In The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future, the impenetrable boundaries of life and death crumble when a dead woman rises from the river, alive. Her family are thrust back into the throws of grief as she quietly walks back into their lives but in their rekindling of loss, the world around them shifts. The very river Magdalena (Mia Maestro) rose from is seemingly contaminated and local plants and animals begin to suffer from unexplained ailments.
Francisca Alegría’s genre-defying film confidently embeds environmentalism commentary into familial drama, asking subtle questions of ownership and treatment between humans and nature. In our interview with Alegría, the writer-director shares her personal ties to the film, the environmentalist context that informed the project, and her perspective on the film’s magical realism.
Projektor: Your debut features similar themes to your short film And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye. What was the evolution from the short to this feature?
Francisca Alegría: I wrote the first draft of the feature before writing the short. All the main characters of the family are based on my family, so I started writing in a territory that was known to me. I left that script aside but then I had to graduate with something. I did not want to do a capsule of what I had in my mind but the short is within the same universe though we shot the film in a different landscape. They have these similarities, I feel like they live in the same world.
Throughout The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future, the repeated image of this singular cow is so memorable. What is it about that creature that is a fascination in your work?
I grew up going to my grandparents’ farm and our attention was always on the horses. Horses were talked about as these majestic creatures. The cows were in the background, characterized as dumb and disposable and people took their milk and made products out of them. Although at the beginning this didn’t come rationally, I wanted to talk about [cows] because they represent something very feminine. They give a lot, cows are very abundant. In some countries and religions cows are sacred but on our side of the world, they are exploited and looked down on. I was raised saying the cows were dumb, but I came to understand they’re amazing animals. They give so much but we give them pain.
Environmentalism has a lingering, ominous presence throughout the film that is both locally specific and universally recognizable. Tell me about forging that context.
Going away from my country gave me that perspective; I started seeing many things that were happening that people weren’t talking about. In 2017, in the Cruces River, where we shot the film, more than 2,000 fish died. People knew it was because of a pulp factory. That factory has a lot of power and money, so they managed to put that under a rock and no one took responsibility. I started digging into that, and not even with the mass death of animals we are shocked. It shocked me. This is the world we’re living in, so let’s concentrate on this here because I wanted to not be oblivious.
In reflecting on the relationship between humans and nature, the film’s dialogue blends into the soundtrack where animals and landscapes seem to sing. Why did you decide on this communicative method?
I tried to not only have the human characters express themselves but also the fungi world, the plants, trees, and animals. I thought, “How can we bring a musicality I’ve perceived when I’m in the woods to the film?” From the beginning, we started creating the chorus and thinking about sound. Later in the process, when we were ready to shoot, I met with French composer Pierre Desprats. I don’t speak French, and he doesn’t speak Spanish, so our collaboration was very experimental. We wanted to stay open to how it felt along the journey, we just allowed ourselves to imagine and play a little with that. It’s my dream to make a full musical one day.
How did you land on the approach of magical realism that defies genre in the film’s visuals and narrative?
After a big traumatic event in my youth, something opened and I had a really private inner world. I imagined things that were never realistic, [with hindsight] I see it was a defense mechanism. It’s the way in which I like to see things, I never even thought that I wanted to place [the film] in a genre. It’s really fun to hear that conversation, some people place it in magical realism, others grounded sci-fi, and others see fantasy. I think it has elements of the three but doesn’t marry with one.
Speaking about magic, Magdalena’s grandchild, Tomás, is such a unique presence in the film. They’re placed in a space where gender identity, queerness, and magic intersect. How was crafting that character?
Tomás is the character in whom I place myself. When I came out as bisexual, my mother could not handle it and I went through a period of time where I was hurting a lot. I think I was taking that out through Tomás. I decided on a transitioning person because nowadays being bisexual is normal but what I went through would be equivalent, almost.
Meeting Enzo [Ferrada Rosati], was great because he did not go through that experience. He knew he was gay and his family were all very accepting. I feel like queerness nowadays and saying it out loud is such a relief. This new generation is teaching us so much, they move forward without fear. Magdalena was a woman from a different period where she could not express herself either. Because of her circumstances, without internet and community, the only way out was suicide. But, now, Tomás has other possibilities.
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