Narrator: This is an interview with Elías León Siminiani, Spanish film director and creator of short films such as “El tránsito”, “El Permiso” and “Digital” and the feature film “Mapa”. Siminiani came to Carleton College to show his feature film “Mapa” and teach workshops to the students there.
Elías: Is that one recording? And the other?
Narrator: In an interview you ask a lot of things to a person in the hope of receiving answers. Let’s let him talk to him.
Elías: Well, my name is Elías León Siminiani, I am a Spanish filmmaker, I live in Madrid, I am a director, and scriptwriter, mainly of documentary cinema. I am also a professor of documentary film at the film school of the community of Madrid.
Can you briefly explain your history with the cinema?
Man, it’s really complicated. The history of the cinema is one for an encyclopedia. I could tell you that I was very fascinated by movies at an early age. I always went to the events of university and high school film-clubs as well as those of the institute. From a very young age I knew that I wanted to try making movies. Well, I majored in Hispanic philology — that does not have much to do with film theory with, the cinema – although it does touch on the topic, yes. Cinema is a language. And what I learned in the school had to do with communication, right? With language. Well – I started to work. At the same time that I did my shorts, I worked in television, I worked as an assistant, or intern, at shoots. And one moment when I finished my undergraduate studies, I got a Fulbright scholarship. I came to the United States to study cinema at Columbia University, a university where the focus is mainly fictional cinema. And until then I did not know about the documentary. Because of the circumstances of my life, I began to make small documentaries on my own, beyond what I was studying. And strangely, because sometimes life chooses for one, these documentary pieces worked better than the pieces of fiction. And somehow I came to find my place many years later, in that area, that so-called «non-fiction», which is where today I try to develop my career as a filmmaker.
For you, how is your process of creating, or starting to create?
Every work is a world, is it not, and each process is different. I guess … the most difficult aspect of any creative act – of making a movie, of writing, of creating a musical or a play or designing a building – whatever it is – is that moment when there is nothing there yet, when you have to make the first gesture of trying to shape something, trying to intuit something, right? And what I try to do is to be very attentive to what resonates with me. To the readings I do, the exhibitions I see, the films I see, the music I listen to. And from there, I try to build works that work with my wishes, with what attracts me. I always try to choose jobs that in some way allow me to explore something that, I do not quite know why, attracts me.
Speaking of the short films, the microdocumentaries in the “Key Concepts” series, how did you come up with the idea of this series?
The series began when I was in my first year in Columbia. I did a small documentary workshop and had to make a short documentary. I was developing shorts and fiction works in which the story always had more importance – everything is the service of telling a story, but some did not have to do with stories as much… for example, in the case of “The Office”, which is the first short of this series, does not have to do with a story as much as a space. How could I make a piece in which space is the protagonist, right? And stemming from there, later I made this tiny short film, this microdocumentary, about an office in which the idea was more about filming the space of an office, and less about the discursive content of the piece. What happens is that when I finished this piece I thought that I could replicate that model of how a little tiny short about a concept could somehow explain it and how we live in world today so I came up with the idea of making a Decalogue and calling it the «Key Concepts of the Modern World».
Speaking now of your first feature film «Mapa,» there is a diverse soundscape in «Mapa»: Music, narration, the sound of places and inner silence. How did you design the soundscape of the film, taking into account the different impact that each of these elements has on the viewer?
Well, the truth is that the sound of the film was one of the most carefully crafted parts. It was a multi-layered job. Somehow I was very aware that because “Mapa” was a movie I recorded with a small camera it had many shortcomings. In order to reach a wider audience I knew that I would have to supply the film with the sound. It was very clear from the beginning that the soundtrack had to have that finish, that very professional final varnish that was somehow related to the essence and nature, much more amateur, of the image which I had produced myself. So, well, it was a long job. Then, when I returned to India, for example, I needed to replicate all the environments, all the sounds in the environments. In Spain I also did a lot of work to find and record sounds. And among all of that, there is all the text that I read, which is very bent on creating a rhythm with the voice that could be like a river that takes you in. In contrast to the sound of the environment, in contrast to the music, the lyrics of the songs in some points of the film work as a musical, as the song itself seems to take over the voice to compose the speech. Essentially, the sound had these three elements: music, environment, and voice, that together weave a tapestry.
Very well. And now, speaking of the workshop and your time here at Carleton, what impact did you want to have on the students in our class? And making that question a little broader, what kind of impact do your works have on viewers?
Well, I heard about this program from Palmar Álvarez, I think she’s doing a very important job. So when you go somewhere else and work with students you do not know, there’s always a bit of doubt, right? Of doubt as to whether what you are telling interests, or is in tune a little with the minds of the students. In that sense, what I hope is to have been able to transmit something of the passion that I feel for the cinema and particularly for the type of cinema that we have seen. With that, if I have managed to inspire curiosity in any student, I am satisfied. I believe that what I want in the end is to be able to produce speeches or works that somehow allow me to communicate and share my fascination with cinema. And, at the same time, I want to feel that this fascination is received on the other side. What I am looking for, I suppose it is…to share the love for a medium.
Do you have more plans to work with producers or a team? Or do you think you will continue to work alone?
Well, right now I’m working, I’ve been working for a year on a documentary series for television with…it’s a professional production, with a team. And I think, I think they both have good elements, in fact I think before «Mapa» and after «Mapa» I spent a little time working alone, because this generates some different dynamics, right? So I think that now that I have tried all three extremes, I had also worked in the industry before but, my purpose is to somehow switch back and forth…switch back and forth, no. Or you could even say working industrially to be able to finance more personal films.
Do you have a preference for short films about feature films, or vice versa?
No, I do not have a preference. Eh, I think one of the problems that the short film has as a format in general is that there is always…there is a tendency to see it as a cover letter, so that someone can prove that he can make a feature film, for a producer to trust. It is natural that this happens, because cinema is something that costs money, and that is not the same what is worth a short film as a largometraje. But I think that considering the short film as a cover letter is a very poor vision. For me the short film is a narrative unit, or, in itself, exactly the same as a story of literature, or what the opinion piece is to journalism. Well, it has its rules, its needs, its structures, and its dilemmas, which are typical of the short film, just as the length has them. And one of the big problems that I see in many short filmmakers is precisely that they try to make a long short, they try to encapsulate the story of a feature film in a short when a short, to work, to be powerful, Has to start from an idea of short film, not from an idea of largometraje. In the same way, that there are many ideas of, there are many lengths that are short films stretched, that do not give because, for a feature film, and that someone works to stretch it. And for me they are two different, completely independent realities.
Very well, very well. And now, a fun little question to finish (very well), have you thought of other careers other than being a filmmaker?
Yes, yes yes, of course. I would have loved to be an architect. Yes, an architect. But it never occurred to me, or I never pursued it. I suppose if I reincarnate, I will try to be an architect, ah I do not know if I reincarnate as a walrus or a whale, then I cannot be an architect.
Thank you, Elías!
Very well, thank you.
Continue listening to hear students’ comments.
Christina: Hello, Elías, thank you for coming and showing us your work. I really liked that we could see what you do and its process of making art. Thank you!
Hannah: What I learned from the workshop was how to develop the film essay, and the importance of subjectivity, and also the interaction of image, sound, and word.
Carinna: I liked the activity at the end of the last class in which we did a, a copy of the «Key Conceptos». Then, each group created its own presentation of a concept. So, we created one about…as it’s called… the romantic relationship. I like when people can participate, not just listen.
Alexa: Thanks for coming, I really liked how Elías incorporates humor in the film essay.
Jessi: I’ve loved everything we’ve seen from Siminiani, especially with «Mapa». I have been, it has been very interesting, like, to hear of as the resources, the different metaphysical resources that can be used to reveal how the mechanisms and the assembly that is behind each film, and I found it very, very interesting and I loved it. So, thank you Siminiani and…thank you.