An interview with Eduardo Chapero-Jackson
on Alumbramiento

Richard Raskin

The title Alumbramiento is intriguing. And the English translation, Lightborne, captures what I understand to be both meanings of the Spanish word - referring (if I am not mistaken) both to childbirth and to emerging from the darkness. Can you tell me why you chose that title for your film? And perhaps also comment on your choice to work in purely visual terms with the interplay of light and darkness in a way reminiscent of chiaroscuro in painting?

Coming up with Alumbramiento as the title was a very satisfying find. Indeed, it's a word used for the act of giving birth, which in Spanish is also called "dar a luz", meaning "to give light". Alumbramiento could be translated as "the light give". I wrote the story perceiving the process of dying as an act of giving birth, birth to death. That's how I experienced it when my grandparents started to pass away. Instead of preparing for the arrival of a new life, for me it was like the unfolding of the closure of an old life. I wanted to create a link from one pole to the other, like the omega of the alpha. Also, the film narrates how one person sums up the courage and humanity to guide another, who is dying in fear, to a peaceful acceptance of death, allowing her to make that transition in love and gratitude. What the protagonist does is to aid a person at that pivotal moment, carrying her from darkness to light.

All through the film I wanted to explore the relationship between darkness and light as a way to perceive that kind of experience, to transmit the sensations I wanted. In all the spaces of all the locations, darkness reigns; just little points of artificial light give some warmth to the void and emptiness. It's the way people feel in the midst of the vastness and coldness of death. I was most interested in the place where they find one another, where dark and light meet and melt, that chiaroscuro that reminds us of certain paintings is where the mysterious relationship between both aspects, life and death, is hidden. It's somehow scary and sensual at the same time, there is mysticism and wisdom there, in a phenomenological form. Viewers are drawn by it.

I regard the scene in the car as a very important one for at least two reasons. 1) Rafa's disengaging his hand from Sara's establishes something that will change later on, when he takes her hand in the final beside scene; and 2) the exchange of lines - "Is it too much medication" "Yes, but what else can we do" - establishes at this early point what will become a fundamental difference between two approaches to the moment of death, Rafa's and Sara's. Would you agree?

It's true, I wanted to portray two very different ways of approaching the huge fear of dealing with the death of a loved one. Normally people tend to infantilize the dying, negating many issues, trying to ease the pain at a physical level, but not dealing with the pain at an emotional level, because that would entail having to confront it oneself. Although we've made significant progress using medicine to avoid pain, we are still at a loss when trying to ease the suffering of the dying person. There are profound psychological processes that go on when a person faces his or her own death. Painkillers are great, but not enough. I really wanted to go into that other terrain with the character of Sara. She becomes a shaman (or "shawoman", rather), the one who guides with great wisdom the very difficult journey. Rafa, at the end of the film, acknowledges her great act, he is very thankful to her for realising what was at stake, and he does seek her touch. But at the beginning of the film, though, he could not deal with her touch, because it put him in danger of connecting with his own fear and emotions. During that part of the film he has his defenses up, his armour that protects him from the pain, but only actually worsening the very source of that pain. Sara sees all this and takes the decision of changing the whole structure of the personal dynamics of the moment.

Can you tell about the way you chose to end the film - the closural strategies involved in pulling the camera back from the bedside scene and past characters standing in rather statuesque positions?

I wanted to create a hypnotically static rhythm throughout the film. No camera movements, everything still, just as the characters' frozen attitudes facing the unmovable and unavoidable stillness of death. I wanted to recreate that sense of lack of flow, because it depicts a situation of painful flow-less-ness, like being in an existential cell that you cannot escape. Once Sara completely changes the situation, she opens the gates of emotions, resolves the situation, which finally finds its release, its organic and natural flow, like the camera at the end. The camera, the spectator's point of view, the spectator who has been forced to that stillness as well, is pleasurably released, exiting the space as the very soul of the dying person would. During that movement of release from life to death, the characters are found at the place they chose to be in relation to that moment. At the end, the one who denied death the most, is the one who finds herself most alone, most lost in the dark.

Photo provided by Prosopopey Productions.

Can you tell more about the way this film was inspired by your own experiences of dear ones dying?

Yes, for me experiencing the deaths of my grandparents became a major epiphany. It opened my eyes to many things about life. But it also suggested to me that dying could be different, less awkward, less difficult and painful than what I witnessed. More light could be shed onto that important process leading to the final moment. Most people die in the dark, confused, lost, unhappy, alone, unresolved, unconscious, denying, un-accepting. The expression "to die in peace" has truly a major and transcendental significance. To die in peace entails many essential things in relation to how one has approached life. It was clear to me that those who depart and those who are left behind, including myself, could benefit greatly by perhaps another way of dealing with life's closure. Alumbramiento was for me a way of exploring that at a very personal level. The film itself does not depict an actual event, it's a synthesis combining several experiences I had. Then I tried to imagine a situation and plot that would allow me to reach that other zone, Sara's zone, an alter ego for me. Obviously, it's written in the way I thought could work best at a narrative and cinematographic level.

Cristina Plazas as Sara. Photo provided by Prosopopey Productions.

One of the many rare qualities of this film is that it can actually change the viewer's way of thinking about what counts most at the moment of death. Is this something you might like to comment upon?

Alumbramiento has been, and still is, an amazing and profound experience for us. Somehow it seems that we were able to covey that very potent experience we aimed at. As a director I am very aware that it's rare, it's something that I cannot completely control, it was a major risk, it depended completely on the truth. It happened that all the right things fell into place at the right moment. So the magic and the alchemy happened. We were just a vehicle for it. Its especially moving for us that the film is currently used by psychiatrists and psychologists working in hospitals with terminally ill patients. There is a growing attention in medical circles on the importance of emotionally helping patients and families.

Can you describe your own approach to directing actors?

I consider the work with actors absolutely essential and immensely stimulating. I considered it so important that I didn't direct until I had studied acting for a couple of years myself. Altogether I have done four years of acting courses. It also helps a great when writing and creating roles. I have also studied for a masters degree in Gestalt psychology in order to continue the pursuit of understanding human nature.

While working I am very open to the suggestions of the actors. I experiment openly with improvisation, I understand that many of the real qualities of what is written emerge in that way. I rehearse characters and relationships in a very investigative manner, but I don't necessarily rehearse certain situations. It varies, sometimes I decide by mere gut instinct, other times in order to create a certain creative tension. For instance, in Alumbramiento, although I thoroughly prepared and rehearsed the roles and certain back-story material separately, I told the actors that I didn't want to rehearse the last big scene, the dying scene. I told them that we didn´t know how death was, that we could not it prepare for it, that we just had to prepare ourselves to jump into that void and see how it is. Also in order to use their fear of the scene as the fear of death itself. The actors seemed to thrive on that premise. It was risky, but I also thrive on a certain amount of excitement. Of course, needless to say that I planned out the sequence in great detail for a very long time. It's mostly about planting the right seeds, nourishing them in the right way, with lots of care and attention, so that at the end the magic grows from them. But that does not depend entirely on you, in depends on life, and even filmmaking cannot completely control it.

Could you comment on the major casting decisions you made for this film?

As already mentioned, the great challenge of this film was to convey absolute truth. It portrays such an intimate, intense and emotionally transcendent moment that anything not believable would ruin the experience. No plot, no mise-en-scène, no "acting" could hide a lack of truthfulness. It took me a whole year to assemble the cast that felt right to me. For each role I took a great deal of time and care, trying to control my eagerness to shoot. All of the roles were very special, but the most challenging role to fill was that of Maria, the old woman who passes away. It's not easy to find an accomplished actress over seventy who would be willing to do a mere short film that entails such demanding acting. There are very few active actresses of that age, most are considered great dames of the business and mostly do theater and feature films. When I thought of Mariví Bilbao many people told my I was mistaken because she is so well known for her comic roles in TV series. They thought nobody would take her seriously in such a dramatic situation, shown for such a short time (with a short film you have even less time to counteract any familiar associations for a known thespian). But I always fight against clichéd type-casting. Actors have so much more to give. When I sent the script to Mariví, her agent called me: "Eduardo, Marivi´s sister just died and I can't give her a script like this now…". I, of course, sadly understood. But a few hours later Marivi called: "Eduardo, I insisted that my agent give me the script… I want to do it, in honor of my sister, she would have wanted me to do it. Thank you, it has helped me to read it. It's necessary to do it." So she was personally committed from a very deep and intimate starting point. I believe hers is an outstanding performance. So is Cristina Plaza´s and Manolo Solo´s. It's very important to work with people who are really generous and committed.

Mariví Bilbao as Maria. Photo provided by Prosopopey Productions.

Is there anything else you might want to say about Alumbramiento?

For me was very important to find the right location. Maria´s house, although you don't see much of it, is like another character in the film. It has a mood, an atmosphere, a history. The old crystal doors were very important for me, creating that effect of light and darkness. Working in the right place helps to inspire you and the whole team. Sometimes a studio or set won't do that. Places have energy and presence, so do objects. The bed where Maria lies is very old, it's used, it has a strange size and sound. Those things become an important part of the experience.

Is there any advice you might give students about to make their own first short films?

It helped me a great deal trying to be very honest with myself, using my feelings as a guide. Sometimes it takes a long time to get anywhere in cinema. It's ok, filmmakers are storytellers who need to know about life, and therefore to have lived. There is so much pressure to succeed that we forget the journey, we skip the process, we forget ourselves. Never forget to see filmmaking as a way of growing and enjoying, of sharing the magic of creativity with a team of other dreamers who work along side you.

10 December 2008/5 January 2009

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