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Daniela Cajías AEC • Alcarràs

Mar 27, 2023


By Ron Prince

There’s trouble on the horizon in Alcarràs, the heart-rending, Spanish-Italian co-production, directed by Carla Simón and shot by Bolivian DP Daniela Cajías AEC. 

Set in the tiny rural Catalonian town of the same name, where Simón’s own relatives have cultivated peaches for generations, the story revolves around an extended family facing eviction from their farm, after the owner of the estate dies and his lifetime heir decides to sell the land to an alternative energy company. This will see the native peach orchards supplanted by solar panels, and a century-old livelihood uprooted.

The €3,200,000 production, featuring an entire ensemble of non-professional actors, won the Golden Bear at the 72nd Berlinale, the first Catalan-language film to do so. It also collected five-star reviews for its authentic, masterful and moving contemplation on the fragility of family life versus the remorseless industrial development of agriculture, as well as praise for Cajías’ observational camera, capturing its many characters in the sunshine and shadows around the farm. 

What did you feel about the script for Alcarràs?

It awoke a lot of sensations and thoughts in me, and for a few days I couldn’t sleep because a lot of ideas went through my head. On the practical side, I knew it would be a very big challenge to work on a film with so many characters and non-professional actors.

As for the narrative, which is the most interesting thing about this project, it was a big challenge in terms of portraying the continuous communications and exchanges between the characters and deciding what presence the camera would have in that. 

On reading the script, I thought the camera was essentially a member of the family, perhaps someone who is no longer with them, but who watches with love.

Tell us about your conversations with Carla about the look of the film?

Carla and I talked a lot about the cordiality and conviviality of family life, the ensemble cast, about metaphysics and general sensations, and the creative part flowed a lot from that.

The story, although it is fictional, is based around real events that happened to Carla’s family on the maternal side. So the first real step was an introduction to the world of agriculture in that area of Catalonia. I went to Alcarràs to meet her relatives, who told me first-hand what they lived through and how hard life is in the countryside.

For Carla, the family is very important. I watched many hours of home videos she had recorded over the last 15 years, since that was part of what we wanted to convey, someone from within who records the family.

The most important thing was to find a tone of reality, of spontaneity, of capturing fragments of life. We wanted everything that happens in front of the camera to feel casual – that the camera adapts to the actors, and the actors never adapt to the camera. The challenge was that it should not be noticed, that the film seemed more like a documentary.

Likewise with the lighting, we wanted it to feel natural, and not illuminated, although in reality the interiors had to be well-lit to create the mood and atmosphere we wanted to achieve for each scene. 

Did you look at any visual references?

Along with visiting Carla’s family and looking at her home videos, we watched a lot of movies, Italian neorealism, the most important being El Àrbol De Los Clogs (The Tree Of Wooden Clogs) (1978), which was directed and shot by Hermano Olmi. We were also influenced by Alice Rohrwacher’s films, such as Le Meraviglie (The Wonders) (2014) and Lazzaro Felice (Happy As Lazzaro) (2018) (both shot by DP Hélène Louvart AFC).

We made a very detailed document in Excel, where everything was carefully planned scene-by-scene. In Alcarràs, nothing was left to chance, everything was very, very well-thought-out beforehand.

How much preparation time and when/where did you shoot?

Officially it was eight weeks, but in reality Carla and I started working on the film seven months before we started shooting. We shot everything on location around Alcarràs, in the Catalonian province of Lleida. We started on June 1 2021, so as to capture the seasonal peach harvest, but had a four-day break due to a case of Covid at the end of July. There was no studio work.

What cameras and lenses did you select and why?

For various reasons, we couldn’t do camera tests, which was crazy, and the camera arrived the day before we started shooting. We shot with the ARRI Alexa Mini – it’s the digital camera that I know and like the most, for its colour reproduction and latitude. We shot in ARRIRAW, with the camera rated between 400 and 800 ISO, depending on the day/night, interior/exterior scene. The optics were Cooke Speed Panchros, because, having done no tests, I decided to use optics that I already knew.

For the shoot I created a basic, low-contrast LUT with my DIT, Daniel Arvizu, and did a little grading on-set, but waited until the final DI to adjust the colouring, where we saturated the imagery much more.

Why did you decide to frame the film in 1.66:1?

Being a film that has quite a few shots with several characters in the same frame, – some sitting, others standing, some tall, little children, etc. – we felt 1.66:1 was the best way for them to fit comfortably into the shot, in addition to it being a great format for close-ups and landscapes.

Who were your camera and lighting crew?

As Alcarràs was a Spanish/Italian co-production I had several Italians and Catalonians in the team. My camera operator was Gon R. Nión, with Mauro Calanca working as focus puller, and David Arrés the key grip. Lluís Maymó was the gaffer, and Daniel Arvizu the DIT. I had not worked with any of them before, but despite not knowing one another we were a great, united and supportive team at all times, which made for a wonderful experience.

They knew how to adapt to the particularities of this shoot, working amongst the small children, teenagers, adults and old people who made up our cast, and often in very hot and harsh conditions. The human factor was very important, and I cannot be more proud and grateful to my team in being sensitive to that.

Did you operate the camera?

No, it’s the first time I’ve not operated the camera. Being such a complex film, I preferred to concentrate on the lighting and stay focused on the narrative. As Carla and I had discussed early-on, the camera was always at the service of the characters, and we went handheld so that we could get very close to them when needed. The motivations for moving with or staying-on the characters always had to do with changing the point-of-view in the film.

Tell about your approach to the lighting?

My lighting package came from Kinolux in Barcelona. The premise of the film was always about realism and naturalism, and I worked a lot with natural-looking light, bouncing-off fabrics, mirrors or CRLS reflectors. If the scene or the location did not allow that, I worked with HMIs and LEDs. 

As we were shooting with non-professional actors, it was important not to intervene too much, and to not have cables or lights on-set, so they felt as comfortable as possible. Also, to keep the energy they generated, I did not want to take many breaks and have to relight a scene when we changed camera positions.

Take us through a sequence you like best?

The dark/night scene at the beginning of the film starts with sudden camera movements on a moving car, and the light of a flashlight as they go looking for rabbits in the trees. Then we move inside the car and see the characters trying to kill rabbits with a shotgun as they have a conversation.

Realism was the most important thing. We needed a powerful hunting torch, but instead of buying one online or whatever, I asked the local foresters to lend us a flashlight they use, which we connected to the car battery for power. We used the car headlights and had a LED softbox on the roof to set an overall base level of lighting outside, and had LED tubes to illuminate the interior of the car. Always trying to make it look real, and I was very happy with the result.

Director Carla Simon

Where did you do the final DI colour grade?

I did it in Rome, at Grande Mela, with colourist Angelo Francavilla. As we did in the production of the film, during the DI we were looking for realism, to portray the space of Alcarràs and for the image to transport us to that place. Angelo understood me perfectly and we worked very well together.

How did this film challenge or boost your skills as a cinematographer? 

Alcarràs is without a doubt the most difficult film I’ve made so far. I feel like I’ve grown and learned a lot. I’m always thinking about actors, and the biggest challenge was with my cinematography ego. In favour of the narrative, on many occasions I had to give in and not have the perfect image. But I am very happy that it was like this, and I feel that have matured as a cinematographer.

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