La Civil as seen by Teodora Ana Mihai

Picture of the movie La civil © Menuetto - Agustin Paredes


In La Civil, her first feature film selected for Un Certain Regard and competing for the Caméra d’or, Belgian-Romanian director Teodora Ana Mihai tells the tale of Cielo, a mother on a mission to track down her daughter, kidnapped by a Mexican cartel.

What inspired you to begin work on this film?

I had been investigating the subject matter for a couple of years, thinking I would approach it from the point of view of a teenager growing up in the volatile environment that the drug war has caused in Mexico since 2006. But a meeting with a mother, who shared her story and thoughts with me, made me change course and decide to tell this from a mother’s perspective. That was back in 2015. One of the first things she told me was: “When I wake up in the morning, I want to kill or die.” And the person in front of me had the profile of a housewife and a mother, so these words—coming from her—felt like a slap in the face. I couldn’t help but wonder what she must have gone through, to come to such conclusions. The mother in question was Miriam Rodriguez, whose story became famous, after her tragic death on Mexican Mother’s Day in 2017. She was the inspiration for Cielo’s courageous character in La Civil.

How was the atmosphere on set?

The atmosphere was often a bit tense and stressful, because of the Covid restrictions and the risk that our lead actor, who was literally in every scene, might test positive at some point. Luckily that never happened, otherwise it would have been quite catastrophic. But she was extremely disciplined and careful, and we managed to shoot without major setbacks, despite the challenges. We were able to shoot in a region (the state of Durango, Mexico) that is very picturesque and that has—I believe—the most beautiful light in the whole country. It is quite amazing. Not to speak of the Mexican colour palette, which is gorgeous. We were treated very well from that viewpoint. And we had the opportunity to film two crucial scenes in John Wayne’s ranch, La Joya, where he filmed his last four films. Quite a special place. The film actually has that 'Western' look to it at times. It made us joke, saying we were making a Narco Western.

Please share a few words about your actors.

Choosing my actors, casting, and even a part of the rehearsals had to be done online, because of the full and then partial lockdowns we were facing. If you would have told me two years ago that I would cast my first fiction feature mainly online, I would have declared you crazy. But look… it actually happened, and it actually worked out. I still am amazed it did, I admit. But I think that in such exceptional circumstances, facing such disproportionate challenges, it brings the lion out in people, in a good way. It makes them more focused, more resilient, stronger, ready to give it their best shot. My actors were amazing, I feel privileged to have worked with such a talented and disciplined cast. And Arcelia Ramirez, who had the lead role and carried the film on her shoulders, did some impressive work. She surprised me several times along the way, giving me more than I dared to hope. Very perceptive to direction, very insightful, strong and at the same time so sensitive. Her facial expressions are amazing, they are like reading a book. Along the way I discovered that both among cast and crew, there was a great dedication towards the script and the theme, because many people working on the film had actually been touched by similar situations in their families or circle of friends. So, they strongly felt that this was a relevant story to tell and they wanted to take part in telling it.

What were the sources of your inspiration?

My cinematic inspirations are filmmakers like the Dardennes and Cristian Mungiu, one of the frontrunners of the Romanian New Wave of course. It’s no coincidence that they are co-producing my film because there is a lot of affinity in the kind of filmmaking, visuals, theme…

What did you learn in making this movie?

Many times along the way it gets really tough, artistically, financially and one sometimes questions one’s choice of having become a filmmaker. What directing La Civil has taught me, is that fortunately it seems I made the right life choice. This is a beautiful profession, it makes me feel grateful and happy to be able to share touching stories with the public.

What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

My father, through his infectious passion for photography. Tarkovsky through his wonderful, poetic imagery. Agnes Varda through her talent, perseverance and unique voice…

What are your views on the state of the film industry in your country?

Since I have this multiple identity, born in Romania, raised in Belgium, and having studied film in the US… It is challenging to answer your question concisely. 'My countries' all have different but strong film traditions, which have all shaped me in some way. I am grateful for all this audiovisual and cultural heritage, that makes my voice somewhat atypical, but quite authentic I hope.

Can you say a word about your next project?

The next project, for now titled Family Album, will be a bit closer to home. The story oscillates between Romania and Belgium and is inspired by stories of the diaspora, which I have heard and witnessed throughout the years. I am really looking forward to developing this new project. I am again collaborating on the script with Mexican writer Habacuc Antonio De Rosario, with whom I collaborated on La Civil. This time the arena is Romania and Belgium, closer to my background, whereas in La Civil it was closer to his. Our collaboration is very complementary and helps us safeguard the authenticity of a story, while really keeping the universal quality of it in mind.