In June 2019, Colombian artist Doris Salcedo set up an exhibition, Quebrantos, in Bogota’s main Bolivar Square, opposite Colombia’s parliament, and wrote in broken glass the names of 165 activists killed since – not before – Colombia’s peace agreement in 2016. “If we forgot them, if we don’t remember their names, we’re killing them a second time,” she explained.
Colombia, Colombians themselves complain, are good at forgetting. The fear and fate of oblivion haunt the nation.
Featuring in the Cannes Festival’s 2020 Official Selection in its Faithfuls section and the closing film at San Sebastian Festival, Fernando Trueba’s “Memories of My Father” now figures as Colombia’s submission to the International Feature Film Oscar. Remembrance is its touchstone. Written by David Trueba – himself a distinguished Goya best picture winner for “Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed” – sold by Film Factory Ent. and produced by Dago Garcia Producciones for Colombia’s Caracol TV, “Memories of My Father” adapts a modern monument of Colombian literature, “El Olvido Que Seremos,” a memoir of Héctor Abad Gómez written by his son, Héctor Abad Faciolince.
This is a portrait of a public figure. A physician turned university lecturer, Abad Gomez campaigned for decades for the introduction of a public health system in Colombia. Refusing to back down in his highly public criticism of Colombia’s establishment and its callous indifference to social inequality, Abad Gómez was gunned down by paramilitaries in the city center in 1987.
“Memories of My Father” is, however, even more a love story, Trueba insists, a intimate portrait of a exemplary father written as an act of love and remembrance by his son.
Focused around two time periods – the childhood of Quinín, as an adolescent Abad Faciolince was known, in Medellin from 1973 and then Medellin over 1983-87 – the film marks one of the biggest pictures in two decades from Fernando Trueba, an Academy Award winning director for “Belle Epoque.” Variety spoke with him as “Memories of My Father” also features as one of the frontrunners for Best Ibero-American film at March’s Spanish Academy Goya Awards.
“El Olvido Que Seremos” was written, I believe, as a highly personal and intimate act of remembrance by Héctor Abad Faciolince…
Yes. 20 years after Abad Gómez’s death, Héctor realized that people were starting to forget his father. He was even beginning to forget things. Most important for him, his daughter, Daniela, was only one-year-old when his father was killed and his son, Simón, hadn’t even been born. He wrote the book so that his children would know his father. He never imagined it as bestseller. The first edition was in fact submitted to a smaller publishing house than the one he normally used for his books.
But “El Olvido Que Seremos” became a bestseller.
As often happens with literature and films, when something’s heartfelt and rings true, people adopt it, making it their own. The memoir is now more than a book in Colombia. When we were shooting, people came up to us to thank us for turning it into a film.
I remember you telling me, when Variety published the film’s trailer, that it was maybe the book that you’ve most often given to your family and friends, not just in Spanish but English, French and and Portuguese. That said, your first reaction, when offered the chance to adapt the book, was to say ‘no.’
Yes, every word in the book is the truth, these being somebody’s memories of his father. And films aren’t true. They’re actors in disguise, make up, with sets. Also, it’s better not to touch great books, I thought, and events in the book take place over 25 years. That’s really difficult to adapt .
What changed your mind?
I just thought that Abad Gómez’s story deserved to be told. Movies always talk about psychopaths, serial killers, utter imbeciles. Recounting the humanity of Hector Abad Gómez was, I thought, an opportunity which wouldn’t come my way so often.
After 10 months of COVID-19, something that now leaps out in the film are Hector Abad’s attempts to introduce elementary healthcare into Colombia….
When somebody’s on the side of social progress, educated, they normally cling to a set of ideas, an ideology. One of the extraordinary things that drew me to Hector Abad Gómez was that he wasn’t battling for ideas or an ideology but really concrete measures: Vaccines, clean water, education, sanitation, medicine.
That of course gives the film a strong resonance. In one scene, for instance Hector takes Quínin to a hospital in shanty town Bogotá. There somebody remarks that it’s terrible that there’s no vaccine in Colombia when the U.S. has had one for months. Nearly 50 years later, nobody in Colombia has had a COVID-19 jab either.
Colombia’s a great country. The people are fantastic. It’s ghastly that so many terrible things have happened to them. It’s a country with one historical period in the ‘40s and ‘50s that’s known as The Violence. I only know of one other country with a similar case: France during two years of the French Revolution, which were dubbed the Terror.
One of your key stylistic choices was to shoot the film’s past, Quínin’s childhood, in color and its present, in black and white…
David and I agreed that the only way to adapt the book was to center the action during two major time periods. But it wasn’t a concert or idea. It’s just that every time I closed me eyes and thought about the film, I imagined the first part in color, the second in black and white. I don’t know why I just followed my instinct. That’s of course the other way round from usual practice, so I thought I’d better tell the producers, to see how they reacted. But they reacted very well. They told me it was a great idea.
It’s also coherent with the story, the writer’s warm, moved evocation of his own childhood with his father…
For me, this was key. I didn’t want to tell just the story of an assassination, but rather also talk about the family and their kind of lost paradise, a place of freedom and family love. Early on, people said I was making a political film. For me, first and foremost, it’s a love story between a father and son, and all of a family.
Abad’s murder underscores, if any insistence were necessary, the monstrous senselessness and waste of such crimes..…
When I shot the film, I thought a lot about one of the four novels which Jean Renoir wrote when he was too old to make films, “Le crime de l’Anglais.” It’s also the story of a happy family living in a kind of bubble of beauty and love. Then a stranger arrives, who’s out of his mind, and destroys everything. The character’s like someone for whom other people’s happiness is tantamount to a provocation, something they can’t bear. We see this constantly, the train crash between culture and irrationality. I remember an interview some months back with Salman Rushdie in which he said that we’re living in an age of aggressive ignorance.
How did you work with Spain’s Javier Cámara on his embodiment of Hector Abad Gómez, who was after all Colombian?
Javier worked on Abad Gómez’s accent a lot because it wasn’t just Colombian and Medellín but that of a cultured man, a university lecturer. I remember Hector saying that there was a Spanish actor who reminded him of his father. Shooting, there were scenes where I forgot that I was making a film with Javier. I just saw Hector Abad Gómez. Javier looks quite a lot like him. But physical resemblance isn’t that important given that Abad Gómez wasn’t a world-famous person like, say, Winston Churchill. What’s really important is a similarity of sentiment. When I researched the film, I got to see a lot of photos of Hector Abad Gomez. In maybe 90% he’s laughing. Not just smiling but laughing out loud. He was someone who loved life. You can be the best actor in the world, Marlon Brando or James Mason, but that’s something you can’t act. You either have this happiness or not, and Javier Cámara’s happiness is contagious.