A fashion student, headless ghost and hotel maid struggle through war, love and wealth inequity in Algeria's 'Papicha,' Thailand's 'Inhuman Kiss' and Mexico's 'The Chambermaid,' respectively.
It took just three weeks to film her feature debut, The Chambermaid, but before the shoot even began, writer-director Lila Aviles had spent years interviewing Mexican maids and researching what happens behind the closed doors of a luxury hotel.
The film, which has drawn comparisons to Alfonso Cuarón's Roma for its humanistic look at the lives of young working-class women in Mexico City, centers on Eve, a struggling single mom working as a maid in a glossy high-rise hotel. The job allows her to peer into the lifestyles of wealthy hotel guests but also makes her feel as though her dreams of a better life are unattainable.
Aviles, 37, describes the research and filmmaking process for the drama — which is being released in the U.S. through Kino Lorber — as being similar to the training of an Olympic athlete.
"You train for a very long time [to prepare] for those brief moments," she says. "I talked with many chambermaids, studying their day-to-day activities. By understanding their humanity, I was able to discover my own point of view as an artist."
First-time feature director Mounia Meddour's Papicha follows the travails of a fashion student caught in Algeria's "dark decade" of the 1990s. Seldom portrayed onscreen, the period was wracked by a long and deadly civil war that resulted in 150,000 deaths and thousands sent into exile abroad. "It's one of the only films to confront the epoch in such a direct manner," says Meddour, 41, who was studying journalism in Algeria at the time.
It took five laborious years to get the project off the ground, but the director eventually landed a budget of $1 million for a five-week shoot in the capital city of Algiers. At the time, the local authorities were behind the project. And after a successful Cannes premiere, it was chosen as Algeria's official Oscar entry.
That's when things got complicated. The Algerian government, embroiled in massive demonstrations since late February, suddenly decided to ban the film from theaters, even though it remains the country's bid for an Oscar.
Nonetheless, Papicha, which is still without a U.S. distributor, has struck a chord abroad, especially in France, where it has racked up nearly 250,000 admissions. Says Meddour: "There have been many Algerian exiles coming up to me after screenings to say they finally witnessed what they experienced and that the film confirmed why they never want to return home."
Thai director Sittisiri Mongkolsiri wants to change the way the world sees its ghosts. "Of course they can be scary," he says. "But I think people today are also interested in exploring if they have a more serious, human side."
For his debut feature, Inhuman Kiss, Mongkolsiri tapped into the ancient folktale of the "Krause" curse — a common ghost story in Southeast Asia about a young woman whose head detaches itself from her body nightly and sets out in search of human flesh to eat.
The filmmaker insisted on taking the concept further by adding a human element to the macabre tale. "What if she had fallen in love, but at night she was a monster?" he says. "I started to think maybe that was a side of this story people might like to see."
He was right: Mongkolsiri's debut has been a box office and critical hit at home, chalking up about $3.5 million in box office before being named as Thailand's surprise Oscar submission in the best international feature category.
Mongkolsiri admits that the chances of landing an Oscar nomination for a horror film are slim, but he points to the fact that Inhuman Kiss was picked up by Netflix as proof that his unconventional ghost story has broad appeal.
"People in the past, when they portray Thai ghosts, they have never really portrayed them in this serious way," says the helmer. "They have made fun of them in comedies, or made them just scary. But I wanted to see things from the monster's side."
This story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.