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A birthday party for a dying father chronicles childhood before loss in 'Tótem'

<em>Tótem</em> chronicles one afternoon for Sol (Naíma Sentíes) a young girl about to undergo a massive loss. It was written and directed by Lila Avilés.
Courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films
Tótem chronicles one afternoon for Sol (Naíma Sentíes) a young girl about to undergo a massive loss. It was written and directed by Lila Avilés.

In the film Tótem, 7-year-old Sol arrives at her grandparents' house in Mexico City for a birthday party donning a fluffy rainbow wig and a bright red clown nose. The soft-spoken girl, played by Naíma Sentíes, is reluctant to wear the costume. But she's ushered in by Cruz, her father's caretaker and the only adult not so overrun with party preparations that she cannot answer the door.

As Sol hesitantly stands near the door, Cruz, played by Teresita Sánchez, lovingly compliments her cheerful outfit.

"What's at the end of the rainbow, Sol?" Cruz asks in Spanish. "Gold. You are gold, Sol."

Tótem is an evocative family drama about a young girl navigating a world of adults and terminal illness over the course of one day. This acclaimed Mexican film, gradually opening in the United States this month, was an autobiographical and deeply personal work for its creator, 41-year-old director Lila Avilés.

"In the day to day, we are so obsessed with what's next," says Lila Avilés. "This kind of film is something to return to the present and to that beauty of being alive."
/ Courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films
Courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films
"In the day to day, we are so obsessed with what's next," says Lila Avilés. "This kind of film is something to return to the present and to that beauty of being alive."

She describes how she learned to make films much like how she raised her own daughter. "I was always kind of playing," she says over Zoom from her home in Mexico City. "I was playful."

Growing up, Avilés remembers her father would set up plays for all the cousins in the family to act out and write sketches based on their stories. "I guess that built something creative in me," she laughs.

The director didn't attend film school. She became a mother at a young age and worked her way through several behind-the-scenes roles in theater and later in cinema: wardrobe, production, art department.

Tótem, her second full-length film, was recently shortlisted by the Academy for Best International Feature as Mexico's official submission, although it was not among the five eventual nominees in the category. The film, however, has received a number of other accolades, including an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best International Film.

Documenting life before loss

Over the span of just about an hour and a half, Tótem immerses viewers in a memorable afternoon for a Mexican family, as seen and felt through the eyes of young Sol. She quietly moves through the warm, but somewhat chaotic house — full of paintings, pets and people — as she watches her aunts, cousins and grandfather set up for her father's celebration.

"It's a unique day in this girl's life, and in this family and friends structure," says Avilés. Sol's father, Tona, has cancer, and it is hinted that this birthday will likely be his last. As Sol wanders from room to room, with the camera often positioned at her vantage point, her sense of grief is rendered with care and clarity.

Tótem is Avilés' love letter to her teenage daughter, who also lost her father when she was close to Sol's age. The film takes its creative liberties, Avilés adds, since it's not exactly how things unfolded in real life. But there are "codes" written into Tótem about what she and her daughter went through together in those early years. In one scene, Sol takes an adult family member's smartphone and asks Siri when the world will end, listening to a vague and unsatisfying response.

Film critic Carlos Aguilar described Tótem as "a luminous and soul-nourishing microcosm" in his review for The Playlist. "This young protagonist is asking the questions about death and mortality and what happens after we're gone," he tells NPR. "What Lila Avilés does brilliantly is she allows for [Sol] to fully engage with those emotions, and I think that's one of the ways that she manages not to make it overly sentimental or predictable in an emotional way."

But Tótem does not solely focus on death or emotional darkness. It's also a visual meditation on innocence, beauty and nature. Scenes of Sol's grandfather snipping a bonsai tree — his gift to his dying son — are interspersed with shots of insects crawling in the garden. Avilés says she wanted to deeply connect the greater order of nature — of life and death — to this family's very human experience.

"Birds fly with this magnetism that we don't understand. Sharks travel in water with this magnetism. And I guess we also have it as humans, animals, and we forget," she says. "And it's not like, 'oh she's mystical because she's Mexican!' Not at all. It's only this sensibility that you can feel some connection."

Focusing on everyday heroines

Avilés broke through on the international stage with her 2018 film The Chambermaid, also Mexico's submission for the Oscars. It follows a young woman cleaning rooms at a luxury hotel in Mexico City, a stark commentary on class and gender in Avilés' rapidly gentrifying hometown. Both films hone in on womanhood in Latin American society, and organically allude to the many layers of modern Mexican identity through indigenous history, race and spirituality. Avilés tenderly frames her characters as they go about their daily tasks: bathing a child, decorating a cake, cleansing a house of evil spirits, vacuuming a carpet. "They don't need to be a heroine to be a heroine," she says. "They're normal, day-to-life heroines."

Gabriela Kartol as Eve in <em>The Chambermaid</em>.
/ Courtesy of Kino Lorber
Courtesy of Kino Lorber
Gabriela Kartol as Eve in The Chambermaid.

Aguilar, who is also from Mexico City, says Avilés represents a new wave of Mexican cinema led by women. He points to filmmakers like Tatiana Huezo, Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero, who — along with Avilés — have directed, written and produced some of the country's most important projects of the past decade. That's partially thanks to government funding that's greatly bolstered Mexico's film industry. "The government support of the last few decades really diversified the voices that were telling stories, and by that token, we started getting stories from women's perspectives," says Aguilar.

That includes incentives like EFICINE, a tax credit through the Mexican Film Institute (IMCINE), which designated 15 million Mexican pesos toward Tótem's total budget. With initiatives focused on boosting indigenous and Afro-descendant filmmakers, government funding has also helped bring trans and women's stories to audiences.

For Avilés, who grew up in a matriarchal family, centering women in her films feels natural and organic. She says she writes what she knows — like the buzzing party that Tótem builds up to, a lively ensemble of different ages, class and racial backgrounds, all friends coming together to toast for Tona — and she's focused on portraying a sense of belonging and community in her home country. She wants to move away from on-screen stereotypes of Mexico: violence, poverty, and trauma.

"Obviously it's a part of what's happening in Mexico. But I also love the other part of Mexico that can be super loving," she says. "There are also hard working people, and I tried to bring that love to Tótem. I guess for me, the totem is love."

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Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.