Spanish drama Journey To A Mother’s Room (Viaje al cuarto de una madre) is a universal and beautifully intimate story about a mother and daughter dealing with the unknown territory of living apart from each other for the first time in their lives.
Director Celia Rico Clavellino joins us on Close-up Culture for to talk about the personal aspects of the film, the nature of mother-daughter relationships, working with Lola Dueñas and Anna Castillo, and much more.
Q: Why did you want to focus on a mother-daughter relationship in your first feature film?
A: I live almost six hundred miles away from my parents, and the phone is an inescapable part of our relationship. Sometimes, it is hard to find the time to call them back, even though I am aware that they are always there, waiting to pick up the phone the second they are needed. How does one respond to this steadfastness?
These conflicting feelings of freedom and liberation of the self and the nostalgia for a family life I can no longer have moved me to write, to ask myself what expectations we often place on the relationship with parents, on the relationships with children. What we expect from them, and they from us. How much we think about others or about ourselves, when do we relent or set boundaries, when are we necessary or expendable.
Through the daily actions of cohabitation, I wanted to portray the difficulty in finding the frail balance where independence does not equal loneliness and companionship does not equal dependence. In the conquest of these private and shared spaces is where most conflicts in mother-child relationships happen.
Q: You mention your interactions with your parents. How much did you draw from – or tap into – your own personal experiences when writing the screenplay?
A: I guess that the film reveals something of myself because I have dived into my own sensations and my most conflicting emotions to write it. But the film, though profoundly personal, is not autobiographical.
The most personal element in it is the profession of Estrella. She is a seamstress, like my own mother. Sewing was a part of my childhood; I grew up surrounded by fabric, listening to the tireless clatter of a sewing machine and the incisive snipping of a pair of scissors. Thus, in a very natural way, my mother’s trade was key in the creation of the character played by Lola Dueñas. My mother’s own sewing machine is the one that appears in the film, and my mother herself was Lola Dueñas’ sewing teacher in the process of preparing to play the role.
Estrella is a seamstress because I can’t separate maternity from this trade, which I understand only as an act of creation and protection, as an act of generosity. Through the years, my mother has made many dresses for me, almost with no need of taking measurements. I have worn many with pride, but there are others which I didn’t feel comfortable in or wasn’t able to identify with, and which were left hanging in my closet.
I guess there are many different ways to say I love you, and we sometimes do so in our very own way, whether it be giving shape to a piece of fabric or making a film.
Q: This is also a film about learning to let go and grow independently. What did you want to explore about this moment of separation and the effects it can have on parent and child?
A: Estrella finds it hard to accept that Leonor’s life no longer belongs to her, and Leonor can no longer find in her mother the role model she needs. This is a universal, irresolvable dilemma.
Estrella is left alone confronting her daughter’s absence and that enables her to come face to face with confronting a second loss –the recent death of her husband. At that moment, she begins finding herself, she realises that she was restricted to the sole of role of just being a mother and she has had forgotten to be a woman. We see that evolution in the mother. Her journey is much more introspective than her daughter’s.
The film tries to bridge the generation gap: when the two separate for the first time, they learn that, deep down, they’re not so different. They both have to face an uncertain life where, when all is said and done, they still have each other.
Unconditional love does not necessarily make us stronger; we often overprotect our loved ones out of concern for them. All the process of making the film was permeated in its entirety by the question of how to live one’s life and handle love when it plants the seeds of fear in us. Mother and daughter are caught between thinking of the other or of themselves. And when they finally find a balance, no matter how frail, they face the difficult and healthy work of loving well, of loving freely. Loving well, without stifling the other and without losing one’s self in another, might be one of the hardest parts of mother-child relationships.
Q: The trailer suggests this film is a delicate and intimate experience. Can you talk about the mood and atmosphere you wanted to capture in the film?
A: As a filmmaker, I am interested in showing ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, in situations anyone could relate to. For me, the day to day contradictions bring people’s personalities out. That is why I usually like simple films that, through minimal story, talk about the unpredictable course of life. Cecil Day-Lewis wrote in a poem that selfhood begins with a walking away and love is proved in the letting go. This film endeavours to capture those delicate moments in life in which love is revealed through knowing when to walk away, through letting go. This is something that the characters learn. But it’s something that cannot be said, it’s an intimate feeling and I wanted the audience to experience it as if they were their own.
I tried to shape two delicate characters and bare them emotionally, without judging or exposing them. In the same way that one character protects the other, I also had to protect both placing them in interior and private spaces and make them express themselves from small -and true- gestures of love, like giving the daughter new boots to go to London or iron a dress for the mother to go to the dance contest. That was for me a way to talk about them through whispers, which gave me the key of “a low voice” atmosphere.
In order to get the tone consistent with this vision, I create a climate of intense tenderness and, at the same time, a melancholy -not drama- that was like a background melody for me and the actors. I like to use music during the creative process, even though I later did not use soundtrack in the movie. It is very easy to lose the tone in the day to day of writing when there is so much noise around. Sometimes music helps me to recover the tone of the day before. The same happens during the shooting, when the ears still has to be more attentive.
Q: How did you work with Lola Dueñas and Anna Castillo to capture their characters and the effortlessly believable closeness between them?
A: This was one of the most beautiful and delicate tasks in the process of making and thinking this film. I wanted to build an intimate –and almost mimetic– relationship between them so I tried to create an atmosphere of comfort and trust from the beginning.
We filmed in my village in Andalusia during the winter and they came two months before shooting, living in apartments located one on top of the other. We tried to share our lives for the majority of time so we could create a familial surrounding. We read the script around my parents’ brazier table, creating a bond with my own family places. The film is foremost about bonds so sitting there all together with the heating under the table was crucial.
In the moment in which Estrella embraces her daughter near the end, Lola Dueñas told me she saw me once doing the same with my mother and she did a sort of mental radiography of the embrace. She wanted to place her arms and body posture replicating that mental image. The fact they both were welcome to enter my privacy, helped them a lot to forge their own relationship and in turn their character’s.
Then we focused working on the choreography of feelings and gestures that go into each scenes. It was very important to find the right balance between silence and words. We always discussed the little gestures that often accompany those very silences and words and contain our sincerest emotions, regardless of our awareness of them. We thought a lot about all those gestures, which are both brave and cowardly, as are the words we often keep to ourselves in order to protect others and, sometimes, end up coming out and hurting those who were only trying to care for us.
Lola and Anna are two extremely sensitive and intelligent actresses that have created something deep and delicate moving through the territory of subtlety. This is extremely intricate work, demanding both a control of emotions and their triggers as well as gestural precision. I feel very lucky and grateful for their work and trust.
Q: Can you tell us the scene in the film that touches you the most?
A: Even though the scene that most touches me is the one with the accordion, there are two moments very special for me. One of them is when Leonor is sitting on her mother’s sewing machine and takes the thimble. In an almost unconscious way, she begins to hit the machine with it. All the pain that she doesn’t allow herself to express is contained in that small gesture and in its repetitive sound.
The other moment is when the mother calls her daughter after the fire table incident and her daughter is in hurry to hang up. It’s so late that Estrella is almost ashamed to have called her and, at the same time, it is a huge disappointment not being able to talk to her daughter. Maybe, this is the moment when she realises that she is really alone. I remember when I wrote it in my room and how it affected me at that moment.
Q: ‘Journey To A Mother’s Room’ has screened in South Korea, Sydney and other places around the world. What has it be like seeing audiences from different cultures engage with this parent-child story?
A: For me that’s very rewarding and also revealing: I began writing the story of Estrella and Leonor from my own room without realising that something so personal could also be so universal and could touch many people no matter where they are from. Everyone has a mother and everyone, sooner or later, has left the family nest.
To many people the film has linked them back to that moment when they decide to leave home and it has made them to think how that decision has shaped the rest of their lives. Also, the film has allowed them to see a chapter of their mothers’ lives that they have been unable to attend -they were away from home, growing up. They tell me they left the screening room with the desire to call their mothers to say: “Mum, I love you”. I have received a lot of messages like that from anonymous people, thanking for the film and asking me to develop more projects. This is very nice and it encourages me a lot, especially to trust that small stories, made with the heart, can reach many people.
One of the most gratifying facts is that the film engages both adult and young audiences around the world. It’s not very common to see teenagers buying a ticket to go to the cinema. It moves me to find young faces in the audience interested in the film, especially when they tell me they want to go back to the theatre to watch the movie again with their mothers.
Q: How did you find the experience of making your first feature film?
A: Chantal Akerman said one must shoot a film in order to understand a screenplay. This is my first film and, as with every first time, I have discovered a great deal of things in the process of making it. I have also discovered that there are many other things that are a mystery that you can only assume by living it. Cinema is an infinite field to explore and surprise yourself. But it’s also a long distance race and sometimes you can drown.
Fortunately, when you make a film, you are accompanied by a team with which you dialogue and take all the final decisions. It would have been a very hard job without this constant dialogue. I need the complicity and confidence of all the team. Mutual trust makes me stronger and helps me to think more clearly.
My biggest challenge as a director was to focus on the lonely mother and keep the entire narrative tension of the film hinging just on one character and one location. My best decision as a director in the whole project was asking my mother to teach Lola Dueñas to sew. This decision brought together fiction and life; my own mother has left her mark on the film and that for me has a personal value beyond the outcome of the film.
Q: What is next for you?
A: I’m currently developing a new project, but it’s soon to talk about it, I’m in a very early stage. Meanwhile, I teach cinema in Barcelona and I collaborate in a film pedagogy program in primary and secondary schools called “Cine en curso”.