What kind of childhood did you have growing up? Were you free to play to the beat of your own drum, or did you parents beat their tune into you? I'd like to think a lot of people believe that childhood is about being free, making mistakes, and discovering who they are and what they're into. However, there are probably just as many people in the world who believe that the beautiful period before puberty should be dictated by a whole other set of rules—their own.
In his 2013 short documentary, The Queen (La Reina), filmmaker Manuel Abramovich created what I perceive to be a "through the looking glass" experience of a child in the unenviable position of being mom's little plaything. Abramovich follows Memi, an 11-year-old set to participate in yet another painful run at queen of the carnival in an unnamed village in Argentina. Replete with extravagant dresses, ostentatious headpieces studded with rhinestones, the event is every girl's dream—at least that's what the adults say, whether they're extolling the virtue of the carnival upon Memi, begging her to not cry, whine, or complain about the $2,000 headpiece that is "straining [her] neck a lot" or causing her to "pass out."
While a film with this subject matter could easily fall into Toddlers and Tiaras territory, Abramovich brilliantly counterposes the exuberance of the adults with the sullen face of Memi. Her eyes are the true subjects, revealing pain, displeasure, boredom, and the occasional flicker of joy. Through his extensive use of close-ups, Abramovich has crafted an uncompromising film that digs deeper than an exposé and provides us simply with a portrait of a young girl growing up. Granted, growing up in this case entails dealing with a mother who blows significant portions of their money on clothes and a massive jeweled crown her daughter will only wear once a year, but hey, as the announcer says: "This is the way Orfeito celebrates."
It had been a hot minute since I saw and talked with Abramovich while The Queen was on the festival circuit, so I caught up with him by email earlier this week.
VICE: First things first, you're a guy. How did you find yourself making a film about a teenage girl's beauty pageant?
Manuel Abramovich: I don't believe subjects are gendered like that. I don't feel there's movies for men directors and movies for women directors. In my case, I start my projects on a hunch, when I feel drawn to a particular story or character, even though I don't really know why or can't put it in words. I believe that it's after a while, most likely when the movie's finished, that I finally understand why I made it, what it was that caught my attention in the first place.
In the case of La Reina, it is true that it is a very feminine universe. Although carnival culture and the traditions of Memi's town haven't much to do with my surroundings, [when I watched it] a few months later, I realized that, in some way, me and Memi were the same person. I strongly identified with her.
The access Memi and her family allowed you is incredible. How did you find Memi and were there any issues in getting, maintaining, and ultimately finishing a film with this level of intimacy?
The Queen was sort of an impulse, it wasn't planned at all. I was traveling with a four-person crew to shoot an institutional documentary on that town ́s carnival, a monumental celebration where people parade wearing huge, lavish costumes decorated with feathers and gems. In the end, winners are chosen and queens are crowned.
That's how we came across Memi. We showed up at her home to interview her. Her mother very kindly welcomed us and excitedly started talking about the carnival, the costumes, and Memi's achievements. Memi was sitting on a couch staring at the floor, sulking, and didn't even say hello to us, while her mother went on and on about how she was going to be crowned.
Right there I felt in Memi a weird detachment from the situation she was immersed in, and I told them I wanted to shoot a movie about her, a personal project. I wanted to be as clear as possible: It was undoubtedly going to be my personal vision, and not reality, because movies are always a construction, even documentaries. I think that made them feel comfortable and that's why it turned out so intimate.
Can you discuss your unique approach to telling her story on camera? Was the style of focusing exclusively on her discussed from the beginning?
Yes, from the very first moment I felt the need to represent that big clash through the style: the grownup world versus Memi's experience. The contradiction between the adults' discourse and what Memi was going through. So I had the idea to counterpose image from sound. While we heard the grownups talking about how fantastic and marvelous the carnival is, the camera lingers still on Memi's gaze, who hardly ever speaks.
Thus, her mother (mainly), but also her tennis instructor, her seamstress, her nanny, her aunt, her hairdresser, her grandmother, among others represent demanding voices of authority and appear as voice-overs while we see Memi's reaction in her blank stare.
I liked the idea of making a movie about carnival without ever showing it directly. Just hear it and let the spectator imagine it.
I'm assuming Memi and her mother have seen the short documentary by now. Were there any issues or objections that came up after they viewed the film? It feels very uncompromising, especially for a subject so often associated with fluff and vanity.
Once I finished the editing, almost one year after the shooting, I came back to Memi's town to visit her and to show it to her and her family. To my surprise, they were happy and proud. They recalled all the sacrifices they had made to continue their tradition and to help Memi become the queen of carnival. Memi was thrilled to be starring in my film and understood the short was just my version of things and not a reflection of what she had experienced.
They understood that they were characters of a movie, based on a personal construction, and even sometimes exaggerated in order to work for the story I was interested in telling, to generate that mood of progressive tension.
"I'm not so cruel as in your film!" Memi's mom told me. In that moment, I understood one can't really judge other people's traditions from the outside. And that although the film has a critical tone, it's not an exposé nor does it try to spread an anti-carnival message. I believe ambiguities make different cultures complex in their traditions, and I find it difficult to judge as an outsider.
As a documentary filmmaker, at what point would a subject's objections override your final cut, if ever? Do you think there's room for compromise in your art? Is it then still art?
I find it very important to watch the final cut with the person I'm working with and talk about their impressions. I also like to be upfront about what they are about to watch, it's always only a version, my version of themselves.
My work walks the line between reality and fiction. I like to mold "real" subjects and situations in order to construct a possible story, the story I wish to tell. The kind of documentary filmmaking that makes me tick is the one related to the idea of portraiture.
I like the rush of adrenaline you get from working with the "real," where everything can unexpectedly change course. I'm interested in creating a bond with my subject and build from that a sense of mutual trust that will make the film more meaningful.
What are you working on now?
I'm finishing my first feature, Solar. It's about a 10-year-old boy who became a new age phenomenon in the 90s, a sort of child guru. Twenty years later, he decided to reprint his book, and I persuaded him to make a documentary about his story. After a year's shooting, he was unhappy with the pre-established roles of the movie and with my way of directing. He threatened to abandon the project unless we switched roles.
In the end, the movie ended up being about my relationship with him during the shoot. Like a role-playing game in which the camera turned around and the director became the protagonist and the protagonist became the director. It was a very long and sometimes hard process. It meant a great personal learning experience for me, and fortunately we're both very happy with the result.
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as the senior curator for Vimeo's On Demand platform. He has also programmed at Tribeca Film Festival, Rooftop Films, and the Hamptons International Film Festival.
Learn more Manuel Abramovich and his work here.