Following his Saturday, July 20th, production of Death and the Maiden, I had the pleasure of sitting down and speaking to director Mel Aravena. Born in Chile and having moved to Canada with his family in 1993, the Ariel Dorfman play holds a great deal of personal significance. Sitting down to lunch on a sunny patio, Aravena went into detail about his personal history, his attachment to themes of justice, his opinion on highly moralistic material, and what’s next for him.
Ariel: Last year you put on BETRAYAL by Harold Pinter. This year you’ve done Dorfman’s DEATH AND THE MAIDEN. Was that a conscious choice or just a happy coincidence?
Mel Aravena: It was a really happy coincidence. Ariel Dorfman is really inspired by Harold Pinter, […] and [Dorfman’s] Death in the Maiden is dedicated to Pinter. […] But I didn’t choose the play because of that.
A: Why did you choose Death and the Maiden?
M: I chose it because it’s a gritty political drama. It’s connected to my Latin American roots. It speaks really poignantly to my Latin American identity. And I think that, apart from the fact that it’s a fantastic script, and will entertain and awe and shock people, it’s very relevant today. The script, I think, was written to address universal questions about justice, revenge, and torture. But, I mean, you [look] at the world and you see examples of this […] repeating itself over and over and over again.
A: Like how? What examples can you give me?
M: Syria. You look at Egypt and a few weeks back there was an article about how a hundred women were raped. Institutionalize and systematized violence is a big part of it, I think.
A: What did you find to be the most personally compelling aspect of this play?
M: I think what’s the most compelling is my family history and my politics, which lead me towards supporting someone like Paulina Salas, and wanting to believe Paulina Salas. But my sense of justice wants to scream out “no!” What’s happening to this man, Roberto Miranda, throughout this play is totally unsubstantiated, and there’s no real reason for this kind of injustice to happen to someone. What draws me to it is how morally ambiguous the whole situation really is. Does [Paulina] have a right to do these sorts of things to this man because of some past claim? In the play we never, ever verify that he’s actually responsible for anything. I don’t think there’s one constitutional lawyer in Canada who would put much stock in his confession. It’d be thrown out.
A: There were moments where his confession seemed to have glimpses of honesty, and at the same time his answers could seem highly contrived. Was that a deliberate choice in order to help call his guilt or his innocence into question?
M: Yeah, absolutely, yes. And I think it’s motivated by the character because, I think of Roberto Miranda as kind of a chameleon, right? His goal is always to be released. That’s what he’s always after. So he sets up this plan to come up with a confession to be released. So it’s very important for him to seem like he’s falsifying things, like he’s making it up to keep Gerardo on his side. But at the same time, he has to sound genuine enough to get Paulina to let him go in honor of that commitment. So […] that dichotomy is very important.
A: You mentioned that part of your personal interest in the script was also your family history. Can you tell me a bit about that and how it ties in?
M: Personal identity, and family history is very profound. We’re all defined by that kind of family story, right? So what mine is, is that my father was actively involved in the unions at the time of Salvador Allende and during the coup. Then he was underground and [involved] during the resistance. So he was involved in smuggling people out of the country and all kinds of things like that. Later on he met my mom here, when he was basically forced into exile in 1975 or so and this story, and that dictatorship, and the injustices that happened there are really important to how I was raised, and how I think about the world. So a lot of this stuff, whether it’s Death and the Maiden, or my very first film Love in the Time of Pinochet, it all touches down on this stuff. Because I’m trying to come to terms with what it means to have grown up in and lived in and I guess be defined by that context. I can speak about it today in a more grown up way, but obviously in the past it was a source of a lot of personal anxiety and anger. And it’s interesting because, I can’t say that I experienced much of it in terms of remembering it, because I was too young to remember it. Although, there were some things. I know it had an impact because, when I moved to Canada, for example, I wouldn’t leave on my first day of school because the teacher wouldn’t tell me where the military checkpoints were. So these kinds of things. Just dealing with all of that. Not that making plays is some kind of psychological therapeutic process for me, it’s not. It’s just important to always tell a story that you can relate to and have some kind of experiential base [in]. Mischa’s character, in many ways, was my Dad. And that’s why a lot of the character choices, and the internal contradictions, in the way that they’re played, are very deliberate. I didn’t want to produce a piece where people were idealizations. I didn’t want Paulina Salas to be a victim exclusively. Or Gerardo to be a heroic human rights lawyer or Miranda to be this maniacal torture doctor. I didn’t want them to be hysterical, right? So it was really important to draw on common experiences. The first scene, for example, when she’s taking out the gun, that’s a combination of – one of the things I think is difficult for this play in Canada is that it’s very difficult for people to understand this culture of fear that was prolific in Latin America at the time. And Ariel Dorfman tries to show this in his last scene of the play, which I changed. I changed the setting of it. They see each other at an opera. People were always concerned about who someone might be, who was listening, and intermingling with torturers, and such. Just this prolific culture of fear. And that’s why, with the beginning, I blocked it with her freaking out with the gun. It’s not just she’s had a traumatic experience, it’s also that it’s part of that culture of fear.
A: How much of yourself did you see in this play, and was that a factor in your decision to direct it?
M: It was a huge factor. I like to do work that I can identify with and that has questions that are morally interesting to me, and this play has quite a bit of that. I hate moralistic work. I really don’t want to do work that answers anything, or is politically biased in one way. I think it’s always important to understand that people come, and live, and function in a historical setting. And I think that … I’m not sure that most people are evil. I think they’re just reacting to historical circumstances. So, there would be many choices that I could take that would condemn the dictatorship. And I do condemn the dictatorship. But I don’t think that’s useful. I don’t think that’s helpful in any sort of process. I’m more interested in understanding.
A: So you don’t see Dorfman’s play as moralistic at all?
M: I think it can be done moralistically, but I don’t think Dorfman’s play necessarily calls for it.
A: Even though it calls into question issues of morality? Issues of vengeance versus proper justice, and forces the audience to look at this?
M: I think the reason why it’s not moralistic is because it asks those questions without providing you with an answer. And I think also, one of the brilliant things that he did in the script was leave undefined whether or not she actually kills Doctor Miranda. Because if he had written that in, that would’ve been the final consequence and then that would be what people would focus on. And then it doesn’t let the questions breathe.
A: It would cease to be a dialogue and it would simply be a question answered?
A: Your work in the past, and including this production, seems to follow a trend of being very heavily political. Cultural histories aside, now that you know that that’s the way you’ve been going, are you going to continue to do that? Are you going to intentionally revolt against it? Or are you just going to accept it and explore?
M: I think because of who I am, I’ll always do work that’s political. But as I get more experienced, and as I work in film, television, and the rest, I’m more drawn to a larger array of things. You know? But the stories speak to me. One of the stories I was thinking of doing next is Antigone. Which is a really early example of the question between law and justice. What’s the relationship? Because in Antigone, Antigone’s brothers fight a civil war, and they both kill each other on the battlefield. Now one represented the state of Thebes, and the other was a rebel. And the King Theon decrees that the rebel can’t be buried. But she buries him anyways. And the sentence for burying him is death. So it’s very much about what is right and wrong and what’s the law? I’m always drawn to that concept.
A: Are you excited to have that kind of a reputation as somewhat of a confrontational artist? Or does that bother you that people might start to pigeon hole you?
M: Oh I like it. I don’t want to be Steven Spielberg, right? I’m not interested in making family friendly works for everybody. I just kind of do the stories that I want to do. And some of them are really inflammatory, like Death and the Maiden. I’d be very surprised if I walked out of Death and the Maiden unscathed review-wise. I’ll be very surprised. Especially because some of my choices are not the obvious choices . There’s been four major Canadian productions of it, and I did not do what those people did.
A: Do you see that hurting you in any way?
M: It might. I think people have expectations about how plays have to go. I think what’s important to ask yourself is are you considering the author’s intent? Right? If you’re contradicting the author’s intent in any one scene you’re probably not doing it right. But, staging, character interpretation, all of these things – that’s not outlined necessarily in the script. So those are choices. And you can choose, for example, to do a much more personalized version of Death and the Maiden like I did, or you can choose to do something a little more public. You can choose something where Paulina goes a little crazier. I know, apart from the Broadway version, people generally tend to make her very hysterical. And I think that’s not the right approach.
A: Do you think the hysterical nature of that also speaks to the times? Once upon a time a woman in that situation would have to be perceived as being hysterical. The way Doctor Miranda constantly refers to her as being “sick”, she’s a “sick woman.” Did you look at that and think that the times had changed, and that you could no longer have that hysterical perspective? Does it change how you approach it?
M: I think so. I think it’s really important to think about how people are going to see the story nowadays. You have to consider what an audience is going to think when you’re directing. Are they going to understand something you’re trying to put into it? Do they have an experiential base to understand? Or is it purely theoretical? And thinking about modern manifestations of feminism, when you’re dealing with a really strong female lead, but someone who might really ride that line like Paulina, you have to be very sensitive.
A: would it bother you if someone interpreted your version as being feminist?
M: No, that’d be fine.
A: Would you say that there is a feminist dialogue to it? Or do you think that would be a narrow mined viewpoint? Is vengeance of a woman automatically feminist?
M: I don’t know enough feminist theory to properly answer you about it, but what I would say is that I really was worried with Paulina about how a female audience would react. Because it’s very easy to make her one-dimensional and hysterical, right? Which would alienate that whole side. So I wanted a character that women could really relate to. So I worked really closely with Claudia [Wit] to make sure she had multiple layers of complexity and physical change in her character.
A: You were very careful to avoid making any of the characters pandering extremes. Even Gerardo, who is a heroic figure at times, isn’t The Hero figure throughout?
M: Gerardo is, I think, politically motivated by the right reasons, but I think he’s egotistical, misogynistic, and not necessarily concerned. He’s very bureaucratic. That’s part of the way I wanted him to play it.
A: Could you say he’s a product of the environment that he’s trying to bring down?
M: Oh he definitely is. I think he’s a man who means well, but he’s stuck in the bureaucratic realities of politics and that’s difficult for him, and for his relationship. But that’s the world that he operates in. So for him to operate and understand the world outside of that perspective is really difficult for that character. And that’s one of his character flaws. Which is very human. He’s not evil. His motivations aren’t bad. It’s fundamental for characters to have those kinds of internal contradictions and those kinds of conflicts. If you don’t have that, there’s no depth to the character. They’re not people. They’re just pedantic talking figures.
A: So what’s next for you? What do you have lined up?
M: Next I want to do a short film on a play by Rainer Maria Rilke called Orpheus, Eurydice and Hermes. I think I’m drawn to that poem because of its imagery. It’s one of the best interpretations of that story I’ve ever read. So Eurydice dies, and she’s taken to the underworld. Her husband, Orpheus – considered the greatest living musician of the time next to Apollo – writes this lament upon her death that moves the Gods so profoundly that they encourage him to go and find her in the Underworld, with Hermes as his guide. He finds her, and he can bring her back to life on the condition that he doesn’t look back at her until they’re both on the surface. So he goes all through the Underworld looking for this woman, and then brings her back. And we all know the story. Just as he reaches the top, he’s overcome with curiosity and he turns around to look at her, ultimately sending her back to Hades. And he spends the rest of his life lamenting what happened. So that’s the next short film I’d like to make. I like the themes. It deals with love, questions of love. But it’s also very visual, right. You get to describe the Underworld, and you get to describe beauty. And so that’s what’s really inspired me to do that, and I’m really looking forward to it.
Death and the Maiden continues to play at the Pearl Company Theatre in Hamilton tonight, Thursday, July 25th at 8:00pm, through until Saturday, July 27th.