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‘Tótem’ EP Salma Hayek Pinault and Director Lila Avilés Reveal What Makes the Film ‘Universal’

Signing on to executive produce “Tótem,” the sophomore feature from writer-director Lila Avilés that was chosen to be Mexico’s submission for the Best International Feature Film Oscar, was a no-brainer for Salma Hayek Pinault. “For me, it’s very important to support women, especially if they’re Mexican. And to support talent. And Lila’s talent is rare. It’s special, it’s unique, it’s bold, it’s brave. And also it’s delicate and personal,” said the Academy Award-nominated “Frida” actress during a conversation with IndieWire over Zoom. “I just want the world to feel her through this movie, and to be touched and moved by her talent.”

Premiering at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Ecumenical Jury Prize, “Tótem” is a chamber piece centered on seven-year-old Sol (Naíma Sentíes) observing her family prepare to throw what she begins to understand to be the last birthday party for her terminally ill father Tona (Mateo García Elizondo). Distributed by Sideshow and Janus Films, Avilés’ feature is the only Latin American film to have made the shortlist for Best International Feature Film at the 2024 Oscars. She is also one of only three female directors on the list, and the only one with a narrative feature; unfortunate, but important, details that stood out to Pinault.

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“I wish there were more, and I’ve got to tell you, [Lila] is standing out in a year of amazing international films. And some of the Latin American films were really good, but at least the one that made it, I think represents all of Latin America. She captured all of us in it,” said the producer, who runs Ventanarosa Productions with partners José Tamez and Siobhan Flynn.

“What has happened with ‘Tótem’ it’s not what I expected at all,” said Avilés, also on the Zoom call. Coming off of her debut feature “The Chambermaid,” another one of Mexico’s Best International Feature Film that was nominated for multiple Ariel Awards, the country’s equivalent of the Oscars, the same year as “Roma,” the filmmaker felt there was a taboo around directors’ second efforts. However, she describes “Tótem” as a very personal film filled with “so much love and energy,” that felt to her like “something that you know you need to do as a filmmaker,” she said.

Dedicated to Avilés’ daughter, who also lost her father when she was young, the writer-director described how she conceived of “Tótem,” saying “I always think about this phrase, ‘la infancia es el destino.’ Childhood is destiny. And sometimes there are things in those first years that make something profound in your personality, or your relationship, or your point of view about life. And I wanted [to show] a strong little girl that [could] be mature, and search for answers.”

“Tótem” executive producer Salma Hayek Pinault and writer-director Lila Avilés.
“Tótem” executive producer Salma Hayek Pinault and writer-director Lila Avilés.

Pinault further describes what she got from the film, saying “It’s family love, and coming together, and even though the personalities are contradictory and conflicting with each other, you fucking stick to your clan. And the way of not losing track of celebrating life, in a way this film does represent all of Latin America.”  She added, “All of Latin America will feel nostalgic with this film, even if they’re not Mexican.”

For the film to even be made in the first place is “almost a miracle,” said the producer. “In Mexico, even if you are successful with your last film, it’s really hard to get a film off the ground. Which made me even more want to be a part of [‘Tótem’] because [Mexican filmmakers] don’t get the support that some other countries’ [filmmakers] get.” Pinault, one of the few stars from the country with global name recognition, said, “I produce things in Mexico, and even for me, it’s really difficult to get them done.”

Though this past decade have seen Mexico become a cinematic powerhouse, with the trio of Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Guillermo del Toro accounting for half of the Best Director Oscar winners, what has gone under the radar of the international film community is how most of the recent Best Picture winners at Mexico’s Ariel Awards have been made by female filmmakers. “[It’s] a new era for women,” said Pinault. “And we are ahead of many other countries, including America.”

In addition to Pinault boarding “Tótem” as an executive producer, directors Cuarón and Iñárritu have both hosted screenings in support of Avilés’ work. “Coming from Mexico, we have storytelling in our blood. It comes from something more ancestral,” she said. “Being here with these amazing directors that have been making history not only for Mexican cinema, but the story of cinema, I feel super honored… I feel the Mexican power. It’s so nice.”

Pinault sees “Tótem” as a story that can endure like some of her other producing successes, “Ugly Betty” and “Frida.” “I love to find those stories that also have very specific roots that are so real and so specific,” she said. “This is one Mexican family, but it’s so real and so specific that families around the world will identify with it. When it’s so personal, it becomes universal.”

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