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Short Films in Focus: Guaxuma

This month’s short film, Nara Normande’s “Guaxuma,” comes at the perfect time. It is not about self-isolation, social distancing, or the mishandling of a pandemic. It feels perfect in ways that are harder to define.

Normande’s visual memoir of her life and times with a childhood friend—comprised of animation, home movies and photographs—has a more universal feeling as we currently struggle to distance ourselves from one another without succumbing to loneliness. Her movie plays like casually flipping through a photo album of a place seen in a dream, while we hear the sound of waves crashing onto shore. The sandy textures of the animation nail down the geography of Guaxuma, a small beachfront village in north east Brazil where parties happen regularly and kids can wander aimlessly for hours discovering all manner of nature. 

"Guaxuma" is about the loss of a friend and the loss of a time when her parents threw big parties when she was younger. She may have met this friend during one of those social gatherings on the beach where she grew up. They had similar names (Nara and Tayra) and were born days apart. They knew each other’s secrets. They got into trouble together, went through puberty together, and eventually grew apart. 

I imagine I’ll be seeing more short films in the future like “Guaxuma” that will have the same sense of melancholia, sadness, and wonder. But the best art, to me, resonates without being tied specifically to a pandemic or catastrophe. The best art becomes more relevant in the face of it, not because it predicted anything. In the case of this film, its themes of friendship, loss, and disconnect feel more timely than ever.

Q&A with director Nara Normande

This feels like a film a director has in their head for a while. When did you realize it was time to make this film?

I wrote the first draft in 2011, one year after Tayra's death. I let the film mature for a while and just started to work on it in 2016, when I understood I was ready to talk about my feelings to others. 

The Flaming Lips song at the end feels especially poignant. Can you tell me about how that song came into it?

I went to Primavera Sound in Barcelona in 2011 and there I saw The Flaming Lips playing for the first time. The song “Do You Realize” touched me in a very deep way. At that time it was only six months after Tayra’s death. When I was writing the ideas of the film a couple of months later, the music kept coming into my mind, but only the voice with no instruments, almost as a whisper. So I wrote it in the script, but I wasn’t sure it was going to work. I took a while to accept I was going to “sing” in the film. At the end, I thought it was a good choice.

Do you still keep up with some of the friends in the photographs?

I lost contact with some of them and the others I normally see when I go back to Guaxuma to visit my father. One of Tayra’s brother is also in the picture. I see her family quite often when I’m back there.

Has anyone related to Tayra seen the film? If so, what was their reaction?

Sure, during the production I talked a lot to her mother because I had to do a big photo research for the film. When we were shooting the photos at the beach her mother came to see, and it was very hard for her to see all these photos displayed in the sand. When the film was ready, her brother came with me to the première in Annecy, it was very moving to sit by his side and see his reactions for the first time. And then I showed the film in my hometown, many of her friends and family were there. It was a very deep and touching experience. They are very proud of the film. 

What was the biggest animation challenge for you?

There were many animation challenges in “Guaxuma.” The three techniques we worked on are very handcrafted and delicate and demand lots of patience. But with two of them—the wet sand and the dry sand—we could control everything in the studio, so I think the biggest challenge was to deal with nature during the stop motion at the beach. To animate puppets on a human scale and deal with the sun, wind, sand and sea was very hard, but very exciting, too. We had to animate, for example, the hair of the puppet at the same time the moon was rising. We spent five hours doing this scene and if anything went wrong we had to come back the next day to reshoot it.

What’s next for you?

I’m preparing my first feature film called “Heartless” (ex “The Heron”), it’s a live-action film co- directed by filmmaker Tião and produced by Emilie Lesclaux in Brazil ("Bacurau," "Aquarius") and co-produced by Les Valseurs in France ("Guaxuma") and Komplizen Films in Germany ("Toni Erdmann").

Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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