The Movie Waffler Interview - CLARA SOLA Director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén | The Movie Waffler

Interview - CLARA SOLA Director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén

Interview - CLARA SOLA Director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén
The Costa-Rican-Swedish filmmaker discusses her acclaimed feature debut.

Interview by Benjamin Poole

Nominated for the Golden Camera Award at Cannes and a hit with both audiences and critics alike at last year's London Film Festival, Clara Sola is set in a remote village in Costa Rica. Clara, played by Wendy Chinchilla Araya giving a stunning tour de force performance in her debut acting role, is a withdrawn 40-year-old woman who experiences a sexual and mystical awakening as she begins a journey to free herself from the repressive religious and social conventions which have dominated her life.

We spoke to the film's director, Nathalie Álvarez Mesén.

clara sola poster

I read with interest that most of the cast were untrained, and that your (amazing) lead Wendy Chinchilla Araya has a background in dance. I wonder if you could please elaborate a little on how you approached directing your cast and also how you capitalised on Wendy’s physicality as Clara?

In Spanish we call them "natural actors" instead of non-actors (it's nice to not have a negation in front). Of course, they are actors now that they have acted in the film. None of them had acted before but Wendy was a dancer and I saw her doing a contemporary dance performance. What was so nice about the work with her was that I come from physical theatre and mime and she comes from dance, so our common language is the body and physicality.

We worked a lot with internal images of nature like tiny roots which kept her body restrained because the character doesn't make very big movements. We used the image of a wolf as we like to think of Clara as 20% wolf. That was an image and energy we worked with a lot. We also worked with clown techniques to find a voice as part of the physicality. 

I also worked with an acting coach from Colombia called Carlos Fagua Medina, who specialises with natural actors. He has a special technique that the actors do in the morning. It’s exercises to give the actors some tools to work emotionally in a safe way. But a lot of it is through movement so in that sense we both like working with the body and creating internal images. We have very different techniques that were compatible. He was leading the rehearsals with me and stayed for two weeks of the shoot. He’s a jewel.

During rehearsing we decided with him that we didn't want to show the script to the actors to begin with. So I would describe all the scenes very precisely and then improvise and play around with the scenes. A week before shooting we read the script together. By that time the actors had their characters in their bodies and had their own opinions about the characters and whether they wanted to change some dialogue and things like that.

Masturbation as a form of self-care is central to the film, where enthusiastic practitioner Clara is shamed for her indulgence in the act. Never mind a strictly religious Costa Rican village, I think that the act of masturbation is still seen as taboo in wider culture, which is strange considering it is surely an almost universal pursuit. What does the act of self-love mean in Clara Sola?

For me it's an act of healing. Clara spends the whole movie being required to heal other people and in the end finds love and acceptance for herself and learns what her desires and her body's inner wants are. It's a very nice question; nobody has asked it before. 

I wouldn't say masturbation is a major taboo everywhere but it's still not something you speak about aloud. One of our goals in winning awards (like the Swedish Oscar awards) was to be able to say "masturbation" on public television. When I did I had some negative reactions from politicians but there was also a lot of pushback from people being supportive of me calling it for what it is, something natural. I think the more we speak about it the more natural it becomes.

In the film, Clara experiences a profound connection with nature. You and cinematographer Sophie Winqvist film Clara’s natural context of forests and soil and fauna with such luscious detail that the audience are encouraged to fall in love with nature, too. I was hoping that you could please explain the importance of this setting to Clara Sola.

For me, sexuality is a natural thing and so it's a part of nature. Clara can be herself in nature. For most of us, if we can be alone in nature for a moment breathing in the trees and earth, we can be ourselves in the sense that we don't have to play any social roles. I think that's liberating. It feels like a little rest and there's something quite magical about it. 

For me, magic realism is very connected to nature. Magic realism could be the spirituality of the film or its poetry, so it was a must that it happened in nature. It wasn't an intellectual decision but rather the moment Clara appeared as a character, she was living in that setting. She is attuned to nature and notices thing most of us wouldn't. Maybe it's related to Clara's langauge, which is different to ours because her tempo is also different - she almost has nature's tempo.

In keeping with the themes and implications of Clara Sola, I think that every film ever made is a miracle, as it succeeds against the odds. Could you please talk a little bit about the process of making Clara Sola, and the challenges facing/opportunities offered to independent filmmakers?

I agree. In a way it never feels like the film will happen. Even after years of financing and working with brilliant producers and having a lot of co-producers from different countries, it still didn't feel like it was going to happen. Even the day before we started shooting it felt so far away. As it was my first feature I had never been on a movie or TV set aside from my own shorts or those of friends. It was a big difference and a luxury to work with so many talented people that knew so much more than I did within their specific fields because they had done so much more. That was very nice. 

Making films in Latin America is very difficult without co-producers either within Latin America or in Europe. Our production is Swedish/Costa Rican/Belgian/German, with 10 producers. It took so many years because it involved small funds here and there. The development and pre-production was done in Sweden and the US while I was studying as Masters at Columbia University. I then moved to Costa Rica for a year and a half to do the casting and prep. Afterwards I moved to Belgium to edit for half a year. 

I think the film is enriched by the collaborations. I needed a Belgian editor for example, and I found the best editor ever that I want to continue to work with. For my first film I think it was good to get a lot of time to develop the script but I hope my next films don't take as much time. The most important part was finding the producers. Nima Yousefi was the first producer to come on board and he went through all the difficult stages with me and developed the script together with me and my co-writer Maria Camila Arias. We would come up with ideas in the middle of the night and send each other messages. Having someone like that is very important because the process is so long that in some periods you might feel like you're not in love with the idea anymore, so you need someone to remind you why you wanted to make it. Happily I'm working with Nima again for my next film. Alan McConnell from the US was also a very important creative force for the project.

If you had to programme Clara Sola as part of a triple bill, what would the other two films be? Are there any films which especially influenced Clara Sola?

I would choose two films that I really love whose poetry influenced Clara Sola and maybe even the character herself. The first is the Peruvian film The Milk of Sorrow by Claudia Llosa, which is really incredible. I would also choose The Wonders by Alice Rohrwacher. They're both incredibly moving films, so poetic and well directed, acted and written. I truly love them.

Clara Sola is in UK cinemas and on VOD from November 18th.