Exclusive Interview with Víctor Gaviria on the World Premiere of THE ANIMAL'S WIFE at TIFF

By Juana Suárez
@cinembargo / www.cinembargojuana.com

Víctor Gaviria has made of the interest for urban marginal tales in Medellín, the work with non- professional actors, and the preference for a depiction of bare life his trademark. He directed Rodrigo D. No future (1990), now a classic of Latin American cinema; La vendedora de rosas (1998), and Sumas y restas (2005).  He also has a corpus of small gauge films that are less known in international circles, some of them currently in the process of restoration. 

Gaviria is premiering his fourth feature-length film La mujer del animal / The Animal´s Wife at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Much has changed in Colombian (and Latin American) cinema in the eleven years since he released Sumas y restas (2005).  Colombian films have now made a definitive arrival onto the world stage, meriting visibility, and garnering attention. Production patterns have changed, mainly because of new ways to establish international coproductions, and because of the transformations and new production models encouraged by the Colombian Law on Cinema (2003, revised in 2013).

Many filmmakers have turned toward a very different aesthetic than that of the presentismo and overt violence, which dominated Colombian films in the 1990s and 2000s.  Colombian cinema also has new directors, it participates of new ways to consume films, and it is going through a period significantly marked by the anxiety to succeed in international markets and festivals. 

 La mujer del animal is a story of captivity that takes place in the mid 70s.  It is a gritty story of domestic violence, which serves as a reminder that gender inequality, male abuse, and women´s disempowerment are still elements of violence that demand serious attention, especially when taking into account the larger picture of violence in Latin American (and other) societies. The following are excerpts from a longer conversation with Gaviria, on the occasion of this new film.

How do we place your insistence on violence at a moment when Colombian cinema has turned to more contemplative films, slower rhythms, and in many cases, stories of conciliation? 

What makes a difference between my films and the films of this new generation is my continued insistence for working with non-professional actors. For me, it is not only about casting untrained actors who, of course, bring with them a particular dramaturgy.  It is about access to a world of exclusion, marked by abandonment, neglect, and economies of servitude. In this particular case, I am concerned with an enduring gender violence that is at the core of every kind of violence.  

But there is currently a proliferation of non-professional actors in Colombian cinema. Would you say that your casting of them is different from the way other directors work?

Yes, somehow.  I don´t combine non-professional and professional actors at all. What I do is to expand a universe of reality by casting a diverse array of actors.  Mainly, I see my actors as narrators who allow me access to universes where there is no textbook, no guidance on how to get to know them, or to work with them.  Once they start acting, there is a second narration fed by their language, and they get deeply involved in the telling of a world that is difficult to grasp, hard to access, and hard to understand.

There is no change at all in the way I have worked with actors from my former films. I pursue life narratives that are not made of anecdotes or casualties.  I am still invested in a world of exclusion.  Medellín, for example, is still a city where half the population is excluded. People who live at the margins have different values, rituals, and beliefs, even if in many cases they are consider anti-values.  In many cases, they are not a society but an anti-society.

When wandering with you around Medellin, I have noticed that people often halt you, wanting to share stories, often with the hope that they will pique your interest and you make a movie about them and their story. That is probably also the case when you visit other places. What made you privilege the story of Margarita in La mujer del animal?

Yes, that´s true.  And I work at a very slow pace. But I do hear lots of stories, and I think people want to share them because they feel they have an affinity with me.  They have probably noticed the stories I care about and the value I give to them. I understand that they have had very complicated lives, with multiple obstacles, and feelings of abandonment and desolation. Of course, one thinks about costs, and production issues.  But one hopes to suddenly find a jewel of a story that encompasses many senses, realities, and complexities so that you can unfold these worlds from just one specific story. That was the case with this story.

When Margarita´s story came to me, I was planning a more complicated film, Sangrenegra, which is a reenactment of the life of a legendary bandit from Colombian history in the 1950s. The production challenges were multiple. La mujer del animal was not an easy story, but it was easier to conceive as a film. In Rodrigo D. and La vendedora de rosas, documentary forms play a significant role in the story, and there were hardly differences between the content of the film and the everyday life of the actors. Different from that, in La mujer del animal I work on the reconstruction of a time before the boom of drug dealing in Medellín, circa 1975.  There are hints of documentary here but they relate more to the depiction of these marginal neighborhoods, these shantytowns where this kind of violence-- even if not exclusive to these places-- seems to be pervasive.  

Colombia is at the crossroads of multiple conversations and political decisions about violence. Even if not often related to the larger picture, domestic violence occupies a particular place in a more generalized violence.  What does La mujer del animal have to say about this issue? 

Tough question.  In a way, it is locating more neglected manifestations of violence within the larger picture.  Since my work in Rodrigo D. I have been concerned about these worlds where people are at war, at war with themselves, with neighbors from other vicinities, at war with the system, at war with life.  These wars are often ignored in the larger conversations about the root of violence. These wars seem to work, in many cases, as a protection shield against life adversities. These wars translate into animosity against neighbors, family members, barras bravas (soccer fans opponents), neighborhood gangs, etc.  In a way, war is a way to look for an identity, to ratify an existence because these people are aware they live in societies where there is no planning for them, where they are not included in any social project.

Gender-violence is also part of this economy of violence because it is based on the ratification of power. The film does have an element that I approached in a very unconscious way; I was not sure if I was able to understand it, but it is clear to me that there is a dominion of men over women in Colombia, in what I see day to day. I am aware that there is a lot of abuse, a male mentality that keeps women in an inferior place. Domestic violence seems to be silenced and hidden, but it is there, in those teens’ lives that I examine, in the neighborhoods I move through, in the women I portray.  Many of these women have been victims of displacement; they come to the city in situations of financial disadvantage, and become subject to different situations of power and control.  That is the animal I am addressing in the film: the silence, the invisibility, and the lack of awareness on the situation of these women.  

There is a lot of expectation surrounding this film.  You know well that audiences either love or hate your films, there is hardly room for lukewarm reactions.  Regarding this film, what is the your expectation as a director?

(Laughs)  There is an enormous expectation.  It is a restless moment; I am hoping spectators will see deeply and realize that there is no passion here for sensationalism or just stubbornness about violence. Many people will come to realize that I keep searching for a way to say things.  I am not talking about a metaphysical search; instead, I keep searching for the reality that non-professional actors may give me, even if they know that other people reject their reality.  Some other people will feel that this (film) is repellent to them.  The only thing I can do is keep walking towards my next story, which will be once again a barrio story.