Cannes (Critics' Week) – Argentinian film Las acacias is the debut feature from director Pablo Giorgelli. charting a lonely truck driver's trip from Paraguay to Buenos Aires with a mother and child as passengers. Giorgelli snagged two of the Critics' Week prizes (the ACID/CCAS support award and the Very Young Critics' Prize) as well as the prestigious Camera D'Or, for a first-time filmmaker across all categories. Earlier in the week, we interviewed Giorgelli, who explained how his protagonist's journey was a metaphor for his own.
Truck driver Rubén's job is to transport lumber on long-distance trips. But on this particular day, his boss has asked him as a favour to pick up a passenger. When he meets Jacinta, she is standing by the side of the road, weighed down with several bags and her five-month-old baby, Anahí. Rubén is irritated – no-one has mentioned the child. He can't refuse, so takes them on board grudgingly. At first, the child's needs grate on his nerves. Gradually, however, the sweet-natured mother and her beautiful baby begin to spark feelings of affection in him. But can he overcome his habitual reserve before the journey is over?
Las acacias is filmmaking at its most pared-down. The dialogue is minimal, the scenes are soundtracked by the engine noise of the truck and much of the film takes place inside the truck's cab. The camera remains still, lingering on the faces of the occupants. We observe as Rubén eat and washes, as the trio stop at a border post and Jacinta laboriously unloads and reloads her bags and baby. It's up to actor Germán de Silva (Rubén) and newcomer Hebe Duarte (Jacinta) to convey their characters' backstories, their fears and feelings towards one another. They manage it with some style, de Silva radiating a gentleness and sensitivity that makes the taciturn Rubén immediately sympathetic and Duarte allowing Jacinta's natural sunniness to shine through her self-protective diffidence. Meanwhile, the baby, Nayra Calle Mamani – almost preternaturaly cute, with huge dark eyes and fat cheeks – steals the show.
But what does the film mean to its writer/director? We caught up with the filmmaker in Cannes to find out. Giorgelli says of himself, “I speak English like Tarzan and French like Tarzan's monkey”. Obviously anyone who can make such a joke has a pretty comfortable command of the English language but since this interviewer's Spanish is limited to sandwich-ordering, a kindly interpreter made herself available. The interview that follows is a shared effort: the three of us collaborated in finding the right words to express Giorgelli's vision of his film.
IMO: I read in your director's statement that this film came out of a dificult period in your life. How did you turn that into a film that is so gentle and sweet?
PG: At the time of my personal crisis, my father became sick, there was a deep economic crisis in my country and I didn't have job. I was also in the middle of a divorce. I fell apart and during that time, I needed to talk about it but I didn't know how. Then – and I began this project five or six years ago – I began to find myself. I met the woman who is now my wife. A year or so later we married. The film's narrative reflects that journey, talks about the pain of loss and also about my rebirth. The issue of fatherhood was very important to me, as it is to Rubén.
IMO: It's very much an actors' film. How did you find a cast who are not only brilliant in their individual roles but who looked together like a family?
PG: At the beginning of the casting process, I was looking for a real truck driver to play Rubén. My initial idea was to do the film with no actors, using real people. I searched for perhaps a year but I didn't want the cast to improvise. For me it was important to respect the script but I realised quickly that the only way to work with non-actors was to follow them. And I didn't want that. The dialogue as I had written it was important. Then I did a casting with actors. And when I saw Germán I asked him that if he could tell some personal, family stories. Immediately I saw something.
IMO: A spark?
PG: Yes! As an actor he quickly understood the spirit of Rubén and what I wanted for this movie. The idea is subtlety. No overacting. No music to say to the audience: hey, something is about to happen. The camera is like a secret eye in this cabin. Germán understood all of this. Later when I got him together with the baby girl, everything clicked immediately. I saw them as a kind of family.
In the case of Hebe, she is not a professional actress. In fact, she was the production assistant for the casting agent in Paraguay. One day I asked her if she would consider a screen test. In front of the camera, she was incredible, very natural. She wasn't self-conscious when being filmed. Perhaps because of my lack of experience, I was not totally sure and I continued looking. I knew I wanted someone who was not a professional, so I did castings in streets and markets. Several months later I come back to Hebe and had her meet the baby girl. It was incredible. Today, when I watch the film, I can't quite believe they are not really mother and daughter.
And the baby girl is a star.
IMO: She is. I think Hollywood casting agents will try to track her down. The reaction to her from the audience in my screening was palpable.
PG: During the shooting it looked like the baby understood what was happening. In the beginning, the script only had the baby doing basic things: sleeping crying, eating. But then I saw she had much more potential to interact with the others. From then on, I knew I had to be ready with my camera. That was the strategy for shooting her.
IMO: There's a scene in which Rubén yawns and the baby copies him. Everyone in the audience let out a simultaneous sigh.
PG: That was a very sweet scene. There are others that were a surprise to me. In the scene in which she cries and Rubén hands her a cup, which stops her tears – I had to film these scene four times because of technical problems and four times she stopped crying. I think I was a lucky guy because the baby girl was a key character. In filmmaking, some things can be planned but some things are a gamble. You don't know exacly what will happen
IMO: How did you manage shooting around a child's schedule and balancing that with technical issues and those thrown up by the restricted style of filmmaking?
PG: We spent a lot of time preparing the shooting plan. And we designed different options. We had a fake truck on a trailer. We used the fake sometimes as it's too complicated to shoot while the truck is driving down the road – and most of the scenes are like that. Behind the camera, we were 40 people with several vehicles. There was traffic and sudden changes in weather to contend with and we had to be preapred to alter the plan at any time to follow the baby's schedule. We had a baby double, her cousin, who was a month younger. We also used a doll. It was heavy, a 7 kilo doll, because I wanted the actress to feel its weight, otherwise she would look too light and relaxed.
IMO: It works. When she's getting in and out of the cab with the baby and all her bags she looks very vulnerable.
IMO: Which filmmakers' work informed or influenced your movie?
PG: I love David Lynch's The Straight Story. That's a good parallel with what I tried to achieve. I love Abbas Kiarostami [the director of Certified Copy, which played at Cannes last year and for which Juliette Binoche won the best actress prize]. I love Italian films. But I also enjoy things with a totally different atmosphere, like Michael Mann's movies. All genres are interesting to me.
Still, I think that my movie is a kind of UFO. It came out of nowhere and I wasn't consciously influenced by anything else. But directors are a little like vampires. All the time, we take things from other people. You might tell me something now and later I'll be writing and think that it's mine but it's not, not completely.
IMO: I know you want to get your film in front of regular audiences. What is your plan for that?
PG: We have a very good company distribution company with offices in Paris and New York. I hope the film screens in New York and in London, which is a city I really love. I would really like to go to the London Film Festival. But for me the best thing would be a regular release in a normal cinema. We've had good reviews in Variety and Screen magazine and my company thinks they'll be able to sell it.
But today is important. It all starts right now. It's all new for me. It's my first movie, my first time in Cannes, my first screening. My family hadn't even seen the film until yesterday because we had to send it off. But I don't make films for myself. For me it's very important that is seen by a regular audience. It's weird because it's not a classic movie for the audience but I am convinced that people will like it.
IMO: Because it's from the heart, not from the head.
PG: Yes, I made this movie with my heart. And for that reason I am really tired. Really exhausted. For five years I worked all the time on this, and for all of that time, you put over the table – we use this expression – you put over the table your heart and feelings. I think that for me this is the only way to do movies. For that reason I am sometimes also afraid I won't be capable of making another one. Sometimes it feels that this is the only movie I'll make in my life. I don't know the future but I trust my movie. Now it's completed, I see it's the way I first envisaged it. I am really satisfied with it. I think it's a movie for the public.
IMO: This is a mischevious question [and it contains a spoiler by implication, readers]. After the journey ends, will Rubén contact Jacinta again? Is this something you know in your mind or did you consciously stop and decide not to think about what happens next?
PG: I don't know! The real answer is that I don't know, but I hope he will call her. I feel that he wants and needs a family, like me. In that sense I identify with Rubén. I trust that he will.
We'll be posting the trailer for Las acacias soon, but in the meantime, you can watch it here.