Sebastián Lelio refuses to look down on his characters

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

While not all Chileans who work in film know each other, director Sebastián Lelio is an acquaintance of mine. We met at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011, when he was promoting the little-seen indie film Year of the Tiger. The press screening wasn’t particularly well attended, but you could tell Lelio was well-versed in film language and good at creating complex, textured characters.

Since then, Lelio’s star has skyrocketed. His 2013 follow up, Gloria, was distributed worldwide and is currently being remade with Julianne Moore in the lead role. Last year, he achieved the rare feat of having two movies at TIFF: A Fantastic Woman (review on page 9) and the heavy drama Disobedience, with Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz as Jewish Orthodox lovers, separated by religion and prejudice.

In spite of Lelio’s success, he remains the same sharp, easygoing guy, willing to geek out over scoring The Cure’s “Lovesong” for Disobedience’s closing credits.

In A Fantastic Woman, discrimination against the LGBTQ community in Chile is palpable. Do you believe the bigotry was always there, or has it developed recently as the transgender population has come out from hiding?

I wonder that myself. I believe those topics were taboo and the Internet allowed the transgender community to realize they weren’t alone, they weren’t sick or crazy. The Internet also works as a metaphor for the collective mind, meaning this reality comes to the light after centuries of being denied or hidden. The strength of this surge speaks of how real the transgender plight is and how suppressed it was.

While A Fantastic Woman is recognizably Chilean, it has hit a universal chord. How do you explain it?

I was writing the movie from Berlin. It’s a very open city. I thought the events depicted were intrinsic to Latin America, but my German friends and producers corrected me. Perhaps you find tolerance in downtown Berlin, but if you leave the city, you will run into trouble. I am surprised that people are “getting” the film. There wasn’t a strategy behind [it], just intuition.

Do you believe film can trigger social change?

It’s very exciting when movies surpass the medium and enter the social fabric. Modestly, I believe some of that happened with Gloria, and it’s stronger with A Fantastic Woman. As long as a film can change you and allow you to walk in someone else’s shoes, it can have an effect in the world.

Last year you made movies in Spanish (A Fantastic Woman) and English (Disobedience). Are you a different director depending on the language?

I don’t really know what kind of director am I (laughs). I’m still learning, searching. Doing Disobedience, I felt very comfortable, which was very exciting because I wasn’t sure about the mechanics of working with A-list actresses. And yet, at the end of the day, after dealing with the bureaucracy, the agents and whatnot, it comes down to the camera and the actors to make a movie. That’s familiar territory for me.

A constant element in your work is to present female characters as victimized, but never as victims. What’s the root of your empathy for women?

I can’t work with characters if [I’m] looking down on them. I need to find a perspective that would allow me to understand or admire them, even the antagonists. In A Fantastic Woman it was a bit harder because of all the troglodytes in the movie. I still tried to understand them. You see these characters judging Daniela’s character, but revealing more about them than about her in the process.