Tuesday, January 19, 2010

PSIFF10: THE MILK OF SORROW (LA TETA ASUSTADA, 2009)—Two Evening Class questions and a Q&A With Claudia Llosa

Peruvian director Claudia Llosa's sophomore feature La teta asustada (The Milk of Sorrow, 2009) stars Magaly Solier—with whom she worked on Madeinusa (2005)—and addresses the fears of abused women during Peru's recent history. It won both the Golden Bear award and FIPRESCI prize at the 2009 Berlinale, as well as the award for best movie in the 24 Festival Internacional de Cine de Guadalajara in Mexico. It is Peru's official submission to this year's Academy Awards®. In that capacity, it made an appearance in the Awards Buzz program at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival, with Llosa in attendance to address questions from her audience at the film's first PSIFF screening.

As synopsized at Wikipedia, between 1980 and 1992 Peru experienced a period of violence, particularly in the Andean region, because of the uprising of the Maoist group
Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the actions of the paramilitary and state armed forces. By 1990 the conflict finally reached Lima, the capital city of Peru. Claudia Llosa claims in her film that the trauma experienced by women who were raped by members of Sendero Luminoso was passed on to their children through the milk from their breasts (although no allusions are made about rapes by other forces in the conflict). Thus, this period of violence continues to affect not only those who experienced it, but also the next generation. The film is inspired by the book Entre Prójimos: El conflicto armado interno y la política de la reconciliación en el Perú by Kimberly Theidon, Associate Professor at the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University. Theidon's study is a psychological as well as sociological approach to the 12 years of conflict, and is critical of the mass rapes used by the army as a strategy of war. In her book, Theidon documents a number of testimonies from women who were raped by as many as 30 men at a time, atrocities that oftentimes resulted in pregnancies. Theidon states that "when the survivors of the sexual violence speak of their experiences, they give the responsibility to the listener to respond to what they've heard." Llosa's film, too, is an attempt to respond to such testimonies.

Jet-lagged from having flown in from Barcelona with her two-month infant Alec, Llosa nonetheless charmingly responded to my questions.

* * *

Michael Guillén: The Milk of Sorrow is marvelously imagistic. In your process of writing and drafting the script, how strong were the images when you were writing the script and—when you went to translate your script to film—how closely did the images in your film adhere to the images in your script?

Claudia Llosa: Good question. I cannot separate. I know what I want to shoot. Some scenes might be totally literary. Some of the shots are just as I want to shoot them. I'm intuitive in that way. I don't try to have a process. I shoot as I feel. I don't know how to explain it. The initial process is to follow the script. To understand the emotional arc of the story. That's what is most interesting for me in the script. When I understand that movement, I start focusing on every image. I can almost draw all of the frames. I show them to my DP [Natasha Braier] because I need her to understand why I want her to shoot scenes in certain ways.

Everything is wrapped in the same idea. I work a lot with the concept of a labyrinth. All these corridors Fausta is trapped in. A labyrinth is not only a place of entrapment but also a place where you always return, a cycle that repeats itself and continues. I felt like my country is repeating its history in an infinite labyrinth.

Guillén: There were so many images in the film that captured my sensual attention. One of the most imaginative was the scene where Aída (Susi Sánchez) and Fausta are in the garden. Aída has been duplicitously encouraging Fausta to sing her Quechua melodies so that she can plagiarize them for her own musical compositions and—in that sequence—you shot her so that she was in the foreground with Fausta partially hidden behind her and slightly below her, so that her mouth appears below Aída's chin, in front of her throat, as if Fausta's voice has become Aída's voice.

Llosa: My intention with that image was to create a monster; to reveal that Aida was a monster.

On the Film's Title

La teta asustada was the name of the illness referenced in the narrative and so it was chosen as the name of the film; but, the crew was leery of it because it was a harsh term. Though the title worked in Peru, in Spain it didn't come across as well because they didn't catch the Quechua meaning and a literal English translation—"The Frightened Breast"—didn't cover its inherent poetry. They couldn't find a match to translate the title into English until the film's sales agent came up with The Milk of Sorrow, which Llosa liked. It worked for her and made it easier to sell the film. "It's smoother, sweeter, nicer," Llosa affirmed.

On the Production of the Script

Llosa had just finished her first feature film Madeinusa and was trying to think of what she wanted to film next. She came across a book called Entre Prójimos written by American medical anthropologist Kimberly Theidon. Theidon had compiled testimonies of women who were mistreated or violated during the war. In some of these testimonies the women spoke of an illness "la teta asustada". Llosa was inspired by these testimonies to research la teta asustada further, which proved difficult because nobody wanted to talk to her about it. But for her it seemed urgent. It was a long process. It took almost a year and a half to shape the script to a point where she could show it to anyone, let alone producers. Somehow, however, the difficulties proved to be a good thing because it caused her to follow her instincts, to not be derogatory, and to not be too attached to reality. She wanted to understand the emotions of what it would mean to have this illness. The delay, in a sense, gave her creative freedom.

On Working Once Again With Magaly Solier

Llosa felt that she and Magaly started a process with Madeinusa that was somehow not completed by that film. Madeinusa was a first experience in filmmaking for both of them; but, Llosa felt she could go further with Solier. She wrote the script for The Milk of Sorrow, wrote the songs, and knew intuitively that Solier had the soul necessary to contain the character of Fausta. At first, Solier didn't believe she could manage Fausta because she is herself quite a tough woman. Llosa explained that she could go anywhere with Solier because of her fearless strength. Solier couldn't relate to the fear that controlled Fausta and was reluctant to feel that fear in embodying the character. It was a long process and Llosa had to talk a lot with Solier to negotiate the characterization.

Partly, this involved reawakening in Solier memories she had purposely shut down and didn't want to open. Solier told Llosa that she wanted to return to her home town in Huanto, Ayacucho, which had been one of the red zones during the reign of the terrorists. While there, on her own, Solier read Llosa's script nearly 80 times, which served to open up her memories. She recalled a memory her mother told her once to explain the scar on her back, which she's had since she was little. Her mother told her that when Magaly was just a baby, her mother was running with Magaly in her arms, trying to escape the terrorists, when she stumbled over a corpse and fell in the dark of night. Recalling this memory was the turning point in helping Solier manage the character of Fausta.

On Using the Quechua Language

The Quechua language was important for Llosa to use in The Milk of Sorrow because for nearly 15 years during the '70s-'90s—one of the darkest periods in recent Peruvian history—much violence occurred in the Andean mountain range. The Quechua-speaking natives were the most victimized by this violence. They came to Lima to escape the war and tried to hide their language, their identity, because they didn't want to be related to the war and terrorism. They hid in silence. The language of Quechua is related to poverty, non-development, and something with which Peruvians don't want to be associated. Llosa wanted to change that. She wanted Peruvians to be proud of their Quechua language.

That was why Llosa had Fausta always speaking in Quechua, silently to herself at first, and finally outloud when Aída finally convinces her to sing. Then when Fausta hears the applause given Aída for the piano composition based on her melody, it energizes her and helps her to turn towards self-acceptance, even as she copes with Aída's cultural theft.

When Llosa won the Golden Bear at the 2009 Berlinale, Magaly Solier came with her to accept the prize and spoke proudly in Quechua, thanking everybody. It was the first time in Peru that Quechua was related to success. Little by little, people started admitting to her they could speak Quechua. They started becoming proud again in the beauty of their language.

On Shooting On Location in Manchay

Manchay is one of the many pueblos jóvenes (shanty towns) that sprang up on the outskirts of Lima when the Shining Path drove Quechua-speaking natives from their mountain homes. Llosa wanted to film there because the name "Manchay" is related to fear. Also, she was intrigued with their amazingly long stairways (depicted also in Heddy Honigman's Oblivion). When Llosa spoke with Lima's mayor after winning her Golden Bear, they discussed Manchay's stairways, which for her were loaded with symbolism, and he told her that he had constructed the stairs during his government. He said that people kept asking him after the stairs were built how the Quechua had managed to climb up to their houses before? Until then, no one had bothered to notice or care.

On the Film's "Bizarre" Wedding Rituals

The reality of the wedding scenes grew by accretion and amplification. Though Quechua weddings aren't really like that, they are somewhat like that. Working on a low budget, Llosa approached wedding parties to ask if they could use the hired effects and asked if they would be willing to bring them to the shoot. Almost unanimously, the wedding parties were so willing to be part of the film that they basically repeated their wedding ceremonies intact. Llosa only changed colors to match the color themes of the film. In the instance of the group wedding—what they call "a popular wedding"—Llosa and her crew attended a genuine popular wedding a month before the shoot and from that event solicited the brides and grooms who were willing to show up to replicate the sequence on film. They showed up wearing the same clothing. Brides, especially, were happy to do so because—as they often told Llosa—"I don't have an opportunity to wear my bridal gown more than once."

Writing for Slant, Andrew Schenker astutely observes: "Since Fausta's aunt works as a wedding planner and since her cousin is preparing for her own wedding, Llosa employs several iterations of that ceremony to educe the ethos of village life, illustrating the unique rituals (the bride peeling a potato as an act of fortune telling) and joys (a nuptial dance) that adhere to the citizenry as well as the darker remnants of sexualized aggression (a particularly insistent young man makes a play for Fausta during a pre-wedding ritual) that remind us that the attitudes that allowed for the guerilla violence of the '80s rest latent in the country's population." Variety's Boyd von Hoeij offers: "Llosa insists on marriage and natural death as normal parts of the cycle of life—and as a contrast to the chaos that preceded the period in which the pic is set."

Critical Overview

Though I place The Milk of Sorrow among my favorite five from the Palm Springs International—admittedly acknowledging that I am a great fan of Latin American magical realism—the film has met a polarized critical reception despite its major win at the 2009 Berlinale. Reviewing the film for Variety at that time, Boyd von Hoeij concedes that the film is an "ultra-arthouse item" which "will need passionate support wherever it goes." But he assesses (quite fairly): "At first, the pic seems a slow-moving, particularly well-framed ethnographic study of life in the big city in Peru; it only gradually becomes clear that Llosa's second feature perfectly aligns form and content. The film never shows the crimes committed against women before the 1990 regime change, though the violence, rape and torture they suffered inform every frame. By keeping them offscreen, Llosa underlines the fact they are unspeakable crimes, not even talked about today—though their aftermath is still felt even after the women directly concerned have passed away."

At Screen, Lee Marshall—who likewise reviewed the film at the 2009 Berlinale—is strikingly more ambivalent. "Arthouse audiences will find themselves dipping in and out of engagement but the story is too contrived in the long run to resonate much beyond its own four walls," he complains. "Despite a controlled performance by Solier, we are held back from committing to Fausta by the contrived allegorical arc of the script." He does allow: "For those who can keep a straight face a great deal of beauty remains, however, not only in the poised photography but also in the soundtrack of lilting, melancholic guitar melodies and songs."

When The Milk of Sorrow showed up at New Directors / New Films 2009, Slant's Andrew Schenker's review comported with Variety's: "As potentially sensational as the film's subject matter may be, Llosa treats the material with an appropriate restraint, employing medium and long shots to hold the action at a coolly observational distance—a strategy perfectly in keeping with her lead character's reserve—and leaving all lurid details pointedly off screen." He adds: "Setting aside her mostly static camera (which serves to lock down her characters in their immovable situations), Llosa commemorates her character's progress with one final tracking shot taken from the back of a moving truck as it zips through a mountain highway, the deliriousness of forward motion suggesting at last a breakthrough in Fausta's generationally inherited impasse."

At the Village Voice, Ed Gonzales responded to the film's appearance in New York's Lincoln Center Latinbeat Festival: "Though perched on the brink of allegorical overload, the film is less sensational than most descriptions of its subject matter imply. This is a tribute to Llosa's style, which illuminates the indignities of emotional inheritance and internalized racism through its artfully gritty fixation on the rituals and superstitions of village life. From self-imposed subjugation to liberation, the aptly named Fausta's trajectory throughout the film becomes an affront to the neocolonialist forces of imperialism that persist within—and are supported from outside of—Latin America."

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