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César Díaz talks about his powerful first feature film, Our Mothers (Nuestras Madres). The film follows Ernesto, a young anthropologist who works for the Forensic Foundation. His job is to identify the remains of those buried in unmarked graves, killed during the Guatemala genocide. From 1960 to 1996, 200,000 people murdered, and 45,000 disappeared. While Ernesto works diligently to identify the missing, he searches for clues to the whereabouts of his father, who disappeared during the war. Mark Gordon: Congratulation on winning the Camera d'Or at Cannes Cesar Diaz: It was amazing, completely unexpected because there were so many good movies in the same category and I was really surprised. Mark Gordon: How would you best describe the film? César Díaz: I would say a fiction film inspired by my personal journey. Ernesto is very close to me, a young Guatemalan looking for his father, missing during the war, but somehow I want to have the same strength and the same force (as) the women in the village. But for me, I am very close to Ernesto’s character, and it was a problem during the writing process. Because when I was writing the script, the other characters grow, and they have their own lives, and they have real obstacles and problems, and Ernesto got stuck many times without having a real life. And when I start seeing him and treating him like a real fiction character, he started to grow, but it took a little time to get there. Mark Gordon: It’s a very powerful opening shot, where you see Ernesto as he is assembling the bones of a body that’s been recovered. César Díaz: I think that comes from my own feeling because when you go to the real Foundation, and you start seeing how they rebuild the bodies, at the beginning you see only bones, going one after another, but when you see the skull on the top of it (a) human being just appeared. And this feeling was so powerful that I wanted to translate it to the audience to share this feeling because there’s some magical moment when the skull came, and I wanted to share it with the audience. César Díaz: I think the worst part of the genocide takes place between 80 and 82. The dictatorship knew that they wouldn’t be able to fight the guerrillas in the jungle because they (would) lose, and they (started) to kill the indigenous civilian population (because they) supported the guerrillas, that’s the way they won the war. They (started) doing the same thing in the cities, in the urban areas, which was not really into the war at the time. The sad thing is the main reason that (brings) the war is still here and is still here now, actually, poverty, racism, and lack of opportunities. There was a lot of silence around this wasn't there? César Díaz: Yes, and a lot of shame also. Trying to understand how the dictatorship in Argentina or Chile was so well known all over the world and the Guatemala one, which is, I mean, the numbers (of people killed) are higher, nobody knows about it. Because you don’t see the other as a human being and this is also the only explanation I have to try to understand all the things that the soldiers did to the indigenous civilian population because if you imagine that the other one is a human, you cannot rape or kill in the ways that they did. You have to see the other one as non-human. Mark Gordon: The civil war lasted until 1996 and 200,000 people had died, 45,000 people disappeared and the central character Ernesto, played by Armando Espitia, is a young anthropologist working for the Forensic Foundation, an organization tasked with identifying the remains of those who were tortured, murdered, and buried in unmarked graves. He is in constant search of his father, who has gone missing during the war. Tell me about living in Guatemala and going through that kind of experience. César Díaz: It’s very painful because all those people or we are looking for the missing. Until you get like a real confirmation or real evidence that that person is dead, you will still (be) looking for him or her. And I think you always have hope that you will find (the person) alive, of course. And I think the wonderful job that the Foundation, (where) Ernesto works, are doing, right now it’s trying to bring peace to the victims and telling them that the science is allowed and to morn their deaths also. I think we are going to have this kind of experience for generations until we bring justice to the victims. Mark Gordon: Was your father disappeared as well? César Díaz: Yes, he was, but there is a huge difference between Ernesto’s history and my personal history. My father was disappeared, and my mother had to go to Mexico to exile. Years later, I went to Mexico with her and without knowing (anything) about my father. Mark Gordon: When you asked her, what did she tell you? César Díaz: That he was a political activist, and he was kidnapped by the police or by the military. Mark Gordon: What happened when you started to uncover this story? César Díaz: I discovered the story of the village (researching) a documentary. It was the last piece for the script because I had this mother-son relationship, obsession, and then I discovered the work of the anthropologist. Then I discovered the history of the women in the village. When You go there and start talking to them, they repeat the story to you because, for them, (it is) important. And for them, it exists because they are telling you. This is the only way that they imagine that the story (can continue) through the generations. (When they tell their story) there is almost no emotion there. And I remember telling myself how painful that must be that you have to repeat the story, also, because there are no books. There is no real national recognition of genocide or the victims or films or monuments or national days. All the things that allowed us to believe or allowed us to commemorate this kind of event. And I was very moved by those women, and I decided that they must be a part of the film in some way. This is how I imagined the silent scene in the film. Mark Gordon: What most impressed you about the women of the village? César Díaz: The strength. After (all) they have been through, I’m not sure that I would have the strength to keep going. What was your intention in making this film? César Díaz: Just telling the story, my story, I mean the story of Ernesto's and then the story of the country. I don’t know why exactly, but I have this need to tell the others, to have this dialogue with the film about identity, about the genocide, about the story, about the forgiveness, about the born, about everything that is going on in Guatemala right now. What were some of the challenges you faced making Nuestras Madres? César Díaz: The first one was financing it because, in Guatemala, there’s no film fund or film law that allows you to do it, and then convincing the film commission in Belgium that this is a Belgium movie. That was the first challenge and then shooting the film was another challenge not only because of the industry and then the assignment most of the equipment coming from France and Belgium was held by the customs until the very last days of shooting and as an author, [but I was also] confronting myself about every scene, every word, every image. It was like a very powerful to go to introspection. That was a challenge and also, for the last one, just when you have like forty people asking you every morning what are you going to do and sometimes you don’t have this answer. This is also a challenge. Mark Gordon: Explain that because I think almost of that notion of being truthful to the story, how do you deliver a story that is truthful, that you represent the people that went through this experience. César Díaz: It’s a mixed feeling because you, at the same time you want to respect their pain, and you want to respect their story but at the same time, you know the needs of a movie, the need of the image, the needs of the narration to tell the story. It’s a very complex feeling. Confronting yourself, it’s also the fact that trying not to be so effectually sentimental, trying to see the audience as smart and intelligent, and to allow them to feel and to allow them to think and allow them to have this dialogue with the movie. This confrontation with myself was also about having this place for the audience to share because of the unknown story. I think we do films to be watched we do films also for the audience to share it with someone else. If you were doing the films only for you, that makes no sense to me. Mark Gordon: You started your career editing fiction and documentary films. César Díaz: Yes, when I got out of film school, as a screenwriter, nobody in Belgium or France [would] hire me. I start doing editing because this was the closest job leading to scriptwriting. [As an editor] I learned how to think more about the scene and the characters objectives of the characters and the obstacles of the characters and how to put it in [a] scene. Mark Gordon: What did you learn from making your first film? César Díaz: I think I learned to have the right distance to the characters, that distance that allowed you to go deeper (into) their feelings. It is strange when you are so, so close to the characters, you are afraid to go deeper there because you are having the same feeling,  and it is hard for you. But when you have the right distance, you are able to go deeper (into) the characters without hurting yourself. Mark Gordon: What do you think the positive intension will be with the situation in Guatemala? César Díaz: That somehow we just try to get some resilience, not only as individuals but also in a collective way. The problem is that we never talk about the war after the peace agreement got) signed. Mark Gordon: Perhaps your film will be a catalyst for that? César Díaz: This is the reason why I wanted to show it (in Guatemala).

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