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CANNES 2022 Directors’ Fortnight

Elena López Riera • Director of El agua

“In every society, people need some kind of magic”

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- CANNES 2022: We sat down with the Spanish director to chat about her feature debut, with childhood tales still ringing in her ears

Elena López Riera • Director of El agua
(© Laia Lluch)

Time flows by slowly in a small village in south-eastern Spain, just like its river. Although it’s calm now, people still fear it, recounting stories of a bride who was once kidnapped by its capricious torrents. In the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight entry El agua [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Elena López Riera
film profile
]
, old tales become one with reality, and no one can separate them any more. Director Elena López Riera tells us more.

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Cineuropa: These water-related stories recounted in the film – did you invent them, or did you grow up listening to them?
Elena López Riera:
One of the women I am talking to in the film is my mum. There are my neighbours and my cousins, too. They are so close to me. I was raised by these women, listening to these myths, to stories about the water. In our everyday life, there were different layers of magical thinking. It’s one of the reasons why I decided to make films one day. These women, they were so passionate about the ways in which they would narrate their everyday lives. I remember my grandmother telling me about curses or rituals you would perform instead of going to the doctor. It was always mixed with extremely mundane topics, like what we were going to cook for dinner. There was no difference! When I grew up, I realised their life was hard – they were working, taking care of everyone. They needed something else, something beyond that.

Maybe that’s why some people need religion?
Or astrology! In every society, whether in London or Madrid, people need some kind of magic. It can be yoga or anything, really, take your pick – something to believe in. We can see it so clearly now, after the pandemic. We need explanations that science cannot give us. Also, and you can see this in El agua, I was obsessed with this particular legend, with this bride, the water and women. Why do all these beliefs and tales always revolve around female bodies, their desire and freedom?

As a result, you grow up in fear. If you don’t feel it, others will make sure you do. In your film, at least women know where the danger can come from – directly from the river.
It’s true – there is always a way to instil fear in us. Society keeps telling you: “Don’t do this. Don’t go out at night, don’t drink, because they are going to rape you.” It’s omnipresent, this fear of everything. It breaks my heart. We, women, we internalise it in our soul. It becomes our legacy. I was angry at my family for raising me this way, but they were also victims of that way of thinking. They just wanted to protect me. But other women gave me strength. Thanks to them, I realised I wasn’t crazy and I wasn’t the only one who sometimes hated her mother [laughs]. One of the main reasons for me to show these three generations of women was to show that such love can be violent, too.

There is also this dream of escaping. You wonder why some didn’t do it and if the younger generation will ever manage to.
I was thinking about it, too, wondering: “Do they even exist?” At one point, they reminded me of witches or phantoms. They try to overcome this curse, the “evil eye”, and they hide inside of their home like they would in a castle. I was thinking a lot about [1954 western] Johnny Guitar, which is one of my favourite films, by the way – made by a man yet featuring this fascinating feminist character. She doesn’t have much, but it’s hers. It’s the same here. I didn’t want to claim that women are good and men are bad. In my film, these women still try to be with men, and they believe in love. But they are also so tired.

When you show younger people, there seems to be a bit of a change, some hope for the future. They are not as stuck in gender roles. Yet.
I didn’t want to have some big narrative here; they are just together. It’s very autobiographical because I remember how important it used to be to just spend time with your friends. Growing up in a misogynistic world, there are ways of resisting – one of them is staying together. Love is revolutionary; having fun is revolutionary. Precisely because so many people want you to be frightened. Sometimes, the best answer is: “Fuck you; we are happy.” The young generation, they are so proud of their bodies, for example. I used to be so embarrassed about mine, and I spent most of my teenage life hunched over. The boys are different now, too, luckily. That’s the consequence of the machismo culture – it doesn’t just affect women.

Were you thinking about water when structuring the story? Because the river just flows; you don’t notice its movement right away.
I wanted people to just go with it, with this movement. Also, it’s just like that polluted river – it won’t be a smooth ride. There will be things that you come across, and there will be filth. You are not sure where it will take you.

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