In November, friend of the Film Forum and freelance writer Courtney Sheehan sat down with director Natalia Almada at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam for an in-depth conversation about El Velador / The Night Watchman.
>> See El Velador at Northwest Film Forum July 6 – 12!
Courtney Sheehan (CS): Can you start by talking about how you became interested in this material?
Natalia Almada (NA): So the film is about a cemetery in Culiacán. It’s where I from, where I grew up. So I wanted to look at the violence in Mexico. One day I had this curiosity to go back. I had shot an interview there for my first film and I just thought, “I wonder how the mausoleums are.” So I went and there was all this construction so I thought this is really a reflection of what’s happening in Mexico with the violence. I shot there over the course of the year.
CS: The decision to not include any images of violence is really interesting.
NA: The news about the drug war is full of very, very graphic images and I think they make us not able to really respond. They’re so shocking that you can get numb, especially over five, six years of seeing these really horrific images. And so I was interested in seeing how to talk about violence in a different way, where you’re not looking at it, where you’re in the context, and to understand what it means for someone like the night watchman to have to work and function in that context.
CS: In terms of the night watchman himself, how did you decide to focus on him?
NA: When I started shooting I didn’t know who the main character would be. I thought maybe I’ll follow the course of construction for one mausoleum, from the beginning to end. But construction work is very boring, and it’s not the same workers. The guy who puts the foundation is not the same guy who’s going to do the roof. So you don’t really have a cast of characters in a way I had imagined. And as I went, the night watchman was the most consistent person there. I felt like he was a clock. He always arrived at the same time and would leave at the same time every morning. And I liked very much the idea that his job was to watch. I felt like he could become our eyes through which we see the cemetery. In some ways what he does is to look, and he’s kind of like, “look with me, watch with me.” I like that idea, and I like the idea that in the cemetery you have the people who keep vigil and that’s what he does, literally but it’s also symbolic-of what it means to mourn.
CS: There’s only that one moment where you ask a question, to the construction worker when he’s smoking the cigarette while making the plaster. I was wondering whether that was one of those moments where you were like, ‘I want to insert this sort of tension or this sort of feeling right now.’
NA: There are a couple of things. The idea of being objective or invisible or fly on the wall is not the kind of film I’m interested in making. I’ve always felt it’s important to have a certain amount of visibility. So that can be eye contact, or if a character talks to you, you hear my voice, but to remind the viewer every now and then that there is someone behind the camera, there is someone shaping the story, and this is not an objective depiction of the truth, but rather my perspective. So that’s important to me. And that scene for me…there’s the guy smoking the cigarette, but it’s cut around three scenes. So there’s the woman cleaning, the guy smoking the cigarette, the woman cleaning and then the dog. A lot of the film jumps from shot to shot to these different spaces within the cemetery. That whole section is built on longer scenes of staying in one place with a certain character. So for me it was really important to be in that space with the worker to see how one measures time. Because the whole film is kind of about time.
CS: I’m curious about the experience of traveling with the film. What’s it like? I’m sure it’s different in all the places in terms of how the audience engages.
NA: Audiences in different places engage differently. Peru was really nice. People came out of the theater saying, “what a sad film.” It was such an emotional response, which I thought was interesting. Mexico was very mixed, and that’s normal because they have more invested and they see themselves. But one woman was really moving, she said, “that’s my life.” The idea that you work and you work and you’re in this tedium of just trying to get by and you slowly accept violence more and more every day. We showed it at Cannes, which was weird because they’re not used to documentaries. It just won an award in Montreal for cinematography. It has a really nice life. And then it’s gone weird places, well, what I consider the most exotic-Bratislava. They gave it an award and they said “for demonstrating how long it takes to water the dusty road to heaven.” I was like, forget about the award, that statement is so great! And here, I pitched the film in [IDFA] last year, and had support from the Jan Vrijman Fund.
CS: Have any tips for young independent filmmakers who might want to come to IDFA [International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam]?
NA: Yesterday I did the IDFA academy and was one of their so-called experts. I met with three different groups of people who were developing their first projects. My feeling was kind of more like, I pitched my third feature, not my first. I think that’s important because it’s easy to lose sight of why we make films when you’re in a big market. it’s easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged by how little money there is for the amount of projects that are out there. the most important thing is to find your voice in film. If what you want to do is produce for TV, then you can go get a job producing for TV. That’s different. But if you want to make independent, auteur films, then you need to really protect that creative space. everybody tells you what kind of film you should make and what’s wrong with your film, like, “well if you did it this way, then we would buy it.” And that’s dangerous. It can be like, “if you put a narration on your film then we’ll give you 300,000 euros.” And because people need money, and they want to make their films, that can be really tempting, but you have to trust your own motivation and your creative impulse to make the film, and stick to that. Often that’s hard to articulate, often the best films are hardest to articulate
For most filmmakers working outside the center in developing countries, minority filmmakers, women filmmakers, we tend to have a way of making films or perspective that isn’t necessarily the most digestible. It’s not always in line with those who are making decisions about what to fund. So it’s a struggle, it’s a worthy struggle, I’m not complaining, I’m not saying it in a bad way, but how do you, when you’re just starting, stay true to a vision of your own with all this external pressure?
Courtney Sheehan is a 2011-12 Watson Fellow investigating the politics of film festivals in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Spain, India and Brazil, but she was first bitten by the festival bug while interning at Northwest Film Forum’s Children’s Film Festival Seattle in 2009. She has written for The Independent and Senses of Cinema, and is a founding member of Cine Migratorio, a migration-themed film festival based in Santander, Spain.