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SXSW Festival Celebrates Vision of Spanish Filmmaker Rocío Mesa with ‘Tobacco Barns (Secaderos)’

Rocío Mesa likes to define herself with the term filmmaker. She does not use the term film director or director, something that this Andalusian (Las Gabias, Granada) native can rightfully claim to be.

Mesa has earned the right, thanks to her work in her first feature film, Secaderos, which is being released as Tobacco Barns in the United States. She can also be called a documentary filmmaker, for her Orensanz, and a producer, after her participation in feature films such as Mbah Jhiwo and Alma anciana (Old Soul) by Álvaro Gurrea, which premiered in the Forum section of the Berlinale in 2021.

All this in addition to her work in numerous experimental short films and as artistic director of LA OLA – Independent Films from Spain, an organization dedicated to promoting cutting-edge Spanish cinema in North America for more than eight years now.

But Mesa only feels comfortable with the term filmmaker, the one that encompasses her artistic concerns of a lifetime, which now have their best expression in Secaderos. The film moves between magical realism and the customs of her homeland, with the story of two young people who happen to be in the same place but in parallel lives since what for one is a paradise is a cage for the other.

We spoke with the filmmaker in Los Angeles, the city where she has lived for more than a decade, before Secaderos premiered in the Visions section of SXSW (South by Southwest), one of the most important film festivals in the United States, in Austin, Texas on March 10-18 this year.


After receiving awards at other international festivals such as San Sebastián and Gijón, how do you feel about the arrival of Secaderos at SXSW?


It was a surprise and a gift. In the same way that the San Sebastián prize was a gift when it came to being able to share work within my country, this will be an ideal place to share it in the place where I have lived for a long time. In addition, it helps to create a community and contact my colleagues here because in the end, it is where I live.


How was Secaderos born and why did it see the light within fiction and not the documentary?

I have a vision of making movies as a filmmaker. I like the term because from there, we can explore cinema in a broader way, performing many tasks. I am very self-taught but always walking towards the field of direction.

When the Secaderos project was born, I considered it a creative documentary because I knew the medium and I felt more secure but as I developed the project, and wrote the script, I fell in love with the characters. I overturned many ideas that I had, that I was dragging from my early years.

The film does a cleaning not of how I am now but of that place where you put all those things that you wanted to tell. By writing, you get to fall in love and you also make fiction but without abandoning that root of wanting to be closer to reality so I used non-professional actors, neighbors of the earth.

A narrative and even a style that coincides with other works by Spanish filmmakers such as Carla Simón in Alcarràs and Elena López Riera in El agua. Can you talk about the coincidence of these films in the same year?

It is something that is in the collective imagination of my generation It has not been a causal thing that Carla Simón and I presented our projects at the same time in the same call to the ICAA (Institute of Cinematography and Audiovisual Arts in Spain) or Elena with El agua.

It has just been a natural trajectory of the evolution of the film landscape of our generation. I remember when we talked about the creative documentary at the Pompeu Fàbra University with Mercedes Álvarez and José Luis Guerín. There we were all very interested in that.

It has been a natural and organic movement to start hybridizing and from there, we started shooting similar things each on our own and without knowing each other.

And now, do you know each other?

It’s a super cute story. I met Carla at a press conference where we got together for a photo. With Elena, we talked a lot on social media and we met at the Seville Festival where we gave each other a super hug. Now we keep a WhatsApp group of directors where we are connected.

A community has been created where there is no competition but an enormous love to see your colleagues grow. It is so novel that there are women making films that we have to take care of each other so that it continues to grow.

Especially in the last year, there’s been talk about the presence of women as film directors but the awards in Spain, in Europe or right now in Hollywood do not seem to reflect their presence.

The awards are not representative because we are comparing films that cannot be compared in budget or shooting time. We have a lot of struggles left to fight and one of them is that female directors lack the budget for their films. In Spain, there are few or no women who can make films with a budget of tens of millions of euros.

It’s not just that we’re given the opportunity to work but that we can do it well, with production teams that listen to us and with the budgets we need.

What else is needed to encourage more women behind the camera?


It is so important to have references. We have grown without references. When Carla won in Berlin, I began to cry because seeing a woman from my country get such an important award makes others say, “I can.” You need references.

For me, it was Mercedes Álvarez. Agnès Varda’s cinema helped many of us. Now, it is very important to not only get the nominations but also to receive the awards because they are what give us visibility.

I hope that this new generation of Pilar Palomero, Belén Fume, the colleagues now getting space in the media are given the value they deserve. It is very rare to find a woman who is confident in herself. The system crushed us in such a way that we have a tremendous impostor syndrome.

And the one who has overcome the syndrome hides it because having too much confidence in yourself as a woman is something so strange that you are seen as totally narcissistic. In men, trust does not mean narcissism; it is the canon.

And positive discrimination? It is necessary?

Positive discrimination has been an experiment with an overwhelmingly positive result. There are women who had to be given the opportunity and thanks to that positive discrimination, they succeeded. And there is room for everyone. It’s a canon change, and that’s always awkward but there’s room for everyone.

For years, your work with LA OLA has been to promote Spanish cinema outside of Spain. The last edition of the Goya Awards was the celebration of what many call one of the best years for Spanish cinema. Does it look the same from the outside?

LA OLA emerges as a film exhibition in North America with the hope of giving visibility and distribution to an independent cinema that is undeniably emerging in Spain. A generational movement of films with a very low budget but with highly innovative visions that rarely achieve distribution or sales agents despite reaching festivals.

Those directors who were working in the most absolute precariousness of what was called “the other Spanish cinema” and which today is Spanish cinema. We still have a lot to do but we are seeing a paradigm shift and space is now being created for those who are financing themselves.

But in order for us to make a cinema that is freer and more elastic, we will have to reduce the bureaucratization of the aid system. The aid is designed for a very established cinema and if you arrive with a very new intention, the aid system has to be adjusted to that.

Making movies is always a collective effort but in the case of Secaderos, it combines not only the work of non-professional actors but also the creativity of award-winning teams such as DDT Special Effects. How do you achieve this collaboration?

Secaderos has seven years of history and organically found its place with La Claqueta as producers and the same happened with DDT. There was a lot of magic and in this case, literally because it appeared on DDT as a super small movie, which does not have a budget of a million euros. I thought it was a courtesy call.

How were these Oscar-winning people going to get into something like that? But when they read the script, they liked Secaderos creature so much that they signed up. They are used to making evil monsters and here it was a nature spirit.

On a personal level, they were motivated by “La Nico,” my monster, so they joined as associate producers. They signed up for a mega-small set where we didn’t even have portable bathrooms and they came from working with (J.A.) Bayona in Australia doing (the series) The Lord of the Rings.

But they adapted very well. It was more than we expected because it was uniting Hollywood with a mega-indie but it was also one of the greatest gifts of my professional career.

Translated by Mario Amaya