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Festival de Cannes 
61e Semaine de la critque 2022 
 
Interview

Cristèle Alves Meira
Alma Viva
semainedelacritique.com/alma-viva
29 avril 2022
French Version

Like every summer, little Salomé returns to her family village nestled in the Portuguese mountains for the holidays. As the vacations begin in a carefree atmosphere, her beloved grandmother suddenly dies. While the adults are tearing each other apart over the funeral, Salomé is haunted by the spirit of the one who was considered a witch.

Hello Cristèle, it’s great to get to talk with you, how have you been keeping after everything that’s been happening?

 

I feel relieved and lighter. I spent several years writing ALMA VIVA. I had to arm myself with a lot of patience and perseverance, learn to overcome obstacles to make this first feature film. I already felt liberated when I finished the film (at the end of the sound mix) because it was the image of what I had dreamed of. I felt very satisfied with the work we had done with my team and I knew that we had made an important film. But there is always this unknown of the meeting of the film with the spectators. We don't know if the film will be strong enough, if it will find its audience. There are so many movies being made, coming out every week in theatre, not counting those that are streaming on-demand offers on the platforms. Sometimes I doubt the possibility of existing among all these offers, we feel drowned. I know that ALMA VIVA is a powerful film and the most important thing for me is that it exists. I never doubted its usefulness in the sense that I know it will remain for posterity. I come back to ancestral memories of Portuguese culture, I film rituals and traditions because I need to be in the transmission. The film will never disappear (unlike me), it will forever bear witness to these beliefs, these practices, these magical thoughts of Portugal that I wanted to tell. This is what matters most to me in the long run. Afterwards, let's say that in the short term, I would be happy as a director if it could be seen by the greatest number of spectators. I make a demanding cinema but I want it to remain popular. When I learned about this selection at Critics' Week, I felt that I no longer had to worry.

 

Have you been able to remain positive and creative at least?

 

Yes of course, this selection has given me some grain to grind. It's an accelerator, it fills with energy and the desire to make films.

 

How much has your background as an actress and theatre director as well as directing your award-winning shorts prepared you for directing your debut feature film?

 

When I made my first short film, I already had in mind to make ALMA VIVA. It is my desire to film the region of Tras-Os-Montes (the mountains of northeastern Portugal) where my mother is from which pushes me towards the production of fiction in the cinema. I started writing my feature film and at the same time I made two short films in my mother's village, a summer film SOL BRANCO and a winter film CAMPO-DE-VIBORAS. These two short films allowed me to prepare the ground, to make the inhabitants rotate (prepare them for the feature film beforehand) and to familiarise myself with the sets. Even if I come from this village, people saw me born, they had to be prepared to make films. It was all new to them. In the feature film, we find faces and sets from my previous short films. Before doing fiction, I was directing in the theatre and I had only made two documentary films. The theatre brought me a lot in terms of team cohesion. I put together ambitious shows with few resources that required a real investment from the team, with rich sets and staging. I realise that in my way of managing space in my films, the circulation of bodies and camera movements, I borrow a lot from my experience of directing in the theatre.

 

The reaction you got for Invisível Herói was amazing, did you imagine you would get this type of response for your film?

 

I can't guess the future unfortunately! But I would be very happy if ALMA VIVA were received so warmly.

 

Congratulations on having your World Premiere of Alma Viva at the 61e Semaine de la critque, what does to mean to you to back at the festival and part of such an amazing line up of film?

 

Being at Critics' Week means a lot to me. It was there that I had the honour of presenting two of my short films, CAMPO DE VIBORAS (in 2016) and INVISIVEL HEROI (in 2019), it was already incredible to be invited twice! So, coming back a third time, with my first feature film, is really a great joy! Let's say that I have the chance to feel accompanied. The loyalty they give me gives me confidence; I really feel supported.

 

Alma Viva is also in the Competition, does this add any extra pressure on you or will you be able to enjoy the festival and not think too much about awards?

 

I feel a certain pressure, it's true, but I try to put it aside, I don't want it to take up too much space. I was so stressed already with the shooting, I put a lot of energy into this film. From now on, I want to take advantage of this selection in Cannes, to rejoice above all. The film no longer belongs to me, it will meet its audience, I am now free. I think about prizes from time to time, I indulge in daydreams. I would be very happy to offer a prize to my team especially, there are so many people who gave so much, who believed in this crazy adventure, who trusted me and who supported me especially in difficult times. For a first feature film, an award can change everything. If that happens it would be wonderful but otherwise it's already very good to be selected.

 

How important are platforms like Semaine de la critique in championing and supporting filmmakers?

 

Critics' Week is a unique selection. Only 7 feature films in competition are chosen, that's very few. This allows us to pay real attention to each of them. There is a very warm spirit at Critics' Week, almost family-oriented, we go there to see films and really talk about them. We pay less attention to glitter to concentrate on the essential, the directors and their film. It's the impression they give me of being very demanding and faithful. When they love a film it is passionately.

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How did Alma Viva come about, what inspired your screenplay?

 

The project was born out of a feeling of injustice that I felt when my maternal grandmother died. I was in my twenties and I saw my aunts and uncles tearing themselves apart over his remains over a vulgar question of money. She was not yet buried that we were already arguing about who was going to pay for her tombstone. She remained unburied for two years. This brutality in human relations struck me to the point of wanting to make a film of it. I needed to understand what could lead to this. Of this personal story, only one scene remains in the film. Because very quickly my attention focused on the relationship of a grandmother with her granddaughter. A love story between two generations of women, the one before and the one today, forever linked by a powerful heritage. ALMA VIVA is therefore the story of Salomé (9 years old) who returns to Portugal for a summer with her beloved grandmother. It is the Portugal of the sun, the balls, the afternoons of fishing in the river. But it is also the Portugal of spells, spirits and the dead. When her grandmother suddenly dies in strange circumstances, Salomé uncovers a disturbing legacy. Like her grandmother, she has the power to reconnect with invisible forces.

When working on a feature film like Alma Viva how flexible did you allow yourself and your actors with your screenplay?

 

I have always fed my stories with real situations and settings, with existing people. I attach enormous importance to the credibility of the situations and the actors that I film. It's probably linked to my experience as a spectator who likes to believe what she's told. It's not so much that I'm trying to get closer to a certain truth, I'm well aware that cinema is always a representation of reality (even documentaries). It is rather a question of point of view, a way of looking. The cinema gives us the strength to be able to really watch, so we might as well go there frankly while being fully in reality. Without giving in to a lazy naturalism but by creating particular situations so that the extraordinary emerges from reality. In ALMA VIVA, I paid particular attention to the study of the terrain and the subjects that I relate. I have extensively documented the practices of witchcraft (in Portugal and elsewhere). It is from these real elements that I reconstituted rituals especially for the film. The vast majority of the actors are non-professionals from the region, because it seemed very important to me to respect the local dialect without falling into caricature. The few professional actors who star in the film had to deal with this requirement of integration and be all the more convincing, to make us believe that they are part of the community. I work very little with the script in hand, I mostly spend a lot of time talking with the people I'm going to film, I need to know them. I observe them a lot before filming and once on set at the time of shooting I do everything so that they let themselves be watched (filmed) as they are, in a letting go. I put aside the dialogues and focus on the needs of the situation. Bodies and voices know better than the author what to do in such and such a situation. I have great confidence in the actors I have chosen, they are able to be in the present and to feel when what they are doing or what they are saying is right or not. It is really a work of team. All the work consists in creating the ideal conditions, the perfect framework so that they can feel to be right in the situation which the scenario proposes. I often rewrite the dialogues according to who is going to play the role, the casting helps me to refine my scenes.

 

What was your experience like working with Lua Michel who plays Salomé, how did you go about casting this role?

You probably don't know it but Lua Michel is my daughter. To tell the truth, I had never considered working with my daughter for this feature film, the heroine was 11 years old in the script. I spent a lot of time meeting little girls in casting. But my daughter has demonstrated a desire to play. And not giving her a chance to try out for my movie wouldn't have been fair. So, I filmed it, first backwards. It was a hard task to make this decision, it was a great responsibility. But Lua imposed herself, she seized the role in a completely natural way. It then became obvious! We therefore rejuvenated the character; Salomé is 9 years old in the film. Because in addition to showing maturity, an unconditional pleasure to play and a great emotional intelligence, Lua had an innate knowledge of the terrain. She knows the village and its inhabitants very well, having been there since she was born, and she speaks French and Portuguese. So, it was the best thing that could have happened to us. The great particularity of our shoot is that in addition to having her mother as director, Lua had her father as artistic director. Working as a family involves a certain discipline. We called on a coach Manon Garnier to accompany Lua. We established strict rules between us, there was work time on set and rest time at home. So, I was careful not to talk to him about his role. On the other hand, we could not prevent him from witnessing (indirectly) long heated discussions between these parents during the preparation of the film. Despite us, Lua had more or less direct access to all stages of the film's maturation. All of this ensured that during filming, the work went very smoothly. It was really moving to see her embody Salomé, she was sometimes more focused than some professional actresses. She impressed us all. The shooting was full of emotion and it was a real great family adventure.

 

Was there any one particular scene that was challenging for you to film?

 

The most complex sequence was that of the funeral procession which crosses the village which is being evacuated because of a fire. It was necessary to manage two actions simultaneously, to create the chaos and the urgency of the fire while keeping the contemplation of a solemn moment of a funeral march. I spent a lot of time cutting this sequence, choreographing the extras, not to mention the more technical aspects of the smoke machines (VFX), the animals, the vehicles and the extras. It was really a big challenge especially since it was very hot.

"After a night's sleep; I decided to open my maternal grandmother's house, which had remained closed since her death 10 years ago following family disputes."

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Where did you passion for filmmaking come from?

I grew up in France in a family of Portuguese immigrant parents who fled the dictatorship in Portugal, economic misery and colonial war in the hope of having a better life. They came to France to work. There were no books at home, no trips to the theatre or to the cinema. It was school that taught me a taste for reading and the theatre. As a child, I spent my time watching people, I organised shows at home where I imitated my family members. As a teenager, I first dreamed of being an actress. When I discovered Antigone in college it was a shock. I asked my father to pay me for acting lessons. So, I started by training as an actress before doing directing. My desire to make films came quite early, I had a small VHS camera in high school and I filmed my friends, my family, my neighbourhood. I felt that the images had a special power, they put reality at a distance while really capturing it. They made it possible to seize a moment forever and to charge it with a certain emotion that did not leave me indifferent.

 

How much has your approach to your filmmaking changed since your debut short?

 

I don't think my approach has changed. There are many of my short films in my feature film. The foundations were laid from the start. I have the impression of digging a furrow, of deepening elements of narration, a lexical field that I did not quite master yet and that I am trying to better understand. That doesn't mean that I've mastered it now, there are still a lot of things I need to deepen and develop. Each film is a new writing but I feel that my obsessions always revolve around the same questions.

 

Is there any advice or tips you wish you had been given before you started out on your filmmaking journey?

 

I had the chance to meet some great people along the way, I met people on my way who brought me some of their experience and shared it with me. I can't say exactly what it is-knows. At each stage of the work, the advice varies depending on whether we are writing, filming or post-production. I am always very curious to hear those who preceded me tell me their story. These meetings are precious, they save time and discernment. Afterwards, nothing beats experience in the field. Despite the advice, we always make mistakes and they are the best lesson!

What has been the most valuable lesson you’ve taken from making Alma Viva?

 

Perseverance! Making a film means knowing how to accept the unexpected and adapting to all situations. There were so many twists, setbacks, accidents, each time you had to keep your cool and bounce back. The big lesson that I draw from this experience is to believe that behind every obstacle there is a solution, that behind every unforeseen there is another way of seeing things that can turn out to be better. For example, and to name just one because I'll have many more, two years ago I had chosen a magnificent house as the main setting. Because of the pandemic, the elderly lady who lived there was afraid to see a film crew arrive. I had to give up all my dreams of camera traffic in this house. I was distraught. After a night's sleep; I decided to open my maternal grandmother's house, which had remained closed since her death 10 years ago following family disputes. We did a major cleaning in the house for the needs of the film and at the same time we put some order in these old family stories which were becoming cumbersome. It was a blessing in disguise.

 

And finally, what would you like audiences to take away from Alma Viva?

 

There is a sentence in the film that has accompanied me since the beginning of the writing and which sums up this thought very well: "The living close the eyes of the dead, and the dead open the eyes of the living". We never think alone, we think with the dead and the living. Those who precede us are bearers of lessons. I would like people leaving the room to feel this sensitive link that we have, more or less consciously, with our ancestors.