MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The Maid

The gifted Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva came to Hollywood this week to promote his critically lauded film, The Maid, not pick a fight with the Motion Picture Academy. In fact, it probably was the furthest thing from his mind.

This time of the year, however, we in the reporting dodge can hardly think of anything else. The movie bloggers have already started handicapping the Oscar race, even if few of them have seen the pictures likely to be in contention. Neither is the august New York Times exempt from engaging in what essentially is a frivolous exercise in evaluating buzzmanship.
What William Goldman once observed about the inexact science of box-office prognostication — “Nobody knows anything” — applies equally to predicting Academy Award nominations any time before Thanksgiving. Still, we persist.

Not having done my homework, I asked Silva if The Maid had been picked to represent Chile in the competition for Best Foreign Language Picture. Having already won the Grand Jury Prize and Special Jury Prize for foreign dramas at Sundance, and top awards at the Cartagena and Guadalajara festivals, it was easy to assume it would be the candidate from Chile. Making assumptions about anything to do with the Foreign Language category is a fool’s game, however, and I was wrong.

“I was so certain it would be picked … I stunned to learn it wasn’t,” allowed the effervescent 30-year-old Santiago native, who now calls New York home. “It was a political decision. They picked Miguel Littín’s Dawson, Isla 10, which is set on the island where political prisoners were sent after the military coup in 1973.

“Two of his films (Alsino y el condorActas de Marusia) have been final nominees, so maybe they thought he would have a better chance than La Nana. Still, I couldn’t help being sad and disappointed.”
The coup that unseated the democratically elected government of Salvatore Allende still haunts the people of Chile, just as historical dramas continue to resonate with nominating committees. Between 1973 and 1990, more than 3,000 people were killed or went “missing” under the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, and another 28,000 were tortured.

Moreover, Dawson, Isla 10 was adapted from the harrowing memoirs of a former prisoner.

“Of course, it is an important subject, and it’s good that we don’t forget what happened,” said Silva, over lunch at the Standard on the Sunset Strip. “Many people my age march and participate in riots every year on September 11, the anniversary of the coup and death of Allende. Growing up, though, I was more concerned with Walt Disney than Pinochet.

“I’m not proud of that, but, at the time, I spent most of my time in my own head.”
Looking ahead, Silva predicted that his time on the Red Carpet will come, too. Since he’s likely to be working in English for the foreseeable future, though, any Oscar would result from competing in open company. His optimism is all the more refreshing because it’s based on self-confidence, not cockiness or delusional thinking.

Only his second feature, The Maid already has been shown at festivals from Taipei to Helsinki. It’s garnered the kind of reviews filmmakers with far more experience would kill to receive and has inspired changes in working conditions for women like those portrayed in the movie. It would be difficult to ask for anything more than that from a movie that describes a way of life not entirely familiar to audiences outside South America.

Silva used his own experiences growing up in a well-to-do household in Santiago as the foundation for his story. His family employed two live-in maids, whose services and devotion to duty were pretty much taken for granted by family members. After seeing a bit more of the world, Silva realized that what was common practice back home actually was worthy of further consideration on film.

Apparently, it’s not unusual for upper-middle-class and wealthy families to hire young women from impoverished backgrounds – an estimated 250,000 in Santiago, alone – to share their homes and tend to the myriad needs of mom, dad and the kiddies. Raquel, the housekeeper in The Maid, has spent 23 years of her 41 years on Earth serving the Valdez family. When we meet her, though, Raquel seems ready to snap.

As portrayed with feral intensity by Chilean television veteran Catalina Saavedra – talk about your Oscar-worthy performances! — Raquel is in almost total control of the household during the daylight hours. Her hold on the children may be tenuous, at times, but it isn’t until the parents get home that Raquel shrinks back into the shadows. Otherwise, the domestic is treated alternately as a servant, valued member of the household, substitute mother, older sister, nurturer and disciplinarian.Silva grew up in just such a household and admits to having guilt feelings about how his“nanas” were treated.

“Being a maid in Chile … they’re not Mary Poppins,” Silva told an interviewer for indieWIRE. “They tend to come from a poor educational background. They take care of you, feed you, dress you, but they don’t teach you or share things like dinner and holidays.

“They’re sort of the third authority figure. You can rebel against them because you know they have less authority than your parents.”

American audiences may not be able to identify as completely with Raquel as those in other parts of the world, but there was a time when young immigrant from Ireland served the same purpose in the mansions of the very wealthy here. More recently, nannies from all corners of the globe have been recruited to tend to the offspring of privileged families. For the most part, though, it’s become too expensive and too easy a target for the IRS watchdogs to maintain live-in staff.

Silva suggests that Raquel’s situation is comparable to that of any personal secretary, office manager or chief nurse, who is required to run a tight ship while being paid and treated as a servant. They might complain about their lot in life, but being forced to relinquish any power would be a worse fate.

The Valdezes aren’t slave-drivers or indifferent to Raquel’s well-being. They remember her birthday with a cake and presents, and act quickly to relieve some of her burden when she displays signs of fatigue or something more serious. What the Valdezes couldn’t appreciate, however, was how unhinged Raquel had become during her long tenure with them.
Most disturbing is her willingness to antagonize the older daughter, who she seems to resent simply for her freedom and privileged lifestyle. She makes faces at the girl behind her mother’s back, tells lies about her and disobeys the mother’s orders by vacuuming outside the girl’s door when she’s trying to sleep.

Instead of welcoming the addition of another domestic, Raquel sets out to make the new girl from Peru feels as if she’d never get out of the gig alive. She questions her assistant’s every move, repeatedly locks her out of the house and invades the privacy of her bedroom. When that girl leaves, Raquel turns her spite on the maid lent to the family by the grandmother, “as if she were a washing machine.”

“Raquel had become bitter and territorial,” Silva explained. “She didn’t want to give up any control, even though she was sick.”

It’s at this point that The Maid, which was co-written by Silva’s former boyfriend Pedro Peirano, “could have been turned into a horror movie.”
“Before the arrival of Lucy,” he said, “it was impossible to tell what Raquel was capable of doing. Look at the picture of her on the one-sheets … she looks like a cross between Sylvester Stallone and Susan Sarandon.”

Instead, the third substitute, Lucy (Mariana Loyola), turns the tables on the older domestic. She shrugs off the hazing tactics, seeing them as pleas for compassion. What finally breaks down Raquel’s defenses, though, are such eccentric pastimes as jogging and nude sunbathing.

Eventually, Raquel responds to Lucy’s prodding by agreeing to spend a holiday with the younger woman’s family. After a few drinks, she even warms to the possibility of physical intimacy with a male relative. Raquel doesn’t turn overnight into a character that could be played by Julie Andrews, but, at least, she’d seen what life could be like outside the confines of the Valdez household.

Silva used an unusual tack to emphasize that these domestics should be viewed as women first and employees second.

“I intentionally shot Raquel and the other maids taking a shower,” he allowed. “Under their clothes, they looked like all other women. I wanted people to look at them and understand they have bodies and souls.

“I didn’t have to do that for the mother.”

Before the movie opened in Santiago, Silva showed it to the two women – also named Raquel and Lucy — who helped bring him up. (“One cried throughout, while the other laughed.”)  He also screened it for an audience of 300 maids, many of whom were unionized.

“The Q&A session was very lively,” he recalled. “Obviously, not all of the maids shared Raquel’s experience, any more than a movie about a cop reflected the experiences of all cops.”
The movie’s popularity has helped bring a new awareness of the plight of these workers throughout the country. Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet has been able to get legislation passed ensuring holiday time off for live-in maids.

Even so, Silva cautions, maids in other countries aren’t treated nearly as well as those in Chile. In some Asian countries, they’re expected to provide sexual favors to the men who employ them.

The overall positive response to The Maid has convinced Silva that filmmaking probably could turn into a long-term proposition. Since leaving film school in Chile, he’s spent time in Montreal studying animation, mounting exhibits of his illustrations in New York, pursuingSteven Spielberg in Los Angeles (it’s a long, embarrassing story, he says) and making music everywhere.

“The Maid” was created for $250,000, in part because he filmed most of the movie in his family’s Santiago home and hired his brother to play the teenage son.

Those days, Silva hopes, are over. He has a trio of projects on the drawing boards, all of which are intended for commercial appeal.

“If I want to find bigger audiences, I have to make movies in English … and that’s one of the reasons I live in New York,” he said. “I think movies can be commercial successes and still be interesting. I wouldn’t do some shallow horror movie I wouldn’t want kids to see just to be working.

“Right now, I can’t wait to see Spike Jonzes’ Where the Wild Things Are, which should be extremely popular and a great movie.”

The Maid opened this week in New York. It was shown last week at Los Angeles’ Latino film festival and begins its regular run next Friday.

– Gary Dretzka
October 19, 2009

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Digital Nation

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon