Although it is set in a small Catalonian village, the themes of "Alcarràs" are universal. This absorbing drama, screening Oct. 6, 7, and 12 at the New York Film Festival, immerses viewers in the lives of a farming family struggling to get by.
Rogelio (Josep Abad) is the patriarch whose failure to sign a contract for the land he was given means the family will have to move at the end of the summer. This fact enrages his son, Quimet (Jordi Pujol Dolcet) who manages the peach farm with the help of his son, Roger (Albert Bosch), as well as members of his extended family and the occasional migrant worker.
Pinyol (Jacob Diarte), who owns the land, encourages Quimet to move to "farming" solar panels — to work less, earn more and stay on the land — but Quimet resists, digging in his heels and causing tensions within his own family. How the other family members react to Quimet's stubbornness play out during the film.
Directed by Carla Simón, who cowrote the script with Arnau Vilaró, "Alcarràs" allows viewers to absorb each character and understand their lives, desires and frustrations. Roger is especially well drawn; he retaliates when Quimet discovers the secret crop of weed he is growing. But Quimet's wife, Dolors (Anna Otin), and their daughter, Mariona (Xènia Roset), also get compelling storylines that help create a strong family portrait.
Simón spoke with Salon about creating her new film.
"Alcarràs" presents a microcosmic look at a family, a farm, and a community by allowing viewers to eavesdrop on their lives. What inspired you to tell this particular story?
My two uncles cultivate peaches in Alcarràs, which is a small village in Catalonia. When my grandfather died, I thought, "What would happen to the trees that were there forever when they disappeared?" This is not happening in my family because my uncles are still cultivating peaches, but it is happening to other families; they have to abandon their farms. This way of life, cultivating agricultural in small family groups, is no longer as sustainable as it used to be. They have to leave their land and do something else.
Can you discuss why you told this story in a leisurely, very unstructured, immersive way? It's very effective.
The structure of the film was a challenge because it is an ensemble piece. We had to think about each character and their emotions, and how the emotions of one character can affect someone else, so we went with that domino effect. It was a difficult to show these different points of view, but it was freeing as well.
Quimet is a toxic man, who fails to consider the impact of imposing his will on everyone. He seems to be stubbornly fighting an uphill battle, believing he is in the right but in denial about reality. It manifests itself in his back pain and his relationships with his family. He is a fascinating character and not unsympathetic, despite making some bad choices. What observations do you have about him? We are rooting for him, but he is toxic!
Yes, he is. We wanted to do a portrait of this place, and right now we have all these narratives of empowered women who are feminists. But these [toxic men] still exist. In these rural places they still don't know about feminism, and family structures are still quite old. We wanted to give some hope through the character of Mariona, the teenager who sees [Quimet] as the boss, as the one to start thinking of breaking the patriarchal cycle. Quimet's masculinity is toxic, but it is important to portray a man who can be tender and feel emotion.
I'm curious about how you created the narratives for the other family members. I loved the young troublemaker Iris (Ainet Jounou) and her co-conspirators, Pau (Isaac Rovira) and Pere (Joel Rovira), but also Mariona's and Roger's storylines, along with members of the extended family. Can you discuss your approach to the narrative that lets viewers sink into the rhythm of these lives?
When I thought about the story, the most obvious choice was to tell the story from Quimet's point of view. But I am not a 45-year-old man who is a farmer. That's far from my experience. But I can talk about family relationships because I'm part of a big, big family. I like the idea of portraying what it is to be part of a big family in a cinematic way. I wanted to talk about family crisis, because you can't choose your family, and when there is crisis, it affects you. This is the case with the younger generation. I care about how the children feel; the youngest ones have a mysterious view of everything because they don't understand the whole picture. It was interesting to talk about generations and the relationship between the grandfather and grandchildren. It's about a way of life. They are about to lose the land and this way of life is about to end. It has consequences; this way of living with different generations in same house is also disappearing.
Can you talk about the different plotlines with the younger characters?
With the children, the idea is that they play in the place they usually play, [an abandoned car], and someone takes this car from them. They are the first ones to lose something. Because they are children, they spend the whole film looking for another place to play. It's a metaphor for what's happening to the adults.
Mariona is the character who is closest to myself. She is at this age where you start looking at the family. She is the observer, and we see a lot of things through her eyes. We understand the grandfather's feelings though her. She has a will to leave this place, so she is in the family, but she has this outsider perspective
For Roger, it was interesting for me to have a character who is a teenager who wants to be a farmer, because of the lack of generational takeover. He wants to keep cultivating the land, but he won't be able to do it. Young people are leaving this place, and Roger will have to leave, but against his will. It was interesting to show this, and the mixed feeling Quimet has with his own future and his son's future. Quimet wants his son to stop cultivating the land, because it will be easier for him to study or do something else, but at the same time, it makes him proud to see that his son has the same love he has for the land.
"Alcarràs" is very much a film about tradition versus modernization, but it is also about opportunity. Is progress a good thing for these people who have been farming for generations?
We totally want solar panels. That is why I thought this is an interesting dilemma. I like when the bad person or side of a story is not so bad. The landowner [Pinyol] has his right to do this. Quimet's sister and brother-in-law want to work in his solar panel business. It's interesting to show a dilemma where both can be OK — even if you are on the family's side. For me, the thing I don't like about the green energy in Spain is that it's not always applied well. They sometimes put solar panels in places where they can cultivate the land. That doesn't make sense. They could pick other places. It's complicated issue, but we want green energy, but we have to be careful how we do it.
What observations do you have about the use of migrant workers, which is depicted in your film? The family can only afford to pay one man.
A lot of people think that people hire migrant workers without papers. This is not true. There are huge controls. If you have an illegal worker, you have to pay 10,000 Euros if the police catch you. The farmers do things properly. People come to these villages every summer and it's a problem. The workers live in bad conditions. Migrant workers could have a film, because they have interesting stories, but "Alcarràs" was about this family. The families don't have much communication with the workers, even though they see each other every day. They don't know much about each other. It was interesting to have the little girl curious about them, but the others don't communicate too much with them. This is what happens. They need each other, and spend a lot of time together every day, but they live in separate worlds.
Can you talk about the fair pricing issues for farmers, which is also featured in "Alcarràs?"
It's a big issue. Farmers cultivate the fruit without knowing how much they are going to be paid for each kilo. Sometimes, they get paid less than what it costs to produce it. It depends on the year. This year, there was a lot of bad weather, so a lot of fruit was wasted. So, you could say it was a bad year. But at the same time, it was a good year for those who could sell their fruit because the price was higher. The folks whose fruit was wasted received money from insurance. The worst harvest is when everyone has fruit. It shouldn't be so difficult to regulate a little bit.
Your film can be seen as cynical, in that opportunities are limited, or it can be seen as hopeful, in that people are free to do what they want. How do you see your film?
Both ways, somehow. It is interesting, because in the beginning of writing, I wanted a happy ending. My uncles still cultivate peaches, so, we need to end with some hope that they can still do that. But in making the film and talking to the farmers, we realize they have no hope and are pessimistic. We went to a demonstration for farmers, and we thought this way of life is really ending. Not the agricultural world, but this way of doing small family agriculture was ending. So, we cannot have a happy end. But it is not necessarily a sad ending. It was going to be difficult to keep doing this. So, it's a chance to start over and do something else, and find another way of living, that might make them happy, even if they still don't know it yet. You can see it both ways.
documentary interviews by Gary Kramer