An unseen world

Lila Avilés talks about putting the focus on The Chambermaid

by Amber Wilkinson

Lila Avilés: 'For me, life is to see and to realise what is happening all around us'
Lila Avilés: 'For me, life is to see and to realise what is happening all around us'
Lila Avilés with her Jury Prize in Marrakech
Lila Avilés with her Jury Prize in Marrakech Photo: Courtesy of Marrakech Film Festival
Lila Avilés' debut film The Chambermaid, is set in a plush high-rise hotel, where Eve (Gabriel Cartol) cleans rooms, each one opening up on to a different small world of guests, at the same time as trying to work her way up the pecking order.

The film became a passion project for the director, who spent eight years working on it.

"It all stemmed from curiosity," she says, when I catch up with her at Marrakech Film Festival, where the film won the Jury Prize. "I'm curious and I saw a book by the photographer Sophie Calle, named Hotel. She disguised herself as a chambermaid in Venice and took photos of all the trash and belongings of the guests.

"I thought, 'Wow' and I was interested. I come from theatre, so eight years ago, I wrote a play and I wanted to put it in a real hotel, so I was close to the Calle discourse. When I was in the real hotel, I wanted to show the final rehearsal to the chambermaids who worked there, and in that moment I connected with them and, for seven years of my life, I followed them in that hotel and in other hotels and I was a little bit obsessed with chambermaids. I started writing a script, but because I had so many stories, it was like a story that would not end. But when I found a real chambermaid who I had a strong relationship with and who had that humanity, I was in love and the script was finished."

Avilés describes her film as "simple but complex", an appropriate description as any for a drama that focuses on a central character study, letting us see the shifting psychology of Eve as she begins to make choices about her future.

"For me, life is to see and to realise what is happening all around us," says Avilés. "I wanted to have that kind of voyeurism with the principal character and I wanted to follow her."

As Cartol previously told me, Avilés first spotted her in 2014 film La Tirisia, saying, "I loved her face. She insists she doesn't believe in "normal casting" by a process of watching videos from a casting director.

"I'm a kind of person who likes essence and energy," she adds.

Avilés said she loved the opportunities that working in a hotel gave her.

Lila Avilés: 'The importance of my movie is that I open a lot of moments'
Lila Avilés: 'The importance of my movie is that I open a lot of moments'
She says: "The importance of my movie is that I open a lot of moments. For me, cinema is like a painting - for me, it's going to be something and for him it's going to be another thing. I love cinema because it is in the present. It's what you are living today."

The Mexican filmmaker says she's a fan of documentaries and that comes across strongly in the film, which has no soundtrack and a strong naturalistic feel. The film was also shot in the hotel where Avilés researched the film, something she believes was crucial to its success.

"It was important for me that the hotel was alive," she says. "I love that hotel with all my heart. It's awesome that they let me in. It was really important that the film was going to be filmed in that hotel. If they didn't give me that chance, I was not going to film. So it was important, the crew was small and half the cast are actresses and half are non-actresses. For me, it was really important that we had that respect for the hotel and to be really efficient. We needed to be samurais because we also needed to be respectful."

Being respectful meant that they had to shoot fast and move, as necessary, to accommodate the day-to-day work of the hotel.

Lila Avilés: 'It was like I had a baby, it's like a part of you, a small biography'
Lila Avilés: 'It was like I had a baby, it's like a part of you, a small biography'
"It was eight years since it started in my head, but I only had 17 days to film - with no money," adds Avilés "I filmed with my money - all my savings, of course, for a movie it's nothing but for me it's everything."

It seems to have paid off, with the film premiering in Toronto and screening at San Sebastian and Marrakech among other festivals - winning Best Film and the Warrior of the Press awards at Morelia International Film Festival. It is set for release in Mexico next year, when Avilés says she plans to host a special screening for the staff of the hotel that provided the inspiration and the setting for The Chambermaid.

"There's so much that I needed to take out that I want to have time to make a short film for them," she says "A little making of or something, to give to the hotel. But I want to have a little time to do it."

She adds: "It was like I had a baby. I come from theatre and when you finish the play, you're sad but in two weeks, that's it. But with this, it's like a part of you, a small biography. I started developing my next film and it's a more autobiographical story. It's going to be another part of my biography.

"I want to continue directing all my life. This is my stuff. I combine the two things I love the most - humans and photography."

And, although she doesn't want to discuss the subject, Avilés is also planning a documentary, along with a string of other films.

"I wanted to be a filmmaker for so long, so I have a lot of ideas," she says.

The Chambermaid will be distributed in the US next summer by Kino Lorber.

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