PALOMA ZAPATA: "I also use music as a basis to talk about other things. Starting from music, I can touch on other subjects, tell stories."

06/28/2021

This month we interview Paloma Zapata, a director and producer with her own company, La Fábrica Naranja. She has successfully directed the musical documentaries Peret, My Name Is Rumba and Casamance: The Soundtrack of a Journey.

Now, for her next project, En busca de la Singla (Finding La Singla), she explores the fascinating and unknown story of the Barcelona flamenco dancer La Singla. We talk about all this with her.

You studied Fine Arts. Why did you end up working on documentaries?

At university I began to acquire a taste for the audiovisual world with video art and video dance. I liked that scene. When I came to live in Barcelona, I began to try to do it professionally. First making video clips, a format related to what I studied. They can be very artistic; you play a lot with concepts, with colour and shape. Thanks to video clips, I was working with music for more than 10 years. This led me to take the step of working in the world of musical documentary, which was like a logical progression. It’s a longer format, more “auteur”, with a story… In 2016 I made my first one and I stopped making music videos. Now I focus on musical documentary and I’m also beginning to enter the world of fiction.

 

As you said, you started out producing video clips and music is a constant in your feature length films. Where did this interest in music come from?

I think music has a lot in common with cinema. They are closely related languages. I began almost by chance in the world of video clips. And once I knew it very well and knew how to work with music. I took the leap to documentaries. I also use music as a basis to talk about other things. Starting from music, I can touch on other subjects, tell stories.

 

Casamance was your first documentary, in which the artist Depedro immerses himself in the music of the African continent, travelling to Senegal. How did this project arise and what did you learn from it?

I worked quite a bit in London and a project came up in which I had to go to Senegal to shoot a video clip. That’s how I discovered sub-Saharan Africa and Senegal in particular. After getting to know the country and the culture a little, I thought it was a very interesting country from which a lot can be learnt. For example, they place great value on culture. It’s a country in which the first democratic president was a poet and, until recently, the minister of culture was a musician.

A lot of documentaries are made in Europe about Africa in a somewhat Eurocentric manner with a condescending outlook, showing the European looking toward Africa. But I wanted to show a different perspective so that you could see what Senegal taught me as a country, how it respected culture in a way that it is not respected here. At the time, I was working quite a lot with the musician Jairo Zavala, Depedro. We’d made some video clips together. He’s a musician that I love. Apart from the fact that he has musical talent and a great voice, his roots are in Latin America because his father’s Peruvian and his mother was brought up in Africa. His musical roots came from there. The idea was to go on a musical journey from the north to the south of Senegal, seeking the music that he listened to when he was little. In that way we could talk about the country showing it in a different way to what was done in the West about Africa, with great respect, with the aim of learning. 

 

You also came to Peret, My Name Is Rumba through a video clip. What did this documentary do for your career as a documentary filmmaker?

It’s true; I met Peret because we made a video clip together many years ago. I think it’s the last one he made. After finishing Casamance, one day his granddaughter, Santa, appeared in my office and proposed this project which gave me the opportunity to continue telling stories starting from music. The idea wasn’t to make a biographic documentary, although Peret’s story is told, but rather to look at different issues in depth. To offer a portrait of the gypsy community, also with respect and with the aim of learning from a culture which has been in the Iberian Peninsula for 500 years and which has suffered and continues to suffer from racism. I wanted to highlight this community and then tell a story which I thought was interesting. I thought Peret was a fantastic guy, I began to read about his story and I thought it was entertaining. Also, he was a sort of griot, like the ones I met in Senegal, wise people who tell stories through music. That’s where I found the parallelism. I also wanted to break down stereotypes about the gypsy community. And I wanted to do all this starting from his story and from music.

 

Your current project is a documentary about the flamenco dancer La Singla. Where did this interest in La Singla come from?

I didn’t know her. And she really is an icon. There are many photos of her when she was little in museums, for example. She appeared in the film Los Tarantos. But she’s an unknown. Despite the fact that her image is iconic, as an artist almost no one remembers her, not even flamenco specialists. During the Peret documentary, in the family photos, I found some with her, and Santa talked to me about her. She said she was a deaf flamenco dancer; this attracted my attention and I began to investigate. I found some videos which an American website had posted on the Internet -and they had something like 20 million visits by people from all over the world- which said that she was a marvellous flamenco dancer, that she was moreover deaf and no one knew whether she was alive or had died. They’d been uploaded in 2018. I began to become a bit more interested. I found her brother and, through him, I was able to talk with her. She’s a fantastic person and I thought there was a documentary in her story. That it was a story that had to be told. Not just to rescue her from oblivion, but because it allowed me to talk about other things, once again, starting from music.

She was born in Somorrostro, when it still existed, in a very poor community, as well as being deaf. Despite this, she pulled through. She taught herself to talk when she was a teenager. Being deaf, no one taught her anything. And she also learnt to dance with great talent. And this meant that she suffered from abuse and exploitation, something which happens to many child performers. She never wanted to be famous, an artist… It’s the story of someone who didn’t want to be famous, but who was pushed into it because of the profit which she could create.

 

La Singla lives outside the world of show business. Was it difficult to find her and get her to participate in the documentary?

At the beginning she didn’t want to. The world of artists is a world in which there are many egos. Not her. She’s a very simple, very kind, very intimate woman. And with that same kindness and that intimacy, she turned me down. She said that for a long time she had been outside the media and that she wasn’t interested because she had a quiet and simple life. But little by little we got to know each other and talked. Without pressurizing her. And, in the end, she accepted. We met a couple of times, and starting from that I wrote a script and we’ve been working on it for three years.

 

Colita, Paloma Zapata and actress Helena Kaittani during the filming of En busca de La Singla

La Singla starred in Los Tarantos and was internationally recognized. She performed on tour with Ella Fitzgerald, Dalí wanted to paint her portrait. Why do you think that now no one remembers her? Do you think it’s partly because she was a woman and a gypsy?

Yes. There are several reasons: the fact that she is a woman, deaf, poor and a gypsy, also the fact that she was a girl and this made her a more vulnerable person who had a very difficult childhood. A lot of people took advantage of her vulnerability and profited from it. When problems arose and she abandoned dance, no one remembered her.

 

In what phase of the production process are you now?

On being a documentary, the production process takes quite a long time. We had several stages of shooting. We were in Barcelona, now we’ll go to Seville in September to record and then there’s still some more recording in Barcelona. It’s a coproduction with Germany, because La Singla was well-known there. They considered her the best flamenco dancer in the world and she appeared a lot on television; she even made a film there. We received help from MEDIA, from the ICAA, being the project with the highest score. We already have the distribution confirmed for next year. TV3, Movistar and Canal Sur also entered the project. We hope to be able to premiere the film in more or less six months or one year.

 

What difficulties did you encounter to make this film?

It’s true that I had a great deal of support because it’s a project which has generated great interest in many spheres but it’s always more difficult with independent projects. We’ve been looking for funding for three years, a very painstaking task, going to laboratories, to markets, to festivals, to television channels… The main problem is the amount of time that a project with these characteristics, with a small production company like mine, takes to materialize and become a reality. It’s not a question of arriving, knocking on a door and someone gives you the funding and you make it. I wish the time were shorter, but they’re also projects which need time to mature.

 

Earlier you mentioned that you created your own production company. How and why did La Fábrica Naranja arise?

As I mentioned, when I graduated it was very difficult for me to find work. And an acquaintance said to me: why don’t you try it? It had never occurred to me. I came from the artistic world; I didn’t know anything about the business world. I didn’t know it and I wasn’t interested at that time. But I saw it as an option. I set up the company in 2008 and, really, it was very useful to begin to work. First with the video clips. I went to Madrid, to all the record companies there and in Barcelona. Then I did advertising, which was even more difficult because it’s much more complicated. I became an expert in preparing budgets.

 

The most laborious and least creative part.

Exactly. But right now I wouldn’t know how to do it in another way. There are many women like me. In the meetings of CIMA or of female filmmakers, you see this profile which is repeated a great deal. Women who are producers and directors. On being more complicated, you often have to do it yourself; you have to run the show yourself. I look for the funding, the client, and I’m moreover the creative part, which deep down is what I like and what interests me.

 

La Fábrica Naranja also has a social aspect which is committed to female talent, also with a female presence behind the camera and developing projects around disadvantaged communities.

I try to ensure that all the projects have something of this. On not being like those that I did before on commission, with a more commercial purpose, I try to ensure that, as well as the artistic part, there’s also always a social part with a background and to give visibility to communities or to sectors of society which have less visibility.

I’m now developing several projects. One is a documentary, Juliette and Camille, on two women who make music. One of them has Peruvian roots in Barcelona and the other has African roots in Galicia. It’s a coproduction between Barcelona and Galicia. They are two stories about two racialized women trying to open up a path in music. One is a mother and lives in the rural world. The other suffered from bullying and harassment for racist reasons when she was young. We talk about their musical projects, but from these subjects which marked their personalities. And which make it a challenge going to work each day, living and getting on in the world.

And then I have a fiction project called La espera (The Wait), which is a story in the family environment which deals with issues which don’t tend to be very visible, like abuse. But within a family fiction story, with characters, a drama. 

 

Did you feel like making fiction?

We pigeonhole the formats. We separate them, but for me they are often very close. There were many elements of fiction in the documentaries on which I’ve worked until now. In Peret there were recreations or there is always a script, the author’s view. And with fiction, with all my experience with documentary, I want it to have common points. For example, I don’t want the script to be very closed and I want the dialogues of the characters to be more natural. Nowadays there are many filmmakers also working along these lines in which there are no limits. Afterwards, you have to put a name or a label in order to be able to distribute the project, but the limits are blurred and there is not so much difference between a documentary and fiction.

 

Not long ago we interviewed Laura Herrero, the director of La Mami, and she mentioned precisely this. That many people asked her whether the film was a documentary or fiction.

Yes. I’ve been pursuing this idea for years. I’ve also made shorts and I was interested in continuing to look along these lines in fiction. Also, as we were saying before, there are many more women making documentaries because it’s a cheaper format; it needs less support. Fiction tends to entail bigger projects. I’m also interested in tackling a project like that with more funding.

 

Apart from producing your own projects, do you also produce for other people?

We are beginning little by little. Peret was nominated for the Gaudí awards and TV3 and TVE entered the project. And this allowed us to grow. With En busca de La Singla we’ve also received a lot of European support. And now, with this track record which we have gradually achieved, we have begun to produce. Specifically two male directors, and I hope soon that there will also be more female directors. One of them is Javier Tolentino, who is a journalist and director of the programme El Séptimo Vicio on Radio 3 who made his first film with Eddie Saeta and Quatre Films, Tehran Blues, which is now being shown in festivals. This would be his second film. But I can’t reveal anything else.

And then a minority coproduction with Mexico. A very nice project which is called Lala about a girl who has autism and who lives in a rural area of Mexico. It’s a road movie. The story of this character who crosses Mexico from Tijuana to Jalisco. It’s been shown in festivals for more than a year. It’s been in Turin, Málaga,… And we hope that next year we can begin to shoot.

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