Director shares film’s inspiration with students
By Cheryl Minns, Arts Editor
What would you do if you couldn’t read a newspaper? How would you figure out when the bus was coming if you couldn’t read the schedule? The modern world is designed for literacy, making it difficult for those who lack the ability to read or write. Chilean director Moisés Sepúlveda explores the idea of a woman in her 50s struggling to get by without the ability to read, in his directorial debut Illiterate.
At Douglas College, about 100 students and members of the community came together on September 4 to see the film at the New Westminster campus as part of the 12th Vancouver Latin American Film Festival (VLAFF).
It tells the story of Ximena, an older woman who has gone through life illiterate, and her friend’s daughter, Jackeline, a young woman who yearns to be a teacher and convinces Ximena to let her teach Ximena to read. The older woman reluctantly agrees to the lessons in order to finally be able to read a letter her father left for her many years ago that she held onto all this time.
As an added bonus, the director was in attendance to answer questions after the screening. The unique thing about this question period was that Sepúlveda would only answer the questions in his native language, Spanish. Many of the viewers were fluent in Spanish and asked their questions in that language. The immersion into a Spanish-only environment created an authentic setting for the Spanish film with English subtitles. However, to accommodate English speakers, Margarita Sewerin, the Spanish coordinator at Douglas College, attended the screening as a translator for the event.
“This movie is based on a play by the same name. The same actors who played the roles in the play played the roles in the movie,” Sepúlveda said in Spanish, which was translated by Sewerin. “He watched the play and he liked it and he decided to adapt it. The play touched him. He felt that the play was intimate and, at the same time, also cinematographic.”
One audience member asked why the Spanish title for the film, Les analfabetas (the illiterates), was pluralized and the English version was not. Sepúlveda explained that was because “illiterate” does not have a gender in English and suggested the film could have been called “The Two Illiterate Women” instead to emphasize how “the movie plays with the idea that everybody learns differently and they are illiterate in different areas.”
Sepúlveda also examined the film’s deeper messages about the current state of Chile today based on its past. Ximena’s desire to read the letter from her past motivates her to learn to read and write, so she can shape her future by figuring out her past.
“The film can be read as a metaphor for Chile today. In a way, it’s reading its past to rethink its future,” he said.
Sepúlveda described a scene from the film where Ximena starts learning to read and begins to understand what has been spray-painted on a wall near her home: “Y la alegría” (meaning: “And what of happiness?”). He said the words reflect what happened to Chile after a 1980s political campaign promised, “Happiness is coming,” but failed to deliver what it promised.
“She probably wasn’t aware of all the meaning in this writing, but the hope is that the audience will be aware and make that connection with the slogan from 1989 and all the promises that were not fulfilled,” Sepúlveda said.
Douglas College has taken part in VLAFF for the past three years, screening a Latin American film on campus during the festival’s run for students and members of the community.
“I normally ask for a film where students or a young population somehow feel engaged,” explained Ruth Mandujano-Lopez, the Modern Languages instructor who is part of the team that brought the VLAFF screening to Douglas College.
Illiterate was chosen as the college’s screening this year because of its themes in learning and teaching, which college students and instructors can relate to.