The cinema of Neus Ballús turns invisible people into real characters

Since her first feature film, La plaga, director Neus Ballús seems to have been determined to explore somewhat different ways of approaching social and political cinema. Her second feature, El viaje de Marta, was a more narrative proposal that dealt with the story of a teenage girl and her awakening to sexuality, adult life and inequalities based on class and ethnicity. His new film, Seis días corrientes, is coming to commercial cinemas after its successful run at the Locarno Festival (its two leading actors received an award for best acting) and Valladolid (it won the Silver Spike, as well as the Audience Award) and after appearing out of competition at other festivals such as the L’Alternativa Festival. Its premiere in the very last part of the year perhaps partially explains its absence among the nominations for the next Goya awards.

Seis días corrientes portrays a week in the work and personal life of a trio of plumbers in a rather humorous but bittersweet tone, not without dramatic inflections. Pep, a veteran professional and perfectionist, is about to retire. So Valero, a man with a sour mood and not very fond of changes, will have to get used to a new colleague. The company contacts Moha, a Moroccan professional, for a one-week trial period. From the first moment, Valero rejects him and tries to ignore him.

Ballús’ new film combines the methodology of the creative documentary with the forms of narrative comedy. The director worked with characters-people, non-professional actors who are plumbers on and off the screen, and drew on their real experiences, which she modelled through the tools of fiction. The result conveys an unusual authenticity that matches the filmmaker’s intentions. “I wanted to approach the cinema of the real and the committed through comedy, which is something I hadn’t seen too much of and which seemed like a challenge in itself”, she explains. The filmmaker says that she has not found any references that would have made it easier for her to find a balance between the different aspects of the project through the editing: “There were seventy hours of material that could take the form of a very dramatic and tearful social cinema or a comedy that was perhaps too light, that could be more documentary and less narrative or go more towards fiction”.

In the process, the filmmaker unsuccessfully sought sources of inspiration in the comedy of classic cinema, which she considers very much based on the wit of the dialogues. “Those works were based on very good scriptwriting and very good acting by the actors. I didn’t count on that, so we couldn’t aspire to build that comic music,” he explains. So Ballús approached the cinematographic humour of silent films: “I took what I could from there,” he says. This distancing from the more commercial models implies an added difficulty when it comes to obtaining financing. “It’s not easy to get a budget for these projects, especially if there are no well-known names in front of the camera, but I like to try to convince, to work with producers who believe that we can shake up the things we deal with in cinema and the way we deal with them,” he explains.

Life is a bittersweet comedy… and a political one.

As in his short films, Ballús has started from close, familiar memories. Her mother’s partner is a plumber and the filmmaker lived with him from the age of twelve: “I remember a lot from high school, when we used to eat together and he explained his experiences with classism, how customers often made him feel dirty, or badly treated or unrecognised”. Working in that environment allowed him to do what he had in mind: a film about the world of work that would involve him exploring something close to him, and that would allow him to do “a lot of field work, which is what I enjoy the most”.

Seis días corrientes aspires to connect with a varied and broad audience, but it is not a proposal that mimics the codes of populist humour that can usually be found in multiplex cinemas. The endeavour may be somewhat paradoxical: Ballús represents the working class on screen, but tries to keep a distance from the usual type of humour in comedies that try to seduce this audience. The director says that she doubted whether the film would connect with the audience. In this sense, she explains that the first screening at Locarno was a great liberation: “I saw that people laughed from the first scene, despite the methodological risk we had taken”. “I’m very happy, because I think Six Ordinary Days is different and at the same time very accessible. And maybe it shows that you can connect with the audience through something that you haven’t made on the basis of a standard, that the audience is ready to see different things”, she remarks.

Even in a very agitated scene, where an explosive argument between Moha and Valero coincides with the comical misadjustments of an automated home that seems to have come out of Esta casa es una ruina, Ballús opts to maintain a certain distance. He does not seek the humorous escalation that stimulates laughter, but rather incorporates parentheses and expels some of the most intense moments out of the frame. “I like that the viewer can’t be everywhere. And I don’t think it’s necessary to show the guts of the conflicts,” she says. The director explains that she works “with a certain restraint. It’s as if I like to keep a part of the characters’ intimacy, even if they are semi-fictional”.

The music is one of the elements that make the particular tone of the proposal evident. René-Marc Bini’s compositions establish a somewhat inconcrete comic tone, without the markedly humorous component that would push the images towards farce or vaudeville. And they convey a certain ductility: there is also room for the dramatic or the introspective. Ballús reveals that the soundtrack was “one of the most important guides to find the tone during the editing process, to achieve that middle ground between an apparent lightness and the incursions into the drama of the characters, incorporating a certain pathos that can remind us of the characters of Charles Chaplin and slapstick“. The director of The Plague explains that Bini provided them with the main theme during the shooting and that they edited the film “with material from other themes, even though they were not the definitive versions”.

Ballús explains that Seis días corrientes is a work about coexistence. His comedy of characters seeks an empathy and identification with the characters that is somewhat different, less obvious and more conflictive, from the logic of the markedly positive and markedly negative figures that abound in genre films. In this respect, the approach to Valero’s character has been complicated. “Even though Valero and company are a version of themselves, even though they have gone from people to characters in the process of making the film, it was clear to me that we had to simplify only to a certain extent and that we had to pay attention to the greys. At the end of the day, they are real individuals whom I really appreciate and with whom I’ve spent six years,” he explains.

Valero is portrayed as prejudiced, with an often sour and offensive sense of humor, but he is not defined as a villainous villain who makes us feel like good people by contrast. The unqualified condemnation of his closed-mindedness would perhaps be more comfortable to contemplate. Instead, Ballús has set out to make the audience a little uncomfortable: “The fact that the viewer laughs with him when he says outrageous things can make it easier for him to make us feel good about himself.r we revise ourselves”. In parallel, there is an exploration in character. “I work on the idea that it’s difficult to accept the other if you don’t accept yourself. After seeing how Valero was able to accept Moha after accepting his own insecurities, I think that within the prejudices maybe there is a personal dissatisfaction, a fear. And that is something that should be managed by the person who has the problem,” says the author.

The long gestation of the project means that Seis días corrientes was conceived before the rise of the uncomplicated right-wing extremism represented by Vox. Ballús, in any case, does not deal with the radical hatreds expressed through xenophobic or homophobic aggressions, but with more subtle intolerances. “The success or failure of how we manage the diversity of our country may lie in the management of these everyday situations,” he says. His film talks about “how we relate to those who are different from us, which is one of the central issues in the existence of conflicts. If there are conflicts, it’s usually because we don’t understand the other person, because we don’t know or don’t want to see them for who they really are”.

As she did with Marta’s Journey, the director returns to a certain otherness. On that occasion, she explored the relations between North and South in the bubble with neo-colonial components of a hotel complex located in Senegal. On this occasion, he gives the leading role to Moha, a man of Moroccan origin who is trying to make a living in the metropolitan area of Barcelona. Ballús explains that “giving Moha a voice doesn’t exactly start from a political reflection, but from something very concrete. Valero talked a lot, he didn’t listen to Moha. And that is revealing of how we work, because Moha is a very profound, poetic person, who has many things to say about our society”. Along the way, the plumber-turned-actor has experienced the media attention, the attention paid to guests at film festivals. “He says that thanks to the film he has been seen and heard for the first time. And that’s nice for me and for the film process, but it’s also terrible because he’s been living here for fifteen years,” says the filmmaker.

Marta’s journey ended in a bittersweet way. It told a story of maturation that derived in a certain disenchantment: its young protagonist assumed that, although she considered herself alien to racism or exploitation, she could not abstract herself from a social fabric traversed by power relations. Six ordinary days</em> stages a process of learning and apology from this closed and prejudiced worker, but it does not seem to project a banal optimism. As in the final scene of Marta’s Journey, the gesture of complicity or openness between two individuals does not imply that the world and its hierarchies change. It can, perhaps, serve as another link in a collective construction. “In a way, Six Ordinary Days is an optimistic film. If we can make someone like Valero change slightly, several generations down the line, a lot can be changed. Even if we have to push for it, of course, as always when it has been necessary to conquer rights”, defends its director.

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