Pilar Palomero on Girlhood and Social Change in San Sebastian World Premiere ‘La Maternal’

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Pilar Palomero’s second feature film “La Maternal” had its world premiere in main competition at Spain’s San Sebastián Film Festival on Tuesday. The Spanish filmmaker, who won Goyas for best picture, best new director and best original screenplay with her debut film “Las Niñas,” produced like “La Maternal” by Valérie Delpierre at Inicia Films, returns to the Basque Country festival with another invigorating work that explores the challenges and joys of girlhood.

“I never made a decision to explicitly focus on girlhood,” Palomero says. “I think it’s a coincidence that both are about young women, but I guess there’s something inside me that I’m not aware of that’s leading me to this subject.”

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In “La Maternal,” sold by Elle Driver, Palomero turns her attention to teen mothers in Barcelona and the social attitudes that condemn them. 14-year-old Carla leaves home when she discovers she is pregnant and arrives at a specialist shelter for young girls and their children. It’s a story grounded in the real lives of many of the actors, non-professionals who the filmmaker says were “really willing to be in the film because they really wanted to explain their stories. They felt this need to say ‘hey, I lived this but it’s not how you think it is.” While the script is not based on their exact experiences, Palomero says she used a mixture of her own research and things the cast told her to build the narrative. Improvisation was also a key facet of the filmmaking process.

“I realised that I didn’t know anything about this reality and I was a little bit ashamed of myself,” the filmmaker says. “I was aware that a lot of what I knew was based on prejudice, and the truth is that when I met these women I fell in love with them and their life experiences. I could’ve made a film about each one of them.”

Carla Quílez, a dancer who plays the young Carla in her first film role, was invited to a casting after being spotted by the casting director on Instagram. “I was amazed when I saw her,” says Palomero. “She’s very young but whenever she dances she becomes a woman. I felt she had all the energy that I was looking for in the role of Carla, who is based on a real girl who is not in the film.” It was important that Carla look truly like a young teenager, not a “16-year-old who could pass for 20,” so that the audience could better understand how childlike she is, and how difficult her situation is as a result.

As a filmmaker, Palomero is excited for the chance to travel with the film around the festival circuit, something that COVID-19 prevented her from doing with “Schoolgirls.” The pandemic did grant her, however, the time to work on the script for “La Maternal” instead. Finding financing for the project proved to be a smooth process after the awards success of the first film and her growing status in the Spanish film industry. The director stands alongside fellow emerging filmmakers like Carla Simón (“Alcarras”) and Carlota Pereda (“Piggy”) as a new leading light for the country’s cinema.

While the film was not made with activist intentions, Palomero hopes that the film “provokes reflection in Spain around sexual education laws and abortion laws.” “For me, all the girls I met are heroines. They are brave, it’s amazing what they do, but it’s too hard for teenagers to live like this. It’s a real problem for our society that this is a reality.”

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