Q&A with Lila Avilés


Mexican filmmaker Lila Avilés has quickly set herself apart in the international film scene for her intimate dramas about work and family dynamics. In 2015, she worked as an Assistant Director to Roman Coppola on the hit Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle and in 2017 she directed her award-winning feature debut The Chambermaid, which took home the Best Mexican Feature at the 2018 Morelia International Film Festival. Her latest film is a tender family drama following a seven-year-old who gets swept up in the preparations surrounding her father’s surprise birthday party. Tótem opens in New York and select theaters across the country today.

Q. Tótem frames a large family within their home in Mexico. We are curious as to how you found the house where it takes place, since the way in which you film the space suggests a deep familiarity with all of its nooks and crannies?

A. From the first moment, I knew that the house was important because it was a film about home, microcosms, how we make habit of structures and make habits ourselves. It was essential to draw attention to the house since it was the other character. I like the work that Nohemí Gonzalez accomplished in the art department, creating a house that feels lived-in. That was really important for the vision of the film. The house is located in Mexico City and it was love at first sight when we found it. It didn’t have furniture, but it was full of plants. I loved its energy, it was just intuition.

Q. The film circles around several characters, giving them all the same amount of agency and attention without losing focus of its emotional core. What was it like writing a script that involved so many moving parts?

A. Tótem comes from a personal story. When my daughter was seven-years-old her dad died, so I thought about how I wanted to make the film for a long time. I knew that it was not a film I wanted to intellectualize, but to feel. I thought about every character as a constellation that involves Sol, the main character. To do a choral film is hard because sometimes you can lose the fluidity and often you need to push the structure and characters a little bit. What I love about the film is that I could give spectators the space to enter into this family and its story without invading; that way we maintain the emotional sensitivity of each character. It was hard though because I did not incorporate many cuts, most of the sequences are long takes. Every single take becomes a kind of adventure.

Q. At the end of the film, you include a touching dedication to the late Spanish film journalist José María Riba. How did he influence your views on filmmaking?

A. José María Riba was a man of his own. He was a wonderful, tender and loving man that helped a lot of directors emerge. I will always feel gratitude for his marvelous and unique work. He also started a lot of initiatives that helped finalize films and create workshops. He helped me finish The Chambermaid and found a home for the film’s premiere. He has helped Iñárritu, Del Toro, and a lot of directors not only in Mexico but in Argentina and Chile as well. He did a lot for Latin American cinema.

Q. You also dedicated the film to your daughter. Has she seen it and how did she react to it?

A.  Yes. She was at the premiere in Berlin, it was a day to remember. There are a lot of clues that she can understand in the film. We have a beautiful relationship and this was kind of a wound shared between us, but a lovely one.

Q. What is your first memory of watching a film as a child?

A. I used to have a lot of time for solitude when I was a child. I remember watching the same film over and over again. It was the period when you depended on the VHS tapes that you had in your house. I love that it was an exercise in total patience.

Q. What qualities do you value most in a character

A. I like characters that are not polarized, that are complex. But I love most of all those that can be funny. I like that kind of charisma that is deeply embedded, something you have without knowing it. I really like that.

Q. What is the last film you saw and loved?

A. Black Girl from Ousmane Sembène, it’s a beautiful film and he is an amazing director that has recently been brought to my attention. There are a lot of his films on the Criterion Channel.

Q. What image would you like to end this interview with?

A. In Mexico, we did a crazy thing on the last day of filming. For the crew and actors for whom this was their first film, we threw a bunch of stuff at them, as a welcome to cinema. We had a big party to commemorate the moment — a celebration of a celebration. It ended with us all crying and laughing. A unique day!