César Diaz won the Camera d’Or in Cannes this year with his first feature, the Guatemala-set Our Mothers. The Spanish-language film has since become Belgium’s entry for the International Feature Film Oscar and tells a very personal, if not autobiographical, story for the director.
The social drama takes place as Guatemala is immersed in the trial of the soldiers who sparked the civil war. Ernesto is a young anthropologist working for the Forensic Foundation whose job is to recover bones of people killed during the 1980s genocide and identify the missing. While hearing the account of an old woman, he thinks he has found a lead that might guide him to his father, a guerrilla who disappeared during the war. Against his mother’s wishes, Ernesto flings himself body and soul into the case, looking for truth and resilience.
Diaz himself has a missing father and a mother who was a guerrilla fighter. “That past helped me to understand the characters and build (the story) and bring it to fiction,” he says. The original idea was to focus on “the mother” and in coupling this with forensics, Diaz says, “Science helps you to learn and close chapters.”
Expanding, he adds, “When someone is missing, you always have hope this person will come back. But when the science tells you these bones are your father or mother, you can mourn and start over and go forward. Until then, you’re still in an emotional loop.”
In real life, Diaz does not know what happened to his father but, “making the movie was a way to try and achieve this thing. I didn’t get the chance that Ernesto has, but I have the movie and that really helps me to move forward.”
Regarding his own mother, he says her generation “had the chance to transform the country… even if this was by military tools or violence, but if you want to transform this injustice you can do it. My generation doesn’t have this. We have the same feelings about injustice… but most of my generation is trying to write literature or make paintings or movies to try and transform society.”
Diaz was born in Guatemala and at age eight moved to Mexico, landing in Belgium at 18 before attending film school at La Fémis in Paris. But he didn’t set out to be a director, studying scriptwriting instead and working as DP on friends’ shorts. When he left school, he took up editing which he says “helped me to get the tools and the courage and discover the real subject I wanted to treat in my own personal work. I shot Our Mothers with the eye of an editor in the way I placed the camera.”
The fact that Belgium has selected a Spanish-language title as its entry this year is “almost a political statement” for Diaz. It’s a recognition that “our society is changing and immigration is changing the face of this country. This is a way to tell the world we accept diversity and the different faces of a moving society.”
Diaz had attempted to get Our Mothers into Berlin this year, having had a strong relationship with the Berlinale Talent Campus, but the film was not accepted. When he found out Cannes’ Critics’ Week had said yes, “I was crying and jumping al around. I think this was the best place for this movie, I was so protected.”
What’s more, he was able to meet and dine with this year’s Critics’ Week jury president (and former Oscar nominee) Ciro Guerra, as well as main jury president Alejandro G Inarritu who coincidentally had given Diaz his first job in the movies which was subtitling Amores Perros. “When I won the Camera d’Or and saw Alejandro, I said ‘I’m sure you will never remember me, but I didn’t sleep for two nights to bring Amores Perros (to Cannes)’.”
Diaz has been moved by the response around the world to Our Mothers, whether it be “Chinese people crying and then sharing stories about their mothers or Koreans telling me about the music. I always want to connect to the audience with great meaning. In the end, we make movies for the audience.”
In the U.S., Diaz says it’s been a learning curve for audiences. “The Guatemalan genocide is so unknown that when I start talking about the 200,000 dead and 450,000 disappeared, people in the U.S. are so amazed to discover the story. I think this is important to tell people in the U.S. that many of those crossing the border are crossing because of a huge civil war, not just because they want a better life.”
Up next for Diaz is the adaptation of a Guatemalan novel and a story about a mother and son in Brussels. But, he says, “I think I will take the time to write and to prepare because I think my next project will be, I don’t know, expected, and will get some attention. I have to be very honest with myself and keep doing this hard work. I really like to write, so I will take the time.”