Mexico’s ‘Tótem’ Puts a Kid in the Spotlight: ‘Childhood Is Destiny,’ Director Says

TheWrap magazine: “I think it’s vital to be in a dialogue with our childhood,” Lila Avilés says of her latest Oscar contender

Totem
"Totem" (Credit: Sideshow and Janus Films)

Lila Avilés, who represented Mexico in the Oscar race with “The Chambermaid” five years ago, followed that with “Tótem,” a raucous film about a day with an extended family that has gathered for the birthday of a father who is dying. The action is occasionally chaotic, occasionally quiet and moving, and always viewed from the perspective of a 7-year-old girl, Sol (Naíma Sentíes).

How did the idea for this film come to you?
The origins come from a very personal story. My daughter lost her father when she was a young child, and above all, I was interested in exploring the concept of home, of how we live in a home, how we interact with one another within it, and by extension, how we inhabit ourselves. I love the concept of microcosms, and by making this film, I was allowing myself to get at those roots. 

Why did you choose to show the film from the point of view of the 7-year-old girl?
Because we have to focus on our childhoods. There’s a very important phrase to me, which is “childhood is destiny.”  There’s something in those first seven years of life which is when we begin to develop our own personalities, and in a way, our journeys. I think it’s vital, in a way, to be in dialogue with our childhood. 

How did you find your young actress, Naíma Sentíes?
I did the casting with Gabriela Cartol, the lead actress of “The Chambermaid,” and I was looking for a young girl who could inhabit a certain maturity and grounding. I was able to find her thanks to her aunt, who plays her mother in the film. It was her first time in front of the camera, and she herself was going through a rough time. Because of COVID, she had to move to a new city where she had no friends, and her grandfather was her teacher.

So in a beautiful way, we found one another, since I was searching for the character of Sol and she was looking for an escape of her own. 

What were the challenges of filming scenes in crowded rooms where everybody is talking?
It’s crazy, because my first film contained many silences, but this second one emerged more hectic — though I will say it still has its moments of silences and observations. There were moments during the shoot where the sound recordist and I felt the need to take off our headphones! But in a way, it’s still really fun to figure that out. It’s about finding the virtue of order in chaos. 

The film deals with the joy of life, but it also has the spectre of death hanging over it in the character of the father.
It’s like yin-yang, you can’t understand one without the other. It’s part of life, and maybe I have that way of understanding it, that even in our worst moments we’re capable of reacting in extraordinary ways. It’s that vitality and essence that I find beautiful and true to how I experience things.

I sometimes feel that societally, we force ourselves into a hegemonic way of being, even in our way of expressing emotions, as if crying were a taboo, or laughing not prudent. I believe that part of being a human being, allowing those feelings to exist, to manifest themselves in their diversity. 

A version of this story first appeared in the International Feature Film issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Juliette Binoche (Jeff Vespa)

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