Season of sun, idle days and backless dresses, summer is a period of carnival, rebellion and vacation where time and space are turned upside-down, offering unique opportunities to experiment and develop. As such, summer provides an ideal backdrop for coming-of-age films like Summer 1993 (originally titled Estiu 1993), the first feature-length film by Carla Simón, a Catalan filmmaker based in Spain. Based on Simón’s own childhood experiences, the film tells the story of a young girl’s adoption by her uncle and aunt after losing her mother to AIDS-related pneumonia.
Prior to her mother’s death, Frida (played by the incredibly talented Laia Artigas) is a city kid living with HIV, surrounded by the sometimes excessive love of grandparents and aunts concerned for her wellbeing as a soon-to-be orphan. Though death is central to the story, the film rejects gloom in favour of a celebration of the positive implications of being positive: action, reaction and love. Its opening scene speaks less to grief than to transition, as fireworks in the streets of Barcelona seemingly salute Frida as she sets off for her new life in the countryside with her uncle (David Verdaguer) and his wife (Bruna Cusí). But Simón’s film is hardly a rose-tinted version of reality, and Frida’s integration into her extended family is not easy: she must cope with the loss of her mother and adjust to life in the country while continuing to receive medical treatment for HIV. Perhaps equally discombobulating to an urban only child, she is suddenly forced to share attention and possessions with a younger step-sister (Paula Robles).
Summer 1993 won the prize for best first feature and the Crystal Bear at the 2017 Berlinale, where it competed in the Generation section (dedicated to the experiences of youth). Like so many works in this category, Simón’s film has the ability to speak to adults and children. Masterfully blending the point of view of a six-year-old girl with the complexity of a dramatic, grown-up predicament, it creates a rich and textured experience that allows adult viewers to engage with multiple frames of reference simultaneously: as we empathize with the young protagonist’s grief, we connect to the hot, bucolic landscape of the film as though to a personal memory. Summer 1993’s specificity of place, time (the colourful carelessness of the early ’90s, masterfully recreated through costume and set design) and language (the dialogue is entirely in Catalan) results in an immersive, nostalgic viewing experience.
Shortly before Summer 1993 was announced as Spain’s entry to the Oscars and Catalonia declared independence from Spain, I sat down with Carla Simón. We spoke about scriptwriting, growing up in the ’90s, and motherhood, as well as her intentions as a filmmaker.
Children facing death was something I really wanted to explore.
How did you come to the decision to tell this story?
I was studying in London and I had made a short film, which I wrote after my grandfather’s death, about two siblings who find their grandma dead. Children facing death was something I really wanted to explore. Even before the short film, I had already tried to write the story of my mum, who died when I was six, but it was very difficult to “know” what she went through—because, you know, I wasn’t there. These two interests made me want to start talking about my own experience, and about the moments after my mother died.
The story starts at the beginning of summer, a classic season for coming-of-age films. Did the events unfold during a summer in your own life? How much of Summer 1993 is auto-fiction?
My summer of 1993 had nothing to do with the one in the film. My mother died in March and I finished the school year in Barcelona. That summer, I moved to my new place, but I was with my aunt and grandparents, so it wasn’t like I was suddenly with my new family. It was crucial to find the right timeframe for the film. I kept looking back on my memories, I asked for other people’s memories, and I even used my childhood photos as inspiration, which produced two or three scenes throughout the film that are “real.” The rest is fiction, or inspired by reality but transformed into something else. My first script was a collection of moments that didn’t really have a structure or a journey for the characters. The first and last scene stayed the same, but the rest really transformed a lot. Using my personal material sometimes made it hard to know what was important and what wasn’t, and I decided to attend [writing labs like Berlinale Talents] to get some feedback. We did a lot of drafts, sometimes even too many; at one point, I was hearing too many voices and I had to find myself again. Yet, all the opinions I heard about the script helped me in some way. Writing is a very long process—with these labs you kind of share it, and it doesn’t feel so long.
Just like a character in a coming-of-age story, your film went through many transformations.
I read a lot about children’s psychology and did some research focusing on how children face death. What does a six-year-old girl understand about death? It was also a way for me to comprehend what I understood when I was a kid. Children grow so fast that the concept of death really changes a lot depending on their age: when you are four you can understand some things, when you are five some others. I also did research about the adoption process, which was very useful because it helped to structure the whole story. I learned that when a kid arrives in a new family environment she or he observes a lot and behaves very well—there’s a sort of “honeymoon” because the child is afraid of being abandoned again, and they want to make a good impression and see if they can trust the new family. Once they understand that they can trust their adoptive family, children start pushing against the boundaries. The “real” kid comes back, the one who has been hurt. When the boundaries are kind of set, the family can start to function together. This insight was very helpful in establishing the structure of the film and the psychological journey of Frida.
I connected so strongly with Frida’s world, in part because of the costumes and set design. I had the same t-shirt featuring Cobi, the mascot from Barcelona’s 1992 Summer Olympics. The ’90s are extremely accurately recreated.
That was a very nice aspect to work on. The pictures from my childhood were super useful—not only for the costumes, but the props. It’s kind of a period film focused on a very specific moment. Sometimes the set designer would come up with something that all the crew would remember. The toys are partly mine or from my family; in this way, they could get across feelings that had been shut away in our cupboards for years, you know? It was crucial that the set didn’t look too staged. The great thing about the rural house and the village is that they haven’t changed very much.
Another detail that struck me is that we hear a lot of jazz, played by the uncle/new adoptive father. Can you tell me about that?
I don’t like to score films because in real life we don’t have that. But, at the same time, my childhood was full of music. My adoptive dad is a musician, so there was always music in my house and it came very naturally to include some jazz tunes in the film. My brother is a musician too. He’s only 21 but he composed all the jazz tracks.
It’s almost like a collaborative film project.
Yes! Ann, my little sister, is also an artist and she’s in the film as well. She plays the young aunt, the one with curly hair.
The world of children is filled with magic: they tell themselves stories in order to understand the incomprehensible. Was your intention to be realistic or true to your memories?
My intentions were towards a realistic tone. I’ve seen many films about children facing death where, at some point, the mother (or whoever died) appears. This didn’t happen to me—I never saw my mum again. It’s crucial to express this feeling: Frida may have her fantasies, but she also realizes that they will not come true at the end—she’ll never see her mum again. I’ve been asked if I would ever try magic realism. At this point, I would be more ready to do something like that, but in the case of Summer 1993 it was really important to say, “No, I could have my fantasies but they all vanished at some point.” To achieve a natural tone was important.
Speaking of magic realism, there’s a scene early on in which Frida and her little sister attend a recital where kids perform choreography with their heads wrapped in giant papier-mâché-like masks. The scene is surreal, funny and fascinating.
This is a typical tradition in all Catalan villages [known as “Gegants i cabuts”]. When I saw it the first time—coming from the city—it seemed very weird and scary. Local kids have a lot of fun with that. I really like portraying folklore, because when you see it from an outsider’s point of view, it’s always a bit weird, but for the people of Catalonia, this is the most natural thing—although it is very cinematic, for us it’s not that special. Also, it was important to show the identity of the village.
Performance also feels like a key theme: in one scene, Frida is all dressed up, playing with her new little sister and pretending to be a sophisticated woman (maybe her mother?). How did you manage to show the way Frida perceives things while keeping the camera’s gaze so empathetic?
Kids are the centre of everything. As a director, you have to spend a lot of time taking care of other things—in terms of camera work, we had to find a way to shoot that was simple and would not get in the way of the actors’ performances. It wasn’t easy, because I like to develop choreography between actors, camera, shots and aesthetics. The crew had to give up all of that to really focus on the girls. [The film represents] my history and I had my images, and I wanted to recreate them the way they appear in my mind while maintaining a natural tone in the acting. Ultimately, it was a fundamental decision: it wasn’t going to look the way it did in my mind in terms of visuals, but at least I would achieve the tone I wanted.
The film also addresses the politics of motherhood and fatherhood, and the ethics of being in a family. Is it correct to say that Summer 1993 is dedicated to your adoptive mother?
It’s dedicated to my biological mother. It was interesting to think about motherhood—I had never thought about that. Suddenly, when I was writing the script, I realized how my new parents must have felt, how my biological mother must have felt when she died. Frida just lost her mother, and she lost her father so long ago she doesn’t even remember. The figure she really needs is a new mother. That’s why the relationship between her and Marga [her adoptive mother] is a lot more developed than the one with the dad, who is going through the death of his sister. Really, it’s the mother who takes care of everything, because I think women are a lot stronger than men when it comes to grief and dealing with death.
I teach film to kids and every year we make a short film; sharing this creative process is also a very important part of my life, a way to see cinema.
Frida also needs to learn how to share things. I want to connect this to the idea that cinema is a means of sharing stories, information, visions.
Definitely. It was a big change for me, going from being an only child to having a sister and learning to share my life. I really admire films that feel honest, where the viewer can sense that the director is telling a story coming from the inside, that they “need” to tell. I teach film to kids and every year we make a short film; sharing this creative process is also a very important part of my life, a way to see cinema. For me, cinema is so close to life that it really helps me understand life and, well, life helps me make cinema!
I want to ask you about the casting process, because the two girls who play Frida and her sister are amazing. How did you become so involved with kids?
I thought about that many times. When you feel vulnerable and fragile as a kid, you suddenly develop an empathy with young children. I’ve always worked with kids: at the summer school in my village when I was younger, and later in NGOs in Barcelona. Finally, I started teaching film to kids. I can’t picture my life without a connection to kids—it really allows me to learn lots of things.
A tricky question, given the political unrest happening as we speak in Spain and Catalonia: why did you decide to shoot the film in Catalan and with such a strong Catalan influence, perhaps hampering its odds of commercial success?
For me, it was the most natural thing. I spent my childhood in Catalonia and probably never spoke Spanish until I left for Barcelona to study at university. That’s how it is in these small villages. My only contact with Spanish was through films and TV. Initially, I thought we should do the film in Spanish to make it easier to distribute, but it was suddenly so strange to have this set-up in a small Catalan village and speak Spanish. Also, I feel that the characters are quite Catalan, as they don’t communicate a lot—compared, for instance, with the people from the south of Spain. But of course you have to make sure you have enough options in terms of actors because it’s a small region. Luckily, they all had the looks and were talented enough!
Are you already thinking about future projects?
Now I’m in Barcelona, and I don’t have much time to write—which is difficult!—but the two projects I am thinking of are based in Spain. One is based in Catalonia, and the other one starts in Catalonia and finishes somewhere else. I would like to make a film in English in the future—having lived in England for some time and worked with British actors, who are so great—but at the moment it feels like such a huge step. Right now I can’t go from shooting in my village to somewhere else—I want to keep it personal.