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Making a movie is always a personal journey for a director. But with her debut feature, Summer 1993, Carla Simón took that truism to another level, telling the story of how she became an orphan of Spain’s AIDS epidemic and even shooting in locations where she played as a child.
Simón was born in 1986, after the Spanish transition to democracy. Like many young people, her parents reveled in the liberation that followed the death of Francisco Franco.
“It was a period of total freedom, which is great,” Simón says. “But a lot of drugs came in. A lot of young people got hooked into drugs.”
A heroin epidemic swept the country. Simón’s parents became addicted, and as a result they eventually died of AIDS.
“They had this moment of freedom, so it was like, ‘Let’s experience things,’ and they didn’t know the consequences,” Simón says. “So suddenly AIDS came, and a lot of people died. Actually, Spain had the highest rate [of infection] in Europe. So there are a lot of stories like mine, a lot of orphans of AIDS.”
The film, which Simón also wrote, picks up her story when she was 6 years old, just after her mother’s death (her father had already passed away). Frida (Laia Artigas) watches as her mother’s belongings are packed in boxes. She is silent; even though she doesn’t fully grasp the significance of what’s happening around her, on some level she knows everything has changed. But as tragic as her situation is, she’s fortunate, because despite the intense stigma surrounding the AIDS virus, her aunt and uncle take her in and love her unconditionally. Frida moves to their home in the countryside, finds a constant and vulnerable playmate in her 4-year-old cousin, Anna (Paula Robles), and starts to adjust to her new life. As much as she can at her tender age, she begins the long process of coming to terms with death and loss.
Such subject matter could be depressingly heavy, but Simón has a light touch. Taking inspiration from her old family photos, she gave the film an almost home-video aesthetic, she explains, so the audience would “have this feeling of being there in the moment with the characters.”
The sunlit country setting also imbues the film with warmth and intimacy. Simón insisted on shooting in La Garrotxa, the lush green county north of Barcelona where she moved in real life. But because of her deep personal connection to the locations — a swimming pool where her parents once worked, a family friend’s house where she used to play — she sometimes doubted her choices.
“When you know a place very well,” she explains, “for me sometimes it was hard to find the right camera position, because you are not seeing it for the first time and saying, ‘OK, so this is the best place.’”
So Simón leaned on her cinematographer, Santiago Racaj, and the rest of her crew. “In general, all the crew [were very important], because when you are talking about something that is so close to you, you need other people sometimes telling you, ‘Maybe this is just important for you,’” she says.
But beyond sharing the story of her youth right down to its sights and sounds, making the film helped Simón to better understand her family history and to reclaim her story as her own.
“I’ve repeated my story many, many times, and at some point it becomes like a story or a tale — you don’t feel you lived it, it’s just something you’re explaining,” she says. “So the fact of making the film, it’s mine again.”
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