Cannes 2021 Women Directors: Meet Nathalie Álvarez Mesén – “Clara Sola”

Nathalie Álvarez Mesén is a Costa Rican-Swedish writer and director. She is an alumna of Columbia University’s Graduate Film Program, the Berlinale Talents, and the TIFF Filmmaker Lab. Alvarez Mesén’s short films have screened at Telluride (“Asunder”), and Venice (“Entre Tú y Milagros”), where as co-writer she won the Horizons award for Best Short. Her short “Filip” won Best Film Under 15 Minutes at the 2016 Palm Springs Shortfest.

“Clara Sola” is screening in Directors’ Fortnight at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. The fest is taking place July 6-17.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

NÁM: We are invited into the intimate world of Clara, a woman who is believed to have a special connection to God, thus sought after for hope and prayers. We follow her journey to break free from the religious and social oppression that comes with that role of being a “saint.”

Empowered by the rediscovery of herself, she experiences many kinds of awakenings that take her to new territories, both physical and metaphysical.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

NÁM: I wrote the script with Maria Camila Arias. We were drawn to a mix of the many elements and themes that [shape] the world that Clara inhabits.

There was Clara, inhabiting the space between the honesty and magic of nature and the more restrictive “human world” that demands for her to play a specific role, far away from her true self.

We were also interested in how patriarchal norms were inherited from generation to generation disguised as tradition, even in households where no men were present. This sad phenomenon is one of the reasons the script came to be.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

NÁM: I never really made a plan for what the audience should think — for me, cinema and art in general enter through a space that is emotionally, and visually, driven rather than thought-driven.

But hopefully the audience will be exiting the world of the film feeling a bit more hopeful, understanding, liberated, entertained, or inspired to demand or make some change, in whatever scale is possible to them.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

NÁM: There are many of the things you expect, like time and budget limitations, but making a film is such a group effort and I always felt very supported in every stage.

The harder thing that no one prepared me for is how to take care of yourself and your personal relationships. Being stubborn enough to go through with the whole process sometimes comes at the cost of your life apart from the film. I guess that making your first feature is the school to finding some balance in this line of work with intensive periods and irregular hours.

It is a privilege to do what I do, but I do have conversations with colleagues about how we struggle to remind ourselves that putting equal effort into our “real life” and physical and mental health will mean that we’ll keep telling stories for a longer time.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

NÁM: The film is a co-production that involved European and Latin American film funds and some equity.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

NÁM: I’ve always been fascinated by visual storytelling. I have done theater since I was little and my BFA is in mime and physical theater. What initially drove me to film was the ability to communicate something very small — everything from a beetle to a particular moment — to a bigger audience.

Since then, I’ve fallen in love with so many other things about the process. It is a privilege to share questions, themes, characters, or stories that I feel need more visibility.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

NÁM: The best advice was from one of my producers, Alan McConnell, when I had a hard time making a decision regarding an experimental take on a scene. He said, “I’d rather the movie fails because we took a risk than failing because it was boring.”

I can’t think of any specific bad advice I’ve received, but in general, I’ve regretted when I don’t speak my mind regarding projects I’m involved with. With time I’ve learned that it’s best to always be honest even if you come out a little blunt and even if you are wrong. I’m more OK being wrong than bottling things up, I’ve discovered. But then it is important to apologize and hopefully move on.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

NÁM: After hearing a lot of horror stories about film sets from fellow women directors, I put a lot of time and love into finding the right crew. It’s kind of sad that it was needed, but I’ve inquired about specific things like if a potential candidate for the camera department would be OK working with a woman DP. Surprisingly, not all answers are positive.

It’s something that demands patience, but that hopefully won’t be necessary very soon. For now, I find it helpful in creating a healthy working environment for the team and for myself — a space where it doesn’t matter what gender I am since it has nothing to do with the work.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

NÁM: There are so so many, but I can easily say “The Wonders,” directed by Alice Rohrwacher and shot by Hélène Louvart. Their work always moves me deeply.

I saw this particular film some years ago for the first time. I watched it at the Lincoln Center in New York. When it finished, I was inexplicably crying — it was just so beautifully honest. There is a subtle magic in this film that I have a hard time sharing in words: it becomes a very intimate and individual experience instead.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

NÁM: I was fortunate enough to finish the shoot of “Clara Sola” just as the pandemic arrived in Costa Rica, and could work in a safe way during post-production afterwards. Apart from that, I’ve been working on developing my coming film, also produced by Nima Yousefi. This part of the process is lonely during some periods regardless of COVID-19, but having reduced social interaction could make it even more difficult to separate free time from working hours in the beginning. I slowly got the hang of it, tried to meet others in a safe way or Zoom, and of course, I got a cat friend. For me it’s easier to write when you have a cat. Whatever works!

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make it more inclusive?

NÁM: Money moves every other industry, so it’s needed here too.

I do think that at this stage certain funds should be aimed specifically for underrepresented communities and stories to enter the industry and screens with force. [There needs to be] opportunities in front of and behind the camera, such as jobs and education, but also in the funding of content.

There is so much great content coming out now that the industry is getting a bit more diverse. We see that there is hunger for it, an audience, a market. But there is a long way to go. Hopefully there comes a time where specific funding like this is not needed because diversity is a given, but for now, it is the only way that I can think of to encourage the normalization of a more diverse industry.

In the U.S. it’s often up to private people and companies — in other places, like in Europe, there is this possibility through the openness to co-produce with a country that has had less visibility in media and that probably has more modest film funds if any at all. Our movie falls into this category, being a European-Latin American co-production.

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