Peruvian director Claudia Llosa, described by Variety as “one of Latin America’s fastest-rising femme helmer-scribes,” has written and directed three features, including Madeinusa (2006) and Milk of Sorrow (2010), which was nominated for an Oscar. Her most recent film, Aloft (2014), is her English-language debut, starring Jennifer Connelly and Cillian Murphy. The film tells two interconnected narratives several decades apart, ultimately about the reunion between a mother and son. Claudia Llosa spoke with Anna Weinstein about her career.
Anna Weinstein: What was the inspiration for your new film?
Claudia Llosa: It’s never easy to know the exact inspiration. My process is very intuitive. It’s funny, but if you read the first drafts of my script, you’d probably think the atmosphere feels the same – but really there’s a completely different story there. You start with a notion of what you think you want, but somehow the story has its own nature, and it tells you where to go. So you start by writing something, and little by little, the story arises, and without knowing it, you end up writing what you always wanted. But the inspiration for this story, I’m a mother now, so this has something to do with it, I’m sure.
How old are your children?
I have a son. He’s three, and he came with me to this shoot in Winnipeg. It was a great experience for him. He went to a Montesorri school for a couple of months – lots of new friends, playing in the snow. He still remembers his trip to Canada. For me, it was challenging, the shoot, but for him this was a good experience.
What made the shoot challenging?
I guess everything. Working with higher budgets, higher expectations. Convincing this amazing cast to be a part of this dream. Shooting in a foreign county, and directing in a different language. Working with almost every member of the crew for the first time. As I said, I guess everything was a challenge. Also everything was uncertain. And to turn this uncertainty into our ally was the main goal. But I’ve had the best teachers in my crew – the producers and the rest of the team – everyone was amazing and accompanied me on the journey, through the whole process really.
How did you get your start in filmmaking? Was there a game-changing moment?
When I was maybe twenty-three or so I went to Madrid to study. I was working in advertising at the time, and I wrote a script in the evenings. I wanted to share my story, but I couldn’t find very many readers – well, only my mother read my script. So I decided to send it to the Havana Film Festival. This was the important moment, because I won the first prize and also €150,000 to start production. I quit advertising and started knocking on doors, finding a production company. Actually, I was also looking for a director to shoot the picture. At that time, I was only known as a copywriter, never as a filmmaker. I never studied film. And that’s how I found my producer, Jose María Morales. He read the script and said he wanted to produce my film but only if I directed it. And I was like, what? Are you sure? He said, if you wrote this, you’ll be able to shoot it. Directing is easy! So that was the moment for me. And that was the script for Madeinusa, my first feature. But of course, it wasn’t easy.
You’ve written all three of your films. Do you consider yourself a writer first or director first?
I was always a writer, a storyteller, even as a small child. I’m dyslexic, so reading and writing was always difficult for me, but I would tell my stories, and someone in my family would write them down for me. I never dreamt of being a director, though – only a writer. But at least when you’re a writer-director, sometimes it’s much easier to find your way, because you’re never waiting for someone to give you a story.
With dyslexia, do you think your stories grow more visually initially? Do you see the film as you write?
I suppose yes, my visual world became kind of a way through as a child. I could always see the world of the story more clearly visually, and it wasn’t as difficult or painful as reading or writing. I could hear the words, say the words, but to free them out of my body, that was always a challenge. This is sometimes very hard for a child, an adolescent. And even now, it’s difficult for me. But I couldn’t live without that part of the creative process.
Was this your inspiration to some degree with Milk of Sorrow? She can sing but not speak? The idea of being stuck, in some ways mute? [Note: The film is about a woman who puts a potato in her vagina so it would be physically impossible for someone to rape her.]
The movie remembers the traumas generated by violence and terrorism, and the need for those victims to heal. The singing works as a great vehicle to express, to recreate our memory or oblivion. Sometimes, this is the only way to let out the pain. It has to do with the roots of our country and how to create a balance with our memory, the need not to forget but to forgive. Finding a balance between two opposing worlds, modernity and tradition.
How much do you draw on your personal experience when you’re writing?
It’s more about empathizing and understanding. I grew up in very different circumstances than the character in my film, but I did experience fear a lot of times. We were living in a difficult moment in my country during my youth, so I couldn’t go to a cinema, for example, because it could explode from a bomb. I never experienced the cruelty that was experienced in the Andes, of course, because I was born and raised in Lima. But I could grasp that feeling. There’s something about the muteness of the culture, the Andean culture, that I can relate to. This idea of holding something that you’re carrying and how to deal with the weight of that – and the pain.
This is because of the fear that you experienced growing up?
The fear is the pain, yes – the feeling of not being able to do anything about it. So it’s knowing that shutting it up, this is all you can do. It’s so deep, and the reasons are so complex, and it comes from so long ago, and then building and building as a big sort of lock or shield. But something is there, growing. It could be dangerous, and it could be painful, but it’s yours, and the only way out is to let it grow into something new and better.
I’m curious about storytelling as a means of resolving conflict. Do you think the process of storytelling helps you grow, or helps your viewers grow?
Storytelling, it’s a dichotomy. Because it’s on the one hand very personal, and on the other something you want to share. And sure it’s to heal. My goal is to make the viewer live an experience, the experience of the film. And the only way to do this is if you let yourself live the same experience. Sometimes people won’t connect to your stories, but others might, and that’s why we never stop trying. The risk is always there, and you have to be willing to accept it. But it’s remembering that it’s not only the result that matters. This process of creating – how you create – this is living. And healing.
What are your thoughts about female storytelling, the importance of women sharing their stories on screen?
I have to say that I think gender doesn’t dictate anything. Not an overwhelming sensibility or a specific interest, and it doesn’t make a difference in the creative process, at least not from my perspective. It influences, no doubt – part of the sum of things that define us as individuals: our nationality, or idiosyncrasy, sense of humor, or genetic memory. That said, I think it’s very important to find more stories with the point of view of women. Because the more we understand the psychology of women, the more we’ll understand ourselves. But I don’t feel I need to create female characters because I’m a woman. It’s not an obligation for me. It’s something that’s part of who I am and what I want to share. It’s something that comes naturally in my case. It’s not preconceived.
What kind of work did your mother do when you were growing up? Did she influence your decision to be a writer and director?
My mother is an artist, so she was absolutely important in influencing my work. From my earliest memories, she introduced me to a world that needs expression to survive. We went to galleries and museums, always, when I was child. And the way she approached life and the way she questioned herself and raised me to question myself, this was important for me. It’s just her whole approach to life that’s an inspiration. My father is crucial too – he was always more about helping me be true to myself and work for my dreams. He’s a fighter, and he taught me to fight without losing my values. I think that both of them together created a perfect environment for me to develop as an artist.
Can you describe how you learn from films? What is the experience of watching film for you?
It’s like I’m hungry to watch films all the time. For me, it’s about the inspiration. And there are filmmakers who teach me the craft and others who teach me the profundity and complexity of life, and then others who teach me tenderness. I just take what I can from each one. But I admire filmmakers who have their own voice for sure.
Were you always drawn to that? Filmmakers with a voice?
It was difficult to see films as a child because we have so few cinemas, so it was difficult to access the kind of films that I saw later on in university. But I suppose I’ve always liked the stories with a voice. I had a hard time as a kid, trying to communicate, to open myself. That was part of the challenge. But I needed to write my stories. That’s why when people say, “I want to be a filmmaker,” I just think that’s amazing. Because for me, it never was that clear. I knew I wanted to do something in the arts, but it could have been anything. But I was always finding my voice, I think. And even now, if I couldn’t shoot anymore because something happened, well, I would always write. I’ll never stop. I’ll always find a way to tell my stories.
Anna Weinstein is a US-based writer, editor, and screenwriter. She writes frequently about women working in film and television, female screen storytelling, and on-screen representations of women and girls.