by Anthony Frajman

One of the most acclaimed films of this year’s Berlinale, was Lila Avilés’ second feature, Tótem, which won the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the festival.

The follow-up to her well-received debut feature, The Chambermaid, Tótem is told largely from the perspective of 7-year-old Sol (Naima Senties), and follows a Mexican family as it gathers together for a celebration.

Building on the success of her first film, it’s a work which confirms Avilés as one of the most exciting directors working today.

The film is largely told from a 7-year-old’s perspective. Can you tell us about how you approached this and your approach to casting?

“I think that period when we are young, like that first seven years, are the builders of our personality; there’s magic in those years.

“Obviously, it’s stressful as director to do your own casting, I didn’t do it alone. I cast it with Gabriela Cartol [who played the main actor in The Chambermaid]. We are super good friends, and we did it together, but it was about meeting a lot of people and giving them a chance, because sometimes castings are difficult. I think there’s so many wonderful non-actors.

“It’s nice when you meet the people, because sometimes it’s not for this film, but there’s something you catch and then you can say, ‘ah, maybe for the next film’. I think it’s nice (to work this way). I don’t know if (I will continue to cast this way) with each film, but I knew with this, that it was necessary.”

You’ve spoken about drawing from your motherhood and childhood. What was that like for you?

“Obviously, my daughter, she watched the film when we premiered in Berlin, and we were both crying. I changed a lot. And obviously I took a lot from her and she picked up a lot of things, but I played with it. That’s the beauty of art, somehow you can play with it.”

Can you talk about your approach with cinematographer Diego Tenorio, in which you use long takes?

“Diego is like super perfectionist. It was nice. And he was also super connected with Naima, she’s the principal actor and they were good friends. So, it was really enjoyable to work with Diego. He’s a young cinematographer, but he has a real maturity.”

Can you tell us about how you approached working with the non-actors?

“I love working with non-actors, because I’m obsessed with language. I love when you hear the way they talk. It’s like they are not acting (laughs). And for me, that’s one of my favourite things about having a lot of non-actors in a film.”

You also worked with established, veteran actors on the film. Can you tell us about balancing the non-actors and the actors?

“Well, working with actors is my favourite part. I hate pre-production. For me, when you’re starting with actors and playing and doing all that stuff, it’s wonderful. In this case, with the young actors in the film, they are really young, and it was their first time acting. It was super exciting to hear them and to play with them. And, that mix is super beautiful. Sometimes, we are afraid of young actors. And they are the best. Because they don’t think so much. Obviously, Naima the principal character, at first, she was like, ‘Lila, do you think I’m going to make it?’ (I said) ‘Yes, of course you’re going to make it’. And, because of Covid, she needed to go out of school. And it was a period that it was not good for her, but when the film came out, it was a moment that was amazing for her.

“There are a lot of actors from theatre, not so much cinema. And I like that. Because sometimes, the non-actors help the actors, and the actors also help the non-actors (laughs). I think it’s a nice mix.”

The film has a very warm vibe. How conscious were you of making it a warm film?

“Totally. I knew it since the first moment. It’s a hug. (laughs). This film is a hug. It needs to be like that.”

The house in the film is very important. You wanted a house that had never been used on screen.

“For me it was nice to be able to use this house that had not been filmed in. It’s pretty normal that sometimes they use the same houses for TV series, commercials, films. And even though we change these houses completely, it’s almost like they’re the same houses. So, for me, it was nice to have this place. And, all my team, the producers, they were telling me like, ‘no, Lila, you’re crazy. No, we cannot do that. We need to see like 1 million houses (laughs)’. And I was like, ‘no, it’s here. I feel it. I cannot explain it. It’s here now.”

How did you find it?

“One of the producers, it was the first house he saw. We were going to view more; I didn’t want to look at any more (laughs).”

What was the biggest challenge for you in making the film?

“I think that there were a lot of challenges. At first, the producers and the team, they were like, ‘how are you going to do this? This is fuck off (laughs)’. And, for me, what was nice is that when I was doing the first cut, I was watching it and I was like, ‘oh, it looks simple’ (laughs). And it was so hard (laughs) when I wrote it.

“I think that the biggest challenge of all was finding the right people for the characters, the right girl, the other little girl, the two aunts, the father, who was the last one that I found. And I think that was the biggest challenge.

“People always say don’t work with children or babies and with animals (which was another challenge). And obviously working in Covid, it was this exercise of being with the mask and thinking not only about directing but working with a production brain. And, the girls needed a Covid test, and that was a moment they hate. The small one (Saori Gurza), she was okay. But Naima, the principal actor, (I made jokes to make it easier for her), like, ‘okay, do it first with me’. But those moments, I guess also for directing, you need to be super focused. But I also think that what’s nice is that somehow everyone is in focus. Like, ‘okay, we’re doing a film’.”

Do you think the film builds on The Chambermaid? Both are set in one location.

“I totally don’t want to be the one location director (laughs), I don’t want to continue to be like… and then the castle and then the school (laughs). And producers will say, ‘yes, we want to work with Lila (laughs)’.

“I don’t want to be like that, but maybe I want to do a castle film (laughs).

“I knew that this film needed to be in the house. I wanted that. As I was saying, every day, we are outside. So, I wanted to go in.”

Do you think it is an exciting time in Mexico for Women filmmakers, with rising directors like yourself and Natalia López Gallardo and Tatiana Huezo [Prayers of the Stolen]?

“I think that, in Mexico, we are not good at football (laughs). We are not good at a lot of things (laughs), but we have an amazing history, and a lot of culture. I think that Mexico has that thing, like I think from our pre-Hispanic, ancestors, we are storytellers.

“I think that there’s a lot of women filmmakers, they are strong and every year, they’re coming more and more. It’s wonderful to be part of (this) generation.”

Tótem is in cinemas 25 July 2024