Mixed media spotlight: Sebastián Lelio

Chilean-Argentine director Sebastian Lelio speaks to Malcolm Lewis about writing complex, engaging characters and film as a 'machine for empathy'.

Sebastián Lelio, one of the leading figures of contemporary Chilean cinema, makes films about love and compassion – and the limits of our love and compassion. About who is loved, and accepted, and who is deigned not worthy, and excluded.

He has a personal warmth, friendliness and a winning smile. ‘Film’, he tells me, ‘is a machine for empathy’ and his films deeply immerse us in a life and experience. Usually it’s a woman who is, in some way, an outsider.

In his Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman, Marina, a transgender singer in Santiago, Chile, stands up to intimidation, both from the family of her lover, who has just died, and from the police. His latest film Disobedience has Ronit, the daughter of a north London rabbi who had cut off contact with her after discovering she was in a lesbian relationship, make an unwelcome return to the community for his funeral.

Lelio was born in 1974 in Mendoza, Argentina, to a Chilean mother and an Argentinian father. At the age of two, he and his ballet-dancer mother moved to Chile. This was the year that Argentina suffered a military coup and three years into the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Young Sebastián and his mother lived a nomadic life in a succession of cities. Did this give him a sense of rootlessness? Did the military regime instil a sense of social or political exclusion? I ask.

But he resists any personal or autobiographical angle on his films. ‘It is,’ he says, ‘hard to track back, and I can only explain my motivations. I know what I am trying to do. My characters are not me, and they are different to me. I look for a way to connect to what I’m not, to what the audience is not. So that we discover, so that we learn.’

After first studying journalism for one year, he went to the Chilean Film School. In 2003, he released CERO (Zero), a documentary based on unedited material from the 9/11 attacks on New York in 2001, co-directing with Carlos Fuentes. There followed two seasons directing Mi mundo privado (My private life), a TV documentary series which followed the lives of Chilean families from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. In 2005 his first full-length feature, Sagrada Familia (Holy Family), scooped 28 prizes on the film festival circuit.

Lelio works hard to ground his characters in time and place with specific beliefs and attitudes. He’d known little, for example, about the lives of transgender people or Orthodox Jews in England. He met Daniela Vega, who plays Marina in A Fantastic Woman, when working on an idea about the devastation when someone you love suddenly dies. She was then working as a hair stylist, became an adviser on the film, then its main character. Disobedience came about after Rachel Weisz, who plays Ronit, asked Lelio to read Naomi Alderman’s novel.

Both as writer and director, the way Lelio takes us inside his characters is exceptional. It is, he says, about communicating beyond words and conscious awareness, through image, movement – and music. ‘Music is ingrained in me, and I love music in films – singing and dancing. The power of music is so strong.’

In Gloria, which was his first film released in Europe and the US, Gloria is always singing along to pop songs – it’s her passion that reveals her outlook and her feelings. Marina’s singing of Handel’s ‘Ombra mai fu’ at the end of A Fantastic Woman is an awe-inspiring public eulogy, but confirms too her resilience, composure and profound gratitude for her life with Orlando.

Lelio’s handling of intimacy in relationships is instructive. When, in Disobedience, Ronit and Esti make love, it’s their rapture, their passion that enthrals us. ‘It’s about intimate connection,’ he says, ‘to get into their skins, to feel as they do.’

‘There are no illegitimate people,’ Lelio continues. ‘And it’s not simply that people are good or bad. Film multiplies our life experience. And life is complex. People are not set in stone. In the film, and sitting in the cinema. What they think and feel can change. The protagonists have to figure out how to survive or move on. Like them, I want the spectator to evaluate what is happening.’

It works. A Fantastic Woman had a massive impact in Chile, not least through winning Chile’s first Academy Award. And on 12 September, Chile’s Congress passed The Gender Identity Law, based on a bill held up for nearly six years, allowing trans people aged 14 and over to change their names and legal gender in official documents.