Two decades following the passing of her mother, writer-director Carla Simón was en route to London to study at the London Film School where she was taught something very special about the way we’re telling stories. A year after her 30th birthday anniversary, Simón polishing off her debut feature, which won her the Berlin Best First Feature award in 2017, Spain’s entry for the 2018 Academy Awards and numerous more Spanish and Catalan prizes.
Simón’s autobiographical film Summer 1993, is a powerful look into children’s psychology and their ability to cope with change and difficult circumstances. A reminiscent of Carlos Saura’s acclaimed 1976 film Cría Cuervos, it turns out that Simón is deeply inspired by Suara’s affecting work alongside Víctor Erice’s spellbinding 1973 classic, The Spirit of the Beehive.
Summer 1993 took less than three years to put together despite challenges including, working with children for every single scene and adapting to the film’s style in order to recreate a 90s Catalonia. Nonetheless, six years-old Laia Artigas and four years-old Paula Robles are remarkable in their roles as Frida and Anna respectively and Simón’s film explores the universal stories of childhood and family.
I spoke to Simón about her film and journey while preparing for it ahead of its UK release.
Can you take us through the early stages of writing your script?
A long time ago, before I came to study in London, I tried to write a script about my mum’s life from when she got pregnant to when she died. It was an excuse for me to go out, meet her friends and get to know her a bit more. This stayed there and then I came to London where I made a short film called Lipstick about two siblings and their grandmother. That was when I realised it wasn’t my mum’s story that I wanted to tell but how I lived because I don’t have many memories of her and I remember how I felt. I realised that I wanted to explore how children face death.
At the London Film School they always told us that we should start talking about what we know so I took it seriously. Also being away from home it gave more value to my background. I tried to write it as a graduation short film but then I felt that I needed more time to explain the story. So I ended up making another short film instead and my story became my debut feature later on.
Do you think you’ll continue working with children?
Probably. I love working with children maybe because it’s like a game. Obviously it’s difficult and you suffer because you put so much weight on their hands. But I’ve always worked with kids in summer schools as a monitor teacher and I also teach film to them. I guess when you have had a childhood that was fragile, it’s normal that you’re sensitive with children’s lives.
Tell us about your research and how much of an input did your personal experience have to this?
The first draft of my script was just a collection of memories, things that I was told and ideas I had by looking through family pictures. But at some point I said that this is just what I’ve heard and what I remember, just my case. I really needed to understand how it is for the kids in general to face an adoption process.
I read a lot of books to learn how children’s psychology works in a more generic way. And it was really beautiful because I could recognise myself in all these things that I was reading. It was very useful to understand the emotional journey I made and the journey that Frida had to take. There was this thing about the phases of an adoption process that was very useful to organise all my material: in the beginning Frida needs to observe and see if she can really trust her new family so she behaves very well and it’s like a honeymoon. But when she realises that she can really trust them, she acts out to test their limits and it goes on until they say ok, it’s enough. Once these limits are set then the family starts working on their own dynamics and Frida feels that she can feel loved here.
I was not so conscious of all this before I made the film and that’s very curious. But I knew that kids have this amazing ability of getting a new place and having a new start. I remember more about my need to feed in this family than my grief for my mum – I have more memories about that. So I knew the tone, I knew that there was drama but at the same time it needed light, that’s why I decided to set up the film in the summer because even if when something bad happens, kids can keep playing and they try to look forward.
Did you bring your new parents into this process and did you intend to have a documentary angle even though it’s a fiction film?
Yes, I talked a lot to my dad who would say that he can’t remember, he’s not a good story teller. But my mum is and she would explain things to me without really knowing how they would be useful. So the basis of the story is real but the film turned out to be fiction; it couldn’t have been told from a child’s perspective. We really followed the script but it was very important to make it in a way that it feels like you’re watching bits of life. And I’m really emotional when that works because this is how it is in life.
Was Cria Cuervos an inspiration to you?
Yes, I love that film. Both Cria Cuervos and The Spirit of the Beehive and what I like about these films is that they really portray this complex psychology of children. Both films play with a very settled context of the Spanish history and I think it’s really interesting. They look into important issues, like the dictatorship, in a non-direct way but you can really feel it by reading into the period that the films were set on.
Tell us about Catalonia in the 90s and the AIDS epidemic.
It was beautiful to make a period piece about a time that we all lived. Most of us remember the 90s. When we started developing the film we thought that we should mention the element of stigma around AIDS because it’s still evident today. My parents died of AIDS but it wasn’t really talked about because of taboo. Spain was the country with the biggest instants of AIDS cases. Some 20,000 people died from AIDS and 50,000 people were infected with the HIV virus, so it’s really a lot of people that got it.
I think it was mainly because Spain went through a transition to democracy when Franco died and it was a really happy time. But then a lot of drugs came along and that particular time was famously termed as the “heroin crisis”. So lots of people got hooked into heroin and wanted to explore how it is to be free and live things but they didn’t know about the consequences. Then AIDS came along and so it happens that today everyone knows of someone who died from AIDS. It was a big thing so it was interesting to have this as a context but I didn’t want to make a film just about that.
Did you feel discriminated while you were little and is this stigma something that we should be concerned about?
The stigma is still everywhere but I didn’t really live the stigma because I was only told about parents when I was 12. So I thought if the story is told from Frida’s point of view, this has to be a minor thing because she didn’t know what it was. So in my film I had to find ways to communicate how my parents died.
In my village I think they probably found out about my parents from the film. I did talk about it with my new family but my grandparents weren’t so aware of this: it was a big-big secret. Now maybe because of the homosexual community who really talk about that and are more informed, HIV campaigns help people to be more aware and get tested. Also through talking with organisations working with HIV infected people, it is evident that the stigma is still there. Not in the same way, it doesn’t mean death now but people still don’t know many things about it. There’s still so much misinformation.
In Spain, they say, 10 people get the HIV virus every day so still nowadays, what are we doing? There’s still a stigma but there’s also no interest at all in doing something about it. People don’t think that we have to get tested and get protected. It’s sad that young people still don’t get it. For instance I was really surprised when a young girl once said to me, “It’s like a vintage thing”. But you can get it any moment if you go around and not take protection.
What do you think pushed your parents to heroin use and in your life did you have this desire yourself or did you have a completely opposite reaction to it?
I’ve had the complete opposite reaction. I was always the one from my group to say to everyone get away from it. I’m just very afraid of it. I think it was so normal what happened in Spain at the time because society and youth were really depressed. Nobody could be who they wanted to be and at some point Franco died and this moment of explosion and freedom came. People were just celebrating the fact that they were free and they needed experiences and to try things. Also the new government thought that if these people are into drugs then they’re not into politics. I don’t know if that’s true but the thing is that they didn’t really do enough to stop this.
My father was Galician and lots of drugs came from there because of the geography of the place, it was very easy to bring them. And then it was this movement with the Galician mums saying, please put some order here, kids are dying. But they didn’t really know the consequences and that AIDS was a threat. I don’t judge them, people felt that that was what they wanted to do at this moment. And heroin is a difficult drug because of its addictive nature.
My mum had a crazy youth but she also had a very strong personality. Everybody tells me that when she wanted something, she just did it. So at some point she said that she didn’t want to continue like that and decided to have a child. It was when I was born that she found out she was HIV positive. So you have this woman who went a bit crazy and then she decided to have a normal life. In fact she never stopped working, she continue to have a normal life and then suddenly she realised that she had HIV so it was really like a death sentence for her. She had to find the strength to keep going and she was very happy that I didn’t get it.
Why did you choose to open your film with fireworks and close it with carnival celebrations?
Traditions during festivities are important in the family somehow because it’s when people get together. We celebrate the shortest night of the year, the summer solstice, with fireworks and music and I think it’s very Catalan. My mum didn’t die on that day, she died in March. But my granddad died during Christmas and I remember everybody celebrating something and myself not quite feeling the same as everyone else. So I thought this feeling was dramatic enough and interesting to start the film with.
At the end, Capgrossos and Gegants are very typical Catalan festivities, which we celebrate at the end of the summer so it was a way of closing the story.
Summer 1993 is in UK cinemas from 13 July 2018