SSIFF 2021 interview: Jonás Trueba (Who’s Stopping Us)

While receiving many accolades for his previous film The August Virgin (La virgen de agosto), director Jonás Trueba had already embarked on a new project with two of his previous collaborators, Candela Recio and Pablo Hoyos, which would eventually lead to Who’s Stopping Us (Quién lo impide). This powerful portrait of Spanish youth culture, a blend between fiction and documentary that won the FIPRESCI award at the San Sebastián festival and was met with a rapturous critical reception, impressed our own Cédric Succivalli, part of this year’s FIPRESCI jury, immensely. He sat down with Trueba to talk about the freedom of the filming process on this film, about cinema’s ability to still be physical, and about the strong bond with his young cast.

CS: Your film is a monumental experience not just for its duration but also for its staggering quality. I happened to be at the official screening, and it reminded me of when I saw Larry Clark’s Kids in Cannes 25 years ago. It was a similar sort of out-of-body experience, and I was in absolute awe at the way you managed to grasp and underline what youth culture is about at a specific moment in time and in a specific society. You worked with Candela Recio and Pablo Hoyos before, and they seemed to have triggered a desire for another cooperation. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

JT: I like the fact that the film reminded you of Kids, because my distributor said the same thing yesterday. Anyway, with regards to Candela and Pablo, there was no real planning in the sense that in the beginning we didn’t even realize we were making a film. That gave us a lot of freedom. We just wanted to be together, work together, and spend time together. We were actually talking about that yesterday, maybe the key to this project was being free from pressure. This film was made almost from a place of innocence, and it was a crazy undertaking. The philosophy of doing a project together was actually more important than making a film.

CS: You shot over a period of almost five years. The fluidity of the film obliterates the gap between fiction and reality, in the sense that it doesn’t really matter if it’s documentary or fiction, it’s simply a film. It is a harrowing and beautiful testimony to what youth culture is today, or at least until the pandemic and until lockdowns. How did you conceive the film while you were improvising with Candela and Pablo, where did you think you were going to go?

JT: We started the project in 2016, but it wasn’t clear until last year that I had to bring it to an end and finish the film in the editing room. During editing I tried to be faithful to the actual filming process, which was chaotic because of breaks in filming, of shooting other films, and of shooting films at same time. I also wanted to do a hybrid film between documentary and fiction, a bit like an essay or a reflection on the intersection of the two genres. The important thing is that it is a film with a lot of life experiences.

CS: The power of speech is of paramount importance to the film. You manage to convey a lot through the discourse of the young adults at the centre of your film, in particular in a scene near the end when they talk about their problems in life. One of them is expressing a strong, almost anti-Spanish sentiment, another one is fiercely defending her country. Those scenes become almost like a choreographed dance battle, they convey through words something that is almost physical, like a Pina Bausch performance. Can you talk about the physicality of the acting process that you went through with them?

JT: For me the most important thing is not the mise-en-scene, but the mise-en-situation. I did all the camerawork myself, because I knew it was going to be a physical experience, and I wanted it to be. So I put the camera on the floor, shot from low vantage points, and so on. I like the idea that cinema can still be physical and convey that feeling, it helps to feel the physicality of such situations. When I see the film now, I love that there are imperfections in the film, like shots that are out of focus or not steady. You don’t get that a lot nowadays; films are almost made too perfect and beautified in post-production.

CS: In one scene in the middle of the film, two of the main protagonists one late summer afternoon go on a long, romantic walk, reminiscent of the work of Jean Eustache or even the French New Wave. In that particular scene for instance, did you consciously say, “Let’s go for a walk together; the two of you just go and I follow“? What is your process in such scenes?

JT: That scene arose from some conversations with Candela about her village in Extremadura near the Portuguese border, and she talks about her village in negative terms, she has a complicated relationship with it. So we created a sort of time capsule, and we went and filmed down there. We needed some real elements that could be mixed along that hybrid line of documentary and fiction. In other moments of this process I tried to use a real experience to create a new reality in the film. This is like Jean Rouch, who is a reference for all modern filmmakers. When he made his film La pyramide humaine, he always talked about that: it’s not about filming reality, it’s about creating a new reality for the film.

CS: Speaking about Portugal: there’s a scene where the two of them end up crossing a river into Portugal in a kayak to meet friends on the other side, almost a clin d’œil or a wink to Spain and Portugal themselves being Iberian friends.

JT: In this moment, for a few minutes, it becomes a Portuguese film to me. Which was great for me, as I admire the work of Miguel Gomes, especially Our Beloved Month of August, but also the cinema of Rita Azevedo Gomes. Later in the film there’s actually a small homage to her. But this crossing is perhaps the most cinematographical moment in the film. Filming that scene in Portugal was one of my favourite moments in my life as a filmmaker. It was like a small adventure, the three of us in a kayak, improvising but also talking a lot about the scene, its contents and how to shoot it.

CS: I would like to talk about heterogeneity of the material in the film, because every single scene contradicts the one that comes before. As a viewer you are always moving forward with the film, never knowing where it is heading. That gives the film a strong vitality, made possible by the five-year shooting process but also by an incredible cast who you each give a special moment at the end of the film by showing their portraits. Can you explain how you found all these young people, besides Candela and Pablo?

JT: For me the most interesting thing in experiencing a film as a viewer is the unpredictability. I like films that don’t tell you where they are going to take you. And you always make a film that you yourself would like to see, so that is where the unpredictability in my film comes from. As far as casting goes there were various processes, but it started with Candela and Pablo. I met some of their friends, and that made me want to seek out more young people. So I went to different high schools in Madrid, talking to the students and shooting some material, some of which was actually used in the film. This wasn’t a real casting, we were just open to meeting young people who wanted to share this experience, without telling them that it would be for a feature film or anything. I wanted these brief shoots to be a natural selection process of finding people we had a connection with, not some sort of sociological experiment. So the whole process was very organic, with an element of chance and intuition, to find people with whom it clicked.

CS: With this idea of a sort of stream-of-consciousness filmmaking it is already a generational film, also because you were surprised by the pandemic. But I don’t find it a desperate or pessimistic film, it’s an outcry for this specific young generation to surmount their difficulties. What did you yourself gain, on a personal level, from being with these young actors, and where are they now?

JT: Most of them are now my friends; in fact, eight of them are here. This is all very moving for me. They call me a lot to ask me how I am doing. Friends from my own generation never do that! In a way we created a small family. Given the age difference and the fact that I’m almost twice their age, I am of course still a bit of a stranger to them, and at no point did I try to ‘be young’ with them. That was something that was always very clear between us. I mean, when we started some of them were underage, so I had to get permission from their parents. But I learnt a lot from them, and I’m also very grateful that they allowed me to film their life-changing experience growing from ages 15 to 20. In hindsight I can see how special that was, because sharing such intimate moments is not an obvious thing to do. They show a lot of themselves in this film, and a lot of the material is raw and uncensored. So I’m very happy that they let me in on that.

Jonás Trueba (Who's Stopping Us)