Q&A: Carla Simón’s ‘Summer 1993’ is a Touching Cinematic Memoir

Following the death of her parents in Barcelona, six-year-old Frida (the haunting Laia Artigas) is sent to her uncle’s (David Verdaguer) picturesque countryside home, in Carla Simon’s autobiographical feature debut SUMMER 1993. Frida battles with a sense of loneliness and displacement while also yearning to fit into the picture with her new family. Punctuated by moments of youthful exuberance and mature ruminations, this coming-of-age drama, set amongst summery hues, is an extraordinarily moving snapshot of being a child in an adult world, anchored by a flawless performance by its young star. 

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What a thoughtful film you’ve made. Please describe SUMMER 1993 in your own words.

Carla Simón: Thank you very much! SUMMER 1993 is a film about death, family, and childhood. It tells the story of Frida, a six-year-old girl who just lost her mother. As her father died a long time ago, Frida follows her mum’s will and moves from Barcelona to a small countryside village with her new family: her uncle, his wife, and their child. During this first summer together, they will have to transform their relationships from being relatives to being a family, while Frida learns what death means and what emotions it brings to her.

What inspired you to make this film?

Carla Simón: The film portrays my own story. As Frida, I lost my parents to AIDS when I was a child. As Frida, in SUMMER 1993 I started a new life.

While I was studying in London I made a short film called LIPSTICK about two siblings facing the death of their grandma on their own. I realized that children facing death was a theme I wanted to keep exploring, probably because of my personal experience. Also, at the London Film School one of my teachers advised me to make a first feature film about something I knew very well, so I took that literally.

This type of childhood memoir is sensitive, yet avoids being overly saccharine, despite the protagonist being six years old. How did you accomplish such a mature tone?

Carla Simón: Although my story sounds very dramatic, I didn’t experience the first summer with my new family only as a tragedy. I was a child and as a child I kept playing, laughing and having good moments even if I missed my mum. For me it was very important to make a luminous film that could contain sadness and hope at the same time, and that’s why avoiding sentimentality was very important.

Also, I love subtlety. I believe the audience is intelligent enough to understand complex emotions with very little. Life doesn’t give us much information about our relationships; we have to read them through gestures and few words, and I like playing this game with the audience, making them slowly guess how the characters feel.

What was the hardest part about making a movie about your own experience?

Carla Simón: In general, it has been a very beautiful process that made me learn a lot about how I am now and about how my family felt while living this experience. However, it was very hard for me to discover I had no memories of my biological mum. It was sad and frustrating because you cannot invent a memory, you can only take over someone else’s memories, but I would have loved to have my own.

Actually, while I was writing the script I decided to take some of the letters that my mum wrote to her friends and go to the places where she wrote them. I made a short film called LACUNA, combining the reading of these letters with shots of these empty places. It was a beautiful and personal project that helped me to feel closer to her.

What was the most satisfying part?

Carla Simón: The most satisfying part was, with no doubt, working with the girls. Directing children is very difficult but at the same time very rewarding. They don’t act, they play a game, and this brings a lot of magic into the film. In my opinion sometimes it’s easier to find natural acting from a child than from an adult. They give so much truth if you make them believe in the world you’re recreating, if you are able to build real relationships between the actors. The girls never read the script, but we followed it almost in its entirety. It was also very beautiful to give them some freedom, as they were always very creative.

This is your first feature length film. How was making this different from your experience making short films? 

Carla Simón: It’s definitely very different because everything is bigger and more ambitious. Leading a big crew is not easy, and I had been living in London for four years so we created a completely new crew when I got to Spain to prepare the film. Another difficulty was to keep the perspective of the whole story when you’re shooting during six weeks in a non-chronological order.

Also, in my case it was complicated to find the right distance between my memories and the film we were making. I had to give up some of the images I had in my mind in order to keep the naturalistic tone I was looking for. I realized that if I tried to arrange all the elements of the film exactly as I imagined I would have missed what I had in front of the camera, and the film was now in front of the camera, not in my memory anymore.

Congratulations on Spain’s submission of the film for the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film! What are you hoping Hamptons audiences take away from SUMMER 1993?

Carla Simón: Thank you, we’re very excited about that!

I would like them to feel that children are intelligent enough to understand very complicated situations as the one that Frida is living. However, children don’t have the tools to manage their emotions and that’s why their psychology is extremely deep and complex. Also, the film is set in 1993 because AIDS was a very big problem in Spain; I also would love the audience to give a thought on that and remember that the stigma of AIDS is still very absurd.

What are you most looking forward to at HIFF25?

Carla Simón: It will be the first time that I present the film in front of an American audience so I’m very curious to see and feel their reactions!

Check out the New York Premiere of SUMMER 1993 in the Narrative Competition section of HIFF25. Find tickets.