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Temporada de Campo and Evolving With Characters: An Interview with Isabel Vaca

Isabel Vaca regresa al Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia (FICM) luego de su participación en 2015 con el cortometraje Dionisio (2015). En esta ocasión participa como directora y guionista de Temporada de campo, que forma parte de la Sección de Documental Mexicano. Este largometraje narra la historia de Bryan, un niño que trabaja con toros de lidia y que muestra a menudo el orgullo de convertirse en un vaquero durante un verano que pasa al lado de su abuelo y sus tíos.

Temporada de campo (2021, dir. Isabel Vaca) Temporada de campo (2021, dir. Isabel Vaca)

FICM had the chance to talk with the director about her motivations and interests in documentary work.

FICM: The film's power comes largely from the protagonist, Bryan. How did you find him? Why did you decide to tell his story?

Isabel Vaca: The whole idea for this film came about because my family has a fighting bull ranch, which is the place where the whole story takes place starting 20 or 25 years ago. Bryan's family has worked with us since the ranch started so in a certain way, I grew up very close to this whole world of the countryside and cowboys and such, and I always had this desire to portray it, to share this world that, I felt, had not been explored.

It all started because we made a teaser with which we won a Tribeca fund. From there the project officially began. What happened is that the images were very pretty, and the countryside and the cowboys, but there was no story, so the biggest job was to find that story. That's how I started going with them for a little more than two years. I went to visit them every month, every two months, sometimes I went with my camera, sometimes I went alone and I really wanted to soak up all this culture and their way of life, what they talked about, their dynamics, and that's how I found Bryan's story. I found it very interesting to portray this whole world through him.

FICM: And that's where that bond of trust comes from. Did you have any difficulty telling Bryan's story even though you were, in a way, close?

IV: Yes, because it was a bit like starting from scratch. I think it is very different when you have a relationship with someone that can be good, to when you spend 24 hours filming them. Just the job of a documentary director implies generating this relationship with the characters because it's something that's felt on the screen immediately. If a character is uncomfortable or doesn't want to be there, it shows. I think that, for me, one of the biggest challenges was to generate this closeness and intimacy with the characters and, well, honestly, it was [a matter] of time before they got used to me going to visit them. Although at first, they did not understand very well why I was talking to them about my idea, little by little they opened up with me and I with them. I think the relationship that comes out of it must be mutual and, to be honest, it ended up being something incredible, both with the crew and with the family. We ended forming a really cool relationship where they opened up and I think that little by little the film manages to duplicate that intimacy and that closeness with the characters, which was what interested me.

FICM: When you met Bryan, did you already have this idea of the direction the documentary was going to take, or did you discover the path that Temporada de campo was going to take during the filming process?

IV: It was very strange, because in general, when I direct, I kind of really like being able to control and know what is going to happen, and this was the opposite. There was no control of anything because we also had the issue of funds, whether they were coming or not; if Bryan grew up, if he went to school, then he was evolving all the time. I think that something very important in my previous work was knowing the family perfectly because that way I was able to establish what scenes I imagined, what moments I needed within the film to build the story and from there to plan where it was going, but we really went to film and we had a plan but changed every day. There were days where we waited for things to happen, and nothing did. I think that the documentary is also like that, it adapts all the time and I think it is beautiful. Suddenly things happen that you did not expect, moments that you did not expect arise and build the story. I think it was like that, to adapt, to build the puzzle as we were filming.

FICM: How long did you film Bryan and his family?

IV: Well, it's weird, because the first two years we filmed a week or two a year, but in 2019, it was the entire bulk of the documentary we filmed in about a month and a half.

FICM: Wasn't it difficult to keep your distance to be able to represent Bryan's situation?

IV: I think it's about seeing how your relationship with the characters evolves and how far you can go and how far you can't. I think that I was always very conscientious when filming, because, for me, having a camera and telling someone else's story through my vision and my eye is a very big responsibility because, in the end, it's not your story.  You are talking about someone else. It was always about telling a story with all the respect they deserve as characters and trying to make it a movie that they also like. In fact, they have not seen the finished film and it makes me very nervous. They are the ones I'm most nervous about because the film is for them and, in a certain way, it's theirs.

FICM: What did Bryan tell you during the process? Did he say something about what he saw you doing? Was he curious?

IV: Yes, I always shared things with him when we finished filming something, even when it wasn't the movie as such. I filmed things and sent them to him, we even acted in movies. I always tried to involve him in the process. Suddenly, he learned to use the camera and to focus with the crew. I really liked that he was involved and that he understood. There was a bit of everything; there were good days and not so good days. You have to understand that they are not actors, and they are focused on their life 24/7. It was a process that we all enjoyed a lot; the family, the crew and me. In the end, Bryan also enjoyed it a lot.

FICM: Well, the movie has had a long run since it started. In your experience, what do you think are the difficulties that documentary cinema faces?

IV: Well, I think that documentary cinema, even though it has grown over time, is still a very small niche. I think it has been finding its way. I am pleased that more and more people are watching documentary films or that there are more spaces for people to take the opportunity to see another type of film, they may not be very used to. I think that, with time, more people are watching documentary films. I hope to see the opinion of the people in Morelia, and I am happy to share it in a movie theater for the first time because it's all been virtual festivals until now.

FICM: What are the joys you feel when making documentary films?

IV: I love it, I think what I like the most about documentary cinema is that it has this very human part and that you absolutely must connect with the characters because if not, it is very difficult to tell their stories. For me, the fact that a family has told me their story and opened their doors to me is what I keep with me, and I think that is what documentary cinema leaves you, these relationships and friendships that go far beyond the film. For me, it is something very beautiful, very human, very honest, the whole process from before filming. When you're filming with all those cool friends and experiences.