2019 Film Essays

Looking Back at 2018: In Praise of Carla Simón’s ‘Summer 1993’

With 2018 fading in the rearview mirror, I have, like many others, been reflecting on the films I saw over the last 12 months. One protagonist that I can’t get out of my head is Frida, the six-year-old center of Summer 1993 (Estiu 1993 in Catalan, the language used throughout). Drawn in by the character’s mixture of brash disobedience, good-natured timidity and quiet somberness, I found this curly-haired child to be transfixing. In Summer 1993, she is constantly observing the world around her, and the film effectively uses her perspective to guide the viewer through one of the more moving and emotionally-rich cinematic narratives that I experienced in 2018.

Summer 1993, which premiered at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival (where it won an award for Best First Feature) and had its general release in the United States last year, is the feature debut of Catalan filmmaker Carla Simón. It follows Frida as she goes to live with her uncle, aunt and younger cousin after the death of her mother from AIDS-related pneumonia. The film, also scripted by Simón, is based on her own childhood and is dedicated to her deceased mother at the end. It not only captures young Frida’s confrontation with death and loss after leaving Barcelona for the small village where her relatives live, but also paints a vivid portrait of childhood and the rich ways that familial relationships can grow and change.

In terms of plot, Summer 1993 unfolds at a slow, steady pace. In the opening minutes, adults pack up an apartment while Frida (played by Laia Artigas) silently watches. At some point — the editing throughout the entire film, by Didac Palou and Ana Pfaff, is often elliptical — her grandmother teaches her the Lord’s Prayer to recite in honor of her deceased mother. (Her father, it is revealed later, is already dead.) Frida is soon driven away from the city to the remote house where Uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer), Aunt Marga (Bruna Cusí) and three-year-old cousin Anna (Paula Robles) live with their cat Feldespata. She is quickly introduced into their daily life and family routines, from bath time to village festivities. She is shuffled to the doctor’s office more than once for testing, the shadow of AIDS hanging over her. Her grandmother, grandfather and two other aunts make a few visits to Frida and her new home, putting a strain on almost everyone present. She swims, runs errands with Marga, makes prayer offerings in honor of her mother and plays with Anna. There are moments when Frida is aware of her presence as an outsider, like when she watches Esteve, Marga and Anna dance at a town gathering. However, her relatives also accept her and her past wholeheartedly, attempting to include her almost immediately in their lives.

It is not so much about what happens when over the course of the narrative, but the way that Simón and her director of photography, Santiago Racaj, capture snippets of childhood memories from a period of upheaval and adaptation. Through a mixture of close-ups, POV shots, pans and the camera placed at Frida’s height — often directly behind her — the viewer is invited to share the young girl’s perspective. Adults often do not appear entirely in the frame, as fragments of serious conversation swirl off screen around Frida, slowly shedding light on her situation. And time, as it often felt during my own childhood summers, seems to expand as Simón and Racaj emphasize images of the lush, sun-soaked natural world.

It is this effective — and, thankfully, far from saccharine — presentation of childhood that has lingered with me throughout 2018. Not only does Summer 1993 capture the freedom of boredom for young kids on a summer vacation — that spontaneity and pure idleness — but it shows in realistic detail how two young girls thrown together might interact. Anna immediately takes to Frida, who now shares her room, her bath tub and her parents. She observes her, copies her and loves her. Frida, still getting acclimated to her new life, sometimes interacts with her cousin as an equal and sometimes as a bossy, older sister figure. In one of the more dramatic scenes in the film, Frida, trying to avoid her cousin, convinces Anna to stay hidden in the woods as part of a game, resulting in a scared Marga and an injured Anna.

Obviously, Simón is telling a story about a childhood that is not without tragedy, highlighting how the lighthearted moments can co-exist with the darker ones. In one early scene, Anna and Frida play together outside. Toys are strewn about and both girls are half dressed; Frida is wearing a black feather boa and shorts and Anna is in underwear and a tank-top. Esteve’s jazz record is wafting through the air (recurring diegetic music in a film without a non-diegetic soundtrack). The scene starts with Frida, barefoot, sitting on a stone wall, and the camera tracks up to reveal her outfit and actions. She’s generously applying make-up to her face — she has already put on lime green eye shadow and is now working on smearing blood-red lipstick onto her cheeks for blush. Anna watches, chewing on something plastic. The elliptical editing makes this scene feel like a true stretch of lazy summer downtime. Esteve briefly comes outside and, at some point, the girls move to the chairs in the yard, with Frida now wearing cowboy boots and pretending to smoke a cigarette. The girls are now mid-game. “Mom, will you play with me?” Anna asks, adopting the role of the child. “I’m really tired… I need to rest, sweetheart,” Frida-as-the-pretend-mother replies. A few seconds later, as herself, she asks Anna to repeat the question. “Be a good girl. Let me rest,” is her ensuing response.

The girls continue to play, with Anna “cooking” for her pretend mother. The children’s performances are incredibly natural here and feel quite spontaneous. The way that Anna stumbles up the hill to her “kitchen” (a chair), or the way that Frida’s legs leisurely flap as she waits for her food, makes it feel like the film crew just happened upon two young girls immersed in a whimsical game of make believe. Yet, it is also impossible to ignore the clearly constructed sadness of this scene. Frida, playing a mother, seems to be reenacting her own deceased mother’s responses to her requests to play, inhabiting the role of a tired, disinterested adult who is no longer in her life.

This scene so wonderfully captures the playful, imaginative side of childhood that it would not matter if that was all it did. Yet, it also speaks to the film’s identity as a coming-of-age story. This is not a film about AIDS, which is never named in the film. (Even when a concerned local parent makes a big deal about getting her daughter away from Frida when the latter scrapes her knee, Marga’s relationship to Frida is the focus.) Instead, the film is about how Frida processes her mother’s death and absence, as well as the broader mysteries and practicalities of death and illness.

For example, early in the film, she makes a prayer offering of cigarettes for her mother because “she’ll love it,” as if her death simply means that she still exists, just in a different place. Later, while Frida and Anna are aimlessly playing in the humid living room (a whirring fan next to the television and a napping Marga nearby signal the oppressive heat of the lazy afternoon), Anna asks Frida if she wants to call her mom. Frida dials the actual phone number to her old apartment, which, of course, just rings. While death is incomprehensible to Anna, who quickly loses interest in the game, Frida senses the permanence of her mother’s absence as she hangs up the phone. It is only at the end of the film that she can directly ask Marga about the details of her mother’s death (“How did my first mom die?” and “Did she bleed a lot?”) in an attempt to understand more fully what happened. Marga explains that she had a virus that she could not fight and emphasizes that her mother was sad that she could not take care of her daughter anymore. In this short conversation, Frida learns that while death is serious and permanent, her mother’s love endures. More than that, she learns that even with this giant absence, she is loved and safe in this new life shaped by patient Marga, playful Esteve and loving Anna. 

Summer 1993 denotes a period of time that is significant for every single character in the film. Thankfully, all four leading actors deliver strong, layered performances, and Simón has spoken elsewhere about the process of finding and working with her two child actors in rehearsal and production (where she privileged spontaneity and improvisation). I especially love Robles’ performance, which does not feel like one at all, as Anna is constantly singing, dancing, talking or playing in a way that never feels cutesy (the sound design, by Roger Blasco, effectively conveys Anna’s continuous babble, as well as the noises of insects, birds, water and human activity).

This is a cinematic autobiography that feels both grounded in personal history and expanded upon and imagined. Simón is not just straightforwardly recreating her childhood on screen; instead, she has used her childhood memories to construct a story that clearly articulates the tenderness, frustration, devastation and joy that exist, sometimes all at once, as this new family forms. Woven throughout the film is the fact that Frida cannot tie her shoes. It’s small, simple devices like this one that illuminate so well how all four characters interact when thrown together by tragedy. Summer 1993 is a beautiful, tender film, which above all heralds Simón as a filmmaker to watch in the years to come. 

Kate Saccone (@ks2956) is based in NYC. She’s the Project Manager of the Women Film Pioneers Project at Columbia University.