Carla Simón is the writer-director of Summer 1993, a film based on her own childhood experiences, which is currently in theaters through Oscilloscope Films. Her feature film debut, it won multiple prizes at the Berlin Film Festival and the Gaudis, Spain’s equivalent of the Oscars, where Simon was recognized with the Best Director and Best Screenplay awards. Simón is a graduate of the London Film School, where she wrote and directed the documentary Born Positive and the fiction Lipstick, both short films selected in numerous international film festivals. In 2013 Carla created Young For Film!, an association which taught cinema to children and teenagers. Since moving back to Barcelona, she has been collaborating with Cinema en Curs, a program which helps children in primary and secondary schools learn filmmaking.
To mark the 2022 edition of the Venice Film Festival, which runs this week, Talkhouse is revisiting pieces by contributors who have new work at the festival. Carla Simón wrote the essay below in 2018 to coincide with the U.S. theatrical release of her feature Summer 1993 and on September 3 debuted at the Biennale her short film, Carta a Mi Madre Para Mi Hijo, the latest in the “Miu Miu Women’s Tales” series. – N.D.
Every being that lives will one day die. This is what I learned at age six, when my mother passed away. I guess I learned it too soon, because I remember one spring afternoon, in my best friend’s room, when it occurred to me that I should warn her that her mother too was going to die. She burst into tears, overwhelmed by the fear of losing the person who was most dear to her. I did not understand her dramatic reaction, after all she was lucky that the woman who had brought her into the world was still alive.
Your mother has stopped living, my aunt Marina had told me, hiding her tears behind sunglasses. Now what? I’d replied, while drinking a Trinaranjus (Valencia’s favorite soft drink) on a terrace on the Rambla de Badalona. Now your uncles are going to be your parents. I’d then started to read a bar poster, because I had just learned to read and I liked to practice. And so it was, my uncles became my parents, and my cousin became my sister.
When someone close to you dies, family configurations undergo a transformation, there’s a process of mourning and adaptation to the new situation, accompanied by a feeling of deep sadness. This makes everyone affected keenly aware of the finite nature of existence, makes death become a universal theme that inspires endless stories.
I think that my impulse to express myself cinematically arose precisely from the need to talk about the pain that death brings us, and, in turn, also the opportunity it gives us to grow and value everything that surrounds us — above all, our family relationships.
Death has marked many of my creative processes. When my grandfather died, I was studying at the London Film School. It was the Three Kings Day holiday, so I was back at home in Barcelona. I was walking down the street after a meeting with a friend when my adoptive mother called me. Before she could speak, I sensed what had just happened. Then we all met at my grandpa’s house, without him, with his beer still half-full in the fridge. Outside, people celebrated the arrival of the wise men; inside, we sat, keeping each other company in our grief. Inspired by the pain I felt, I wrote a story about two children who find their grandma dead, a short film called Lipstick. The grandmother in the film listened to Nat King Cole, just like my grandfather would while smoking a cigar in his office.
Shortly after, my aunt Marina became ill with cancer. I had a very special relationship with her since she had taken care of me over the years when my mother was ill. My aunt was a unique person; she had dwarfism and this had affected her entire life. At that time, I was still living in London but every weekend I would travel to Barcelona to visit her in the hospital. During the endless hours that I spent with her there, I realized the difficult relationship my aunt had with her mother, my grandmother, and how they both loved each other, needed each other, but at the same time were unable to express their love. From that experience emerged another short film, Those Little Things, which tells the relationship between a mother and a daughter with achondroplasia. The two prepare for the visit of the son and brother who lives in the city, but he never appears. Again, the absence of someone missed. And yes, one day I was on my way to the airport and my adoptive mother called me; again, I knew what it was about. … Now my aunt Marina was the one whose life had come to an end. Making this short film helped me overcome her death and understand what it meant for her to be small in a world of tall people.
When I graduated, I began to write the story I wanted to tell so much, the story of my childhood, which became Summer 1993. I wanted to explore how a child faces death by depicting what it was like to lose my parents to AIDS, a disease for which, in 1993, there was still no cure. (My father, who was separated from my mother, had previously died from the disease.) Why are not you crying? My cousin asked me after receiving the news that my mother had died. Suddenly, I realized that everyone expected me to cry, but I could not. … In fact, years later, reading a children’s book called Tanit, in which the protagonist’s grandmother dies, I cried for hours and hours. And then I felt bad, thinking that I had shed more tears for the death of a fictional character than for the death of my own mother. …
During the time I was writing Summer 1993, someone read the script and told me that they did not feel the presence of my biological mother, that even if she was absent, the spectator needed to know her. This was for me the most painful moment of the screenwriting process, as it made me realize that I did not remember my mother. I could appropriate the memories of others, but I could not create my own memories anymore, because I will never be with her again. So I decided to make another short called Llacunes, to recover my lost memories. I collected all of my mother’s letters and traveled to the places from where she had written them. 7th of February 1978. The weather has been great. It was very sunny, the flowers sang and the elephants were dressed in frock coats and went for a walk in Las Ramblas, and people didn’t work and laughed and dressed up in yellow, green, pink, purple, red, blue, white dresses, and everyone fucked each other in the middle of the street, and they talked to the purple dolphins and invited them to have hash. … It’s 4:30 p.m. and I haven’t slept for ages and tonight I’ve got to work. I’m knackered … and still spaced from a mad trip I took last week. Távano is in Madrid and I’ve lost it and gone too far. The energy of these letters gave me back my mother, moving me to set foot on the same land she had in her day, empty sites containing her absence, or rather, her essence.
The seed of my next film project also contains a death, that of my other grandfather who, in leaving us, made me value his legacy and his profession as a farmer. In fact, I write these words from his small town, where he lived all his life and where a large part of my family still lives.
I hope that a time comes when the deaths of those close to me stop being the engine of my work, although I am sure that absence will remain a theme present in everything I write. After all, cinema has been the medium that has allowed me to understand and reflect on what I learned at the age of six: that every being that lives will one day die. So, every day we must remember the true value of being alive.