Diversity in Film: Mariana Saffon '19

Gina Hackett
November 07, 2019

Diversity in Film is a bi-weekly series covering underrepresented groups in Film.

This week, we sat down with recent graduate Mariana Saffon ’19.

A female writer-director hailing from Medellín, Colombia, Saffon is a recent graduate of the Film MFA program. In this interview, we discuss her childhood discovery of Pedro Almodóvar and Lucrecia Martel, how she copes with machismo on set, and the future of Colombian film. She recently entered post-production on her thesis film, Entre Tú y Milagros.

If you were an animal, what animal would you be?

MS: Oh god. A very resilient one. A turtle maybe? I have a very thick caparazón, a shell. Columbia has been very responsible for that shell.

Ha! I don’t normally associate turtles with being resilient, but I guess that’s true.

MS: Yes, because they’re super sensitive on the inside and very delicate, but the outside is like, “let it come.”

And that’s you?

MS: Yes.

Mariana Saffon

What experiences raised you into the filmmaker you are now? Where does your sensibility come from?

MS: Because my parents were divorced, and my mother lived in Medellín, and I lived in Bogotá, my sister used to open her house for me. My father didn’t know what to do with me. I was nine, and he said, “Please, Catalina” (she was 20, and she used to work a lot, because she was a lawyer). So she made me watch a lot of films, because she was busy studying. She was feeding me films and films. And it was a moment where I felt very alone, because I was an only child, and my sister was a half-sister, so I think that moment was very important to me, because I was not lonely when I was watching films, and that gave me an intimate relationship with film. 

And then I met Pedro Almodóvar and Lucrecia Martel...Pedro Almodóvar gave me my first instinct of “I want to do this,” and then with Lucrecia Martel, it was like “I want to do this specifically.” She really opened everything up for me. She’s my biggest inspiration. I love her as a filmmaker and also as a philosopher. And then I started discovering French films and Godard, and Godard really changed my life again, and then Maurice Pialat completely changed my life, as well as Agnes Varda.

This series is about diversity in film, and as female filmmakers there are a lot of questions that arise from knowing that the person who made you feel like you could make movies is a man, like Godard or Pedro Almodóvar. How do you relate to the men who’ve shaped your decision to be a filmmaker?

MS: I don’t think so much about it, woman or man. I just watch a film, and it makes me feel more alive than anything...Everything that touches me, I think I have the right to talk about because it’s talking about how it touched me...Of course, when you come to the place where you are the director and you see how difficult it is for you, and how difficult it is in Colombia, it’s different, because I’ve directed TV in Colombia, and it’s very difficult. They don’t call me by my name, they don’t respect that I’m blonde and I’m a woman, you know? I’ve tried to fight the fact that I look like this, blonde and blah blah blah—

That you famously look like Kate Hudson. 

MS: And that! You know, I studied Communications, I’m from Medellín. It’s a lot of clichés that surround me all the time and have made it very difficult... they’re not used to women telling them what to do. And then I come to Columbia and see sets where I am not directing. I had never been to a set that wasn’t mine...Going to my female friends' sets, it hit me that...although they were often some of the most talented directors at Columbia, their way of speaking on set was sometimes to ask for permission or forgiveness instead of just asking, and I realized I do that too.

Right. And then there’s the tricky territory of women acting like men on set, and the question can women act like women on set?

MS: No, you can’t.

Do you really think that?

MS: At least in Colombia you can’t. You can’t dress as a woman. I change a lot from real life to set...I can’t wear makeup, because people are not going to respect me. And I had normalized that until I became conscious of it. But of course you have to be tougher, and I think I have developed that thick layer because of being a woman, because people didn’t hear me. 

Do you hope that one day you can just be yourself on set?

MS: I hope so, and I think every time is better. But every time I have a new crew, I have to own that persona at the beginning so they can trust me. Even with women. 

For sure. Give me an example of how directing here is different from directing back home.

MS: I think people are not as used to women there. They're used to a voice that is male. They’re used to a voice that is not apologetic. They’re used to a voice that is not asking permission for things. So when you do, because you think you have to, they lose respect. And then it becomes easier to challenge what you want. So that is where your persona has to come in. And the thing is, I do have a very, very strong way about me, but I would love to not have to have this overly strong persona to make them respect me. I remember on my Directing IV set...at the end of the shoot, my AD comes to me crying and tells me, “Me quito el sombrero,” or “I admire you, because I see now that being a woman is so tough, and you did it.” He was crying. 

Wow. That was here? Or in Colombia?

MS: In Colombia. Because there, men try to make you feel that you don’t know. And also because the people that I wanted to have on my crew, they were older, they were more professional, they had been doing this for a long time, and they sometimes tried to “help me.” That’s the condescending tone: “I’m trying to help you.” And I have to say, “I don’t need you. I’m doing well, and I’m the director.” And I’ve done a lot on my sets in order to get what I needed and get my crew on my side, and get them to start believing in me, but through a lot of effort, and for men it comes like [snaps].

Right. You have to prove yourself all the time. 

MS: Yeah. You can’t doubt. You can’t not know what to say.

You can’t be human.

MS: No, you can’t. You can’t stop for a moment and be confused or unclear, because then you lose everything you’ve been doing. And that is not truthful, because sometimes you are confused and you don’t know what to do...For a woman you have to pretend you know everything.

Sure. But at least from my perspective, a big part of seeing myself as a person who could direct required seeing the representation, seeing an example. Was Lucrecia Martel your example? 

MS: Yes, yes. Totally, completely. Because I didn’t know that Lucrecia Martel was a woman when I first watched La Cienega. I didn’t know who made it. I just saw it, you know? I was young, and I didn’t think I was going to be a filmmaker, but I said, “This is the best thing I've ever seen in my life, and this has a sensibility that I’ve never seen in my life.” Then seeing that it was a woman, this opened a door...I have followed her forever for that.

Agnes Varda is the other person I follow as much as Lucrecia. The thing is Lucrecia talks about us in Latin America. It’s very similar to what I talk about. Class difference, a country with a very difficult social situation, with a very difficult political situation, and how families or people go about it in their own bubbles, and how the outside also permeates what happens inside and the dynamics, and all that.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in Colombian film right now. Birds of PassageMonos...

MS: A lot of men. 

Yeah. How do you see yourself fitting into that?

MS: It is incredible that it’s happening, because we don’t have a film memory. We don't have a film history. There’s not a clear idea of what a Colombian film is. And right now, with these male directors, they are talking about a lot of subjects that are necessary, I think. Very social. There’s a lot of importance in telling the history of our country that was never told. Narcos, Escobar, and all the series and TV were telling this history that was completely true, every sentence. And I think we needed that as a country. But what’s happening now is very interesting, because we’re talking about different subjects after spending the last twenty years talking about the same war, the narcos, and the drug subject. We’re starting to go out and discover what we are a part of with filmmakers like Franco Loli, Jacques Toulemonde and Daniela Abad. But I still think we’re talking about that a lot, because if you see Birds of PassageNarcos...Even if they disguise the film as a woman’s film, a Wayuu tribal woman...That’s how the trailer [for Birds of Passage] makes it look, but if you go watch it, it’s a film about narcotrafic and it’s mainly a story about a man. The women don’t talk. Even if you find it beautiful, it’s a film about a man.

I think your turtle answer is interesting, because anyone who knows you considers you a formidable presence. You seem to know what you’re doing all the time and be very assertive, and it’s good to hear you talk about having to learn to act fearless even when you feel fear. When you encounter fear on set, how do you deal with it? 

MS: I think I encounter fear more in editing. That is my fear, and it’s complete fear. I’m the weakest, the most insecure, the most vulnerable person ever when I’m editing. On set, I do get confused and scared when someone questions what I’m doing. But I have found the strength always to just go with it. Because maybe I’ll regret it later, but at least it was my decision.

At this moment, what feels most limiting in the industry?

MS: The fact that there are so many people doing film, and there are so many labs that people are becoming obsessed with them. I think it’s very different from what film used to be before, where you didn’t get so much approval...And that for me is very worrying because we also see how these labs are also homogenizing the language and the kind of films we’re watching. That for me is the most dangerous thing. This constant need of approval is unreal for me. 

I remember [Professor] Tom Kalin was mad with us one day [in Directing class], and he said, “You should be less obedient. This is not about obedience. This is not about doing it right. This is about doing things that are different.”

I never regret going to Columbia, because I’ve learned so many things, like working without scripts…[On my thesis] I shot without a shot list, and I shot without a script, because I was so overwhelmed with the amount of planning and obsession that I had lost all the guts I had before [I came to Columbia]. And for my thesis, I was like, “No, I have to get rid of this.”...I just wanted so badly to see if my gut was still there, if my craft was still there, that I let go of all this planning. I was prepared. I visited and revisited the script and visited and revisited the shots I liked and the films I liked, but I didn’t go in with the insecurity of “If I don’t follow this, I’m going to die.” Sometimes I missed things that I could have gotten if I was following a plan, but sometimes I got things that I would never have expected to get. So I think that I’m finding a balance of how much I take and how much I leave. 

That gives me hope. What are you working on now that you’re excited about? Your thesis, of course.

MS: I’m very excited about my thesis. I’m editing. I’m understanding it all over again. It’s about a mother-daughter relationship, and it’s placed in a town where I grew up going each week, because we had a farm there. Milagros and Lorenza are there for Holy Week, a week where we Catholics celebrate when Christ died and resurrected, and the mother is having a relationship after being divorced for a long time. And Milagros is 15 and at the same time trying to figure out what love is to her, and with her mother’s new relationship, she’s making conclusions about what love is that are very adolescent. And the mother decides to leave Milagros with the daughter of their maid for a day...and Milagros goes with the maid's daughter and all her friends from the village, and they have an encounter with death that makes her question her own existence. 

The short was a proof of concept for my feature...And my feature has grown so much from the short, because now I’ve seen the characters and have a new character that wasn’t there, the daughter of the maid. And there is a lot of reality in the script now that I went to this village to actually shoot with the people there.

Describe a day in the life when you’ve “made it.” 

MS: On set. That is my favorite moment in the world. That’s why it’s so funny that we seek so much approval, because the day that you’re happiest is the day that you’re inside and you’re about to do a scene, and you’re talking with your actors, and they get it, and you’re connected, and everything is there, and you’re seeing the scene, and you’re like, “I feel it.” That for me is the perfect sensation.