In Too Late to Die Young, the third feature from the young Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor, the nation of Chile is deep in flux. It’s December 1989, and Augusto Pinochet has just been democratically removed from power, ending a decades-long military dictatorship and ushering in a mood of cautious optimism. Sofía (Demian Hernández) and Lucas (Antar Machado) are teenagers and good friends, spending the summer with their bohemian-minded parents and other families at an idyllic rural commune in the Andean foothills. This social microcosm, like the country at large, and like the story’s central pair of adolescents, has found itself in a quietly exhilarating moment of suspended animation, waiting for a wholly unrecognizable future to take hold. Sotomayor’s film digs into this crystalline moment, surveying its textures from a compassionate visual remove, casting a warm, inclusive, steady-handed gaze that evokes at once the immediacy of lived experience and the hazy contours of idealized recollection. Taking equal interest in interpersonal drama, generational portraiture, and intimate, fleeting sensory detail, the film’s narrative ultimately renders the affective experience of political history as personal memory. The Brooklyn Rail spoke with Sotomayor about narrative time, organic world building, and how, to tweak Jacques Rivette’s axiomatic observation, every film documents the memory of its own making.
Madeline Whittle (Rail): I’m interested, first of all, in the historical setting of the film. It’s very specifically set around New Year’s Eve, 1989. And you’ve talked in other interviews about your interest in that moment in history, and, at the same time, your interest in capturing a kind of timelessness, and the fluidity of the film’s temporal placement is one of its defining characteristics.
Dominga Sotomayor: I was interested in this un-clarity of time and space. I liked this confusion. I think, in cinema, you can convey that time does not exist, right? It’s not necessarily a specific time. But at the same time I was thinking of a specific summer when I arrived to live in a community that was kind of an inspiration for the film, and that was ’89. And that summer was a moment of transition itself, because in December Pinochet was kicked out. So the dictatorship was ending, we knew it was going to end, but the first democratic leader wasn’t sworn in until March. So there was a beserara, an in-between period, between December and March, where we were kind of hoping for democracy to begin. What I wanted to do was to capture an emotional status rather than a historical moment. But, of course, this emotional status has to do with this historical moment, right? So, I had all these ideas: images of a film that could be not just about one character, but that could capture a collective feeling that was in the air by that time, to see this community through the eyes of the youngest—I think I’m always interested in the young characters. I think it has to do with evolution. I think then we learn how to not go to dark thoughts, how to not suffer too much, and I like this kind of fragility which comes before that education.
Rail: Yes, there’s a real innocence, you’ve captured this kind of utopian world that feels like a Garden of Eden, in the middle of nature. You’ve indicated the time period with dated material details, which are subtly incorporated into the production design, but at the same time it feels out-of-time, like the outside world has melted away, and you’re left with this political utopia of a commune, a community.
Sotomayor: It’s a utopia that is in evolution, and I think the film has to do with early lost evolutions, or what you think you need, what you think you want. So this innocence, this evolution, this adolescence is both on the part of the characters and deriving from the feelings of this country: “What will come?” There were 20 years of dictatorship, but I wanted to take all this out. I just wanted this feeling of a beginning, and I think New Year’s Eve is always like a new beginning, a reset. So I was playing with these layers, and I think even though it’s inspired by a specific summer, it was also a time where, in my personal experience, nobody was talking about politics. It was a country that was totally bored of talking about politics. They wanted to erase it, so I also wanted to erase it. And it’s all out of frame, right? The city, the mother, the big things are not there.
Rail: I’m interested in the choice you made to focus not only on children, but on different stages of life, and different generations within these families, all contained within the same narrative frame. You have a child’s experience of a moment, coexisting with a teenage girl’s experience, coexisting with a parent’s experience, and the dramas that play out within each age group also play into one another.
Sotomayor: You can kind of follow whichever story you want, there’s a kind of freedom inside the film. If you choose to look to the adults, maybe you see the film through them. And if you want to connect with Sofia, you can follow her in the frame. This kind of freedom, it’s a new freedom, and I think it’s a film about the transition to a new freedom. I wanted to be as open as possible in terms of narration, and I think it was an organic choice to make a film that was not compelling you to go somewhere. And something that you mentioned before, about the evolution of this community… One of the images I had was of the woman trying to fight against the fire with a tree branch. I found these VHS tapes of a real forest fire that I experienced when I was little, and I thought about how I loved that contradiction, of these people moving away from the boundaries of the city, wanting to forget all that noise, and at the same time being confronted by nature and how difficult it is, how absurd it is: you cannot fight against nature. They confront this illusion, and democracy, too, is an illusion. It’s like, “OK, let’s build this system outside the city where we will be out of harm’s way,” but in the end, if you don’t have water—you’re human, you need water—you take the water from your neighbor. I don’t want to make a critique, it’s more an observation of the difficulties of the relation between classes and their respective narratives. Even though they really wanted to be away from that system, it becomes the same. They have a maid, they have this guy working for them, and he doesn’t belong, and of course the most violent image is the moment with the dog. The dog is the only character that can cross classes, that can move, that has mobility.
Rail: The nature/civilization tension is prominent in the film, especially as it pertains to the ways in which human nature is embodied, and the fact that our bodies get older, they grow up, they have to navigate a world of other bodies. And even when you can occupy this pure, idyllic, innocent setting, you’re still inhabiting a body that exists in the world, and has to fight a fire or
Sotomayor: —or be sick, from drinking the water. I think it’s a very different effect when you see a group of people moving through a place, rather than a place inhabited by people. I wanted to look at the film as an ecosystem without borders, like this house without walls where the interiors can be like an exterior, and the exteriors like an interior. I remember having a very close relationship with the stones and the trees and the water, and we could feel the seasons because the winter was cold with snow—I remember being very cold, and then very warm in summer, and the water had to be boiled, otherwise you would get sick. So I tried to draw connections throughout the film: there’s a sick person, and maybe he’s sick because a horse has contaminated the water. We are just bodies, as you say. It’s all the same material, and I like to see it in that sense. And then the fire… The fire is the most visual representation of transformation—you cannot see transformation because transformation is an in-between, and I like the idea that fire is a way to see transformation, a more violent means of transforming. The film ends up with this kind of inverted catastrophe. It’s a catastrophe that will make them whole again.
Rail: I think of the image of the dog running—that beautiful shot at the beginning, where you sort of follow the dog running through the dust. That was an image that stayed with me and was very vibrant.
Sotomayor: I think that’s how I work: I invent certain images. It’s like a collection of things that I know will be there, and then I draw the connections, and then the narration is like kneading bread dough. So I had the dog in mind but of course also, the dog is there for something. It has more than one meaning, maybe, but I think also it’s a film about the absurdity of being able to be the owner of someone or something, an animal—nature. People ask me, “Is the dog Frida’s or Cindy’s?,” and I respond, “I don’t know. It’s neither. It’s a dog.” How can you be the owner of a dog? Or of this land? Why does this land belong to you? So the fire is there to remind you of that. I like this kind of circularity, starting with the dog and ending with the dog—it’s like the circularity of history, of something that is repeating itself.
Rail: Your film recreates, for the viewer, the feeling of piecing together a personal history, finding patterns and threads in the story where there might not necessarily have been threads and patterns by design, but in the aftermath, when you’re returning to the memories, you see the connections and you draw out themes and symbols.
Sotomayor: I think when you erase the cause and effect of history, and you dig into your memories, you’re left with random moments that you can recall. Then the viewer has to connect them. They have to connect with themselves, too. The most rewarding thing that people have said to me after seeing the film is: “This film makes me remember things that I’ve been forgetting. This is powerful, this is political. It’s not about liking or not liking the film, it’s about dislodging memories: “I went out and I called my first girlfriend,” or “I went to visit the place where I spent my childhood.” I like this idea of a film, because films either make you forget about yourself or make you go deep into yourself. It’s not a film that is made to be liked, it’s more to create discomfort.
Rail: I imagine that the production process—finding this location, setting up this fictional community, bringing the cast and crew to this space to make this film, which feels very improvisational and organic—I imagine that this experience in itself informed the film’s emotional effect.
Sotomayor: The greatest challenge was to recreate a community in order to portray another community. I had this production company in Chile called Cinestación, and I really think that every production decision is a language decision, is a political decision, so there’s a difference between holding a casting call with 500 kids, and organizing a workshop with kids from this community. For this film it was pretty clear to me that we needed to build a group of people that wanted to spend time together, and it was a matter of control and loss of control. A lot of things were planned, but I was also trying to just capture what happened with these people spending time together. For me, what is beautiful now is that, two years after the shoot, there’s a nostalgia for that time—not for the time we were trying to portray, but for the specific moment of the shoot, when we spent these five weeks together. That was another time.
Rail: How did you find and select the young actors, in particular?
Sotomayor: I didn’t want to make a traditional open casting call, so I worked with my mother: she’s an actress, and she lives in the community that inspired the film. She did the casting for my first film, and it was the same this time, it was just [a matter of] looking for, say, the son of a friend, and we invited like 10 teenagers one weekend to a workshop, and then 10 little kids. The workshop would involve playing music, I was looking for kids who knew how to play music, and they would create songs, and we would play games. And I was observing them while we were doing this, and among the group, I decided who would be the main characters. Demian was a friend of the girlfriend of my brother, and she had done some modeling but had never acted in a film before. I think, because nobody was eliminated in the casting process, it was really nice and democratic and the shoot was kind of a prolongation or continuation of the workshop. As I said before, casting is very important for me. I’m pretty obsessed with capturing something real, with interesting people. Also, Demian is not from the community, and I think that was interesting because the character doesn’t belong. The character also wants to leave, because she is an outsider, they don’t know her.
Rail: In some ways the film feels like a documentary. The production itself is now a memory, and the film is a document of that memory, as much as it’s a document of a fictional memory, or an autobiographical memory
Sotomayor: I like the word “documentary,” in the sense that what I try to do with film is to document an emotion, a state. And I think I’m more drawn to the in-between: I didn’t want [the film] to deal with the big events, or the day that democracy arrived. It’s in this in-betweenness where I think I can dig into emotions, because it’s a time in which there is time. Nothing big is happening. And then everything changes, the house is destroyed now, the kids are not kids anymore, the highway is now completed. So there are some places that don’t exist anymore where we shot. So I don’t know, it moved me, this possibility of capturing something that would transform so soon, and on so many levels.