Survivors of the Crisis
Filmmaker Carla Simón takes viewers back to Summer 1993
by Ren Jender
“Why aren’t you crying,” another child asks Frida (Laia Artigas), the six-year-old main character of director Carla Simón’s debut, Summer 1993 (which Simón co-wrote). Frida’s mother has died and inside her Barcelona apartment Frida’s relatives pack her things so she can move to rural Catalonia with her aunt, uncle, and younger cousin, Anna. But outside on the street, under nighttime fireworks, she plays with city friends one last time. The rest of the summer we see through Frida’s eyes. Only as the audience pieces together conversation and actions do we understand that Frida’s mother died of AIDS-related causes. But the film isn’t maudlin and has a clear-eyed view of Frida, who is spoiled and sometimes callous (she leaves Anna alone in the woods) The film doesn’t villainize any of its characters, even as Frida’s aunt finds raising the girl a challenge. Parts of the film are based on Simón’s life: Both of her parents died of AIDS-related causes when she was young.
Summer 1993 opens on May 25 in New York City, Los Angeles, and D.C., with a national rollout to follow. A&U Skyped with Simón in April. This interview was edited for concision and clarity.
Ren Jender: Congratulations on the film! The little girls who star just seem like kids living their lives on camera. Do you have tips for working with children?
Carla Simón: It was important to find children like the characters. They could be themselves playing the scenes I wrote. If I want the audience to believe what the kids are doing, they have to believe it, so we created a fictional world around them that felt real. We worked with the adults recreating moments that happened before summer 1993, up until Frida’s mom died and the aunt and uncle tell her she’s going to live with them. Then we spent two weeks going through the scenes in the script, so the kids knew what we were going to do. We didn’t talk about death. It was more about creating the right relationships.
You teach children [as part of Cinema en Curs in Barcelona] and help them make their own films. Is there a difference between teaching kids and directing kids?
It’s very different. When I direct them, I’m like, “We’re working and the work is a game—with rules.” When I teach it’s more about a space for them to be creative.
Frida, the main character, has lost her mother at the beginning. You also lost your mother at that age and you interviewed your own family as research. Did you find out anything that surprised you?
I found things I didn’t remember. Most of the scenes in the film are fiction. They evolved from something real, but, like, I never hid my sister in the woods! The last scene, my mom told me, “There was this time you were jumping on the bed and suddenly you started crying.” I thought it would make a good ending.
The thing I discovered was I didn’t remember my biological mother. Then I made a short film with her letters and I went to the places where she wrote them, to recover those memories.
Frida is a more complex character than we’re used to seeing children play. She’s cute and likes to have fun, but she’s also maddening. Did you look to other films to create that character?
Two Spanish films: Cría Cuervos by Carlos Saura and The Spirit of the Beehive by Víctor Erice; Ponette, a French film by Jacques Doillon; and also a film called L’Enfance Nue by Pialat. The fact that children cannot put their feelings into words is fascinating. They find other ways to express them.
A lot of what we find out about the character and her family we overhear from adult conversation. Do you remember when you found out your mother died of AIDS?
I didn’t find out until I was twelve. So I thought if the film is told from the girl’s perspective I cannot put the word “AIDS” in it. We found ways to inform the audience without it. AIDS still has some stigma. I didn’t want to make “A Film about AIDS.” The disease cut a huge swathe through Spain and a many people there have a similar story to Frida’s.
When did you start disclosing that your parents died of AIDS?
At first, it was hard, because I had an image of my parents and then I discovered I didn’t know them. My adopted mom said, “You may wonder how they became infected.” It was probably through drugs because of the wild, party atmosphere in [post-Franco] Spain. My mom took me to the doctor who told me everything about AIDS. It took me months or maybe a year to tell others: first new people, then my friends who weren’t new. No one reacted badly.
We learn about Frida’s mother when Frida and Anna play together and Frida is “the mother.” Did you have to edit a lot of footage to get that scene?
The way we did it was: I played the mom during rehearsals. And when we got to the set we had Laia imitate me, pretending she had a cigarette. What she said was my mom’s old-fashioned way of talking that I read in her letters. Both girls knew the rules of the game, but when the little one pretends they are in a restaurant, that part was different in every take.
I kept waiting for Marga, the aunt who becomes the mother, to lose her temper and do something terrible, which she never does. In these scenes and the scene where Anna is lost in the woods the film has the tension of a thriller. Were you influenced as a filmmaker by thrillers?
No, I haven’t watched many. Writing the script I remember thinking, “Is it a film about a kid coping with the death of her mom or is it a film about a kid trying to adapt into a new family?” It wasn’t until the editing process that I realized we could play with that tension.
Lola, Frida’s favorite aunt is played by an actress of short stature, Montse Sanz, but her height isn’t mentioned. Was the part written for someone of short stature?
Yes, because my aunt was like that. No one in my family made a big deal about it
In 2017, Catalonia tried to secede from Spain. Did that have an effect on making the film?
We shot in the summer of 2016 and not that much had happened at that point. It’s been strange because we were a Catalonian film representing Spain at the Oscars [Spain put forward Summer 1993 as its countrywide nominee for the 2018 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar but it didn’t make the final list of nominees]. It was ironic, but beautiful at the same time.
Can you talk about how having parents who died of AIDS influenced you as a filmmaker and as a person?
The qualities you need as a filmmaker, to be persistent, stubborn and have the ability to adapt, I have because of what happened to my parents.
Ren Jender (@renjender on Twitter) is a queer writer-performer/producer making a film, whose writing has appeared in Slate, The Village Voice, INTO, and the late, lamented The Toast.