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Laura Astorga: The Woman behind Red Princesses

By: Roberto Quintero
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez

At the end of the screening of Red Princesses at the Panama International Film Festival, my heart was in my throat. With its startling finish, the film is undoubtedly an emotional rollercoaster ride with a very powerful story. The plot draws us into the lives of Claudia and Antonia, the daughters of important Central American communist leaders during the 80s. After living in Nicaragua, the family returns to their native Costa Rica where the parents create a clandestine front to support the Sandinista revolution. And although this is the story of both girls, the film primarily focuses on Claudia, the oldest, who has trouble adapting to the move and the trouble caused by her parents’ clandestine lifestyle; she ends up as the victim of a family that crumbles in the midst of the political turmoil.

Perhaps the most interesting and striking thing about the film is that, although the story has been fictionalized, it is autobiographical and based on Costa Rican director Laura Astorga’s own family story. This is her first film and it premiered at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival in 2013. A chance at winning a Silver Bear in the Berlinale was pretty close to a dream come true for Astorga. Even more incredible was the resounding critical acclaim for the film. “The press was extremely ready to see us win and the film was always suggested for the prize in reviews. It didn’t happen—the truth is, there were a lot of wonderful films in competition that year—but what did happen is that this year I was asked to be a juror. So I got to caress the Bear! First I hit it, and then I hugged it,” says an excited Astorga, aware that only twelve Latin Americans have ever been jurors at this film festival. “I feel very honored; obviously I wasn’t expecting it. Red Princesses is a personal, intimate, tiny, Central American film. It’s huge for us, of course, but you never imagine anyone else could be so interested in your point of view.”

Following the film’s talked-about premiere in Berlin, the Costa Rican-Venezuelan co-production screened at more than thirty international festivals, including Toulouse, Havana, Guadalajara, Mar del Plata, Los Angeles, and Panama.

The film garnered multiple awards along the way and attracted the public’s attention; it also put Laura Astorga’s name on the world film map as a leading figure in the Costa Rican film industry. Though this is the film that made her famous, years before Laura had some international success with her short film, Ellas se aman (They Love Each Other), which premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in 2008, screened at several international festivals, and was acquired by McGraw-Hill Publishing for a special collection of Latin American shorts. She has also worked for ten years as a casting director, providing extras for commercial and foreign films shot in Costa Rica. Her real specialty is screenwriting, and she’s written stories for a number of local television series.

She was sure that at some point she’d tell the family story she was carrying around inside, but always figured it would be a documentary. “I thought it was the appropriate format, given the political and historical subject matter. I also thought the documentary format would allow me to distance myself somewhat, so it wouldn’t be so formal and emotional. But when I tried to interview my family, to do the research, no one would tell me anything. In interviews that lasted two or three hours, they spoke of the political history of Latin America and Central America, and about certain events, but not with the intimacy I was looking for. I was satisfied with the interviews, but it wasn’t the approach I wanted. That’s when I decided it wasn’t going to be a documentary.”

The project took a vital turn in 2005 when Astorga participated in a screenwriting workshop with Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel (world renowned for her films La cienaga (The Swamp) and La niña santa (The Holy Girl) that was organized by Cinergia (Central American and Cuban Audiovisual Fund). “I pitched a different story there and she really attacked it. She asked me why I pretended to want to talk about what I proposed, if deep down I seemed to want to talk about other things. And I told her she was right; I wanted to talk about something else but it wasn’t working because I couldn’t get the interviews I wanted. I just complained. And right then I realized that I could turn it into fiction. I left the workshop and sat down to write the screenplay,” she recalls.

From that point on, Martel became a sort of fairy godmother to Red Princesses, giving Laura her opinions about the script and introducing her to people who could help the project. “She suggested I apply for a screenwriting scholarship in Argentina. We applied through Cinergia and she supported the application. I won and went to write the script in Argentina. It was a very lovely experience, like discovering that it was just a matter of looking at the story from a different perspective: a fictional perspective.”

What percentage of the film is true to what happened?

That’s difficult to calculate, but I’d say about 70%. I took poetic license and crammed about ten years of political events into a period of a few months. You might say everything occurred during the 80s, but I put it all into two months. The same is true for my family’s story: things that happened over three years are summarized into two months. That’s why I say only about 70% is exactly as it happened, but that’s okay; I took poetic license because nobody was paying me to make a historical movie. In real life, I have two sisters, while in the film I have only one. And there were really many more people in the political cell, but I couldn’t include them all. And my mother had other sisters. But this is normal in film; it’s about distilling a story. It’s the essence of what I wanted to tell.

What does it mean for you to remember this story? 

It’s a very complex memory. Neither sad nor happy, just complex. It’s something you have to live with.

What was it like to relive it all again while shooting?

You don’t relive anything on the set. But you relive it while writing and rewriting drafts of the script, because it’s a very intimate process. It’s all about removing things and putting others in, tugging at memories and sometimes discarding them, because although they may be very valuable to me emotionally, they don’t advance the film narrative. You’re very exposed emotionally during this process, but not while directing. So many others are involved, and I was trying to solve business problems at the same time, because in addition to being the writer and director, I’m the film’s major producer.

While the script is exciting and the story is devastating, some of the most striking aspects of Red Princesses are the great performances by the two child stars, Valeria Conejo (Claudia) and Aura Dinarte (Antonia), and the other child performers as well. “Like I told you earlier, I’ve been a casting director for ten years and I specialize in children.”

“One of the producers helped set up a filter structure that eventually led us to these girls. We started four months earlier with a casting call that turned up 1,300 girls and gradually filtered them weekly until we had a cast of six girls by the final month. We spent that last month rehearsing with just these six girls. During those months of training, and especially during the final month, I taught them to improvise within a quadrant. The quadrant, in this case, is the scene. They never had a script; their parents and the adult actors did, but the girls didn’t. We’d talk about the circumstances and then they’d act out the scene, first one way and then another. And when we found the most comfortable and attractive way, I’d rewrite it. So once we began shooting, there was no discussion. And what made it into the film was the result of improvisation during rehearsals.”

While Red Princesses continues its successful festival tour, Laura Astorga is already at work on a new project. This story introduces us to a Ngäbe woman—from the ethnic tribe originating in the territory shared by Costa Rica and Panama—who is sent to jail for murder. It’s based on a real story that took place in Costa Rica and, she tells us, has already been written up in several drafts during her recent participation in a Cannes residency where she was able to work on the screenplay. She seems to have started off on the right foot. And with such an amazing first feature under her belt we can expect nothing but the best for this film in the making. May it debut soon!

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