What did Arantxa Echevarría choose as the topic for her first feature film? Nothing less than the love story of two queer gypsy girls in Spain. Carmen and Lola is a challenging project that took her years to complete. It has gathered acclaim both in Spain and at the Cannes Film Festival, where it received a 4-minute standing ovation after its premiere. Now, she is presenting her film at the BFI London Film Festival, and I get the chance to sit with her and chat about the responsible representation of minorities by majorities on-screen, the lives of LGBT+ people in gypsy communities, and the current state of women in Spanish cinema.
[This interview has been translated from Spanish to English]
Ainhoa: I was wondering what type of research you had to do regarding gypsy communities - and LGBT+ gypsy communities -- to be able to create this film.
Arantxa Echevarría: It was madness and an adventure because in Spain gypsies have been with us for 600 years. They’re Spanish. But we are so racist, very racist. The reaction was absolutely negative. They told me I had no right to make this movie, that homosexuality didn’t exist, that that’s a payo thing that’s infecting their pure race. But the feminist gypsies were even worse!
[Editor’s note: The words “payo”/”paya” are what gypsy communities in Spain call white non-gypsies]
A: Yes, I read a bit about your interactions with them.
AE: I had the first meeting with them before making the film and they told me that I was paya, that my gaze was going to be payo-centric, that I was going to use every cliché in the book, and that they wanted the script to correct it and to write a different story because it wasn’t the “correct” one. And I told them “Excuse me, but I will write whatever I want and talk about whatever I want”.
A: In the end, when Lola’s mother discovers a love letter Carmen addressed to her daughter, and she confronts her about it - it’s such an intense sequence. Was it hard to film?
AE: It was done in one shot. It had to be, because [the film’s cast] weren’t trained actresses who had tools to work with, so they had to become emotional in real life as well. So, we used a trick: she doesn’t have any daughters, but she does have a son called Samuel who she adores, and I’d tell her, “Imagine that Samuel came to you and told you that he’ll never give you grandchildren”. And that pain for a gypsy, do you know what it's like?
A: I also wanted to ask you about the state of Spanish cinema. Did you get any help or financial aid?
AE: Yes. The first thing I did was send the script to screenplay contests to see if with that I could start. We still had a lot left to finance. I started to go to production agencies and TV networks, and I’d get there like “Hi! This is my first feature film, I’m a girl, and I want it to be about the love story of two gypsy girls played by non-professional actors!” And they’d be like, “Do you see that door over there?”
So it was very hard, but we were very lucky because Orange - their CEO is crazy about “auteur” cinema. He’d been following my footsteps with my short films and documentaries, and he called us and he went “I love it. I’m going to help you finance it.” That has never happened to me.
[Arantxa continued on to depict the darker side of Gypsy culture for young women]
AE: You have to take into account that the adolescence of a gypsy girl is very ephemeral. From the time they’re 12 or 13 years old they are already highly sexualised - they’re pretty, they wear lipstick, they play make-believe games about being mothers - and soon enough they find a boy and they like him. The problem is that if we like a boy nothing happens, but if you like a boy in the gypsy world you have to get engaged to him so that people won’t badmouth you, or fear that you’ll lose your virginity. Therefore, as soon as they see you with a guy, it’s engagement now. As a result, gypsy girls don’t study. It’s a social prison. Imagine, if you’re homosexual and you want to live out your homosexuality, it means giving up your family, and your community. Then you expose yourself to the world of payos. The world of payos is racist, as you can see in the film: “You’re a gypsy; I’m not going to give you a job!” They have to choose between their own sexuality or their lives. And a lot of the times, 90% of the times, they choose to live [their homosexuality] covertly. And the ones who dare to leave, well, leaving is very hard for them.
A: How do you see the role of women in Spanish cinema at the moment?
AE: Well we’re at the top of our game right now! Last year’s Goya’s [the Spanish equivalent to the BAFTAs] Best Film was for a woman, [Isabel] Coixet, who’s the greatest amongst us women [filmmakers], and Best New Director was Carla Simón. So on top of the fact that if you give us the money we make good movies, the academy of Spanish cinema also recognizes that they’re good. So, give us the chance, give us the megaphone because we need it. I’m wishing someone will give me 5 million euros to make a film. Everybody’s like “Oh yes she’s a woman” [and expects films with] small budgets, an intimate movie... No! Give me 10 million and I’ll make you a blockbuster!