“I wanted to show the Barcelona of those who have a harder time of it”

Belén Funes

Retrat de Belén Funes © Curro Palacios Taberner

Belén Funes is a film director. Her first film, La hija de un ladrón (A Thief’s Daughter), has garnered, among other accolades, the Goya Award for Best New Director and the Gaudí Award for Best Non-Catalan Language Film. In this masterpiece, Funes provides a snapshot of Sara’s life (played by Greta Fernández), a twenty-two-year-old single mother who aspires to have what she calls a “normal life”: a home for her younger brother and her baby, a job to make ends meet and maybe reconciliation with her boyfriend and father of her child to start a family without her own father, a criminal just released from prison, blowing it all up.

A graduate of ESCAC [Cinema and Audiovisual School of Catalonia], Belén Funes (Barcelona, 1984) is leading a new wave of young, female Catalan filmmakers. As film director she has decided to focus her gaze on the other Barcelona, the one on the periphery. La hija de un ladrón is a deeply political, sober and clever film that sets a new standard for the future of social cinema in Catalonia, grafting it onto the best European tradition of authors such as Ken Loach and the Dardenne brothers. We talked at Bar Amsterdam in the Ciutat Meridiana neighbourhood, a location featured in the film, a stone’s throw to the Torre Baró metro station and next to the council flat where Sara’s character lives. Just like in her films, Funes’ discourse mixes reality and fiction, and her take on what a camera should show is consistent with her political idea of what the world should be like.

We don’t recall films shot in Ciutat Meridiana. Do you have a personal connection with the neighbourhood that explains your choice of location?

I grew up in Ripollet and often came to Ciutat Meridiana to visit people who had moved there. Aside from this personal connection, I wanted to situate the film’s action here because I liked what the neighbourhood conveys, towering buildings that aesthetically show the community solidarity we witness in the film. What’s more, I wanted to show a Barcelona different from the one we often see in the Gràcia neighbourhood or on the Passeig de Gràcia avenue: it is a very legitimate Barcelona, but it is not the only one there is.

Do you think Spanish social cinema lacks something that you managed to show thanks to your film?

I have very significant points of reference in Spanish social cinema. Barrio (Neighborhood, Fernando León de Aranoa, 1998) is a film I love. I also adore Días contados (Running Out of Time, Imanol Uribe, 1994) and Historias del Kronen (Stories from the Kronen, Montxo Armendáriz, 1995). I fancied making a film in places that are not ostensibly cinematic and that are not usually seen at the cinema despite being part of our lives. I was attracted to the idea of a film’s action taking place on the city’s periphery because I think it is unexplored and intriguing. Apart from the friendliness of the people, how they received us and helped make the film, Ciutat Meridiana is a really pretty and really interesting place to live.

What did you discover about this neighbourhood while making the film?

I discovered the same thing that I tried to convey, that is, that there is a social fabric that acts as a cushion for people when they have problems. I had written a series of conflicts into a script and when I came here I realised that everything was true, that all this was happening. This country has endured a ferocious crisis: certain social classes that were middle class have become a surviving class. Suddenly, I saw that all this is real, that it still goes on, and that in many places the situation is only sustainable through community support.

Is the decision to show this Barcelona a political one?

It has a political basis: the desire to show the Barcelona of those who have a harder time of it. We had reached a point when it seemed that Catalan cinema was synonymous with Cesc Gay’s cinema. I love his films, I’m mad about En la ciudad (In the City). But this cinema depicts a completely different social class to what I wanted to show. There were filmmakers who frequented certain settings and I fancied going elsewhere. I adhere a lot more to the way locations are chosen by directors such as Isaki Lacuesta and Isa Campo, and I wanted to portray these other people.

In the film, when these “other people” have to define themselves, they do so by calling themselves “normal people”.

This stems from a very exciting moment for me, when I saw Rosetta (1999), by the Dardenne brothers. There is a scene in which the main character is in bed and tells herself that her name is Rosetta, that she’s got a friend and he’s normal. I was really struck by seeing that girl who just wanted normality, and it made me think about what it meant to be “normal”. The concept of normality changes depending on who you talk to and the circles you move in. I realised that normal for us – having a roof over our heads, a family and a job – is a veritable saga for people like Sara, the main character in my film. There is a wall around the middle class that doesn’t let many people in; it has become almost insurmountable. This is what Sara repeats as a mantra the whole time to see whether, through repetition, her life turns out to be normal. In fact, her life is extraordinary in the best and worst sense of the word. This character has such small aspirations that they may seem trivial to many people, but to me they conveyed all the significance of the time we have to live in.

Do the claims that we have overcome the crisis come anywhere near what you have observed?

Nowhere near what I’ve observed, or what people tell me, or what people in my parents’ neighbourhood say, nowhere near anything. The crisis has not come to an end nor will it end soon, and has only served to add to the problems of those classes who already had difficulties.

Do the people of Ciutat Meridiana feel neglected in Barcelona?

I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to them, but if I think of my own town, Ripollet, which has 46,000 inhabitants and no train station and to catch a train you have to go to Cerdanyola... If that is not overlooking some people, you tell me what is. In this great system that is capitalism, the centre is occupied by the minority, while the majority are on the periphery. This is seen in terms of mobility and infrastructure, but also in social terms. There are a lot of people ignored because they don’t fit into white male ideals and their privileges. Sara always claims she is normal, but if you look at her up close, you immediately realise that this girl is anything but normal. She has a hearing impairment that doesn’t stop her from doing what she’d have to do even if she didn’t, she’s a single mother, she has two jobs... Her saga is so extraordinary that you are sorry to hear her say that she’s normal. She should say, “I'm fuckin’ brilliant”.

How did you build Sara’s character?

To write Sara, we interviewed girls who had been in a similar situation. The key moment was when a girl who had fallen pregnant in a juvenile facility told me that, when night fell and the lights were switched off, she’d take her baby out of the cot and into bed beside her. This isn’t advised because you apparently spoil the child, but that was her favourite time of day because it was when she felt less alone, the only hours she felt that there was someone else by her side. After angst consuming her all day, it was time for her to take a breath. I heard that the film we were making was one about that girl and baby. We started writing the script on the basis of that image. Then Greta Fernández, the lead actress, came along; we bleached her hair and suddenly she was Sara.

We see Sara’s bleached hair a lot. How come you shoot so much from behind that we almost see her neck as much as her face?

First of all, because I don’t really like the idea that everything has to be shot from the front. I feel like we should start leaving that behind. What’s more, I really wanted the character to draw you into her reality, not for the viewer to encroach on her with the camera and wait for her inside. It was a way to permeate Sara’s reality so that she could reveal the places she’d frequent to us. It was a decision we made with the director of photography to stay very faithful to the style and the character, so as not to violate her privacy and it was her who said to us, “Come on, come in, I’ll take you”.

A major film decision is that we never get fully acquainted with the world you are talking about. It does not explain Sara’s past, what happened with her father, her ex-boyfriend... none of that is shown on camera.

I filmed this part, but then I did not edit the footage. As we were filming it, the whole team noticed something that stood out. We had shot a film that was happening in the present, and when I got home I had a revelation: that scene wasn’t part of the film. I shot it because it was like a lifejacket. In case the audience disconnected and didn’t understand a thing, I could include it; but I preferred not to. I told the actors what had happened to come to this point because was, needless to say, aware of it, and they were very brave. Eduard told me: “Don't sell yourself out, if you think we can tell the story from the present, we have to be strong. If there are gaps or ends to tie together, it’ll be part of the ethical decision. The audience is fed up with seeing images and interpreting them.”

One of the major scenes takes place in a courtroom and seems to be based on real facts.

I spent several mornings in the Law Courts: civil servants very kindly let you into court for open hearings. But the film scene stems from a conversation with our lawyer, who explained to us that trials always feature an interrogation during which people’s emotion usually surfaces. They are very short and very intimate questions, so specific that it is hard to answer them. I attended a trial where a girl was forced to remove her handbag before testifying. Someone stripping you of your belongings so you talk... I found it unbelievable.

How do you play with the fine line that separates fiction from documentary?

It’s the greatest challenge in this film: how to keep up the feeling of reality by making everything up. All the while we toyed with leaving the doors open for the air to come through. The film is full of people playing themselves, from cleaners to bartenders who work in these professions in real life too. We always used natural locations. Only one part is made up, and the rest we had to determine whether what we invented occurred in real life or not. I think it all flourished, but it could have withered and died. For a director, it’s always a challenge to play around with these hybrids, but it’s the part of cinema that interests me the most.

Un bloc de pisos de Ciutat Meridiana. A la dreta, Belén Funes al bar Amsterdam de Ciudad Meridiana, mira per la finestra i assenyala l'exterior. ​© Curro Palacios Taberner A block of flats in Ciutat Meridiana. On the right, Belén Funes, sitting at a table in the Amsterdam bar in Ciutat Meridiana, looks out the window and points outside. © Curro Palacios Taberner

Do you think that cinema is a tool capable of changing reality, and fiction is the best tool to do so?

I would make documentaries but I’m too cowardly. I’m too scared I’d have nothing to grab onto. I don’t make documentaries because I think it’s an extremely difficult art. When it comes to film, I don’t think it can change the world. It can change the audience during the film’s running time, get inside their head and say “things are happening and I’m telling you about them”. This has happened to me. I went to see Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake and there’s a point at which a woman is in a charity-like association and complains that there are never any tampons. Since then, every time there is a collection drive, I buy and donate tampons, thanks to Ken Loach! For an hour and a half, the cinema can change the audience’s perception, raise it, stir it, remind them that things are happening that they may not know about. Cinema may change the world, as it did with Rosetta, thanks to which the so-called “Rosetta Law” was passed in Belgium to safeguard the rights of teenage workers. But it’s hard, very hard.

With the rise of platforms like Netflix, do you think that the audiovisual sector is turning to entertainment and forgetting about social engagement?

I think it will be very polarised. We will have popcorn cinema or dissenting politics, without a middle ground. In entertainment there is work that is more elaborate and other work that is less so, and the latter doesn’t interest me. There is a whole part of cinema that strives to connect with the audience and at the same time wants to treat them as if they were part of the work, not just a consumer. This is the part that interests me the most in cinema, with proposals such as Estiu 1983 (Summer 1983, Carla Simón, 2018), which I love; and with even riskier ones, such as El año del descubrimiento (The Year of Discovery, Luís López Carrasco, 2020), or O que arde (Fire Will Come, Óliver Laxe, 2019), which is open to all. In the future we will have to learn to decide how open or closed the vision that cinema should give us about the circumstances we live in.

What do you think of the new batch of young Catalan filmmakers you are part of?

It’s difficult for me to feel part of a wave. I feel part of a group of friends, they’re all my peers. We exchange scripts, castings, we collaborate, they come to my shoots and I go to theirs. I don’t feel like an academic wave. I feel like they are my friends and they are my points of reference, because when I focus on someone, I focus on them. At the same time, it is clear that something is happening to women’s cinema. The other day I read that this year the Berlinale is holding its own thanks to the cinema women are making, the most interesting proposals. Something similar is occurring in Catalonia thanks to the implementation of a gender policy. I think that university has a lot to do with it, because you’re a student there, neither a man nor a woman, where you are given marks and gender is not a determining factor. We started pushing and we will have to keep on pushing. I am often told that Sara’s character is very feminist, and I think that the word ‘feminist’ does not even enter her vocabulary. But she is a feminist of course: she is a powerful, strong women, who believes in sorority and solidarity, and is emancipating herself from all the men in her life. Sara is one of those points of reference that I aspire to become and I probably won’t be because I lack her strength.

A paradox of social cinema is that, despite the exceedingly left-wing will to change, it shows people like Sara and her surroundings, people and characters who end up voting the far right.

I think people will end up voting whatever they want. I would never dare say whether a vote is valid or not. But I see a decidedly apolitical component in Sara and in people like her. They no longer believe in anything. I have seen it with my own eyes: people who don’t want to vote because they don’t see any party talking about their problems, and they don’t feel represented by anyone. It’s happening now: we’re forgetting about a lot of people. Which party would Sara vote for? I think Sara wouldn’t even vote, she’d be working. She’s among those who don’t even have time to go to vote.

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