A Family Affair – Director Mo Scarpelli on El Father Plays Himself

El Father Plays Himself is so much more than a making-of documentary. Director Mo Scarpelli charts not so much the making of a film, as she does the making and re-making of a relationship — that between her partner, Jorge Thielen Armand, and his father, Jorge Thielen Hedderich. Son is directing Father in a fiction film based on Father’s life called La Fortaleza, and Mo is filming it all — it’s a triangle of perception and observation made all the more electric by the familial bonds between its members, by the sweltering heat of the Amazon jungle where the film is being shot, and most of all by the energy running through Father at all times. His powerful presence is undeniable, especially when he is drunk, which is often. El Father Plays Himself is a fascinating look at what it really takes to make a film, but most of all at the push-pull dynamic at the heart of difficult family relationships, and at the cathartic experience that filmmaking can be.

El Father Plays Himself is now playing at the ICA and available for rent on the Barbican website. Animus editor Elena Lazic is hosting an online Q&A with director Mo Scarpelli and Jorge Thielen Armand (the son) after an online screening of the film on Tuesday August 10.

Elena Lazic: Why did you make this film? I understand why you’d like to keep a record of what was a truly unique and unusual event, but why did you want to make it as a feature aimed at the public?

Mo Scarpelli (MS): I was interested in the question of who gets to tell whose story, and the responsibility that comes with that, whether in fiction or in nonfiction. The implicit responsibility — in a good way, the word ‘responsibility’ — that comes with that entitlement that all directors have towards their subject. Even if you create a character, you still have the entitlement to explore something in that character that becomes in your capacity or your control. It's a very particular thing, what a filmmaker does. Obviously, the circumstances for this film are so interesting that it was like "how could I not be a part of this?" when I was kind of invited, or kind of invited myself.

I was also interested in questions of representation, and what can happen when you unpack your own self through the lens of another — so in this case, Father playing his own role, a role written by his son, but based on his real life. He gets to see his son's point of view. But this process also unearths things in him. If this was just with any person, I wouldn't have made this movie, it would have turned into a making-of or something. But I could tell in his energy and in his demeanour that despite facing all kinds of things in his life, such as substance abuse issues and control issues with his family, as well as the economic crisis and many other things going on in his life — I could tell that Father was someone who was still very primed and ready to do this thing that many people won't even touch, which is to face yourself. That compelled me the most out of anything to make the film. I could have kept shooting what these guys shot and it could have been a making-of and there was plenty of drama in the jungle that I didn't really include, Hertzog-type, Burden of Dreams stuff. But this changed into El Father Plays Himself as my focus became more about looking at the way film was used by Father primarily, but also by Jorge, to find out who they are and who they are to each other.

EL: There is nothing in La Fortaleza that makes clear the fact that it is based on real events, or that Father is playing himself, in a film directed by his son. But then your documentary makes all of this explicit. How did you decide how much you were going to reveal and how much you were going to conceal about their lives and their real selves? Were they involved in that decision, or did they just give you carte blanche completely?

MS: I think that I used my intuition or my guts more of this film than anything else. They did give me carte blanche, I could shoot anything. And I could be shooting all the time and listening all the time, because they were always miked. I was filming myself while monitoring the audio and everything. And that's something that they both respected. Jorge as my partner and someone who respects me as a filmmaker, as well. But still, of course, he thought about it and it still came up for him. For Father, it was really extraordinary how much he just said, "I made a promise to you that you can shoot anything." And I said, "Okay, well always let me know if you want me to stop filming." And he never ever did that. Even when he was super wasted, he never even broke our rule about not looking at the camera.

When someone gives me everything, it's actually more scary than if they were to withdraw or to keep some things themselves, because when that happens, you can think, "okay, they're scared of doing this." But my characters — my last character too, and the characters in my first film — it's surprising and really crazy how much they have given me. It was kind of carte blanche, and that is an enormous task you then have on yourself, to stay true to what you think is true to them. It's not to say I could represent the true them, because I don't believe that that's possible, since I'm an individual, subjective human being. But it means that I have to really follow my guts with what I think they went through. Sometimes, with this film more than others, it was hard, because Father suffers and suffered while making this movie with Jorge. Both of them suffered, but father suffered in ways that he wasn't sharing with anybody and that I also would see. The fact that he was embarrassed or the fact that he was scared. He was the protagonist of a fiction film, and so when he went to dinner with everyone, he was just another part of the crew. He was even hiding his fears from his son, because he was trying to help him make a movie, and because he was embarrassed, etc.

But I saw those things. And so I was protective of him. But I didn't even realise it until we were in the edit, working on the scene where he kind of goes crazy and becomes actually physically — I don't want to say violent, but physically aggressive. I showed my editor everything that I wanted in the movie, and four weeks into the process he asked, "do you have anything else to show me?" I told him, "well, there's this one scene. But it's too hard. If people watch it, they'll think he's a monster." And he said "What are you doing? You're totally protecting him!" And that's what you do, at first. You have to kind of test out what you think they can handle to see of themselves in the film. I think I got more protective of Father than he was of himself. Because actually, when he watches the film, he's like, "That was the truth. That's what happened." He's like, "Okay, well, that's me. That's how I was back then." So it's always a dance, a beautiful dance. It's not just responsibility, owning the story of another. It's not so serious, actually. It's totally a conversation that you're having, a body language in your relationship with the person you're filming with. And it's one of my favourite parts about making films. But I never knew how far I could go, to the point where I’m reluctant to show my editor some footage! I don't even know I'm hiding it, but I am.

Why did you ask everybody not to look at the camera? Why was that a rule?

MS: My last film Anbessa was about a 10 year old kid, and we had this rule. At first, I tried to reward him for not looking at the camera. But then I realised that the best way to make him do this, was to tell him to do things. It's not just out of a stylistic concern. It's not that I want it to be in an observational, verite style, pretending that the camera's not really there. It's actually that the character then becomes more active. My characters then go, "I can't tell Mo that I want to go see this thing, so I'm just going to go and see it, and she has to run behind me" and I’ll follow. I want them to feel like they can improvise on whatever they're doing, because mostly, I'm following their lead anyway. In a way, my camera isn't really a fly on the wall. It's not disappearing, because I don't believe that that's totally true. But especially with my lead characters, my camera is like an ally of theirs. They will, over time, learn how to communicate something to the audience through my camera, because they've learned how I watch certain things. And I think that's really one of the most magical things when working on films. When I found out on Anbessa that I love this way of working, I was like, “Okay, now I want to make these types of films forever.”

You mentioned that scene where Father is quite drunk and he gets quite aggressive. In a moment like that, you don't know if he can tell you things the way he would if he was sober. So how do you deal with that? How does that affect this approach where you let the person lead you where they want to go?

MS: You're touching on something that really is super interesting about Father, which everybody on the set of La Fortaleza knows as well. This is part of them using alcohol, and that becoming something that they decided it was okay to do, led by Jorge’s trust that Father is an insanely capable person, even when he's very inebriated. You can't say, he's a special kind of drunk! But the thing is, of course, he's an escapist. Father's issues are not just about alcohol, per se. I think in life, he is excited by being free and having some form of escape. That's why he went to the jungle when he was younger and had this incredible life there. He comes from a well-to-do family in Caracas, who told him, "you can run this family business!" And he was like, "fuck that!" and went to the jungle instead. This is a man who lives outside of convention in a lot of ways, and who is extremely intelligent. Even when he's inebriated, he's still transposing something. For sure, there were many moments where he was drunk, and he was just talking about dumb shit that I for sure didn't want to put in the film. But I did see those things, though I wasn't sure an audience would. Because where I come from — and I think the UK is this way too — we have a very moralistic culture. With reason! We need to follow rules in society, and we don't want people just being raging drunks. So we've decided — or, from my own experience, because I have spent time with people like this — that when people drink a lot and start getting annoying and blabbering, we’d simply say "he's just drunk." "He's just drunk" is a really common phrase that we use all the time. And surely, you can still use that in some of the moments of Father. But my biggest task in the film, when it came to representation, was how to transpose that he's actually communicating something here and exploring something real, emotionally and existentially, even when he's drunk. That it's valid even when he's drunk. That was a hard task. It didn’t come down just to balancing things, but to choosing to trust the audience to go with some of these moments where he is drunk, but he is doing something really important to him and to his own kind of journey in the film.

I think anyone who knows anyone dealing with substance abuse or who has an escapist mentality, and especially people with family members that way — when they watch this film, they recognise something that is painful, which is that this person is not just drinking to be an asshole or to get away from pain. They are still themselves when they drink. They are a different version of themselves, but they are still themselves. And it's very hard to talk about, but then they see it in El Father and it can be really hard for some people. Some people don't want to watch it. Regardless, it touches people who are open to kind of putting the moralistic part aside and just being on the journey.

This brings me to the director, the son. The film is a lot about the father, but I think it does tell us a lot about the son as well, from the contrast between the two of them — the son is so quiet and calm all the time. How did you approach him when you were making your documentary?

MS: His demeanour is interesting, because when people talk about seeing what happens with Father and the way he deals with his emotions, they use the word "violent." And I could say that Father is violent, you know, with his words and with his kind of actions. But I also learned that Jorge, the son, is equally violent in his silence. That's what the power struggle is, and that's what Father is screaming for. Jorge stays silent to try to get what he wants. It's this weird thing they have between them, a power struggle that exists between actor and director too. They could manage it better as actor and director, than as father and son, and that's why the film in the end brings them together more than it pushes them away from each other.

But there were definitely times, especially at the beginning, where I was like, "Say something! Talk to your father!" But the more I tried not to judge it — which was strange, because he's my person — the more I actually started to understand why they were that way with each other. But yeah, it was definitely frustrating at times. I had to really follow my gut too, in that I never wanted Jorge to talk to me, to the camera. Because I really don't like those making-of docs of like the wife shooting the male director and being like "oh I'm so sad!" Because no, I don't feel that way! I really wanted to do the film the way I like to do them, which is not someone talking to the camera and all this stuff. But also I wanted Jorge to do that similar thing, where I wait for them to talk to someone else about it, or I wait for them to find their own way. I kind of let my characters struggle so that I can watch how they deal with the world and not get help from me, to an extent. Of course I was there for him when he needed me to be and I put the camera down.

There is a little bit of text giving us context in the documentary, but still very little explanation about their relationship in the film. So the viewer spends a lot of time just imagining what their relationship is, trying to work it out and to imagine their past. And because of the way both La Fortaleza and El Father Plays Himself are family affairs, there are so many different layers at play. And yet, despite the absence of details, the film and the relationships portrayed feel very specific too. They don’t fall into generalisations or cliches.

MS: I wanted this film to be a reflection of my experience, which is an observation of what was happening in front of me and really not knowing a lot of things, not really knowing the history of the relationship. I know they went to the jungle, they did this and that when Jorge was a kid. But I think that there's something about just staying present in the moment that is so cathartic for two people. When we're present, and we just get to watch it and kind of examine it, which is what we do for the whole of El Father. And we have plenty of canvas to throw ourselves into, not just by wondering what happened with them, but also by asking ourselves, "how would I deal with this?" and not having too many things to guide us, or a certain path trying to tell you a certain thing. The important thing to me is the kind of open ended thing that comes down to something simple — it's observing an experience that's really special and unique, that we'll never see again, and I'll never live again. I think that just sticking with that, that was important.

In that way, the film does not at all feel didactic. When it reaches something, the way there doesn’t feel studied but very natural instead.

MS: There's actually a scene I shot that is not in the film. I filmed Jorge talking to Father who started crying on camera. And it felt like it should be the end of the movie because chronologically it's there, and because I was crying while I was shooting, it was so cathartic, all this stuff. But I found that it was super dishonest to use that because by that point, I think that they had transgressed this relationship where they always needed to have the camera between them. So the conversation that they were having at that moment was in fact only for a film. I felt that they went to a new place completely. That's why the ending of El Father is more about taking us to a new place in the mind and emotionally. Because as much as it's sad, and Jorge doesn't live in Caracas now, and they don't see each other very often, still something has been transgressed. They went through the fire together, they came out the other side, and they ended up in a totally different relationship. And some people have told us that, while some things can be hard to watch in the film for people who have issues with their father or their mother, or just people who really feel for the film, that it is at the end hopeful. It's a message of hope. Some of us — myself included — with some family members, we kind of give up. We go, "Okay, well." There's no way to talk about these issues, every time we talk about them we fight, we can't talk to each other, etc. You just find that you are at these impasses with your family, because your family knows you too much, because there's too much history. But what Jorge proved to me is that, that's not true, actually. He uses cinema to surpass that. Hopefully people see in the film that you can be creative and come up with some way to try to transgress these impasses you have. It is possible, even with someone who has problems with alcohol or problems that we don't think we can solve. That's something I definitely learned from watching these two.

Watch the trailer for El Father Plays Himself: https://youtu.be/Qm6o8Dp_rXw 

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