A Family in Turmoil
Dominga Sotomayor’s debut feature recalls memories of road trips, hours of travelling, fatigue and children’s games as a family in crisis travels through the Chilean desert.
Early adolescence gives way to a very specific feeling of displacement that we can all evoke from our childhood memories. It is a time of unsettling transition that sees us clinging to the safety and familiarity of childhood while striving to understand the adults around us and become more grown up. Dominga Sotomayor’s Thursday Till Sunday (Winner of the Tiger Award at International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2012) gives an accurate and honest portrayal of this moment of movement and confusion, drawing from the director’s childhood and her knowledge of others’ in a remarkably engaging and sympathetic portrayal of a family in turmoil.
Thursday Till Sunday tells the story of family breakdown through the eyes of 10-year-old Lucia and is characterised by its use of tight interiors juxtaposed with glimpses of Chile’s rolling landscapes through car windows. Sotomayor expertly illustrates the burgeoning awareness of her young protagonist, Lucia, by slowly unveiling to her a fraught situation, and in doing so explores the conflict between a child wanting to understand and losing the happiness of innocence. This is Sotomayor’s feature-length debut after showing a succession of short films – Cessna (2005), Noviembre (2007), Debajo (2007), La Montaña (2008) and Videojuego (2009) – at international festivals. Thursday Till Sunday shows a departure from the short while maintaining the minimal dialogue, singular focus and pared down drama of the medium. Indeed, Sotomayor explains how she had originally imagined Thursday Till Sunday as a short, before it developed into a larger and more emotionally engaged project. Because of this, her approach to filmmaking naturally evolved from her usual starting point for short films, and she doesn’t differentiate between the two media: “I decided to look back onto these little family stories from a very specific point of view.” The distinguishing feature of this is that the film maintains a very tight focus on what Sotomayor describes as “this very little situation”, which she aimed to study with a degree of discomfort for the characters and the audience. She references “finding the way to see from a second point of view,” whereby the relationship of the parents is actually seen through the eyes of the child, and therefore reveals the unnerving dynamics of moving from adolescence to adulthood.
Within the close confines of the family’s station wagon, Lucia, sitting beside her oblivious seven-year-old brother Manuel, surveys the festering tension of her parents Ana and Fernando as they make their last family trip before their planned separation. Details of the marriage breakdown are slowly revealed from the initial line, “Are you sure you still want me to come?”, before the trip begins, to covert discussions of Fernando’s future living arrangements and speculation over Ana’s blossoming relationship with an ex-boyfriend. We witness the parents consistently trying to hide things from their children, lurching into English to accuse their cleaner back at home of theft, only for Lucia to make it clear to them that she is fully aware of what they are discussing. The manner in which Sotomayor has approached this revelation of information is interesting because Ana and Fernando’s relationship remains ambiguous throughout the film, even to its adult audience. Ana is a confusing character because on the one hand she is reluctant for Fernando to rent his friend’s apartment (because that marks a permanent severing of their relationship), and yet she callously conducts her new relationship in front of her husband, and is surly and passive-aggressive with him throughout the film. Similarly, Fernando is at times weak and irritatingly understated but at other times a sympathetic characterisation of a husband cuckolded. It is through this gradual exposition, and by keeping her audience in the dark about the nature of the relationship’s breakdown, that Sotomayor firmly roots the film in an exploration of childhood and its viewpoint, rather than in a study of a more complex adult relationship.
For Sotomayor, the primary focus of the film was on the tight atmosphere of the car, starting from “a picture of my childhood; an image of me and my cousin in the car. I was recollecting these feelings of my own childhood, of travelling in the back of the car and these things that were happening in the car.” She refers to the idea of a film about a journey rather than a destination, and how the time in the car can seem to be an age for the impatient child, remembering “this feeling of it being so long; this specific way to travel that is not really arriving anywhere, just travelling and travelling.” Again, this feeling of endless travelling and anticipation of what is to come captures the transitional state of childhood: “Maybe because I was a child it is very specific about how long it was for me, and how frustrated I was at the same time. The journey was the trip – we’re not arriving anywhere.”
Sotomayor describes the importance of the story as: “This moment in between the important things.” By not presenting a huge fight between the parents that led to the decision to separate, or representing the physical act of separation itself, Sotomayor achieves a quiet understatement where she is not making a film about separation but about “what is in the middle and not important, and what is going to reveal, little by little, what is hidden.” Although the film is closely confined by the car and the road, Sotomayor explains that, while it is a reference that many viewers will draw, “I wasn’t thinking about the road movie,” and that the focus was more on “making a film inside a car with these limitations.” Inevitably physical properties will turn this film that is focused on the moving car into a road movie, but the cinematography is careful to make the scenes and atmosphere of the road very secondary and apart from the feeling inside the car. Ultimately it all comes down to this child’s view in this very specific place: “There was a certain type of cinema I was trying to explore – specifically position, and, in this case, position in the seat. It was a very formal approach; an experiment of the cinematography to show those emotions.”
The cinematography (by Bárbara Alvarez) and the contrast between the stuffy close interiors of the car (and the tents that the family camp in) and the huge, rolling vistas of endless Chilean deserts create a unique characterisation for the film. Sotomayor describes the car as a “capsule” within the film and highlights how this setting creates “a trip without movement because they are always in the same place.” Throughout the filming, she worked to a strict theory whereby the film is seen “through the window of the house in the morning, and through the window of the car, and the car shows how we will see the landscape through this window. So I wanted to create a dialogue about how the car and the kids have a distance and a fragmented way of seeing the whole thing.” An important element in this was to leave the car as little as possible: “I wanted it to be with them all the time and be claustrophobic in this dialogue.” This tension mounts through the film as the family, in its microcosm, is contrasted with the big landscape on the outside, whereby “there’s this big space on the outside and they are a little thing in the whole scenario.” This culminates in a showdown in the desert where the family all leave the car, making the contrast all the more obvious because the car is so small in the distance. “It shows how small this family situation is, but we don’t always see that because we see how the kids are feeling. I wanted to capture this aspect and this way of seeing things as we see them as kids,” says Sotomayor.
In orchestrating this contrast, the locations outside the film were doubly important to Sotomayor, and she describes the process of selection as “very long … I didn’t have a specific place and location, it was not real, it was just colours and ideas from when I was a kid. I made a trip [to get] a better feeling of the journey and the distance.” These childhood memories were coupled with a more specific realism in which the family would naturally exit the car at places to fill the tank, but the importance lay in the loneliness of the landscape aligning with the loneliness of the characters. In choosing these rough hewn settings that are simultaneously beautiful, the film creates a balance between danger and the attractive freedom of the country, something that Sotomayor references in her childhood memories of riding on the roof of the car – “one of the best moments of my life”– but also her adult horror at how dangerous it was – “I was trying to find a balance of emotions. The landscape is very representative of that.” Furthermore there is a narrative arc of the landscape where, “at the beginning there are more colours and trees, and as it goes on they are getting lost and the landscape loses its colours.”
This transition mirrors Lucia’s loss of innocence. As played by Santi Ahumada, the portrayal of early adolescence is an expert one. Writing the screenplay, Sotomayor referenced her own childhood and that of her brothers and sisters, and recognised the feeling whereby: “You want to be a kid and play in the car but you also want to know what is happening and to be grown up.” Scenes where Lucia pesters her father to show her how to drive and shows her unadulterated joy and excitement when she is allowed to take the wheel create an acute insight into her character for the audience. While Sotomayor had written her screenplay in detail when she met Ahumada, she immediately connected her with the character of Lucia and always had her in mind for the role. She imagined the character to be nine, but was more satisfied with using the actress at an older age because “it is a more complex moment. It was good that she was getting older.” The scene where Lucia and Manuel ride lying on the car’s roof, looking down through the windscreen at their distanced parents, highlights this separation between children and adults, and demonstrates the child’s overbearing yearning to understand the world around them better.
These aspects of childhood, combined with the neutral setting in the car, take the film and its subject matter outside of a specifically Latin American context to bring a sort of universality. Sotomayor says: “It wasn’t intentional but it could be anywhere. I was trying to find this timelessness; it was about childhood but it’s like a memory in the present time.” In stripping the family away from their normal context, Sotomayor aimed to capture a more natural experience, without the “craziness” of the city: “To get back to how it is to be a human being [and] how complex it can be to express these feelings of childhood and these anxieties of fear.”
The remarkable performance of Ahumada was authenticated by shooting the film chronologically to make a parallel script for the children’s parts where they were always unsure of the next part of the story. As “Lucia was very anxious to know what would happen afterwards,” so was the actress as she gradually discovered the script, and this creates a real parallel with her character: “It was an attempt to make them realise they are not acting but reacting, and I was reacting to them each day. I was trying to cultivate them in different ways.” Sotomayor takes an interesting approach by deciding that what happens off screen is as important as what happens on, so that “truth wasn’t always what happened in this car.” The characters’ reactions to earlier events show a larger truth rather than making everything obvious on screen. In this way Sotomayor has realised a very unique film of understatement and quiet contemplation from a very formal starting point of shooting only through the car. As such, Thursday Till Sunday is simultaneously an exercise in cinematic experimentation and a story that evokes a universal and familiar impression of childhood.
Thursday Till Sunday is released at on 5 April. www.dejuevesadomingo.cl.