After having premiered her debut long film, the hybrid The Plague, at the Berlinale, the Catalan filmmaker Neus Ballús returned to Berlin for the opening of her second film. The feature Staff Only, a portrait of the European tourism in Africa through a Catalan family, was also in Competition in the Festival of Malaga. Starring the well-known actor Sergi López and newcomers such as the solid young actress Elena Andrade, it is Ballús' first fiction film. EWA spoke with the director about the film and her feminist activism.
By Kristina Zorita
We see the film through the main character’s eyes, the teenager Marta. Who is Marta representing ?
She is a version of the two screenwriters, me and Pau Subirós. She compiles different experiences we had as travellers/tourists; many of the conflicts we had travelling along the world, trying to have normal relations with local people.
Is tourism criticised ?
Tourism is the context. It is a framework where everyone is given a role to play. Marta is not supposed to enter the staff area in the hotel. In this framework, the spontaneous relations among tourists and staff are very complicated. And here comes the key subject of the film: how those geopolitical, economic and social frameworks ruin our way of interacting with people, even though we try to befriend a person, our role in society is crucial. This is everywhere but in a resort in Senegal those mechanisms are clearer.
Why Senegal and not the Caribbean, for instance ?
Yes, it could have been Cuba or the Dominican Republic but that would not make for a different cultural background as I wanted. Furthermore, there is a domination relationship between Spain and its former colonies and I did not want to focus on this. I prefer to underline the fact that we reproduce those systems even in countries where we did not have a role.
Can we talk about a sort of coming of age ?
Through the experiences Marta has, especially through her mistakes and their consequences, the girl realizes that she has a responsibility in the world. She realizes that her naive behaviour is totally irresponsible and therefore she is transformed. In a very near future, she will change her perspective of the world and even her ideology.
Why did you choose Elena Andrade, an actress without previous experience ?
I was looking for a girl who was at the same point in life as Marta (the main character). She had not yet travelled abroad to a place like Senegal. Furthermore, I found Elena to be in between girlhood and adulthood. I had the feeling that many things would happen to her in Senegal. We have shot the film in a chronological order, like a documentary, the discoveries Marta made were the discoveries made by Elena too. They are feelings Elena has for the first time. She has a strong dramatic potential, she is very confident, very old for her age although she makes mistakes.
You are also a producer of the film, how easy was it to produce it ?
I am a partner of Kinografo, one of the production companies behind the project, not the main producer. When Edmon Roch from Ikiru Films who has more experience financing took the lead, I backed off. The film has been very hard to finance for many reasons: because it is set in Africa and it seems that in Europe we are not interested; because it's my first fiction feature and I did come from a hybrid film. It would be easier if I have done something similar to The Plague.
You mention The Plague, a hybrid between feature and documentary. Is anything of that documentary maker’s sight in the new one ?
The starting point is very much the one of a documentary maker. There is a point of view and a methodology. In the definition of the characters there is a complexity and ambiguity close to the documentary. It's a feature shot as a feature but where we allow elements of the reality to enter. For instance, we shot in a hotel open for business, so real tourists joined the shooting. The decision to film a new actress chronologically along with the events happening to her, took its roots in the documentary’s sphere. But it's also my formation and my strongest asset so it's normal I stuck to the things I have already tried.
You are also the editor of the film. Why ?
I love editing. It's a very intimate moment after a collective experience when you leave many things in other hands. I do trust others' creativity. I feel though that the editing is like coming back to the original script when you master the film again. It is a very nice moment, intimate moment when you find the film. It can be hard but I have the feeling that I do the final shape.
You are the founder of Dones Visuales, the Catalan organisation of women in the Audiovisual. Why are those kinds of organisations so necessary ?
I think networking is vital when there is a gap in the society, when the industry thinks that the new talents, women or youngsters, are a risk. A network of women is necessary because it is difficult to break into the profession. First it is a mutual assistance, because the networks have been very masculine. We, women, have to talk to the institutions too, because the politicians have not become aware of the problem of diversity.
Do you find important the international movement who is making festivals to sign a pledge for equality ?
This international movement is essential. It would mean that some people in the power ranks have understood that all the creative voices have to be listened to. We need people who take the political stance to fulfill those goals. I am afraid though that it may be a political trend and that it could be replaced by another coming priority. That's why we the activists have to be alert and keep the debate running for this could bear fruits.