Exclusive The Second Mother Clip and Interview With Writer/Director Anna Muylaert
Before the film begins its theatrical release Friday (and continues to roll out in theaters through November) we have an exclusive clip of Anna Muylaert’s new film, The Second Mother, and interview with Muylaert! Her film premiered earlier this year at the Berlin International Film Festival, winning the C.C.A.E. Award and Panorama Audience Award, as well as at the Sundance International Film Festival, which landed the film’s two leads, Regina Casé and Camila Mardila, the award for best acting.
The two actresses play mother and daughter Val and Jessica, who have been separated for more than a decade. Val left Jessica as a child in Pernambuco so she could find work in Sao Paulo as a live-in nanny to Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), a child the same age as Jessica. Now both college-aged, Jessica comes to Sao Paulo to take college entrance exams and start her adult life, and she sees that her absent mother lives as a second class citizen. We spoke about the film and real-life inspirations for this film which exposes some of the social injustices of domestic service both in Brazil and around the world.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): Do you have personal experience with the kind of relationship we see on-screen, where maids and nannies live in the home and raise the children of working parents, but aren’t considered equal or part of the family?
Anna Muylaert: In Brazil, when I was being raised, everyone had nannies. I had a nanny. But it was not because my mother was working, it was because everyone had nannies. My mother didn’t even work, she was home all day. But everyone had nannies at that time. And later, when I had my own kids, everyone still had nannies, but I wanted to work and not to have a nanny. So that experience is what made me want to make this film. Because every Brazilian has had this experience and lived one of these roles.
TMS: Are nannies still that common in homes?
Muylaert: Yes, but in the last four years I think, the government made a law to make this kind of slavery into something more professional. So now it is considered a job like any other. They work 8 hours and then go home. And if a family wants them for longer, they have to pay for those extra hours. So 10 years ago, 22% of maids lived inside the house. Now, only 2%. So what we see in the film, of someone living in the house, is a dying tradition. But it is still very common for people to have nannies and maids.
TMS: When did you start to feel there was some kind of injustice in this kind of work, not just the legal question, but that this kind of treatment of workers went against your own moral compass?
Muylaert: To be honest, it was probably when I was a kid. I remember when I was in school, about 6 or 7, and the teacher asked us to draw our family. And I remember being puzzled and asking “should I draw the maid.” And the teacher said, “It’s up to you” and I felt that although the maid was there and I wanted to include her, I was not supposed to draw her in the picture. I had the sensation to include her. But although she was there in the home, she didn’t count. And the idea for this film was probably born at that time.
TMS: The relationship between mother and daughter is interesting because they fundamentally disagree about what is “proper behavior” in the home. Val is telling Jessica to keep her head down, not to interact with the family, and Jessica thinks Val is passively allowing or even encouraging the family to treat her like a second class citizen. And that conflict seems to come from Jessica getting exposed to this life as an adult. What role does Jessica play in exposing the injustice Val seems to accept?
Muylaert: In my mind, Jessica was raised by her grandmother and at home, so she wouldn’t have had anyone working for the family. She wasn’t raised with a maid or nanny, so she didn’t have any idea about these rules. She was raised to see herself as a citizen. She says, she is neither an inferior or superior, she is just the same as everyone else. So to see her mother being treated like a second class citizen, she doesn’t like to see that.
But her mother is the one talking about those rules more than anyone else in the house. But my idea about Jessica as a character is that she is an innocent. When you go into a house, you are just going to sit on a chair because you are person. But suddenly she realizes, she is considered half a person. She is a person, but she is not seen as one by the family.
TMS: Since beginning the release of the film internationally, have to notice a different reaction by Brazilian audiences who have some exposure to this as a way of life, compared to some international audiences who may not be aware of how common this is, even though every country has these questions of class and fair treatment?
Muylaert: In Berlin, all the journalists started talking about the power relationships in Brazil and politics. But then, they started to see themselves in the film and I realized that the film does address bigger issues for everyone than even I would have guessed. In Brazil, the film is like a mirror. It hasn’t been released yet, so we’ve only have one premiere with about 800 people. So in Brazil, the film is not just discussing power relationships, human rights, social injustice, respect and dedication, but it also works as a mirror for audiences and people have a more emotional reaction I think.
People loved the film and were extremely enthusiastic about the film. And it’s been good for me to see that reaction, because some people get disturbed or annoyed because the film is saying, they might be very small actions but they don’t belong to this century. But some people do get mad. Some people said to the actress who plays Barbara (actress Karine Teles plays Val’s boss) “you did very well, because if it was me, I would have bitten the daughter.” Some people think that Jessica should get out or that she’s not a nice character. But there were other reactions from people who were very enthusiastic about the film and have been writing to me “every Brazilian should see this film.”
TMS: Are there people who refer to this time before the laws were put in place as a lost time or “good old days,” and felt the laws shouldn’t have been put in place and enforced?
Muylaert: Yes, when the laws started, there were a lot a people saying that. Angry that the government was ruining things.
TMS: Was there any resistance from maids who were working in the house, or were those kind of comments coming only from the employers who were losing staff or having to pay more?
Muylaert: I didn’t see any maids say these laws were not good, because they all want to have their own lives? Also, some people ask me, what will Val do now, and most women who were maids who lived inside the house, quite their jobs and became cleaners. They go to one, maybe two houses a day, and get much more money and can have their lives back. So they are still doing the same kind of work, but taking a different approach and getting more money back in return.
TMS: Jessica and Val’s relationship is fractured, and you suggest there is a chance to reunite and make amends, but you kept it very open-ended how their relationship will end up. Because of this kind of work, was it common for women to lose touch with their children the way Val did when she went to work as a maid?
Muylaert: I know one maid who was left her when she was just a year, and her mother then came and picked her up when she was 16. Her mother left the husband because he was a drunk and hit her, but when my friend was 16, her father began to beat her. So she called her mother, who traveled 26 hours by bus to get her. So of course they love each other because it’s her mother, but there will be problems forever. She refer to her as her mother, the same way Jessica doesn’t call Val mother.
I know someone else whose mother left and they didn’t reconnect until she was 20, so they are not intimate with each other. So there will forever be a big scar. But in the process of writing the film, I felt reconnection was the goal. This is the story of a woman who is a mother but didn’t play her role, but has a chance to rewrite her own story. To become a mother. So in the end, when she really helps her daughter, she is also helping herself and becoming a citizen and mother again.
TMS: Did you ever consider showing Jessica’s life without Val, or did you always want the film to introduced Jessica when she arrival and was reunited with Val?
Muylaert: I had written a prologue that explored a little bit about when Val left Jessica. How Val didn’t want to become a nanny. But then I decided to keep the story and film a bit simpler. But I still have those scenes written, and they were beautiful. Perhaps if I’d had a bit more money I would have filmed them. But in the end, I probably would have cut them, because that would have added 15 minutes to the beginning of the film. And I decided to make the film as simple as I could, because of the money but also after writing saw a film with a similar story structure and I thought the simplicity gave that film a certain power.
TMS: What does the relationship between peers like Fabinho, who is ignorant of the injustice and happy that Val was his nanny, and Jessica, who rebels against these rules and sees the injustice, show about the difference between how they were raised and views of the world?
Muylaert: In Brazil, women seem much more mature then the men, and although they are the same age, Jessica is an adult already. And Fabinho may be 18 or 19, but he behaves like a 15 year old still. He isn’t mature, and one of the reasons he is that way is because all the kids raised by nannies are a bit immature. They live as if they are in a hotel. They can leave there clothes all around and always have them cleaned. He never has to walk his dog, or make his bed, or cook his food. So they are kind of lazy. They don’t have muscles. So he doesn’t even have the ability to understand that the rat in the pool his mother refers to is not a literal rat. So he’s too innocent. The lower class people, the criminals portrayed in movies like City of God, call boys like Fabinho playboys, which means they are silly and can be easily robbed.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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