Matteo Garrone, Tran Anh Hung and More International Helmers on What Drove Them to Make Their Oscar Shortlisted Films

This year’s Palm Springs Film Festival saw not one but two international feature panel discussions hosted by The Hollywood Reporter. The first, moderated by THR’s own Kevin Cassidy, highlighted some of the most exciting non-English-language films of the year.

Matteo Garrone’s Io Capitano is Italy’s submission for the Oscar this year and follows two boys on a fairytale-like adventure across continents. The Monk and the Gun, Bhutan’s official selection, is directed by Pawo Choyning Dorji and tells the story of an American treasure hunter who crosses paths with a monk in the Bhutanese mountains. Morocco’s The Mother of All Lies, from Asmae El Moudir, sees the director imaginatively exploring her own family history in tandem with the history of her nation via clay figurines standing in for the real people in her life, who also appear onscreen.

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J.A. Bayona helms Society of the Snow, Spain’s submission, which follows the true story of the 1972 plane crash in the Andes, and the grueling fight for survival among the passengers who survived. France’s selection for this year’s Academy Awards is Trần Anh Hùng’s The Taste of Things, a decades-spanning tale about two chefs who fall in love while creating some of the most sumptuous dishes ever seen in film. Closing out the panel is Mexico’s submission, directed by Lila Aviles: Tótem, about Lila, a young girl preparing for her sick father’s birthday party during one particularly chaotic day.

At this year’s PSIFF, the panel discussion saw each filmmaker exploring the unique challenges behind their much-lauded projects and the passion of their initial ideas, which helped to bring all of their movies across the finish line and inspired them to create in the first place.

Note: as of Tuesday morning, Io Capitano and Society of the Snow are now officially Oscar nominees.

I wanted to ask a pretty straightforward question to lead with, which is why you chose to make these movies. Asmae, can you talk about the origins of Mother of All Lies?

ASMAE EL MOUDIR The Mother of All Lies is my first theatrical film. I took 10 years because it’s very hard to convince your family, your grandmother, your parents, your neighbors to talk freely about something hard, about trauma that happened in 1981. And then bring all [those] people in a safe space that I built with my father, and then we can talk freely about the past. We want only to talk. And the most important question for me was how we can [create] stories when we don’t have any concrete or visual proof of what had happened. It’s very hard, what we are talking about in the film, but also, I was not looking for guilty people. I was just trying to understand the relationship to the truth. With my family, with the people who [were] here in that bread riot happening in 1981 in Morocco.

I believe Society of the Snow also took about ten years to make.

J.A. BAYONA You asked about why [I chose] to shoot this story. The thing is that when you really feel passionate about story, it’s the story who chooses you, it’s not you who chooses the story. I remember that Guillermo del Toro produced my first film, and he’s been like a mentor, and I told him 10 years ago I wanted to shoot this. And he said, “It’s an incredible story, J.A., but I will [not] pay to shoot that.” Because we had to shoot it, to be as authentic as possible, for real. So it’s a story set up in the Andes, 14,000 feet. And we had to shoot in those conditions, fighting every day against the weather. We went with our beautiful cast, all newcomers, shooting chronologically, losing weight for 140 days. So it was very demanding. The fact that it took me so much time is because I wanted to be authentic. And by doing so, I had to shoot in Spanish. And to shoot in those conditions is expensive. So we were not able to find the money for 10 years. Finally, we found the money, and we were able to shoot the film. And actually, the fact that the film exists is, to me, a really big award. When they asked me about the award, I said, “OK, the fact that the movie exists, it’s already an award, because it’s such a weird thing, to have that in your own language.” And then it’s based upon this true story. I met all the survivors, like 15 of them. And I realized that they needed the film more than me. They really needed to tell the story again, and to me [it] was a question of finding what was left.

Lila, where did the idea for Tótem come from?

LILA AVILES I was a young mother. So my daughter is everything, since I was young. And her dad died when she was 7 years [old]. I just wanted to do something super special and profound. I didn’t study in a formal cinema school. So somehow, with my first film, The Chambermaid, I just did it. And with this second one, I just wanted to go deep, like dreams. I love microcosms. So for me, it was important, because you’re talking about life, but you’re also talking about death. That was super profound. To invite people to come into this house as cosmos, like a small universe. Like me, I’m Lila, but I close my eyes, and there’s some kind of macrocosm inside of me. What was important with this film was to go deep into this family and to these friends. It was also a matter of communication. Because families sometimes communicate, sometimes they don’t communicate at all. But for me, that was like the seed: return to my daughter. In the deeper roots, it was a beautiful exercise of communication with my daughter, and I’m so happy because right now she’s 17. And I did it in the right moment because communication starts being super hard. The good thing is that she totally loves it. And it had been traveling a lot. So I’m super grateful. I think it’s a film that you need to keep understanding. It’s not totally in your face. It’s a film, mainly, of a celebration. And it’s this thing that sometimes can be so passionate, and it could be also difficult. But it’s a gift for those that can have a possible moment of giving something to the one that we love.

The Monk and the Gun is another very unique film. Pawo, can you talk about where the idea for the film came from?

PAWO CHOYNING DORJI Well, I wanted to share the story of Bhutan, my country, my culture, because I think many people in the world don’t know about Bhutan, and I feel like Bhutan has so much to share with the world. We are, I think, one of the most unique cultures. Whenever I go around — I’ve been traveling with my films — and every time, I tell people I’m from Bhutan, I can almost guarantee that the next question is usually, “You must be very happy,” because we are known as “the happy country.” So for example, being a Buddhist country, our definition of happiness, the happiness that we pursue, it’s the kind of happiness that I think many, many people tend to forget about. We believe in interdependence. So we believe that happiness is only achieved when all the cause and conditions, externally, are happy. And then that reflects happiness inside of you. Many people in the world will think that Bhutan has very strange rules. For example, it’s in our Constitution that the forest coverage of our country cannot drop below 65 percent. It’s a great rule, and I’m happy to say that right now, it’s around 72 percent. Being in the Himalayas, countries like India, Nepal, Pakistan, they make hundreds and thousands, if not millions, of dollars from mountain climbing. For every person to try and climb Mount Everest, it costs $100,000. But in Bhutan, we don’t allow mountain climbing. So currently, in the world, I think, Bhutan has the most number of virgin mountain peaks: mountain peaks that have never had man set foot on them. Because we believe that by keeping our mountains clean, it creates the cause and conditions for the happiness that we seek. So we have rules like that, and to protect our culture, we isolated ourselves. As you saw in The Monk and the Gun, it deals with the opening up of our country in the mid-2000s. So imagine in 2006, Bhutan became the last country to connect to the internet, we became the last country to allow television, and these are decisions we did not because we are primitive, but because we realize that opening up to these elements will make us lose what, [and] who, we are.

I wanted to share this story of transition, this story of modernization. And really, how we didn’t choose, we didn’t want to modernize actually, there was no choice. We realized that we were the only non-digital, non-modern entity in this modern global world. And we didn’t want to be left behind, we didn’t want to become irrelevant. So we had to. And sometimes, I think in the pursuit of what you think you need, you end up losing what you have. And with The Monk and the Gun, I wanted to show that. In my culture, I always tell people that we don’t have a word for storytelling. In English [it] would be like “having told me a story.” But in my language, it will be, “Please untie a knot for me.” So to tell a story is to untie a knot. Stories are supposed to have this purpose of untying, liberating and freeing. I wanted to untie the knot of innocence. Because in Bhutan, you know, we are a culture that celebrates the quality of innocence. But in the modern world, there is no space for innocence. To be innocent is to be ignorant. And I tried to show some of these elements in the movie, hoping that through this film, I can preserve a little bit of Bhutan that is being lost, as I said, as we pursue something we think we need.

I made the mistake of watching The Taste of Things on an empty stomach. Tran, can you talk about the origin of this film?

TRÀN ANH HÙNG Oh, yes. Pawo here is Buddhist, and my next movie would be about Buddha. Because for Buddhists, the goal is to become a better human being. And so in this difficult time that we are living, with all these problems around the world, I thought that it was good to make a movie about human beings, and about the pleasure of food and of love, and to see related relationships between people in this movie, and [give] the audience the feeling of humanity. And also, the most important thing is to give the pleasure of cinema, because as a filmmaker, I think that we forget a little bit, that cinema is also an art. And we should work on what is specific to this art and give the more profound feeling to the audience. It’s something that we should do through what is specific to this language. So besides the story and the theme of the movie, that’s why I made this movie.

Io Capitano is such a momentous epic — Matteo why did you make this movie?

MATTEO GARRONE The idea started from the desire to finally show and to give a visual form to a part of the journey that we usually don’t see. I’m from Italy, and we are used to see[ing], for many years, boats arriving with migrants on the Mediterranean, and sometimes they arrive, sometimes not. There is this ritual count of people alive and dead. And with time, that becomes numbers. So, we try to humanize these numbers, we try to make a reverse shot, we put the camera on the other side, not from our side, but from the side of who made this, as you said, epic journey. They are the carrier of the contemporary epic today. And so, of course, for making this movie, it was necessary to have the help and the trust of the real protagonists of this journey. I started to listen to the story of them, and to write the script with them, and also on the set, I was always with the real protagonist of the story. So, I had this privilege. Sometimes I say that I often felt not like a director but a spectator. I was a sort of spectator director, in a way, because sometimes working with them, I would say action, and they relived something that they lived in the past on the set. I was not trying to direct often, but I was trying to follow this humanity. It’s a movie also about dreams. It’s a movie about justice, it’s a movie, especially, about injustice, and it’s a movie about the young, but not all the young, that fight for life, for daydreams, for this human desire to discover the world and look for a better life. So that was the idea that pushed us to make this movie.

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