Winners of the 15th FICM: Interview with Sumie GarcíaBy: Gabriela Martínez @GabbMartivel
Her work in film production with Echo of the Mountain (2014) by Nicolás Echevarría had already brought Sumie García close to the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM), however, this visit to the festival was special and different. For the first time, she attended with her own movie, Retrato familiar, a winning short film at 15th FICM.
Foto Saeki is an analogous photography shop on Calle Cedro in Colonia Santa María la Ribera in Mexico City. Its owner, Yukio Saeki, Sumie’s great uncle, arrived in the country in 1955 and, at 83 years old, he still remembers that Monday when he was 13 years old while walking towards the sea in Japan, near Hiroshima, and the atomic bomb fell from the sky.
With this short film, Sumie García embarked on a personal journey through her family history and, in passing, she won the Ojo for Mexican Short Documentary at the 15th FICM. She talked to us about her experience while working on it and what it was like when she heard her name called during the award ceremony.
How did you develop the project, where did the idea of Retrato familiar come from?
My project was made with the support of the Young Creators program of FONCA. My idea was to make a video project and it was developed from a story that my great uncle told me. I did not know anything about his past and one day I went to visit him at his home and he said, “Look, they wrote an article about me in this Japanese magazine.” It seemed very strange to me and that’s where I found out that he was a Hiroshima survivor. It was something that was never talked about in the family and when I found out I was 29 years old.
From there I started to develop the documentary, I put it up to Young Creators and developed it throughout the year together with my tutors and my group. I think that helped a lot because you show different cuts and talk a lot about your project, so it takes different shapes that you wouldn’t have developed alone.
Tell us about the process of collecting the images and photographs that can be seen in your short film
All the photos of the Japanese community and of Mexico City are from my great-uncle’s file, he took all the photos and I scanned them. It was also a way to give him a gift by digitizing everything and saving it on discs. From that point on, we tried to choose carefully because most of his photos were not in the cut. I chose the ones that were most significant to him when he saw them, the ones that resonated historically with the city and those that I thought would be interesting for the audience to see.
There are many photos on which he wrote the name of the people but he doesn’t remember who they were, it’s a great mystery. There’s a familiarity that you identify by the looks, they are very intimate moments and for that reason, I decided to include them.
The part of the historical archive of video and photography was an investigation of more than a year in public archives, public domain, Creative Commons and files on the internet, from which I received advice to find out if it could be used or not.
Making the documentary was hard because during the editing process my uncle went to live with his daughter to Australia for a year, so if I needed something, I couldn’t interview him. I had to focus on what was already recorded and on file a lot, so it was like a puzzle.
Being a project about your family, did you have any personal growth while making Retrato Familiar?
I can understand Japanese and I can speak it, but with my family, I feel embarrassed because I speak it very badly. So, my mom helped me a lot, she was my intermediary. Sometimes I asked my uncle things in Spanish, my mom asked the same question in Japanese and he only answered in Spanish, I didn’t want to answer in Japanese and I said, “if you want to speak Japanese, don’t worry, we’ll subtitle it,” but he wanted to speak Spanish, he said he couldn’t speak Japanese anymore. That process brought me very close to my mom.
There is not so much closeness with my uncle because he is my political uncle, he is my aunt’s husband. Then I felt almost like a stranger although we have known each other for a long time. It was cool because I became very close to him after that, after being at home, interviewing him, filming his things.
It was very nice to be able to approach this topic. It was also very nice for him when he saw it finished, because he was not there while I was editing it and he had not seen anything, so it was very emotional to see his reaction. He only remembered that I went to his house to see what had happened, and I think it was very shocking when he saw the finished product, even more so because he had already sold the house where the documentary was filmed. Now he lives in Aguascalientes. For him it was not only to remember the bomb but to remember his house. He was very happy, for me that was very cool. There is a new family connection that was not there before.
Was it difficult for your great uncle to remember his days in Japan?
I think it was difficult at first but, in a certain way, he also likes to remember it. He has already been interviewed about it for other media before, so he doesn’t have much trouble talking about it. What I think was most difficult for him was talking about the most familiar parts of the subject. I think they usually ask him what happened, what he saw, the tragedy; but he never talked about himself in terms of how it affected him in his personal life and his move to Mexico. I think that was difficult for him to talk about.
How was your experience at FICM?
I had already gone to the festival as an assistant to the producer of another movie and the fact that I was now a guest was very surreal. I thought, “This is weird, how come it’s me now? How do I have a badge?” Being able to go and see friends, it felt almost like a reunion and a party. It was cool because unlike going to other festivals in other parts of the world where you do not know anyone, I felt at home here. Also, the food is amazing. You watch movies and you socialize a lot, I liked that even more.
Since we were announced in the selection, it was a constant celebration and when we won, it was hard for me to process it. I was very nervous. I remember sitting in the audience and hearing its name. It’s very incredible, your hands start to shake. I said to myself, “No, this is a mistake.” But it was very emotional and exciting for everyone. Also, winning at a festival like Morelia, that has so much prestige in Mexico, gave me more happiness and pride.
I remember I was at the party, talking with friends, and suddenly I saw Amat Escalante and he congratulated me. I received so much love and support from people I don’t know personally but who I admire; from work colleagues with whom I have interacted and producers. That’s what I am taking away, those moments of camaraderie and companionship in the industry, it was very cool.
What effects do you think winning FICM will have on your career?
It is a very big recognition and it will help me a lot to continue working, besides this part of seeing that you can do different things and more coming from doing so much production and working in other roles. Being able to venture into this other facet that interests me so much is a great encouragement not only in public terms but personal: keep going, you can do it. That does help a lot.
Do you have a new project in mind?
I am in Young Creators again, I started this new cycle in October. It is another documentary with more experimental tints. It focuses a lot on archive material, found and familiar, it’s all birthdays. It’s about the cycles and repetitions that are seen through life, through birthdays.
Who would you like to meet at FICM?
I am very big Tsai Ming-liang fan or Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul would be amazing; that weird Asian cinema.
What advice would you give to the new filmmakers?
That the industry is very much a game of endurance. It’s about continuing working hard because it’s not easy. It’s always about working and knowing. Don’t forget to resist. Just because you have a job in another area of cinema, doesn’t mean you should stop thinking about editing, writing, directing or whatever.