine thread, ever-beneath the surface of scenes dealing with young love, strong feminine bonds, and the urge to escape it all and begin anew.
“El Agua” is a co-production between Switzerland’s Alina FIlms (“Azor”), Spain’s Suica Films (“Lobster Soup”) and France’s Les Films du Worso (“Tumbuktu”), in conjunction with Swiss public broadcaster Radio Télévision Suisse.
Ahead of the film’s world premiere at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight on Friday, López Riera, whose previously released short film “Pueblo” debuted at the festival in 2015, spoke with Variety about mysticism and her approach to cinema.
The film touches on the fate that’s bestowed upon us, the fate we place on ourselves. Do you believe people can escape their fate?
I hope so. I’ve always been very interested in this idea of destiny because I believe that, in the collective imagination, it functions as an internal mechanism with which many people justify their actions, or rather, their non-actions, their immobility. In the film we’ve tried to turn this idea of destiny on its head, and try to approach it more as a notion through which society tries to impose certain behaviors, especially in the case of women. Since time immemorial, destiny has been used as a tool to inflict fear, to repress desires, to accept an established social structure, through legends, beliefs and popular tales. With the film we wanted to ask this same question: Is it possible, if it existed, to escape our destiny? The answer lies in the main character, a young girl who will try, despite everything, to rewrite her own story.
Can you speak to how mythologies take root and become the fiber of communities, passed on for generations?
I feel that mythology has been, and continues to be, an essential part of the collective imagination, because, through them, feelings and thoughts that are important for a part of society are crystallized. And I firmly believe that mythology is not something primitive or that should be related to remote societies,. In the contemporary world, in big cities, mythologies are also constantly being created, just look at the rise of astrology in recent times. We need something else to believe in.
Cinematically, “El agua” allows the viewer to feel the time, the languid summer heat, the anxious uncertainty of first love. How did you achieve this while filming?
The idea was precisely that, to pay more attention to the hanging moments than to the actions, to underline the suspended time of the summer, the feeling of no future that exists among the young people of that area. For this we worked for a long time with the DOP Giuseppe Truppi and with the artistic advisor and scriptwriter, Philippe Azoury, as well as with the artistic designer, Miguel Ángel Rebollo, when it came to choosing the places, the times and the camera framing. The idea was to be as close as possible to the actors’ bodies and to confront them with the reality of a rugged territory, scorched by the summer and enveloped in the electric atmosphere before a huge storm. It was also important for me to work with a very small crew (we were never more than 10 people on the set), which allowed the actors to feel free. The premise was always to work fiction as if it were a documentary, documentary as if it were fiction.
Can you talk to your use of documentary-style scenes to advance the narrative?
For me it’s difficult to make a difference between reality and fiction, perhaps because of my education, the way the women of my village taught me to tell stories. It’s the same with cinema. I come from documentary cinema, at least from a way of filming and approaching reality in a very immediate, very visceral way. For this film, it was important to put all kinds of registers on the same level: Documentary, fictional, archive, images from social networks, because for me all images have the same value, and this is something we work on precisely with my editor, Raphaël Lefèvre. In the specific case of the women who speak to the camera and who tell us fragments of the myth, it was important to use a classic documentary register, a bit old school like talking heads, to highlight their words in the most direct and honest way possible.