Milagros Mumenthaler makes major movies, even though The Idea of a Lake (2016) is only her second film after Back to Stay (2011). Sadly, her movies aren’t always that easily found outside the festival circuit. At Frameland we feel Miss Mumenthaler deserves more attention, and thus we talked to her about her second film when it played at the 2017 edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam.
In one of the first scènes of The Idea of a Lake, we see one of many memories of main character Inès, this one of when she was just twelve years old and staying with her family in the South of Argentina. She breathes on the camera, and the image fogs up for a moment before refocusing on Inés. Milagros Mumenthaler did that for a very specific reason:
Mumenthaler didn’t come up with the idea for her film out of thin air. The Idea of a Lake is partly based on a book, a collection of images and poems of and by children of people that disappeared during the 20th century military regimes of Argentina. But the film isn’t a straightforward adaptation of the book, in so far as that would even be possible, but a fictionalized account of the making of it. People read the poems featured in the book, and Inés is the author/compiler of the actual book (even though in reality it was a man). As Mumenthaler says,
What Mumenthaler wasn’t interested in, however, was the political element of the book. To her, that’s not the main point or the most important. According to her, we all know what happened. She herself is the daughter of a political refugee, who had to go out of the country because of political issues. Most important to Mumenthaler was the the relationship between mother and daughter. The thing that stays with people is what happened to them, she says, not the political side of that:
One might expect these elements to be autobiographical, but that is not the case, Mumenthaler explained. For instance, in both movies the main characters deal with the death of parents. A grandmother who took care of her three parentless granddaughters in Back to Stay, and the for decades missing father of Inés in The Idea of a Lake. When asked about this, Mumenthaler laughs heartily while saying she doesn’t know why this is. Both her parents are still alive. The next movie won’t be about the death of a parent, she promises.
Rather than any autobiographical element, Mumenthaler feels the personal elements she puts in her films is how she arranges them. The way the sequences in both films are organised. Even though the structure of both films is very different, on a first level both deal with “the daily things of life, casual happenings” while the second level is more concerned with intimate, familiar links that aren’t spoken out loud necessarily but bubble under the surface of the films constantly. In The Idea of a Lake Mumenthaler used the memories we see, and the different times inside those memories, as opportunities to play with reality and naturality.
Mumenthaler used a number of different film formats for different parts of the film. She explains what formats she used and why she used them as follows:
There are a few scenes in The Idea of a Lake that are silent shots of people in nature, with just the sound of the wind. These scenes have a very tangible quality, unlike any other scenes in the film, and feel like one could just reach out and touch the people and the nature surrounding them on the screen. These scenes were shot on Super16, Mumenthaler tells us, but on more grainy film, and in post production the color was changed to make it look more like 16mm. To Mumenthaler, those scenes are very explicitly about the memory of places and people. Like the sound of the trees, or when the mother is lying amongst the trees, Inés is feeling those trees through her memory. She wanted to transmit that through sound and feelings, that sense of being back in that place and time, in a natural way rather than having actors talk about it.
That’s what memory is all about to her. Similarly in a scene where Inés’ grandmother sees the trees moving and hears the wind, in the memory of Inés, because “memories are not just about images but also about what you heard, and the sensation. And this sequence with all this wind, I think it’s Ines that saw the same and heard the same and thus remembers her grandmother like this.”
Nature is very important to Milagros Mumenthaler and her work. Because nature is around us all the time, she think it’s difficult to make a movie without that aspect. What is surrounding us, our environment, weighs very heavily on us. When making a movie Mumenthaler feels it’s very important to take this in consideration. She laments that that “sometimes there are movies that are focussed on very specific details and they forget about the surroundings, they don’t pay much attention to them” This doesn’t seem right to her.
This is why all these tangible memories were shot and take place in Southern Argentina, where the scenery and nature is so vast and so overwhelming, it’s impossible to take for granted. According to Mumenthaler, if you give it your attention, it’s always gonna give you something back. “When you are on the road in this area of Argentina, it’s so big and so vast that there’s a storm here and another thing there and it’s so much that you can take in that it gives an energy you can take back and use. In the movie, Inés takes that energy and uses it for her art.” In this way, the South of Argentina informs the film by its very nature. Mumenthaler says she could’ve never made it in Switzerland, where she lived for 19 years, because as she puts it, “the sky doesn’t change, doesn’t move. Everyday the same for days and days.” But the skies in Argentina are very different, even in Buenos Aires, she says. Lots of change, clouds and movement. This is reflected in the films she writes, and the characters that inhabit them.