Cannes 2019 Women Directors: Meet Sofía Quirós – “Ceniza Negra”

Sofía Quirós is a director and writer. Her short film “Selva” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival Critic’s Week in 2017. Since then, it has screened in more than 40 cities around the world and won the TV5 Prize in Biarritz and the Women in Film and TV Award at the Guanajuato International Film Festival. “Ceniza Negra” (“Land of Ashes”) is her first feature.

“Ceniza Negra” will premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival on May 19.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

SQ: “Ceniza Negra” tells the story of 13-year-old Selva and how she learns about life through the death of her closest family members. It is the story of how a girl experiences the end of her childhood as she helps the person she loves the most to die.

The film explores themes like the magic in mourning, the end of childhood, transmutation after death, and the symbiotic relationship between a grandchild and her grandfather.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

SQ: The need to tell a story that spoke about death and transformation and the magic of mourning for children as a healing way to encounter the end of life. The desire to craft a young female character that, in spite of going through harrowing situations, trusts her own strength and manages to overcome the story without turning into a victim.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

SQ: I want them to leave the theater with the sensation of watching a film that is human, authentic, and honest. I hope that the strength of the lead character and the tenderness of the actors and actresses come together with the special flavor of mixing daily life with the magical—the freshness and the rawness of our story.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

SQ: Our biggest challenge was to find our actors: a girl and an elderly person that could carry the film even though they’d never acted before. Smachleen Gutiérrez was the first girl we met. We found her two days before shooting “Selva,” and we had a connection from the first moment. Two years after that, I crafted our film’s character around my work with her. I saw her grow up. She went from being a very spontaneous little girl to a very committed, creative, and powerful teen. Her commitment and her freshness were the keys to becoming the main character without turning into a victim. She played Selva as a child who is full of joy, strength, and profoundness.

We met Humberto Samuels, the grandfather, in a home for elderly people. It was also love at first sight. The process with him was long and intense, allowing him to understand what making a film meant while getting him used to leaving the home, changing his schedule and routines. We saw him blossom and rejuvenate 10 years, filling our set with joy on a daily basis.

Hortencia Smith, who plays Elena, is a local dancer from the community the film was shot in. The strength of her body and expression convinced us that she would remain in the spectator’s retinas until the end of the film.

It was a beautiful shoot, marked by the symbiosis between old age and the end of childhood: games, old “Zorro” episodes from the ’50s, Elvis Presley, and dancing reggaetón.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

SQ: “Ceniza Negra” is funded by its production companies and a combination of national and international funds. Costa Rica [has a budding film industry], so we often tackle projects like this through co-production. We found our partners in Chile and Argentina, and after that we got the support of Costa Rica’s National Film Fund and the Ibermedia Program.

Not long after that, we secured a French co-producer. Our relationship with him actually started after a Producer’s Meeting in Cartagena (FICCI), and this allowed us to get the support of the Aide aux cinémas du Monde. Two more international funds completed our funding: the TFI Latin America Fund and the World Cinema Fund.

All of this was possible thanks to the workshops, labs, and festivals we attended during development: Tres Puertos Cine, the Development Course from Ibermedia and NextStep, to name a few.

Another defining element was our short film “Selva,” which was shot as part of “Ceniza Negra’s” development, as an exploration of our method, aesthetics, and team.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

SQ: As I started to film, I found myself submerged in creative moments free of time and limits—moments of pure freedom. What inspired me was the confidence I felt as I started to write my stories, and the happiness I found in crafting stories as images and sounds.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

SQ: The best: Have certainty that everything will turn out the best way possible. This advice stayed with me through the toughest moments, allowing me to let myself be guided by the invisible, by intuition. It encouraged me to let go of control and trust the magical process of making a film.

Another great piece of advice was to invest as much time, money, and love as possible in the process of casting our lead characters. That is the seed that blooms during the shoot.

And the worst slipped my mind! I don’t recall ever getting bad advice. I tend to block the kind of advice, comments, situations, or memories that keep me from growing. It’s a survival strategy, I guess!

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

SQ: Let go of the stiffness that the system imposes upon us. Find a work method that works for you—your unique way to be a director where you are free. Pick your team wisely, find a balance between your crew, and find people that can respect and protect the process. Set your limits without fear. Exude confidence and calmness. And give lots of love to your actors because they are the soul of every film.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

SQ: I love Alice Rohrwacher’s work, which is so quotidian, politic, and magical all at once. Fiction connected with the director’s origins that defy time and space in film. Strong characters, hypnotic and profound. Lots of sensibilities, confidence, and risk in her vision.

W&H: It’s been over a year since the reckoning in Hollywood and the global film industry began. What differences have you noticed since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements launched?

SQ: The deepest changes I have felt in the last year are on our daily living. We question our relationships, and we have abandoned the demands of a patriarchal world and are allowing one another to be ourselves.

In the professional arena, I have noticed more support between women, a stronger connection between the way we think and act, and a lot of reflecting about fundamental questions such as: Why can’t women directors work through more collaborative and flexible processes without having to demonstrate our worth and impose ourselves to be heard?

But the movement is just starting. With “Ceniza Negra,” we saw that as it advanced further and further in its trajectory, the number of female-directed films in the same workshops or windows decreased. This year, for example, I am the only woman director out of seven in the Feature Film Competition of La Semaine de la Critique. It is frustrating to feel “lucky” because of this fact.

I hope that]we can carry these issues into our daily fight and that it becomes a struggle men and women face together. We need equity to be visible and real in film, in our way of directing, and in the nature of our stories.

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