Dear Shaded Viewers,
I have known the actress, singer, director, Maria De Medeiros since 1997 when I was the costume designer on Arnold Barkus’ film Tempête dans un verre d’eau where I dressed Maria and the director, Arnold Barkus. We have been friends ever since. For ASVOFF12 I asked Maria if she would accept to be on the jury for this edition. She accepted and she introduced me to the work of Ishtar Yasin. I watched the films Dos Fridas and El Camino and was curious to know more about the director, below is our exchange. We plan to screen Dos Fridas in ASVOFF 12, the story is about the nurse of Frida Kahlo and we all know how Frida Kahlo has inspired, and continues to inspire, fashion.
DP: You’ve had an amazingly prolific career. Did you grow up in an artistic family?
IY: My grandfather was a writer, my father an actor and theater director, my mother is a dancer and choreographer. I grew up in an artistic environment and I don’t know how to live otherwise. As a child I was also a student in an artistic school in Costa Rica called Conservatorio Castella.
DP: You accomplished so much before the age of 30, did you have any mentors? If yes, who?
IY: My first mentors were my mother Elena Gutiérrez, my father Mohsen Yasin. And my grandfather, Joaquín Gutiérrez Mangel.
We had an intense life, mainly the consequence of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
At 17 I got a scholarship and I went to Moscow, where after learning the language, I studied with a great Master, the Russian actor/ director, Alexei Batalov.
At the VGIK Film Institute, I had the opportunity to know the films of great filmmakers such as Fritz lang, Karl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Federico Fellini, Luis Buñuel, Igmar Bergman, Jean Luc Godard … But above all, Soviet filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovski , Sergei Paradjanov, Kira Muratova, Larisa Shepitko and Artavaz Peleshian. Also Eisestein, Alexander Medvekin and Dziga Vértov. They have helped me to find my own way, my own expression.
DP: El Camino was your first feature film and if I remember correctly you said that both El Camino and Dos Fridas were projects that extended over a period of 7 years. Can you tell me more about the gestation of both films?
IY: During 1979, the year of the Nicaraguan revolution, I had the opportunity to visit that country with the Dance Company led by my mother Elena. They were moments of illusion, with great literacy campaigns and the flaring of a population that had suffered the abuses of the dictatorship.
I arrived in Moscow when Gorbachev assumed power as secretary general. I lived through the times of Chernobyl and Perestroika, also the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Upon returning to Costa Rica, I was shocked to realize that thousands of Nicaraguans risked their lives crossing the border clandestinely, to come to work in the neighboring country, Costa Rica. I went to the sugar cane mills, to the banana plantations, where Nicaraguans are exploited as cheap labor. I also met many women, Nicaraguan mothers, who worked mainly in domestic service, and I wondered: what happened to that revolution?
So I started the process of making the film “El camino” and traveled about 15 times from Costa Rica to Nicaragua. I also did the trip with migrants, and I was caught by the police at the border.
The economic difficulties in making a film in Latin America, without artistic concessions, are enormous. Most producers work with industrial models and “commercial formulas”. For that reason, I had to create my own production house “Astarte Films” with which I have produced all my films.
With “Dos Fridas” it was very difficult to obtain financing, we did it in the end with few resources. I participated with the script in several fund contests, mainly in Mexico. But they always rejected it because it did not follow the rules that they impose to make a film. It was impossible for me to write a script following those dominant rules.
I write and rewrite the script first for myself, as part of an internal process, as an intimate diary where I always find new ideas or visions that emerge from the relationship with reality. So my scripts are transformed all the time, they are images, voices, testimonies, poems, music, myths …
In order to make the movie “Dos Fridas” I went to live in Mexico in a house that is in front of a popular market. I had the experience of meeting these people from the neighborhood and today they are part of my family. I have been in their celebrations, meals, dances, rites. Now we are living a very painful moment because seven people working in that market have already died with this pandemic.
During the process of making “Dos Fridas” I had to face many obstacles, especially the misogyny of the cinematographic medium. Also discrimination and xenophobia. The proposal with this film can be risky, because it addresses other dimensions of reality, other searches. This arises from the same content; it is not something imposed from the outside. Diego Rivera said that Frida Kahlo’s pictorial work belonged to “monumental realism”, that is, a reality that is hidden, invisible to the eye.
“Dos Fridas” is a film where I wanted to create a totally new world, with its own time. I wanted to get out of the prevailing trend and look for other expressive possibilities. Almost everything in the film happens inside a house, as if we were inside the character’s head. I have also been nourished by the folklore, the Mexican votive offerings or altarpieces, the historical moment in that post-revolutionary Mexico, the ancient rites, the relationship with death, the memory of people who knew and lived with the characters.
In Latin America we have always created in adversity and have learned the hard way. It is life or death. There is no possibility of being wrong and within the limitations, mainly of time or money, it is necessary to continue at all costs maintaining that creative energy.
DP: If the script of El Camino was based on stories that you were told, what were they and how did you go about your research?
IY: During the process of making “El camino” I talked with boys and girls who had migrated alone to the neighboring country, Costa Rica. So I decided that I wanted to tell the story from that perspective.
Members of my Chilean family and my Iraqi family are scattered throughout the world. They have also been forced to leave their country, against their will.
DP: How did you go about the casting as I believe I read that they were not real actors however they were so natural and at ease in front of the camera. Is it true that their lives paralleled those of the characters they played?
IY: The majority of the participants in “El camino” had the experience of migrating, it is a reality that they have lived. Their stories were so strong that I made with some of them another film called “The happy table”, where they were sitting around a table telling their experiences, expressing their ideas and feelings.
When we finally collected the money, we found, in “Acahualinca” which means “Land of sunflowers”, a girl named Sherling Paola Velasquez. I immediately felt it was her and when asked if she wanted to star in the film, she told me that I had written her own story. That her mother, as in the script of the film, had emigrated to Costa Rica 8 years ago. And that she had never heard from her.
So, at the same time that Sherling was making Saslaya’s journey, she was living her own journey to reunite with her mother. In “El camino” the border between documentary and fiction is lost. When the immigrants and the girl talk on the boat, they are telling their own stories.
It was wonderful as that script that I wrote from real testimonies, also from my own experience as a migrant, developing in real spaces during filming, was constantly nourished and transformed.
DP: The camera work and art direction in both El Camino and Dos Fridas was very dreamy and atmospheric, how did you build your team?
IY: I always work from real events and characters. Then I let myself be guided by instinct; I also like to move in the territory of the fantastic. As a child I experienced my parents’ divorce, and at night, alone, I dreamed and created another reality. That dream world helped me breathe. Imagination saved me. To express what is inside and cannot be seen.
Each artist and each work finds its own way. My passion is poetry, which are feelings. No need for explanations.
DP: ASVOFF as a festival encompasses fashion, beauty and style and the artist Frida Khalo has and continues to have a huge influence on all three categories. What is your relationship with Frida Khalo the artist and the woman?
IY: When I was 15 years old, I saw a painting by Frida Kahlo: “The wounded deer” and I felt identified with her image, with her cyclical, mythical time. Her paintings transgress the dominant aesthetic patterns. At the same time, in her works there is pain. Like the image of Jesus on the cross or of Saint Sebastian, but it is a woman and artist.
Later I read a book about Frida’s life and I still remember the accident she had. I read and reread those facts and the consequences that she suffered, how Frida managed to impose herself on reality and thanks to artistic creation, transformed and sublimated that pain.
Frida has had a great influence in all the arts. This happened almost 30 years after her death, with Latin American artisan women in the United States, and with the feminist movement.
On the other hand, the massive reproduction of her image responds to a system where everything becomes merchandise. When they reproduce it, they often erase “the aura”, and it acquires another meaning.
Frida was born with the Mexican revolution and adopted indigenous clothing as a political act. She painted her own world and she integrates the elements from the Mexican folklore, the colors, the symbols, the mythical rationality from the pre-hispanic world, the integration with nature.
DP: I’ve seen the 1937 painting of My Nurse but I imagine that was a wet nurse when she was a child and nothing to do with Judith, how did you first hear of Judith Ferreto?
Where did you draw the line between fiction and non-fiction?
IY: That painting you are telling me about is called “My Nanny and I”, it is a “mother of milk”, an indigenous woman who feeds Frida.
There is a moment in the film where a woman appears who also feeds a child, and that image is born from the reference to that painting. It is someone who cares for and protects her, who could also be the mother Earth.
I first wrote, in 1996, a play about Frida called “Tree of Hope”. It was not a chronological proposal. The moments of her life were weaving through love, pain, art and death. Thanks to this work I learned the story of Judith Ferreto, her personal nurse, who took care of her in her last years of life.
I was impressed by the fact that Judith had an accident, which according to the biographer Martha Zamora, who interviewed her at the hospital, caused Judith similar pains, how Frida Kahlo in her accident with the tram. The most of the dialogues in the film of Judith and the historical figures are real dialogues.
I wanted to relive that past with Frida from the eyes of Judith, her personal nurse. Not to reproduce it, rather evoke it from within.
DP: Did you always have Maria De Medeiros in mind for the part of Judith or how did your collaboration come about and how did it evolve over the filming?
IY: I knew about María de Medeiros because of a film that fascinated me “Henry and June”.
I meet her personally in Brazil, in 2008, when I went to present “El camino” at the Mostra de Sao Paulo. Then a great friendship was born and being able to work together was just a dream. Until one day I decided that I did not want two actresses to play Judith (she appears in two stages of her life). I wanted only one actress, without a naturalistic external characterization, again, always from within.
I needed a great actress and I had the confidence to propose this character to María, which was a great challenge.
DP: This is a fashion film festival…so of course I want to talk about the costumes which played a role by themselves from the starched white uniform to the corset dress for Frida, how did you work with your costume designer to develop both characters?
IY: I met an art historian in Mexico, Tatiana Falcón, who specializes in pre-Hispanic colors. We film the alchemical process of a plant from which the indigo blue color is extracted. I also knew “the cochinilla” from which the red color is obtained. Colors are life itself!
At first I tried to create unrealistic, more delirious costumes with a designer. But it did not work. And I came to the conclusion that I should use the original costumes created by the artisan women, the indigenous women, for Frida .
The character of death with the girl and also some of the historical figures are inspired by Frida’s paintings: “The Moses”, “The wounded table”, “The girl already has her skull mask”. Mexicans have more than 200 names to call “Death”, one is “La Dama del Velo”, which is also inspired by “La Catrina” by the engraver and illustrator Guadalupe Posada.
The white is present in the uniform, in the corset, in the hospital, in the white robes that both wear when they face death. It is the absence of color, sometimes purity or nothingness, emptiness, the bones …
DP: I was reading about one of the three projects that you are currently working on and again it is a very personal one about the Memory of Jocelyne Saab. I liked the quote you had on your site from Cocteau. “The true tomb of the dead is in the heart of the living. “
IY: We met with Jocelyne Saab the first time in France, in Biarritz, 2008, when we were invited by Pierre-Henri Deleau to the Basque country, as jury members. A deep friendship was born from that moment.
Months later, I was invited to present the film “El camino” at the Damascus International Film Festival. I was living in the Art Gallery of my aunt, the Iraqi painter Nawal Al Sadoon, when a taxi came looking for me, sent by Jocelyne, and took me to Beirut.
I had the joy of acting in a film called “What’s Going On ?”, directed by Joselyne Saab.
We also filmed some sequences from another film, called “Le rouge et le blanc” where the main character was inspired by the life of Jocelyne, when in the early 80s, the Israeli army bombed her house in Beirut.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t finish that shoot, and I always remembered when she told me that one day that material will have a sense.
DP: Death seems to be a consistent theme in your films, of course it is part of life but there is an emphasis on it in your films, what are your feelings about death?
IY: The goddess Cotlicue, who also appears in the film, for the indigenous mythology in Mexico means rebirth and death at the same time, because for them everything is dual.
In my maternal family, in which I grew up, they were not religious and since I was a child it was hard for me to accept that death was the end. I remember how the Igmar Bergman’s film : “Wild Strawberries” marked me. it’s the journey of a man who knows he will die soon… Also the”Seventh seal” and “Live” by Akira Kurosawa. In “Dos Fridas” everything revolves around death. Someone said that: “Art defeats death” and in the film, it is something that we can prove, because the characters that are dead are more alive than ever!
DP: Who is Jocelyne Saab to you? Where are you in the process with that film?
IY: I would love to make a film about memories with Jocelyne, about that unfinished movie. Now I am on the way to that region of the world, where I have my origin too. I want to find the Jocelyne montage of this unfinished film.
DP: What are the other two films that are also in the works?
IY: I am working on the montage of a film about my father, “Mohsen from Iraq.” In April of last year 2019 I traveled to Iraq for the first time; it was a dream we had and we could not realize. This movie is part of a trilogy.
Also, a year ago, I started my work in the proposal of a film where several stories that talk about the relationship of human beings with animals.
DP: How has CODIV-19 effected your work? If you are in the writing stages I suppose the impact is less?
IY: This situation of the confinement is not strange to me. Solitude is necessary for artistic work. It is an opportunity to write, edit, film … It is also an opportunity to be close to my daughter Alondra.
The economic situation, the marginality, that most artists live in Latin America
is very hard, it is survival, and the most important thing now, more than ever, is to be aware and solidary.
DP: What are your thoughts about online festivals? Not that we’ve had much choice these days. I hear Venice is going forward in October, in my mind it is too soon and for that reason among others, I opted to take ASVOFF 12 online this edition.
IY: I hope this is temporary, because nothing would be comparable to the ritual of attending a movie theater.
DP: I was very surprised with all of your great reviews and awards that your film has not found a distributor. It would be great if by screening on FNL Network it could be a platform that could help you to promote your film and you as a director.
IY: That’s right dear Diane.
Dos Fridos will be screened with ASVOFF 12 on the A Shaded View on Fashion Film channel exclusively on the FNL Network. You will be given the opportunity to watch it for several weeks starting October 6th. See you there.