By Rodrigo Garay

The first week of February seemed to make an announcement regarding to the 2021 festival circuit: this is the way things are this year, deal with it. In contrast to the intermittent rushes of optimism of 2020’s second half, when the pandemic seemed to wane every now and then, and some festivals dared to go the physical route, the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) happened right after COVID-19 when cases sky-rocketed because of the holiday season. Rotterdam’s strategy, which would later be adopted by Berlinale, consisted of splitting their 50th edition into two: a fully online experience in February and a series of controlled on-site events in the summer, in case things got better by that point.

IFFR’s competitions took place during the first part, online. In the Big Screen Competition was Aurora, Paz Fábrega’s new feature film. Eleven years ago, Fábrega was the first Costa Rican filmmaker to win IFFR’s Tiger Competition, with her first feature: Cold Water of the Sea. Aurora has a familiar vibe, but the social dynamics between its main characters, a teacher named Luisa and a pregnant teenager named Yuliana, seem ahead of their time. Where is Fábrega’s society headed? What connects her first filmic explorations to the new world she develops in Aurora?

Our talk, just as the screenings, cocktail parties, press conferences and work meetings, happened from the distance, from our respective homes in Costa Rica and Mexico.

Desistfilm: The first question is about my country. I talk to you from Mexico and I’m curious about the co-production. I saw that María Secco shot the film… I mean, she’s Uruguayan, but she works here.

Paz Fábrega: A Venezuelan friend of mine has been living in Mexico for a while now, and she’s starting her own production company. When I started the project, I asked her if she’d like to co-produce, and I told her that I wanted to work with María. Image post-production was also done in Mexico, in part because María lives there and it’s not so easy to move now. That was the Mexican side of the project.

Desistfilm: In which studio was that?

Paz Fábrega: Javier Velázquez has a new studio called Sala. He worked with Yulene (Olaizola) in her latest film and in The Chambermaid (Lila Avilés, 2018). He did the post-production and color correction.

Desistfilm: How were the talks with María Secco? There’s a very luminous quality to the image, everything is shiny. Like a dreamlike effect, but a little downplayed.

Paz Fábrega: Yes. It’s funny, I usually never exchange a lot of references with María. Maybe some, but we never work towards anything concrete. I feel like this is a discussion we’ve been having for ten years. It continues what we wanted to do with Cold Water of the Sea; at that moment, we were shooting 35 mm with Lomo lenses. We are always looking for the same kind of image: something that doesn’t look completely intervened and that doesn’t feel completely real, you know what I mean? We look for something organic that takes advantage of the natural light, that doesn’t feel gimmicky, and that establishes some distance with the material. So I think we’ve been looking for the same image since then, a very soft look that resembles a painting, but that is not too strong-looking, that is not completely unreal.

Desistfilm: It’s a very nice balance, and I think that’s a good segway into a thematic question about balancing two stories in the script. I tried to watch the film without reading the synopsis before, but I did read a little something. So I had this notion: “Okay, abortion or pregnancy flick…”.

Paz Fábrega: …and that’s not what it is.

Desistfilm: It’s not! Well, maybe a little, but there’s a constant counterbalance to the pregnancy story in Luisa’s character, what happens to her in the end, and in the little scenes where she’s on her own.

Paz Fábrega: I don’t think it’s a teenage pregnancy story. That may be what happens, but it’s not what matters. I wanted to set up a person in denial: you could say that Yuliana avoids dealing with what’s happening in her life and her circumstances, that she’s postponing a decision, but what I’m really saying is that she’s postponing it because there is no decision to make. Reality is coming down on her. I wanted to create an atmosphere for women to coexist. The possibility of existence lies in not deciding. I’m not sure if that makes any sense, but, if no one knows about this pregnancy, something can start to happen that would be almost impossible if this situation were known by both their surroundings. It’s their secret and it starts to form a kind of family. For a moment, let’s simply picture that baby being born and things remaining positively for them. When we were discussing what happens in the end, we played with the idea of this situation going on, something that at least I wanted to happen. It could not be, because I think it’s impossible. Nowadays, after a baby is born, she would be unable to keep living with this teacher, acquaintance, mentor, mother figure, right? That can’t happen, but in their worldview, the possibility seems to be there.

Desistfilm: I find Luisa interesting because she doesn’t fit anywhere, even if she’s a delightful character. We never see her doing anything negative, she’s nice, successful, kind, and positive. However, all fronts around her have no place for her anymore. It’s also surprising that no one rejects her violently either. Even on the academic board, they say: “Well, it’s not against you, but there is no budget”. Or Yuli: it’s not that she fights her, she simply distances herself. What’s up with this world that has no place for whatever Luisa stands for?

Paz Fábrega: I didn’t want any door to shut too violently in her face. Nevertheless, this way of existing that she strives for is losing its ground. She says it a little in the beginning: feeling like something in continuous happenstance, something building itself up. The world is leading her through a road that is not of her choosing. That’s what hurts the most, right? What oppresses us comes from a loving and warm place, but it’s also very constraining.

Desistfilm: Many times the people that are closer to us or the ones we love the most are the most hurtful.

Paz Fábrega: Yes. It’s also the burden of social structure. I think of that with Yuliana’s mother. The fact that Luisa can’t stay in their lives is a family mandate; the grandmother is the responsible adult that is going to lead the way. And the way of a woman that gets pregnant in an inadequate moment is this one. It can’t be any other way. Similarly, there was something important that may not be that present in the film, which was to show that nobody has as many options as they seem to have. Maybe Luisa wants to have children, but her world is set in a way in which she cannot do the things she wants to.

Desistfilm: Luisa ends up being excluded, along with her education program. Regarding education and university studies, they seem to say: “We don’t want our children to be taught this way anymore”. She even asks the parents: “Don’t your kids learn art in primary school?”. “No, they don’t”. There are signs that it’s not only Luisa, but an entire society doesn’t want that path anymore.

Paz Fábrega: To tell you the truth, I hadn’t thought of that, but yeah. It makes sense. The art classes scene was something that I thought could easily happen as another conflict: she was saying goodbye to that part of her life. Maybe there are things that one doesn’t completely understand, you only put them together. And what you say makes sense, because it’s also a way of the world that comes down on Luisa.

Desistfilm: Something else I connected with their struggle is how you shot dialogue. At least I noticed two different ways around Yuli. When she talks to Luisa, it is shot and reverse shot; when she talks to the psychologist or the foster parents, there’s no reverse shot. She’s on her own.

Paz Fábrega: That started to happen little by little. While editing, we realized the doctor or the foster parents weren’t people, but stand-ins of the world. The things they said and the way they said them. The clearest example for me is the doctor. They are characters that simply represent things that are fixed in the world; the doctor is not saying what she believes herself, but what the law is, the circumstances as they are, and there’s nothing to do about it. She’s just the spokesperson for someone else. The lawyer is very similar. So I really wanted to see Yuli and Luisa dealing with those things. I didn’t think it was a horizontal conversation.

Besides, if you think about it, nothing is ever said in a very direct manner in the film, which probably has to do with what you said about nothing being really violent. Nothing is very concrete, right? The doctor says: “You have to contemplate your options” in the same dialogue where she says there are no options. What they are forced to do is to read between the lines, understanding something that is not simple, looking for their real options, for the actual freedom one’s supposed to have, because sometimes it seems more than what we actually have.

Desistfilm: If we think about it like that, it’s kind of hostile. A fake world, I mean. It’s kind, but people aren’t telling you what they’re supposed to. However, I think almost all characters adapt to this hostility in a very caring way. For example, when the mom is scolding Yuli because she found out she was pregnant, she yells at her, but gives her a hug immediately after. Were you giving an utopic message or do you believe things are like that? If the system closes upon us, should we give a hand to each other?

Paz Fábrega: It is utopic, like the school kids’ world. We talked a lot about the circumstances in which Yuliana’s pregnancy came to be, and I liked this idea of a polyamorous group for many reasons. I didn’t want a teenage pregnancy because that’s super common and broadly accepted. Perhaps for a girl like Yuliana, in a relatively humble family but in a scientific school —she’s the promise, right?— it would be more serious, but not enough for her not to disclose it to her parents. However, if the situation is: “I don’t know who the father is, it could be any of my classmates, I have no idea”, I think we could take her to a place in which she ends up not telling anyone for months.

I liked this utopic community out of everybody else’s registry. Apart from where they live, from the adults, from everything. It’s like the future, I don’t know. Yuliana never wants to tell them she’s pregnant because that would be like bringing the outside world into theirs; not because of the pregnancy itself, but because of everything else. What people would say at school, everything.

The mother is different. She hugs her and pampers her, but also represents something more perverse: she’s taking charge of a position that I don’t think is the best for Yuliana, nullifying any chance of decision-making. From the moment when the mom finds out, she takes control, even if that means that Yuliana will have very little agency in how to live her motherhood.

Desistfilm: Now you’re making me think a lot more things, because another scene that had troubled me a lot was when they meet the parents of the assumed father. You expect a fight or some drama. And what happens is: You know what? This is what things are, we’re happy, welcome to the family. Everything’s in order. I think they even say something along the lines of “It’s done” or “That’s it”.

Paz Fábrega: Yes. Don’t you feel crushed by that scene? It’s like saying: “Well, here’s what’s coming, this is the way things are”. It’s like a meeting where the parents set you on track. You’re going to have to work, this is your place, life is tough. And to see Yuliana turned into a different person. With no violence whatsoever, of course, in a very loving way and all, but that doesn’t leave them as autonomous people. The parents are the adults making the decisions.

Desistfilm: Do you think that Luisa, despite being lonelier, has more decision power? Is she free of those games?

Paz Fábrega: It’s different. I don’t think she is. I mean, she’s older, her parents won’t be telling her what to do, but she has the same problem in more invisible ways.