Writer-director Natalia Beristáin is enjoying the kind of career start many first-time directors can only dream of. Her debut work, the autobiographical drama She Doesn't Want to Sleep Alone, is an international festival hit and has proved to be a deeply moving experience for numerous audiences. The film is based on a true story and follows a bitter, lonely 30-something woman who's forced to bond again with her fading grandmother.
Even though this was a very personal film for me, there is universality to the experience
“It is really easy to connect to the story,” says Beristáin. “If you have a loved one that is growing old, whether that be a grandmother or mother or your partner, there will be much that is familiar. Even though this was a very personal film for me, there is universality to the experience that makes it relatable to all people, to all cultures.”
In the film, Mariana Gaja stars as the director's alter-ego, Amanda, and she's joined by Spanish screen veteran Adriana Roel as Dolores, the once-famous screen queen who now struggles with alcoholism, loneliness and encroaching dementia.
Beristáin is disconcertingly frank about the origins of her script: “Most of my family are actors and their physicality, their very bodies, are their tools for work,” she says. “So ageing and how the mind deals with that, and how that impacts the ability to communicate their craft, has always been near.”
She Doesn't Want to Sleep Alone grew out of Beristain's 2009 short film Pentimento, which featured her character-actor mother, Julietta, and thematically explored the fleeting nature of both fame and memory. The feature is the latest film to depict the realities of senility and the impact it has on both the sufferer and those who care for them. It shares a confronting honesty, much like Michael Haneke's Amour and Michael McGowan's Still Mine, which makes for heart-breaking drama.
“I didn't want to romanticise the problems of old age, but nor did I want to convey that only those that are young and beautiful are comfortable with themselves and with their bodies,” Beristáin explains. “I wanted to get as far away as possible from that clichéd depiction of old age.”
Beristáin's cathartic account of her family journey was aided by two skilful actresses. “This was a work of complete collaboration. Even though Amanda is largely based on me and Dolores is certainly based upon my grandmother, the processes that each actress bought to the project was crucial to its realism and emotion,” she says. “They respected that it was based on real people but also left it behind to a certain extent, instead doing what they had to do with the characters. “
Leading lady Gaja and her director shared a particularly intense relationship, one which grew into an ongoing friendship. “Mariana is a few years older than me and she bought an emotional maturity to the part that was so valuable. I actually found myself getting to know me better because of what Mariana was doing,” reveals the director. “Mostly in how I saw and related to myself and how that came out in my relationships with men. Specifically, how I related to my own body and how, even though I'm still quite young, my body doesn't react as it used to be and how I need to begin accepting that. The part and how Mariana played it opened up a great many questions as to how my life is going to be from now on.”
The truthful depiction of strong female characters held specific resonance for Natalia Beristáin, not least because it was a version of her own life. Spanish cinema is experiencing a newfound and long overdue respect for women in film and Beristáin is fiercely proud to be at the forefront of this new wave.
“More and more, we are starting to see women take over important roles in the Spanish industry,” she says proudly. “I feel I kind of belong to a new generation of women who are taking on greater responsibility in the industry. But it is not easy and it has been a long path of work and being stubborn. It is certainly not luck.”
She Doesn't Want to Sleep Alone screens at the 2013 Spanish Film Festival. Visit the official website for more information.