Two of the European submissions to the international feature film Oscar this year are moving stories of family dynamics set in rural farming environments, and told in minority languages.
Representing Spain, Alcarras is writer/director Carla Simon’s second feature after her award-winning autobiographical debut Summer 1993. The Catalan-language feature centers on a family of peach farmers who face an end to their way of life when their landlord plans to cut down the trees and install solar panels in the fields. Alcarras is an ensemble piece starring non-professional actors and is about family relationships, generational tensions and the decline of traditional agriculture.
It world premiered in Competition at the Berlinale, where it won the Golden Bear. International sales are handled by mk2 Films, with Mubi acquiring rights for multiple territories including the UK and US. Alcarras has taken $2.3m at the Spanish box office, following its April release by Avalon and Elastica Films.
Ireland’s entry to the Oscars is Colm Bairead’s narrative feature debut The Quiet Girl (An Cailin Ciuin), an Irish-language adaptation of Claire Keegan’s 2010 novella foster. Set in 1981, it is a first-person narrative told through the eyes of a quiet, neglected girl who is sent away from her dysfunctional family to live with distant relatives for the summer on their farm, where she blossoms in their care. The lead is played by now-12-year-old Catherine Clinch, who had never acted before on screen.
Dublin-born writer/director Bairead’s Irish-language shorts and documentaries have earned him numerous award nominations and wins.
The Quiet Girl world premiered at the Berlinale in the Generation Kplus section, where it won the top prize. It became the highest-grossing Irish-language film of all time around the world, and is the first Irish-language drama to gross €1m ($1.02m) at the UK and Ireland box office. Bankside Films handles international sales. Break Out Pictures in partnership with Curzon released the film in the UK and Ireland, while Neon’s Super has acquired it for the US.
Simon and Bairead came together in a virtual conversation hosted by Screen International in October.
Colm Bairead: Can I start by saying I’m a huge fan of your work, Carla. I fell in love with Summer 1993 when it came out. Even though it’s quite different from The Quiet Girlit was a spiritual touchstone for me, particularly in the way it inhabited that young girl’s point of view.
Carl Simon: Thank you so much. The Quiet Girl reminded me a lot of making Summer 93, because it has many parallel themes. The main character is a girl, it has themes of absence of the family and how she copes with this. The emotions you portray are very similar to the ones I was trying to portray with my first film.
Screen International: Why did you both want to tell these stories?
Simon: My adoptive mum’s family grow peaches in Alcarras, a small village in Catalonia. We would visit every summer and Christmas holidays. It’s super flat, we call it the “Catalan far west” because of the landscape. But the nature is not wild, it is built by men. I always thought there was something very cinematic there. When my grandfather died, I realized we take some things for granted in families, like the spaces that we share. My uncles are still cultivating the land, but a lot of people are abandoning the land in this area. Agriculture as a small family business is not what it used to be — the models are changing. This is how the idea came to me. I wanted to spend some time there and get to know my family’s business.
Bairead: Claire Keegan is one of our great authors in Ireland. I encountered her book in 2018 and fell completely in love with it. Her aesthetic and her prose felt very visual to me. I felt I was seeing the film as I was reading the work. In my short films prior to this, I’ve dealt with similar themes around family and loss, so it spoke to me in terms of its thematic concerns as well.
Could you describe your approach to making your film?
Bairead: I think it’s impossible for the personality of the filmmaker not to find an expression in the aesthetic of their film. I would describe myself as quite quiet, and even rather introverted and meditative. I’m drawn to the idea of stillness and simplicity, I guess. When I look at Carla’s work, I can see the same philosophy endures there as well. There’s a real commitment to simplicity and of not trying to make anything too ornate — and that’s why her films feel so authentic and truthful. I try to achieve the same thing, but I don’t move the camera as much.
What’s fascinating to me about Alcarras is how you’ve created a family. You have put these people together who have this enormous energy that exists almost outside of the film. [It seems as if] the camera came along and just happened to start filming them. whereas with ours, it was almost the opposite. We purposely kept apart Catherine and Andrew Bennett, who plays her surrogate father, so that their relationship actually grew in the filming. We tried to film it as chronologically as possible for Catherine’s sake. But I’m fascinated how you go about it, Carla?
Simon: I was amazed watching your film — it is really well framed and so precise, and everything is almost a painting. For me, this is very difficult. I always try to let the camera adapt to the actor, so they don’t have to think where they need to be in the frame. How did you direct the girl? Did she have some marks, or did you give her some freedom when framing?
Bairead: I would say it was a more traditional form of filmmaking. We did have marks — I would always say to Catherine, “Don’t be afraid to hide your emotions.” Because the camera will see them — the camera is an x-ray machine. I remember seeing the first audition tape of Catherine and noticing myself leaning in because she had this understanding of the character — she was withholding the whole time and that has a strange magnetism to it. We knew then that she was right for the part after seven months of trying to find the right person.
How did you find your cast, Carla?
Simon: We did a long casting — it took about a year. We saw about 9,000 people. We went to village festivities, schools, bars, restaurants, markets and co-operatives, and invited them to audition. I was hoping to find real family members. But this didn’t happen — every person came from a different family. So the challenge was to create a family. I rented a house and over four months we would work on improvising moments that could have happened before the story so we could build some shared memories among them. After this, we sat down and read the script just once — and in the last month before shooting we rehearsed the scenes of the film. For me, it’s important they don’t learn it by heart. I like it when people talk as they do in real life — that is very difficult to write. So shooting is always about finding the right equilibrium between giving them some room for improvisation and at the same time following the script.
Colm, were your actors allowed to improvise or was it more formal?
Bairead: For the most part, it was more formal. It is similar to Claire’s writing, which is quite precise. She has a wonderful grasp of the Irish patois, and how we say a lot without saying very much. I was keen to preserve her masterful dialogue. Carla, I’m fascinated to see in Alcarras that you’re dealing with multiple points of view. Summer 1993 is completely immersed in this one point of view, with the girl at its centre. Was the change to multiple points of view daunting, or was it liberating?
Simon: It was difficult but I enjoyed it. I don’t want to make a lot of ensemble films though, because it’s really demanding. I wanted to express cinematically what it means to be part of a big family, where lots of things happen at the same time and the emotions of one person can affect the others. But it’s complicated to connect the audience to the characters because they’re not with them all the time. It’s demanding in terms of the script process, and it made us think about where to put the camera. We sat down with the heads of department for a week, and we did a reading of the script, just thinking about the point of view, and where the camera would go for each scene and the transitions of the scenes. Then you get to the editing — and some of this works and some doesn’t.
Bairead: You also had another character in this movie — the land itself. The connection between the people and the land is beautifully rendered.
Simon: It was very important to not have an outsider’s point of view in the way we portrayed the land. I wanted to tell the story from the inside of this family. It was very easy to frame the landscape in a way that we find exotic — but we had to try to film it from inside. That’s why the camera always goes with the characters. Apart from the first three shots in the film, there’s always someone in the landscape. We go with them and are with their emotions. They see this [landscape] every day, so it’s not so beautiful to them. But sometimes it was hard — we could see a beautiful sunset and we would be pointing the camera away from it, to where the emotion was. We trusted that the beauty would come from somewhere else.
You could say the same for your film, Colm — the landscape was a character too.
Bairead: Exterior landscapes were certainly important, but the most important landscape is the Kinsellas’ house. That house is the fourth most important character, so finding it was as important as the casting process. We found this house that hasn’t been modernized since the 1960s. There’s an old farmer living there. When we first walked into that house, we felt we had walked into the story. A great deal of the texture in the film belongs to that location.
We knew early on that we wanted this constrained aspect ratio that would mirror the first-person, present-tense feel that you get in the book. It is of someone who’s still making sense of the world, and her horizons haven’t expanded yet. The film is very much about being on the threshold of understanding things, but not quite seeing what’s beyond the edge of the frame. That’s why we were keen to always shoot through doorways — to give that sense of thresholds constantly being part of the fabric of the film.
Simon: Your rehearsal of some shots, or some moments, was interesting. You repeat things so you feel that you’re in this place somehow.
Bairead: One of the things the film is pointing out is that children, like plants, need attention. They need the mundanity of the quotidian. Once the mundane is experienced in the presence of a guardian or caregiver, then the mundane can become elevated, and certainly in memory. When I think back on my own childhood, it’s the simple things [I remember]. It’s like that Seamus Heaney poem where he talks about peeling potatoes with his mother… that he never felt closer to her, even though they’re not speaking. I wanted the film to elevate the mundane.
How do you feel about the reception of your films, which have both performed very well at the box office too?
Simon: It’s still surprising because it’s a very local story. In Berlin, I was surprised how people engaged with the characters. But then I thought, it’s a movie about family, and we all have one. And when it comes to agriculture, every country’s agricultural sector is in crisis.
Bairead: We were very surprised. No Irish-language film has ever performed at the box office with any real success and no Irish-language film has ever been distributed properly outside Ireland. So it’s been completely remarkable that we’re selling around the world. In Ireland it struck almost a personal note — it was almost like looking into a family album. Again, we’re back to the word ‘family’, and maybe that’s the key word here. When people look at the characters in the film, they know these people, they know these types of men, they know this woman, they know that child — there was a real connection to them.