Inspired by writer-director Elise DuRant’s own childhood experiences in 1980’s Mexico, Edén is an intimately rendered film about coming home. Nine-year-old Alma is forced to leave Mexico with her artifact-smuggling father, John. Years later, after her father’s death, she returns to Mexico to confront the man responsible for their emigration. But she finds more than she was looking for, in the form of a new cultural identity. A sensitive exploration of the ties-that-bind – to family and country – is a film about our search for roots, a sense of belonging, and the love and loss that accompanies the journey.
Here is an enlightening MFF interview with Writer/Director Elise DuRant.
This was your feature film debut, based on your real life. Could you talk a bit about the events that inspired it?
When I was a little girl, my father was accused of smuggling prehispanic art. He was beaten by the side of the road by the federales and told he had 3 days to leave the country. We left Mexico and never returned. Years later, after my father’s death, I returned to Mexico for the first time on my own. It was then that I realized what a unique upbringing I had had. Edén is a fiction, inspired by our expulsion from Mexico.
You began your film career as an editor for Woody Allen. What did you learn from that period—and how has your background as an editor influenced you as a writer and a director?
I consider my time in Woody Allen’s editing room as my education in filmmaking. I didn’t go to film school. I learned how dialogue was constructed by first reading the script and then listening to scenes over and over again as we worked on the film. I learned about looking for that one gesture, that one nod that the actor, unaware, gives you that makes the scene. I learned about rhythm and pacing, where the action begins and where it ends in a scene. And, I learned to speak from what you know. I took this with me to write and direct.
Can you speak about the process of funding the film, and how you think things have changed for a director trying to do feature films today? You had a variety of grants from such places as the NY State Council on the Arts and New York Foundation for the Arts, but you also used the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to complete the movie. Do you think this opens up opportunities for directors? Would you have been able to make this without that option?
It would have been very difficult to make Edén otherwise. The way Edén was made, with these grants and contributions through New York Foundation for the Arts, gave me a certain amount of freedom to make the film I wanted to make, in the way I wanted to make it.
And, by making the film in this way — through contributions through NYFA, through kickstarter, through all the people that volunteered their time, opened up their homes and businesses for us to film in — you create a community. As a first-time filmmaker, you think that there is a community on the other side of the mountain that will embrace you once you’ve made your film. What you learn is that you create the community in making the film. I think that if I had made my first film in a more “traditional” way, I would have missed out on learning that.
Two actresses play Alma—Paula Maria Landa Hartasanchez is the 9-year-old, and Diana Sedano is the adult—and they both have to hold the audience’s attention during some long and quiet shots. They do a wonderful job. How did you find the actresses and work with them for their roles?
Paula’s mother has a theater company 45 minutes away from my hometown where we filmed Edén. It’s not easy for a kid to work on a set, endure long days, under the sun. Paula did it. She’s so bright and so talented. And even after filming Edén she’d ask her mom about the film and where in the process it was during post-production. I’m such a fan of hers.
Diana is a Mexico City based actress. She comes from a theater background as well. She has such a strong presence. It’s not easy to hold silence, and I agree, she does it well.
As both a child and an adult, Alma is watchful and mostly quiet, taking things in; especially as a 9-year-old, she seems to grasp some pretty adult situations. Were you like this as a child? And if so, how did this watchfulness, the ability to understand emotions, help you as a filmmaker?
What a nice question. You could say that I spent many a week night up late in my pj’s in my dad’s “music room” as he played records for these eccentric characters that came through our home. I’d quietly take it all in.
Will Oldham played Alma’s father, and he is both an actor and a singer/songwriter. In the film, he stands out as the “gringo,” but also as a warm, devoted, and imaginative father. What was it about Oldham that made you choose him for this complex role? Was his musical background important to you?
Will doesn’t know this but, his music entered my life about the time I graduated from college and moved into New York City. My father had recently died and I was totally on my own. I remember very distinctly the first time I heard his words. In a sense, I grew up with his music, it accompanied me through my 20’s. There was a sensibility in it that resonated with who I was and where I came from. He also had a reputation of being very private, in a way that the father in Edén is.
I’m in awe of Will. I love him for taking on that role in the way that he did, for coming down to Mexico on this adventure. I am so grateful to him for being so generous and trusting, and genuinely respectful of me as a director.
Edén has a spare, but very effective musical soundtrack, mostly used only when the characters themselves are listening or singing, rather than commenting on the action. How did you choose the music, which varies from folksy American to different types of Mexican songs?
Rick Clark a Nashville based music supervisor connected Edén with these great musicians and songs that lend that air of a certain time and place. The songs in Spanish were written for Edén by the Mexican singer/songwriter Marco Antonio Bórquez Rosas. So beautiful. And the closing song was written and sung by Will for Edén.
Early in the film, Alma’s father gives her both an actual fossil and a one created by an artist to look like a relic. Of the first, he tells her it was “once a shell, but gradually the forces of nature turn it into something different – a rock . . . It’s a representation of what it once was.” For me, as a viewer, this line was potent—almost a statement for the film’s look at how the forces of the world shape Alma as a person. But it also describes how forces have shaped Mexico as a nation. And, of course, fossils and relics are also her father’s “job,” so to speak. How meaningful did you intend artifacts—including the artifacts of personal life, like Alma’s doll and photos—to be in the film?
I’m so glad you bring it up, because the artifact is a very important element in the film. I don’t know how well I can answer this one for you…
The artifact speaks to me of the relationship each character has to Mexico, to the land. …and to oneself.
I was forced to abandon my home from one day to another because my father was, falsely, accused of smuggling artifacts. (It is illegal in Mexico to own much less remove prehispanic art from the country.)
The father’s relationship to the artifact is complex: on the one hand he appraises, through his eyes the artifact is given beauty and value. On the other hand, he could be viewed as stealing from what belongs to his Mexican friend.
And somehow, Alma has to figure her place in all of this.
Now that particular line that you bring up, is one of the very few lines that wasn’t originally in the script. Will made it up in the moment. That’s the beauty of Will! He got the script and the character and the importance of the relic and put it there in the most beautifully succinct way so that a little girl, and we as viewers, could understand.
by MFF Blogger Karen Backstein