Life as it Is

By Mar Diestro-Dópido

influencia-pedro-aguilera.jpgLa Influencia, 2007

Spanish filmmaker Pedro Aguilera´s debut film La Influencia is structured into two distinctive halves, yin-and-yang style. In the first, silence, depression, pain and finally death prevail; in the second, noise, liveliness, action and the future. In the first part, a mother of two becomes depressed and dies after her small cosmetic business is closed down due to unpaid bills. In the second, her children (an adolescent girl and a young boy), fighting back against what could have been the devastating effects of her influence, accept her death, clean up the flat and start a new life. This is all presented under the scrutinising eye of a contemplative camera that captures, to use Bazin’s own words, ‘life as it is’ in long static takes that accentuate the film’s naturalism, in the process giving more than a passing nod to Tarkovsky and Bresson, and also offering an exquisite study of the fragility – but also strength – of human nature.

Pedro Aguilera: I find it impossible to define myself. In fact, I find the subject of identity greatly problematic; and so I think that it is very difficult to come to any conclusions in life. For me existence is only questions without answers, and I believe that we walk between emptiness and ignorance. I´m not saying that Pedro Aguilera or indeed life lack sense, but that this sense is indecipherable and ultimately a mystery.

Mar Diestro-Dópido: There are nods to philosophical questions, art, and of course cinema. Did you study these subjects, and how did they influence your film career?

PA: I studied Fine Arts in Madrid, but the academic level taught at the school was so poor that I assumed it would be as bad at film schools. That´s why I never studied cinema, except a small course on Documentary at the Cuban Film School in San Antonio de los Baños. In fact, I never thought of making films until I was 23 years old. Until then, I was immersed in the world of painting and contemporary arts. When I was ten I started charcoal drawing and I spent all my adolescence pursuing that. Afterwards, I got into the comic world, which I was thinking of making a career in, until I started studying at the Art School and opted for the most radical conceptual art. I had various exhibitions but I soon lost interest in this particular medium. Then I started writing storyboards for advertising agencies and films, and slowly but surely I started getting involved with the filming process, which ended up totally fascinating me. This is why I started working as an Assistant Director, in order to learn the very basics of the trade, to learn how to make films from the inside out. You don´t learn your ideas; you create them yourself. However, it is absolutely necessary to know the workings and modes of production in order to make a film. Film for me is the most ‘concrete’ thing that has ever existed; it isn’t something ethereal or abstract, rather making a film is all about facing up to the problems brought by ‘reality’ itself. 

influencia-pedro-aguilera-2.jpgLa Influencia, 2007

MDD: La Influencia is your debut feature. But are there any earlier short films or maybe other forms of representation even if they are not cinematographic?

PA: I made many short films on video format and one on film, but I never thought of them as something definitive, but as a kind of learning process. Tests and mistakes carried out in order to see how I managed within the medium. For me, all my short films are a failure. Even if there are discoveries within them, I only used them to realise that I wasn´t as clever as I thought (laughs).

MDD: What sort of experience have you had in cinema?

PA: I have written the storyboard for various films, amongst them A Ciegas (In the Blind) by Daniel Calparsoro and Los Bastardos (The Bastards), the latest film by Amat Escalante. I also worked as Assistant Director on Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s Intacto, Carlos Reygadas’s Batalla en el Cielo (Battle in Heaven), and Amat Escalante’s Sangre (Blood). The real masters of cinema for me are friends such as Amat Escalante or Carlos Reygadas. I have learnt practically everything from them.

MDD: What was the production process like for La Influencia? How did you finance it? Could you explain the process of production that you followed in order to get it from original idea to finished film? Carlos Reygadas features as a producer, how did he help you?

PA: The presence of Carlos Reygadas and his business partner Jaime Romandia, from Mantarray (Mexico), were indispensable. They gave me the necessary confidence to start the project. You have to bear in mind that I had no CV in film, or experience, or no short film that had won at a festival, which means that you are nobody. The industry never focuses on your script or its quality, but on other more superficial issues. And this is why their help was fundamental. I knew I could produce the film with little money and I managed to get enough, a few thousand Euros to start the production. Reygadas and Romandia compromised themselves to help me with the post-production. They were very brave because it is very difficult to recover this kind of money in Spain. It was a risky gamble but they believe in art above everything else. They are as mad as me (laughs). Once I had the film edited on my computer, the process came to a halt. We shot it on 16mm and we still needed a lot of money to blow it up to 35mm and make copies of it, etc. That’s when we got selected for Berlin and Cannes, in the same week! We finally decided to go to Cannes where the film showed in La Quinzaine des Realisateurs, which changed things slightly, but not enough. José María Lara, from the production company Alokatu, another very generous man, offered his help, and we finished the film in time to go to Cannes. He proved to be essential. We then presented the film in Spain, where we got really good reviews. We’ve done well in that regard to be honest, but financially it’s been really difficult. Regardless of the good reviews and our presence at major festivals, the Spanish governmental institutions did not help us; nor did any of the television channels buy it (not that they had to, but after Cannes we expected a different reaction). So in the end, it is exclusively a privately funded production. We’ve only used private money. It is a private adventure, made outside of any governmental help or system, etc., and it exists thanks to the goodwill of the people that collaborated. I am very grateful for that. But everyone involved lost money. Art doesn’t produce enough money to eat; that seems to be the message here.

influencia-pedro-aguilera-3.jpgLa Influencia, 2007

MDD: How do you regard the situation of Spanish cinema inside and outside Spain?

PA: I am both very optimistic and very pessimistic about different aspects of the situation. I think that the filmmaking process is more democratic, and that with the new technologies it is easier for people to make their dream come true. Visual culture has become very sophisticated and so people are better trained. Everyone can access every type of cinema and learn more quickly. I remember 15 years ago, when you had to go the black market in VHS if you wanted to see some Bresson’s outside the Filmoteques. The easier access to production means that many more mediocre films are made, but there’s also a higher percentage of interesting films. On the other hand, the distribution and exhibition sectors are far from ready to keep up with this revolution; and neither are the audiences, who have not yet reached the required maturity to keep pace with this evolutionary rhythm. It is going to be very difficult to find the money to promote the avalanche of a more experimental amateur cinema. There is too much of it on offer for a considerably smaller demand. A certain locality is also going to be lost in the process. Cinema’s tendency is to homogenisation; I can identify more readily with a film made in Taiwan than one made in Spain.

MDD: You create a distinctively harsh and authentic atmosphere and a very realist vision of the family. Did you work with professional actors? It also has a fluent, naturalistic feel, was this achieved through improvisation?

PA: There isn’t one professional actor in La Influencia. They had never appeared in a film before and they never will again in the future. And that fascinates me. In a way, you steal them for about an hour and a half, in order to present them to the audience. It’s like when you see someone fascinating in the street, but you cannot share it with anyone. Photography and film have that arresting capacity to capture moments and people, and then allow us to share our discoveries with everyone else. For me filmmaking is like a discovery. Like finding a treasure that you later share. The three protagonists are a real family. The children have the same mother, but they are from different fathers. This is why that sense of closeness is created between them; because they are a real family. I needed this familiarity in order to later transmit the crudeness of the detachment, of the family rupture. The scenes were meticulously written and followed to the letter during filming, although much of the dialogue was improvised. We would film for a long time and I would then keep the camera running for a few seconds. We did it like a documentary, but as we were shooting on film we couldn’t afford much luxury.

MDD: Can you talk about the ideas in the film and how critics have interpreted it?

PA: For me the film speaks about the difficulty of setting yourself free from life’s bad influences. If you live in a sick environment it is very difficult not to get ill easily, even if you are a perfectly healthy individual by nature. In my opinion, Western society is ill in many of its aspects. In fact, we can see that illness everyday splattered all over the media. We can see how parts of our world agonize, and we are helpless to do anything to stop it. Hence, it is difficult for the citizens, the regular people that populate this society, to avoid suffering from this same illness which afflicts the system in which we live. But I wouldn’t know how to change the system: by destroying the system (like the terrorists); trying to change it (like the ecologists and other non-governmental organizations); or by simply running away from it (like the misanthropists or the hermits that retire to the mountains to meditate)… I don’t know the answer. For me the film illustrates this dilemma. It is an image of frustration, of not being able to change the state of things. And that is exactly where the moral dilemma lies, and where the ambiguity of the film comes from, and it is precisely that which interests me the most. What can those kids do? Their trajectory is life; their mother’s is death. This renders their coexistence impossible. 

influencia-pedro-aguilera-4.jpgLa Influencia, 2007

MDD: Has the film been distributed in Spain or any other country?

PA: It was privately distributed by José María Lara from Alokatu, but nobody else offered to distribute it in Spain. BAC Films have collaborated with us and are going to distribute it in France; the release date is 23 April. Greece has also bought the rights. It was really well received at the LFF last year, and we are waiting to see if any distribution company shows interest. The British public has been the most enthusiastic about the film and have understood it very well. I may apply for British nationality to see if it improves the situation (laughs). Of all the film’s scenes, maybe the most shocking is precisely the very last one, when right after the kids have crashed the car into the wall as they try to drive it, they burst out laughing. What is the meaning of this last scene for you? Why are they laughing? For me that is the key scene in the film. La Influencia lacks all meaning without it. For me it says that we have to laugh at our destiny, since it is for all of us all the same. The kids have a skill that their mother didn’t have; they have the capacity to laugh at themselves and at the pathetic nature of the moment. When we grow up, we lose that faculty. I wanted to laugh at myself as well as at the film. In that scene, the second part of the film laughs at the first part: as if all that proceeded it was all part of a macabre joke... (laughs).

MDD: On what basis did you choose the music?

PA: There is a very strong religious inspiration throughout the project. I am not a religious person, but religious imagery has always fascinated me. In particular the images of Jesus Christ on the cross: so sinister but so incredibly beautiful at the same time. I thought I was making a sort of a religious film, which wanted to look in devotion at that woman, at that society’s loser... Jesus Christ was a loser in his own society, but painters looked at him with love and sheer devotion. That’s why those images are so beautiful even if they are really dark...I wanted to get that effect; to find that beauty in decadence and death. And the only way of getting it is by love. I had to love that woman in the same way the painters loved Jesus. With no prejudice. I’ve always loved Thomas Tallis and I thought that his music is perfect for the film. In my opinion, this is a spiritual film above everything else.

MDD: Has the film been presented in any other festivals apart from Cannes and Berlin, and how was it received?

PA: It´s been at many, amongst others Montreal, Seoul, Thessalonika, San Sebastián and Punta del Este; and there are still others to come. This is my first film, and I didn’t even know if I was going to finish it. So everything else is an extra; a prize for me. I am living all this as a big gift. I feel very fortunate and I hope I can carry on making films. Audiences have reacted in many different ways and that is what is interesting. The best is when someone is opposed to the film. It is often then when I learn something.

influencia-pedro-aguilera-5.jpgLa Influencia, 2007

MDD: Is it an optimistic or a pessimistic film?

PA: That is the big question at the end of all the debates. For many people it is pessimistic and I understand why, but I think they see the film like that because they are not alert to certain signs during the film and particularly the final sequences. As much as I portray the shit of life, if the future is running away from it, this is in itself a triumph; it’s optimistic. The film’s ending is a running away from death. It is the triumph of willpower and of inner strength. I am pessimistic about the present, but optimistic about the future; and I think that the film is a reflection of this

MDD: Do you have any new projects in mind?

PA: I have a new project that I’m going to be filming in the south of Spain. It is inspired by Robinson Crusoe and as such, it is the story of a shipwrecked person. Its provisional title is Naufragio (Shipwreck), but I don’t know how it will all end. Alokatu is supporting us for now, and I really hope that this time we will get some well-deserved help from the system I am so critical of (laughs).

La Influencia is still awaiting distribution in the UK

Mar Diestro-Dópido is a film critic and researcher