Paula Hernández’s “The Sleepwalkers” is an intimate and powerful study of mother-daughter relationships, teenagehood and marriage, carefully built to create tension through dialogue, quarrels and desire, until finally exploding in a chaotic third act. It’s also Argentina’s brilliant Oscar submission for the 2021 Best International Feature race.
The film opens in a most memorable way. Luisa (played by an excellent Érica Rivas) wakes up to find her teen daughter Ana (Ornella D’Elía in a breakout performance) sleepwalking in the living room and with blood flowing down her leg. This is when Luisa discovers that her daughter has started to menstruate. Next thing we know, Luisa and Ana are heading toward a New Year’s Eve reunion at the family’s country house. During the following days, that first scene will loudly resonate in the frail dynamics of this family.
From a difficult financing process to being selected to the Oscars, “The Sleepwalkers” had quite the journey. And to explore its depth, I talked with director Paula Hernández, who not only gave me fascinating insight into the development process, but also explained the current situation of Argentina’s film industry.
What does it mean for you that “The Sleepwalkers” was selected as Argentina’s Oscar entry?
I think it’s great. It depends on the year, but around 200 films are released on average here, so the fact that the Academy of Argentina voted for “The Sleepwalkers” is a recognition of the work we have done over so many years. Many times, the Argentinian entrees are the ones that have a much larger structure. Ours is a film that doesn’t have great production behind it; it’s from an independent production company called Tarea Fina. So it’s good to see other types of films being selected. As for me, it’s interesting because it will open doors and give me a little spotlight, but I know I have to take everything with a grain of salt. We know there are ups and downs in all of this, but meanwhile it’s good to enjoy it.
You are the fifth Argentinian director to represent your country at the Oscars, but the third in the last thirteen years. I think this speaks of a more open mindset in the Argentinian film industry. How has Argentine cinema grown in gender terms in recent years?
I hadn’t counted, but I know Lucrecia [Martel], Lucía [Puenzo] and María Luisa Bemberg — who won it — are in that list. I do think that this speaks of something that is not only inherent to cinema, but also has to do with a need for change in society. Historically, women have always been in second place, so I think visibility is very important because, in principle, there should be the same opportunities for men and women alike. Equality is necessary. If we keep one point of view, which is the historical, patriarchal, masculine point of view, then there’s something missing. And I think that’s good for men too. There are many things in which they surely lose but also other things they gain.
You’ve been working many decades. How have you experienced these changes in the industry?
Argentina has changed a lot over the years. I am 51 years old, but when I started working in cinema, at 19, it was an absolutely masculine structure in which women had a very complicated place. Ten years later, the change coincided with the great explosion and opening of film schools in Argentina, as well as the opening of the BAFICI, the Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival. These schools were filled by women who wanted to direct, write or produce. It all changed slowly but steadily. There’s a long way to go, but today, you can see that women occupy places in the local film industry. This goes hand in hand with the social movements, such as “Ni una menos” and the legalization of abortion in the country. The new generations have a different mindset that are revolutionizing things. Everything works together. Because I’ve been working in cinema for so many years, I’ve seen this progression.
What attracted you so much to the concept of sleepwalking when writing the film?
Sleepwalking plays out in the film in two ways. On one hand, there is a metaphorical idea that interests me the most and it has to do with how this family connects to others, how they relate to their own story and the possibility of accepting or not the changes happening in their universe, of being either asleep or awake. The sleepwalking state proposes many questions relating to unconscious acts in which there’s a drive expressed in some way. I was very interested in working with that. We have a ritualistic, endogamous family that has been supporting structures that, somehow, no longer feel comfortable to anyone, but they keep supporting either way.
Also, it plays out in the opening scene in which Ana finds her daughter sleepwalking and menstruating. I was interested in working with connecting the idea of sleepwalking with the thriller genre. There’s this feeling that something terrifying might happen during the night, which is a moment that is supposed to be for resting. That’s precisely when the terror manifests itself, and in the film, it has something to do with this new universe opening up for both Ana and Luisa… with how life begins to have new shades and colors after this shock.
The film is a timebomb. You know something is going to happen; you know the bomb will go off at any minute. There’s a lot of claustrophobia going on. In the writing process, how did you plan this tension, and then, how did you manage to stage those feelings?
I started writing the script at the start of 2015. There were many rewrites all the way until the shooting in 2018, three years later. I write what I want to direct. If you read my scripts, they are not just scripts in which you read the actions or the description of a scene; I also talk about tone and what I want to convey. The difficulty relied on finding the curve of the accumulation of tension. Every scene had to add something to that tension; it was a very meticulous process. This is not a film with a great plot, but a film that accumulates states until they explode.
When writing, I had to always think about the staging. The idea of following the point of view of two characters who had to carry the whole situation in their backs was something that appeared during writing. The house was also important, a place where spatiality wasn’t clear. I didn’t like the idea of the open field, but of an open space that could feel hostile because nature can also be an oppressive place.
There were many rehearsals leading to the actual shooting of the film. What were these rehearsals about? How did they help you in the directing process?
In the rehearsals we read scenes, rethought them, listened to them and even rewrote them. There were scenes that were precise, and I already knew how I wanted to shoot them, but others required a little bit more searching. I also wanted the performers to meet beforehand. It was going to be a tight five-week shoot, so for me, it was very important to start with everyone fully familiarized with the world. We already had to have a believable family on the first day of shooting.
Ornella D’Elía is excellent in the film. I always admire directors that work so well with young performers. How was your workflow with her? What challenges did you have?
We had a three-month special training work with every young performer in the film. Ornella went through five castings not because of her skills, but because I was trying to understand what character I wanted to build. Ana ended up being a character going through a noticeable transitional moment in which she leaves infancy behind to step into a universe in which the idea of desire exists.
Ornella wasn’t anything like the Ana character, but she did great transformative work for the film. She’s in her teenage years, building an identity, but we were trying to dismantle that for the role. It was a performance that required a lot of commitment, of understanding which traits were Ana’s and which were Ornella’s. She dived into a very complex role. The work was about building confidence and trying to reach Ana, without neglecting Ornella.
You faced obstacles when trying to finance the film. What happened?
Part of it had to do with a change of government that came with a significant budget cut to cultural activities. The Instituto de Cine changed its entire funding plan just when I had the film. In Argentina, about 80% of auteur cinema is produced with state money, but independent film needs more support from the state than those with support from a streaming platform or a TV station. So, there were many delays related to the state. It was difficult finding a balance. While waiting for the state money, we had to find private funding to be able to support the film. During that time, we kept rethinking the film based on what was happening with the budget. And when they finally authorized us to go out and shoot the film, we were in the middle of winter, so we had to wait. It was hard work, but If I look on the bright side, it allowed the film to mature.
On February 9, the Academy will announce the 15 shortlisted films in the Best International Picture race, in which “The Sleepwalkers” is competing. Next for Paula Hernández is “The Siamese Bond” (“Las Siamesas”), a road movie that explores mother-daughter relationships, as well as the dynamics behind the freedom of love and decision-making. It got a very positive reception at the Mar de Plata International Film Festival, so it probably won’t be long before it can be seen in other parts of the world.
Ricardo is a Mexico City based bilingual writer, digital animation graduate and awards season nerd. He also enjoys pro wrestling, is a Paddington fan and is the founder of the film website “La Estatuilla.”