Jaylan Salah interviews film director Giovanna Ribes about her new film The Family: Dementia

The Family: Dementia Review

A Valencian Family Drama that Defies Storytelling in Color

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It was a pleasure during the 38th edition of Cairo International Film Festival to get a chance to sit down with Valencian director Giovanna Ribes to talk about her film The Family: Dementia. This powerful drama paints the deterioration of a man’s memory and behavior against the backdrop of familial tension. One of the greater aspects of the film is how Ribes allowed her male characters to show vulnerability as opposed to their female counterparts, who have more composed actions. Three generations of men come to interact in a well-planned narrative with a scratchy, rough style influenced by neo-realism that contains artistic, magical realist interjections.

The grandfather Roger –played brilliantly by Pep Cortés- suffers from dementia. He ages amongst family members who struggle to accept him as he is while his memory slips away. The most sympathetic –and adorably clueless- is the grandson Roger and he is the only one who succeeds in taking the old man for who he is. Ribes takes us into the heart of a real family. Her narrative is inspired by reality. To her, art has no impact if it is not personal. Ribes’ drive to become a director didn’t turn out to be as easy as I thought. In my eyes, it would be really easy for her to become an artist. Her sensitivity shone through her clever eyes and her compassionate gestures. Through her words, the process was gradual:

“I belonged to a family of circus performers and bullfighters. They were artists in that sense. Growing up, I was tired of the discussions and the arguments which their lifestyle generated. I just wanted to be normal.”

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When we describe Ribes’ art, the word normal is as far from accurate as we can get. La Familia: Dementia is on the surface a tale of a deteriorating memory, a family on the grips of despair, a generation gap getting smaller and memories interconnected with scents, sounds and tastes. Grandpa Roger holds on to the bits and pieces of his past through his favorite opera, the taste of wine and a dance with his wife Lola. Ribes interjects narrative lines, past and present, changing points of view and elements of magical realism in a tale of resistance through remembrance.

Ribes tried to express herself through all forms of art. This was very obvious in La Familia: Dementia where the influence of abstract art, sound and the Neo-realismo film movement could be traced through various scenes and images. Ribes is a visual artist. She observes life from an outsider’s perspective. Even her personal experiences, which she weaves consciously –or on a more subdued level- through her films, are usually left to simmer for a very long time before she decides to act on them.

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“La Familia” was inspired by a very personal loss. Ribes had recently lost her father. She suffered a semi artistic block and couldn’t write for a long time. It wasn’t until her Austrian friend Petschinka –whom she chatted with regularly to talk about her pain- sent her back transcripts of phone calls between them that she realized her inspiration was there all the time, ready to tell the tale of her family in black and white.

Her debut feature Un suave olor a canela – A soft scent of cinnamon was more of an innate journey, reflective of one woman’s search for identity after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Valia –the main protagonist- is the center of every action taking place onscreen, her POV is the camera through which we –as audience members- see the reality of the film. A Soft Scent of Cinnamon has also a very personal inspirational drive behind it:

“It was an official selection at the Cairo International Film Festival. My husband had recently died of cancer. I started to reflect on life. I always thought that the minute you are born, you die, and the only thing you have to do is to get ready for your upcoming death by doing the best you can. However, from time to time you forget about this fact. You don’t stop to look at the sun, your friend’s hair as the wind seeps through it. You become disconnected from nature. During that time my husband and I had also adopted a kid so it was a very emotional period. I needed to express how I felt back then. I feel that artists become cold from stepping back to reflect on how everything is going instead of living in the heart of the experience. So I decided to write about this woman who was not in coherence with her own feelings by scrutinizing reality but then she gets cancer and her life is turned upside down. Thus the movie started to form!”

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A Soft Scent of Cinnamon differs from The Family in the director’s choice of shooting each film. In Cinnamon the colors are pretty vivid, wide angles are used profusely.  The Family is shot in the harsh black and white while Ribes also tried to avoid capturing elements of nature.

Both protagonists in Ribes’ films are out of touch with reality. While Roger is in his own decaying world, unable to tell what’s past and what’s present, Valia is trying to find out what she missed all her life.

One of Ribes’ most ambitious moves is adding an LGBTIQ section to the Dona i Cinema – Woman & Film Festival that takes place in her hometown, Valencia. She wanted to create a mutual understanding in the midst of confusion especially since she realized that as a straight woman she could not share the queer experience. She wasn’t aware of anything related to the topic so she had to know and understand by listening to the voices of actual people who have been there.

“People are like ‘I think I know what it’s like being gay because I have a friend blah blah blah’, but in all truth nobody knows. The LGBTIQ sounded like a grand collective, but as I went on, it seemed like treating it as a single entity was probably just as condescending so I had to listen to as many individual voices as possible from  within the collective. We have to watch films and listen to artists as they go on about their individual experiences. Especially that our festival included films by female directors which put the female experience under the spotlight.”

Ribes believes in a very personal art, expressing the journey of the artist behind it in bits and pieces. Her films are well-structured yet retain her identity in a way that makes it impossible for anybody else to create. With a soul as sensitive as her skin, Ribes is destined to be a grand name in the international film scene, creating art that will leave an imprint on the hearts of audiences from all over the world!

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