Chilean director Sebastián Lelio talks love and movies in Tel Aviv

Lelio, who is the guest of honor at the 2022 Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival, is excited to visit Israel for the first time and to take part in the film festival. 

 Sebastian Lelio (photo credit: YUVAL BARNEA)
Sebastian Lelio
(photo credit: YUVAL BARNEA)

Sebastián Lelio, the acclaimed Chilean director of such films as the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman and Disobedience, a drama about forbidden love in the ultra-Orthodox community, ordered two espressos at once at a Tel Aviv hotel café Thursday morning, looking far more alert than you would expect for someone who just arrived from London.

Lelio, who is the guest of honor at the 2022 Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival, which is run by Tel Aviv University and taking place at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and other venues around the city, said he was excited to visit Israel for the first time and to take part in the film festival.

“I was very touched by the invitation,” he said.”I love the idea of a student film festival. I’m eager to have conversations with young filmmakers. It’s exciting. That’s why I said yes.”

Lelio was in England doing post-production on his latest film, The Wonder, which stars Florence Pugh and and Niamh Algar in a psychological thriller. “But I managed to escape for a few days,” he said.

Asked whether he had felt pressure to boycott a cultural event in Israel, he said that in general he did not believe in boycotts and, “It all depends on who is doing the inviting.” While he specified that he was not comparing Israel to his home country during the Pinochet dictatorship, he recalled that, “In Chile, during the dictatorship years, I remember artists who came and shared their world views and it was super interesting for us.” Had they boycotted due to disagreements with the Chilean government of the time, “it would have been a bit tough for us.”

 Sebastian Lelio (credit: YUVAL BARNEA) Sebastian Lelio (credit: YUVAL BARNEA)

A Chilean childhood

Growing up during this dark era of Chilean history shaped his worldview in other ways, too. “During the dictatorship, the film schools stopped working. My generation had stories they wanted to tell.” Once the dictatorship ended in 1990, the film schools reopened and Lelio, now was one of those who found his way to them. “About 16 years after the recovery of democracy, the film industry began to revive and there was some interest from outside the country.”

THE SON of a dancer and an architect, his parents divorced when he was young. He grew up in military communities after his mother remarried a naval officer. “I didn’t grow up in the artistic community,” he said.

As an adolescent, he went through a phase where he wanted to be a poet: “In Chile, you have your first kiss and you start writing poems.” But he was also interested in photography and other artistic pursuits and found that in film school, he could integrate his various interests.

After making documentaries, he drew attention on the international scene with La Familia Sagrada in 2005. He went on to make such acclaimed films as Gloria, the story of a 58-year-old divorcée searching for love at a time in her life when most people felt she might as well give up, which he remade as Gloria Bell in the US with Julianne Moore and John Turturro. “I saw this as if I were doing a cover of a song, I wrote another variation on it... Usually, the camera would stay on her children or the man, but I kept focusing on Gloria.”

“In Chile, you have your first kiss and you start writing poems.”

Sebastian Lelio

His films often deal with the secret lives of those who are ostensibly conformists. A Fantastic Woman, which in addition to being the first Chilean film to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar won prizes at film festivals around the world, tells the story of a trans woman who is a waitress and nightclub singer who has a passionate affair with a middle-aged businessman. After he dies unexpectedly in her company, she finds she is suspected of causing his death and she cannot openly mourn him.

“I connect with characters who find the strength to pay the price for being alive and true to themselves even if means there is great friction between them and the community,” he said. “There is always a tension between law and desire.”

“I connect with characters who find the strength to pay the price for being alive and true to themselves even if means there is great friction between them and the community”

Sebastian Lelio

That tension was front and center in his 2017 adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel about a lesbian relationship in an ultra-Orthodox community in London. Rachel Weisz played the daughter of the community’s rabbi who fell in love with her close friend (Rachel McAdams) and left to live in New York City. After the death of her father, she returns to London and sparks fly again with her former lover, who is now married and trying to put the past behind her. 

“I had no knowledge of this community before I made the movie,” he said. “But I grew up in the Catholic community in Chile during the dictatorship.”

HIS BACKGROUND made it easy for him to grasp the central conflict of the movie, “about how much freedom a community can offer before coming apart... There is a huge cultural difference between the community I grew up in and the one in the film, but there was something very human I found I could relate to and that was my way in.”

While he worked to learn as much as he could about Orthodox Judaism, he also saw the story in terms of a Greek myth. “It was like the story of the daughter of a king who comes back from the realm she was exiled to after his death and for a few days, there is no one in power and everything is turned upside down.”

He had almost as many questions about Israel for me as I had for him and he was interested in seeing and learning as much as possible in the few days he has here. He has seen a number of Israeli films that impressed him and mentioned Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz’s Gett: The Trial Viviane Amsalem as an Israeli film he enjoyed. He also said that he has been following the career of Nadav Lapid and was on the jury at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019 that awarded Lapid the Golden Bear, the festival’s top prize, for the movie Synonyms.

The secret to a good film

Asked how he managed to keep making serious, well-regarded dramas in an age of superhero movies, he said, “I’ve been lucky that I’ve found a place to operate... They’ve been saying that film is dying since it was born... Cinema is a language, not a format.”

Asked what movie he will make after he finishes The Wonder, he declined to give details, other than to say he is working on a number of projects. “Films are like turtles trying to get to the sea, some won’t make it, some will,” he said and headed off to the film festival.