Barbican Young Programmer Jade Grogan introduces the work of director, Carla Simón, whose film, Summer 1993, will be screened at Chronic Youth Film Festival.
Focusing on the softer edges of human relationships, with all the intricacies and nuance that go with those edges, can so easily slip into schmaltzy emotionalism. Showing and presenting people at the margins of their society, can so easily slip into the baseless and the voyeuristic. Without ever falling into either trap, Carla Simón creates emotionally acute and arresting portraits on film.
Her first documentary short made whilst studying at the London Film School explored this kind of subjective sensitivity that has become emblematic of her work. The film, Born Positive (2012), uses talking heads (played by actors) to give voice to the experiences of people living in London who were born HIV positive. The film is perhaps the least cinematic in her catalogue but sets the tone well for the delicate hand she puts to all her subjects. Especially with, as is often the case in her work, the subject of the individual altered and jostled by circumstances out of their control. What is impressive in this directorial focus is that the point of entry into a character may be their difference, but that difference becomes quickly displaced by the more interesting and complicated relationships that difference finds itself embroiled in.
Carla’s graduation film, Those Little Things (2014), displays this focus brilliantly. In the film, we meet 40-year-old Ana living with her seventy-year-old mother in a little apartment in Spain. We meet Ana first, by a window on a cool blue evening with a cigarette in one hand and a book in the other, door closed, down for the night. Despite being independent, worldly and full of character, her mother struggles to accept her daughter as being a person outside of and above her dwarfism, something she forces as a kind of master identity on her. Her smoking only adds to her un-feminine shortcomings in her mother’s eyes and she makes cruel sport out of highlighting the ways in which Ana fails to be at home in the world, forcing her to be alone in their home. But, through giving quiet space to each character, we come to know the contours of the cruelty that exist between them in a refreshingly unmediated and nuanced way.
The contours of familial cruelty crop up throughout Simón’s oeuvre of films. Such oppositions are carefully set up and collapsed over and again as we journey through the ‘bottomless pit of stories’ Simón mines for her films. This ‘bottomless pit’, so named by Carla herself, is the pool of familial experiences that both direct and dictate the content of her work. The autobiographical approach she takes is perhaps part of the reason why all her characters feel so emotionally close, their predicaments so achingly authentic. It is moreover the reason why the gaze she chooses to place on her characters never feels removed or misguided, led as it is by her own history, her own desire to give place and sound to people unseen and unheard in her family, through film. The gaze then judges and dissects self-reflexively and is all the more powerful for it.
Lacuna (2015), a docu-fiction short that is a portrait of her mother Neus Pipó, continues in this vein, hiding and eluding her mother as subject, as much as she reveals and beatifies her. Here again we re-visit the thematic constant of AIDS in her films. We see her mother, in home-video footage, lying on her bed, insouciant, and spirited, deciding whether to ‘start the day with a shag’ (Carla’s narrative voiceover ponders). She did not know, she says over the footage, that when her baby was born she would be told she was HIV positive, or that when the child, herself, was six years old she would no longer be alive. Her premature death then sets the tone for a film that meanders through streets and seascapes in the child’s – now the director’s – attempt to capture some of what was lost in this sudden and tragic absence.
Summer 1993 (2017), Carla Simón’s first feature, picks up this weighty thread and forms itself as the natural apogee of a small but rich body of film, both materially and substantively. The dramatisation of her childhood at the moment of the rupturing loss described above in Lacuna, crystallises in Summer 1993, through the eyes of young Carla, here Frida, played by the wonderful Laia Artigas. The Barbican Young Programmers chose the film unanimously for this year’s Chronic Youth Film Festival, both for its cinematic beauty, and its candid storytelling. We hope you can come along to watch Frida’s unique experience of youth alongside us at this year’s festival.
Part of Barbican OpenFest
Meet some of our Barbican Young Programmers as they introduce this year’s Chronic Youth Film Festival: