Chiara Malta’s documentary “Armando e la politica” (2008) premiered as the opening night film at the Torino Film Festival. She has, subsequently, written and directed numerous short films where she combines fiction, animation, and documentary such as for instance, “L’Isle” (2006), “Waiting for a Woman” (2010) and “L’Amour à trois” (2010) or “Le cinema français se porte bien” (2012), among others.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where her debut feature, “Simple Women,” premiered in the Discovery strand of the festival.
I understand Simple Women is based on your own encounter with Elina Löwensohn and your own admiration of her. How did it come about?
Chiara Malta: It didn’t start as an admiration because I am not the character, I am the director and I just wanted to work with this actress. I appreciate her work. I don’t know if there are enough nuances in this idea of admiration and appreciation, but I just wanted to work with this actress as I would have with other actresses. What I like about this actress is that she worked in the United States, but she is Romanian and there is a sentence that she used to say on television, but told a friend of mine who knows her better than I: “I am not an American actress” and I think that I built a sort of cathedral above this sentence – the cathedral being the film.
Why did you want to work with Elina Löwensohn? What was your interest in her and how did you get her to work with you?
C.M.: I partially answered that in the previous question because things are related. In this case, she said: “I am not an American actress” and this is her own life. She is really Romanian and this is the truth. And the idea to work on a film that is between the East and the West too allowed me to talk about the question of idols even in a political sense. Elina is a great actress and a person of a story that stimulates my own imagination as a director as it is the case with Federica, but probably in a different way.
Like in your previous work, you don’t really see the difference between reality and fiction; there’s a thin line and you play with them and question the objectivity of the truth. Can you talk about that?
C.M.: You know, it’s a subject that makes my head spin because I haven’t stopped working on it, deepening it because there is no hand at that. I think that the idea of truth and lie is deeply rooted cinema. In this case, I talk about cinema itself. I think that what I am interested in in cinema is a personal vision of directors, but because of that, there isn’t an objective way of storytelling. I think it’s why I try to question all of that.
Would it be fair to say that Federica is based a bit on you?
C.M.: It’s very useful to create one’s own double in art and literature because it’s true that if we have something we don’t like, we can get rid of it and pass it on to our double. A friend of mine told me about how she dressed and the fact that it’s not feminine and there are, I think, some parts of me that are not feminine that I gave to this character. A little bit. Something that is intellectual, cerebral that allows me to feel because there is a sensorial part in the film and I needed a body to give my brain to in this character. I give her my brain so I can be more sensitive as a director, probably more feminine too – I don’t know. Just because this idea of the risk to work with an actress from whom we ask to play ourselves is that the film could be coming from within, from the gut, but I am afraid of that and I think that I can talk about my life starting from the belly button as a zoom out. So in the case of Federica, I think that there is a reflection about the truth and the lie and this is a film that talks about the attempt of a woman telling the story of the someone’s life and all the lies that it contains in the storytelling. Because I decided to have a main character that is not a writer, I think that the actress decided to inspire herself from me because I am a director, because I decided I wanted a director as the main character and she needed, as all the actors do, a model of sorts. I was close to her so, naturally, she looked at me. There is a metamorphosis, like actors can do, and I liked this idea because there, she became Elina and myself, so in the end, we are probably the same person.
Jasmine Trinca is such a great actress. I’ve seen her in a lot of films and she has is so chameleonic different in every film, you can’t even sense one bit of her own self, which is extremely rare in actors. How did you work with her and why did you cast her?
C.M.: It was the first and the last actress I met for the role. It’s my casting director who thought of her. I love this actress, but at first, when I wrote my film, I didn’t immediately think of her, but the moment my casting director told me about her, it became evident that there is no other possibility because I probably felt in Jasmine a natural humor that I think other directors are starting to see only now. In the past, her comic potential was not used enough and I wanted to do that with this film, especially because the idea that it will be a look at all this complicated stuff that, ironically, I do not take seriously. It was important to me to have an actress who has this type of potential that can help me make a film become more and more ironic even if you write something, you can sometimes find the most ironic situation in your actors on the set in the way they move or what they say. There is something a little bit shy about her and I think that starting from this shyness, I could find a certain embarrassment, a certain clumsiness and I like this idea of clumsiness in a director who is looking for something because I don’t think the character is unpleasant. She is not pretentious and she is invaded by her own questions that are not easy, but she goes on with something that is auto-ironic.
At the end of it all, she is very human. And Jasmine has managed, I see now, to copy all your hand movements perfectly!
C.M.: It’s an original character and what like about her is that when she was a little girl, she was too eccentric for her three aunts who say she crawled backwards when she was a baby. I like this idea because we ask a person today to move forward and there is always an idea of progress but, sometimes, when you walk backwards, you can see reality better; it’s not only in one direction.
Can you talk about the title?
C.M.: It’s not an homage. It’s this idea of mirroring life and reality, so there is a film that is called “Simple Men” and another – this one – called “Simple Women.”
The film’s intention is to play with two aspects of the same person – the “real” and the fictional Elina can be juxtaposed and both can be deceptive at the same time. Can you comment on that?
C.M.: What I don’t like is when we say: “truth” and “fiction.” There is a sort of idea of something that is divided in two, which is very easy. It’s not a question of something that is divided in two, but what you think is true can be fake and we can go on and it doesn’t stop anymore, so it’s not two, it can be a million and the point is not to show something that is just double, but it’s the suspicion that I want to work on; it’s this moment where you don’t believe anymore.
And sometimes, the truth can be deceptive – what Federica thinks of Elina… She has one idea of Elina and when she finds out the truth about her, she is a bit disappointed and you play with the idiom “Never meet your heroes,” taking it to amusing and somewhat disturbing extremes.
C.M.: Elina plays with that in the sense that Federica is younger than her and I hope that when we watch the film, we think about that, too. She is a young woman – even the gypsy says it – and when she was even younger, she asked this question herself and we question things until the end of our lives. We can question cinema, but not only. I think that Elina is not always serious and she is selfish too, but I like this aspect of her character because after all, truth, fiction, what I show you, what I am, your idols, all of this is not important because the most important thing is that she has to participate in a great film and continue her career. And Federica is a very concerned, obstinate and very fragile director. I like these two characters because they complement each other; what one misses, the other one has it. I think Federica can learn something from Elina because she is an experienced actress and woman and she is older, so she knows all this stuff because she has been an actress for a long time and because she is just an older person.
How involved was Elina in the construction of her character?
C.M.: She didn’t participate in the construction of this character because it would’ve been too much because it started from her so, in a way, she participated a lot by just being Elina and telling me about her life. All of it is true because I really started from that, and I kept some moments from her life that she probably never kept, the parts that interested me. But I didn’t ask her: “Which is, according to you, the most important moment that will be in my own film?” This happened in the construction of the character in the script. After, what happened is that she worked as any actress would even if it’s a film about her, a film that started with her. She worked with a character so, when you are a director, you have a character in your mind and then, you work with an actor to combine your vision and what the actor can give you and, sometimes, you can be surprised. But I think that for this type of work, Elina can interpret anybody, it doesn’t have to be herself; she just did her own work.
There has been a lot of talk about women in film in the past two years. What is your opinion on that matter? Where do you see yourself in that conversation? How is it in Italy?
C.M.: I have just entered the film industry, so I can’t really appreciate the changes. I can imagine that if they came late, the delay wasn’t only in cinema as it’s an objective affair about women in general. I am a woman and I am concerned with issues about women, but it’s not because I am a woman that I understand all of this better. I think that there has been a delay in these changes, but I am sure that soon, everything is going to be alright because we are present; women are not passive anymore, so things can only be better in the film industry and everywhere else.
To connect this question to Federica, have you had a feeling you were treated like Federica on the set because you are a woman and the crew said you were confused, you didn’t know what you were doing and not being taken seriously like they often do with female directors and what happened to Federica?
C.M.: Two things. The first one: it’s a recent thought I had, which is that I could’ve chosen a man to be the main character, but the problem is that there is an identification and Elina Löwensohn is a woman and because of that, I decided to have a female director, not because I want to defend the idea that a woman can be a director. We do not have to say that. I think it’s a fact and there is nothing to say about that. The second one is that it’s not because she is a woman that the crew doesn’t trust her. I think that the crew is astonished because they are right: she became crazy in a way because she is a sensitive person and I wanted a director with doubts and a sort of fragility. She is like that because I wanted her to be like that because I think that this is a position that is intelligent; it is intelligent to hesitate, stop yourself, etc. In a way, I exaggerate, but I think that a director in his/her own deep interior, goes through a similar situation to the one I depict in the film, but there are many moments where you are very fragile.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker? And favorite film by a female filmmaker?
C.M.: I like the work of some female directors, surely, but it’s strange because I think of directors, not whether they are male or female. I like Agnès Varda a lot; her work is the reason why I am doing this – in general, not in this particular film. And I also like Larisa Sheptiko.
What are your next projects?
C.M.: It’s too early to say.
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
Photo credit:Luis Mora for TIFF x Samsung Studio.