The violence we don't see

Carlota Pereda on bullying, normalised violence and Piggy

by Jennie Kermode

Carlota Pereda, director of Piggy, a Magnet release.
Carlota Pereda, director of Piggy, a Magnet release. Photo: Jorge Fuembuena. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

One of the most talked-about films on the festival circuit this year and now screening as part of San Sebastian, Piggy (aka Cerdita) is, on the one hand, a thriller about a serial killer and, on the other, an absorbing character study focused on a teenager who is faced with a moral crisis. That teenager is Sara, played by Laura Galán. She has been bullied all her life because of her shape, and the stranger who kidnaps two of her classmates is one of the first people ever to show her kindness.

The film first took form as a short (with the same title), back in 2018. At that stage it was simply focused on Sara herself, and consisted of a single sequence which is replicated in the feature. In it, we see Sara visit a pool where her clothes are stolen, forcing her to walk home in her bikini. The way she is treated on her journey, combined with some extraordinary acting and directing, makes this extremely distressing to watch. It’s an unforgettable piece of work. When I met Carlota, I asked her how that developed and what then persuaded her to turn it into a feature.

Piggy Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

“I always wanted to talk about bullying, because I've been to many different schools,” she explains. “I think it's more than six before I was a teenager, and I saw bullying a lot. So for me, it's always something that felt so very near, and I’m always more scared of people that I am of monsters, so I wanted to make a movie that reflected that. So when, in summer, I was in the same pool where I shot the short film, and I saw this girl all alone. There was a massive heat, it was like something like 45 degrees, something crazy when no one was out on the streets, and there was no one in the pool but her and me. I started wondering, why was she there, and the whole story just came to me the same day, and I wrote the script for the short that same evening. And while I was making the short, when we were shooting the last scene of the short, I realised that that the concept was too good to let go. I could make a morality thriller. I saw that I couldn't let that go.”

It’s a really powerful sequence, but something which struck me about it at the time was that with different music and just slightly different framing, it might easily have been played for laughs. That is, we’re used to seeing fat characters treated as objects rather than people, and being invited by cinema to ridicule them rather than empathise with them. How did she approach shooting it in order to make sure that viewers understood the horror of it?

”Images have power and images are always political. And if you say they are not then it’s because you are right wing,” she says. “I just thought a lot about how you show the body, how you show the female body. The whole movie is telling her story. The camera doesn't move at the beginning of the story and then it starts moving when she starts moving as well. Everything's has a story. For me, a form is not different from a thing. So I started with why I want to believe her, what I want to tell, and then I'll find out how to tell it.

“That's why one of the reasons why I chose Laura – not only because it's fantastic as an artist but because she saw my ideas in my short films and understood everything, and that made me be completely free in the way I shot it, without having to make any compromises. I wanted to be absolutely ruthless, absolutely honest with the character.” The aim was to put viewer’s in Sara’s shoes, she explains, and then have them support her.

Claudia Salas, Camille Aguilar and Irene Ferreiro in Piggy
Claudia Salas, Camille Aguilar and Irene Ferreiro in Piggy Photo: Jorge Fuembuena. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing

“You know, she's never been bullied in her life,” she says of Laura. “It's just pure intelligence and empathy. It doesn't come from personal experience. But it was amazing. I mean, we talked a lot. We were good friends because we worked together on the short and we travelled a lot. And so we just tried to create a space where we could talk of everything, and it was very emotional and raw, together with this very close crew and team with the actors and actresses. We tried to make a safe space where we could be free, we could be vulnerable and we could be honest. So it was very, very intense. I would be holding her hand until I said ‘Action!’ We were just holding hands sometimes will be the other actors as well.”

I tell her that I find the film interesting as a portrait of bullying because it looks beyond Sara’s schoolmates at the adults in the village and also members of her family, which is still a rare thing to see in cinema.

“For me, it was a question of pure reality,” she says. “The violence in everyday society which we talk about is there at this moment, and we pass it on from generation to generation, and especially women, especially with regards to female body. But I think it's for everyone. I mean, these are male experiences as well, and also with homophobia and everything, there’s a normalised violence. We just don't see it because it's so normal.”

I ask about the story which we hear in the background of the film, on the radio, about a bull which has escaped from a bullfighting arena and attacked people in the crowd.

“There are many reasons why I did that. Many, many reasons.” It’s partly a metaphor, she says, but it’s also there “because that happens a lot. It’s something that actually happens every single time there’s a village party. And also because of that violence, that violence that is around you. A wild animal that is killed for fun has escaped. And I don't like to explain it too much, because surely people can come up with their own explanations for that.”

We discuss the way that some girls, in particular, are raised to go out of their way to please other people in an effort to avoid violence. Sara seems like that, and then over the course of the film she learns to recognise and value her own needs, and assert herself.

Unexpected tenderness
Unexpected tenderness Photo: Jorge Fuembuena. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing

“Yeah, it's a journey. She grows up in this movie in many different ways. But something that also happens as well with people who've been bullied, they're kind of splintered. Not only have seen it in real life, but also my DoP is specialised in kids with bullying and dealing with those symptoms, so we did a lot of research about what will be a real behaviour.”

It feels much more real than characters like that usually do, I assure her. And the bullying puts Sara in an awkward position because doing what seems, in simplistic terms, to be morally right involves siding with people who have shown her little but cruelty, whilst the first person to show her real kindness could lead her down a very dark path.

“Absolutely. Yeah. I wanted to make a film about a moral question and how real life is more nuanced than just doing the right thing. I’m tired of seeing teenagers especially portrayed in a very false way in this kind of subject, like, ‘Oh, if this happens, and you take revenge, or you do this’ – I want to see life the way I see it, which is a more complex way and full of grey areas. And sometimes, being a decent person is harder than being a hero.”

How did she strike a balance between the two different kinds of horror in the film?

“I just felt that the whole thing, the whole combination of her, has to do with the emotional journey that she goes through. So the beginning is more real drama. The second part is almost comedy, in a sense, and it is more introspective and more that, you know, sometimes something really horrible happens in life and what really strikes you is that life goes on. There's comedy in that while you're experiencing something horrible, but it's an absurdity surrounding us. And that makes you kind of forget. We can almost forget what has just happened. And then at the end, reality comes back and bites you.

“!I wanted it to feel as claustrophobic as possible for her, you know? That's why it's also a small town. That’s why it’s 4:3, the aspect ratio of the movie, to be as claustrophobic as I could. There's other reasons behind the 4:3 as well. But also, yeah, it’s part of this thing that I said about the normalised violence in society, and also how sometimes people can only see victims in a certain way, when they focus on how they have to be perfect and pure. You know, they just have to be victims. Yeah, I wanted to explore other things, and also I wanted it to be a fun movie, where people have a good time while they have a bad time.”

When Sara meets people who don’t bully her, she seems really shocked by that. Was it important to show, through that, how all-consuming and overwhelming bullying can be?

Laura Galán in Piggy
Laura Galán in Piggy Photo: Jorge Fuembuena. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

“Exactly, yeah. But also how things change and how things could have been different.”

We talk about the location, which she chose simply because she was there when she had the idea, but which contributed a lot to the film.

“Extremadura is one of the poorest regions in Spain, that is almost trapped in time, “she says. “It was beautiful and the people were fantastic. It's a very beautiful setting but at the same time, so almost in the middle of nowhere, and the heat is so intense that you feel your body all the time. So I actually wrote the whole script thinking of those locations. Even the second last scene of the film, I wrote it in that location which had never been used before. I knew how everything could work and how maybe that makes it feel more real. You know, there's method actors. You could say, in some sense – without killing anyone – I was a method director and writer.”

I mention that within the disabled community, of which I am a member, there is often discussion around how conscious we are of our bodies all the time, in ways that most people are not, and some fat people describe similar experiences. When it’s really hot, however, everybody has that constant awareness of their flesh. Did that affect the way the film worked?

“Absolutely, absolutely,” she says. “That's one of the reasons why it's in summer, because in summer you don’t escape your body. You're sweating and you're uncomfortable and everything is just eugh. You want to just escape and you cannot escape from your body at all.”

Despite the heat, the local people were keen to help out and get involved in the film, she says.

“Everyone, from the people from the village to the government of the village, they were fantastic. They showed me the place where I shot the last scene, when I when they knew I was writing. They said ‘Can you come come in and take a look? Because this belongs to the community, but it's never been used.’ And they gave us everything that we could think of. And they were so friendly, and everybody there wanted to be part of the movie. Most of them worked in the film, one way or the other. All of the extras are people from the village and some of the actors are people from the village as well.”

How does she feel about the way the film has been received at festivals?

“Well, it's great. It's so weird, because you make the movie and then once you have the final cut, you realise ‘Oh my God – now it has to go and have its own life!” She laughs. “So it’s good that people have responded so warmly, because, after all, it’s your kid – you want it to be treated nicely.”

She’ll start shooting on her next feature in October, she says. Piggy opens in US cinemas on 14 October and in the UK on 21 October. It can also be seen a Fantastic Fest and Grimmfest.

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