Mexican writer-director Lila Avilés is fascinated by the intrinsic interconnectedness of family dynamics. Her sophomore feature, Tótem, charts a family gathering through the eyes of seven-year-old Sol (Naíma Sentíes). Taking place entirely in Sol’s grandfather’s home, Tótem plays out with a muted sadness as party preparations for Tona (Mateo Garcia), Sol’s artistic father, are dampened by the fact he’s on his deathbed. With hopeful innocence, Sol is desperate to wish her father back to health but she’s a child caught in the wilderness of adulthood emotions.
Avilés, an actor-turned-director, made her feature debut in 2018 with The Chambermaid, and Tótem follows suit as a similarly emotionally powerful story told within a quietly contained interior. In conversation with Projektor, Avilés shared her relationship with the foundations of Tótem, casting children for leading roles, and the fusing of the natural and domestic worlds.
Projektor: How has your directing style been influenced by your acting background?
Lila Avilés: I didn’t study cinema but I come from theatre and worked in a lot of different departments [as] make-up, wardrobe, assistant director, and also as an actress. I learnt by working and gained respect for the work. I have been creative since I was a kid but I was so in love with cinema and I wanted to be a director. The goal was to keep going in the path of directing but with a bit of freedom.
What’s nice about theatre is that you play. In theatre, it’s a longer process but actors can be crazy people in a good way, so it gives space. Theatre is a contention but in space; you can put a total universe in a table and you can speak about a lot of different things in a small space. For me, with Tótem and The Chambermaid, it was the same: we can speak about a lot of different things in this small space. I think that [approach comes] from going from theatre to cinema.
Death unites us across language and culture, and your film is very specific about the experience of mourning before the individual is dead. What inspired this approach?
It comes from something personal. My daughter had that experience but, obviously, I’ve changed a lot. I’m happy with the freedom—sometimes pieces of cinema can [represent] what you’ve gone through. That’s the beauty of being alive. There’s this hippie thing, like “be positive!” But you need to embrace and hug when you’re down, and equally when you’re up. It’s a matter of resistance. For me, I forget all the time but it’s like a muscle you need to refresh.
Tonally the film is also very interesting: there’s a sadness surrounding death, but it’s also a joyous comedy. How did you land on that balance?
I love to laugh a lot and sometimes I can be super stressed as I read something in the news. But normally I love to laugh. Even in The Chambermaid, it’s silent but there are moments of laughing. There was a woman who had a super small part but I loved her vitality—that is the witch in Tótem. Now I’m writing other stuff for her because I love it when people, with not so much effort, have that energy.
“You need to be super focused when you’re filming, but there’s also a dreamy state. It’s strange, and that’s why I love to be a filmmaker.”
The film centres on a child’s perspective of this intergenerational family. How was casting and working with a young lead cast?
Cinema is a mystery to me. When you’re writing, you have someone in your mind, like in a dream. You imagine and then, voila! It’s here and that’s beautiful. For the whole ensemble, it was important that all the characters feel alive and that is a matter of catching the diversity of one with another. With the main character, Sol, it was so wonderful with [co-casting director] Gabriela Cartol. I knew this casting was going to be so difficult. What was beautiful about Naíma is that it was the first time she’d acted, but she’s a vibrant girl. She has this energy that can be super calm but also super wild. She has both layers that were super important for [this role].
Nature also creeps into this family home with ants on the wall, a snail in the bathroom, and Sol getting a fish. Why did you include these moments of the natural world entering this domestic home?
It returns to the microcosm—of a lot of things in a small space. Like in the cities, we are so out of nature that we need to return in presence to that connection. It’s a beautiful thing that if you watch the sun, the sun is watching you. It’s mirroring. I remember when I was a child, it was a matter of playing. And I don’t want to be nostalgic, like “it used to be amazing,” but with technology, it’s harder and harder to be present. The goal of Tótem is to return to that day that makes a wound or something profound. We change, like a butterfly.
The film begins and ends with Sol making a wish. Why did you want to draw this parallel?
I don’t like talking too much about finales, but I will say I film mostly [chronologically]. And the goal was to get to that day, but one day at a time is beautiful. When I’m filming I can understand how we will continue, and then when it comes to that day, the finale is difficult. In both films, The Chambermaid and Tótem, I catch it at the finale; I’m deeper in the film, discovering, and going deep into the conscious. You need to be super focused when you’re filming, but there’s also a dreamy state. It’s strange, and that’s why I love to be a filmmaker: you’re the captain of the boat, but there are memories and essence also there. With Tótem, I wanted to go into this family, these friends, and this house and just to be—to enter and not be pushed, only to be a part of it with open feelings.