Teodora Anna Mihai was born in Bucharest, Romania, during the Ceausescu regime and moved to Belgium in 1989 with her parents. I went to film school in New York. She started working in Belgium as a screenwriter and then assistant director. Her documentary, Waiting for August, won awards in more than ten countries and was nominated for European Film Awards.
“La Civil” is shown in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. The festival takes place from 6-17 July.
W&H: Describe the movie to us in your own words.
Tam: “La Seville” is the story of Cielo, a mother whose teenage daughter is kidnapped by a local gang in a northern Mexican town. As the authorities fail to provide support in the search and her ex-husband adopts a fatalistic attitude, Cielo is forced to take matters into her own hands.
Slowly but surely she transforms from helpless housewife to vengeful activist, plunged into the vicious cycle of violence that made her a victim in the first place.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
Tam: I’ve been investigating the topic for two years, thinking I’d approach it from the point of view of a teenager who grew up in the volatile environment caused by Mexico’s drug war since 2006. But meeting a mother who shared her story and thoughts made me change course and decided to tell it from a mother’s perspective. That was in 2015.
One of the first things she told me was, “When I wake up in the morning, I want to kill or die.” The person in front of me had a picture of a housewife and a mother, so those words—which come from her—felt like a slap in the face. I can’t help but wonder what you must have gone through to come to such conclusions.
The mother in question is Miriam Rodriguez, whose story became famous after her tragic death on Mexican Mother’s Day in 2017.
She was the inspiration for the brave character Cielo in “La Civil”.
W&H: What do you want people to think after watching the movie?
TAM: The story deals with a complex topic and I’m not a politician: I don’t pretend to have answers or solutions. But I wanted to make a touching story, a story that would invite people to reflect on the situation and the topic in time. I think this is a contribution to, hopefully, some positive change.
What touched me most personally about this story was how a common relationship conflict—a breakup, and a teen’s subsequent rebellion toward her parents—could be enough to land a young girl in big trouble in a volatile living environment, like Mexico under the threat of cartel violence.
Another point that really impressed me was the irony of Silo’s transition from victim to perpetrator. The idea that once violence touches one, one is doomed to somehow join in and perpetuate it, despite the best and noblest of intentions.
But of course, these are my thoughts. Viewers are free to interpret.
W&H: What is the biggest challenge in the film industry?
Tam: It wasn’t easy to do the research, nor was it easy to fund or shoot this movie. But I think the hardest part was writing a fictional screenplay that stays true to the reality I witnessed throughout my long investigation. I wrote the script with Mexican Habacock writer Antonio de Rosario.
W&H: How did you get your film financed? Share some ideas of how the movie was made.
TAM: The film was funded primarily by European funding and government funding from Belgium (Flanders as well as Wallonia) and Romania. It was great to be able to make this happen. Even though I’m a European filmmaker, it wasn’t a given that the story was set in Mexico. But the gist of the story is quite universal, so I think that made the difference.
We’ve also got some local support from Mexico, but no government funding.
W&H: What inspired you to become a director?
Tam: My father, by his contagious passion for photography. Andrei Tarkovsky, through his wonderful portraits. Agnès Varda, with her talent, perseverance and unique voice.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
Tam: The best advice, I think, was persevere, stay humble, focused, and work hard.
The worst was comparing myself a lot to others.
W&H: What’s your advice for other female directors?
Tam: I think I’ll refer to my answer in the previous question. It has worked for me so far.
W&H: Name your favorite female-directed movie and why.
Tam: To be honest, I have many favorites, but one that was pivotal in my development as an aspiring filmmaker was “Europa Europa” by Agnieszka Holland. I saw it in my teens, and at that time I was grappling with the idea of studying film later. After watching this movie, I remember thinking, “This director must be a strong lady.” I was excited and relieved that maybe I could get there one day, too.
The other lady whose work I loved, but got to know a little later, was Agnes Varda.
I was fortunate to meet both Agnes and Agnieszka in person, and this was a gift. I am grateful to them for their work and inspiring roles.
W&H: How are you coping with life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Do you maintain your creativity, and if so, how?
TAM: The pre-production, production and post-production of “La Civil” has happened during this pandemic. It was a massive challenge for everyone involved, but at the same time everyone was really happy to be able to stay active, and work!
Now, the promo comes along, and we all hope that despite COVID, the movie will get a fair chance to be seen by as many people as possible. The start is more than promising – we start the premiere of Un Certain Regard in Cannes, which is of course a huge privilege.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color on screen and behind the scenes and promoting – and creating – negative stereotypes. What actions do you think should be taken to make it more inclusive?
TAM: I think the key is to have active underrepresented groups in thought centers and in creative situations, so that they can express themselves. I mean, everyone knows what to do – we just need to do it.