To say that family gatherings aren’t always easy feels like a severe understatement. Birthdays, weddings, Christmases, reunions – they may have been organised with the best of intentions but the pressure of ‘the event’ can often lead to the explosion of unspoken, unresolved issues. This is the very subject of Bebé (Baby), Cristina Sánchez Salamanca’s short film about Nina, a young girl who is struggling to see where she fits into her divorced father’s new family. What’s clever about Salamanca’s film is how she takes that concentrated intensity of familial tension and portrays it with a realistic subtly. This isn’t a soap opera and plates don’t go flying when everything erupts. Instead, we see an eruption on a quieter, more intimate level and that makes for much more compelling viewing. Now, as the film begins to charter film festivals worldwide, DN joined Salamanca for a deep dive on Bebé, learning how the director’s upbringing inspired the story, why she was influenced on a visual level by an Andrew Wyeth painting, and how fleshing out each of her character’s allowed her to gain perspective into the knotty nature of family.
So many of the moments in Bebé are small, intimate and character-driven. What was it about this story that drew you to tell it?
Inspiration for Bebé came from way back. My parents got divorced when I was seven and it was a very messy divorce. He remarried shortly after to the woman he fell in love with, and it all suddenly became about sides. For me it was an impossible puzzle to solve. If I was friendly to this woman, I would be betraying my mother. And if I was indifferent to her, and didn’t accept her, my relationship with my father would break. And that’s exactly what happened. It became a very difficult and lonely period for me, where I had a tough time feeling like a part of my new family. I felt unloved and unwanted, and I didn’t want or love them as well.
And when you began thinking about how to translate this core idea into a film, how did you approach that?
From there, I started to explore visual imagery. I had always had a special relation to Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World, not only because she was my namesake but because I felt the emptiness it conveyed. Although I couldn’t see her face, her body language, the desolate sky, the yearning to reach that house from afar, made me feel understood. So for the short I knew this was a great place to start and I wanted to recreate that same shot and composition in the modern context in which my story took place. The image of this young girl, turning her back to us, yearning for a place she has in front of her but she can’t reach became the center of this story.
The film is told from Nina’s perspective and has its roots in your experiences but what additional things did you need to consider to fully flesh out the story?
There was a very interesting therapeutic way to approach the characters for me. I had always tapped into Nina’s world with ease but I had to learn to understand and empathize with the father, the stepmother and even the stepsister. In order to tell this story correctly, I had to understand in a day how many small things could go wrong, how many miscommunications could take place to the point of breaking them. In the end, the big event that makes us argue or fight is rarely the reason why it’s happening, it’s just the most painful symptom of our sorrow, anger or grief.
I had to understand in a day how many small things could go wrong, how many miscommunications could take place to the point of breaking them.
As I said at the start, the moments that really shine in Bebé are those quiet ones. A look or a gesture between two people. Was it important for you to channel this story through those spaces?
I wanted to work closely with the actors, and explore these micro-events that during the day, they were all bottling up. A gesture that made them feel embarrassed in public. A phrase they felt was passive-aggressive. A look that hurt more than any insult. Each character had their own emotional downfall they were slowly internalizing. I wanted to dissect the complexities of a modern family, how communication is always broken and leads to more inner conflict. And having that in mind, I knew they couldn’t really talk about it in the end. Families never do. Families just wait for it to blow over. I’m not sure what the future brings for this family. I know after that day they all see each other in a different light.
Alongside the obvious importance of casting a young lead who could convey the subtlety of emotion, you also needed to find the right domestic location in which to stage the film. How difficult were both those elements to find?
This seemed like a simple and contained short. Four characters and a house. So production-wise, we had two immense challenges. Casting and location. We started with casting, searching for Nina. It was a very complicated role to cast. I feel there’s an internalized misogyny within all of us, that makes us judge and reject very easily a girl or woman we see who isn’t acting accordingly. Nina could easily be an unlikeable character. She can come off as spoiled, bratty or just sociopathic. And even pitching the short, these were most of the first impressions of many readers. They just didn’t like her. To me, Nina is likeable and loveable because of the fact she feels unloved. I think this is a feeling we can all relate to, and this is something I find to be very beautiful about the human condition. So after casting sessions with almost a hundred girls, we decided to go with Majo. She had the most expressive eyes and an absolute tenderness to her that made the character finally become human.
With the location, we almost couldn’t find one. We only had four shooting days, and we needed a house with good interiors, good exteriors, as well as a direct visual line between the two, and a forest nearby. Every place we saw had one or two, but none had the three and the ones that did were way out of our budget. The process was especially frustrating because in that period we were under a very strict quarantine and social protests had erupted in the country, so moving around was very challenging. I remember being very close to shooting and venting out to a dear friend about not finding the location yet and she suggested we went to her family’s country house. It was our last resort and when we got there, it was perfect for every head of department’s needs.
How did you work on the delivery of the visual language of Bebé?
With Luciana Riso, our wonderful DP, we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to shoot and how. I personally like shooting with a dogmatic manual I write with the DP. A manual that forces me to stick in the language of the universe and challenges me to find more interesting but cohesive ways to narrate visually. When Luciana read the script she asked me what shot I had in my mind already, and it was always clear for me: the shot where the present is unboxed. I knew that was the moment where Nina would break in front of everyone but with nobody knowing. And I always wanted it to be a long shot that started wide with the whole party and slowly zoomed in until it became a close up of her. Her reaction to that was: this is a Western, and it’s something that just clicked for us. We decided to reimagine the Western, the outlaw and their stand-offs, in a modern intimate family portrait and wrote our shot list with that concept in mind. We shot with ultra-wide anamorphic lenses which would enhance that sensation, and even in editing we decided to keep the ultra wide format of 2:66:1 for screening.
I wanted to dissect the complexities of a modern family, how communication is always broken and leads to more inner conflict.
Given how personal a story this is to you, I’m curious to know if finishing the film has made you reflect on these familial dynamics in a different way.
Bebé is an exploration of the human condition, a dissection of brokenness in every sense. Broken families, broken communications, broken bonds, and broken people. I have a strong affection and attraction for these characters and their humanity. I also wanted to explore a darkness in girlhood and femininity, a darkness that’s often washed away in the thousands of portrayals of girlhood where we’re forced into innocence and tenderness. I feel girls have an incredible obscurity to them. Their thoughts, their actions, their beings are loaded and full of a force that we’re taught to repress and reject. In this short film, this darkness looms and gets a hold of Nina for a brief moment. But there’s a whole universe of her that’s still left to explore. A universe of her sexuality, of her intimacy, of her relationship not with her father but her mother and the women in her life.
Does that hint towards what you might be working on next?
This is the next project I’m working on, which is the feature film where this universe is expanded. This character means a lot to me, she’s become a reflection of my own condition and humanity and as she has grown and evolved so have I.