by Generoso Fierro
This year’s AFI Fest, which just wrapped up on November 14th, had many remarkable aspects, but the most notable was the impressive output from first-time feature film directors who showed there. In fact, in the seven years that Lily and I have covered the festival for Ink 19 and other outlets, we have never seen anything close to this number of compelling and diverse works created by young auteurs.
Shortly after AFI Fest wrapped, I spoke with director Araceli Lemos, whose provocative debut feature, Holy Emy, received a Special Mention Award earlier this year from the Jury for First Features at the Locarno Film Festival in the Cineasti dei Presenti section.
An emotionally complex film that defies normal classification, Holy Emy follows two close Filipina sisters, Teresa (Hasmine Killip) and Emy (Abigael Loma) as they struggle to find acceptance inside and outside of their ethnic community in Athens, Greece. With their mother forced to emigrate back to her native Philippines due to ominous reasons, Teresa and Emy suss out an existence on their own, and do so working at a neighborhood fish market where Teresa is secretly involved in a sexual relationship with a native Greek man named Argyris (Mihalis Siriopoulos). When Teresa becomes pregnant through Argyris, Emy’s body exhibits a physical manifestation of her own that relates to the mystical healing power that was the cause of the rift between the girls’ mother and Mrs. Christina (Eirini Inglesi), a wealthy Greek woman who seeks to use Emy for her inherited supernatural abilities.
Lemos’s film examines the exoticisization of ethnic groups as a troubling entry point of assimilation for immigrants through the character trajectories of Teresa and Emy. By utilizing sometimes extreme, visceral elements, we observe the sisters’ dramatic transformation of their bodies as a response to their exploitation, and as their forms take different paths, we gain deeper empathy for their predicament as outsiders.
During my conversation with Lemos, we discussed the inspiration for creating Holy Emy, her thoughts on the relationship between exoticization and assimilation, as well as her research process, which included interviewing members from the Filipino community in the neighborhood in Athens where she was living during the inception of the film. Lemos also shared her thoughts with me on the casting of veteran actress and Lav Diaz regular, Angeli Bayani, and actresses Hasmine Killip and Abigael Loma and the resultant collaborative process between the actresses themselves and with the non-professional actors who made up the predominance of the cast.
Often, the sad truth is that the only way that some immigrant groups begin to assimilate into a new country is through their exoticization. Was this something that you had in mind when constructing the two different trajectories that Teresa and Emy take in your film?
This has always been my understanding with the Filipino community in Greece. When the Greeks try to engage with the Filipinos, on many occasions it is done in a limited way. In Holy Emy, this is not only expressed through Teresa’s relationship with Argyris, but also through Emy’s relationship with Mrs. Christina. For Emy and Teresa to feel like they can belong, it becomes a bit like a wall because, on the other side, these people only see these small parts of who they really are. In Teresa’s case, she is sexualized by Argyris. In Emy’s case, she is used by Miss Christina for her healing gift. So, I found it interesting that they were not accepted as a whole package, but as small fragments and only if they could be put into a box.
Teresa and Emy are very close in the film, but as they begin to distance themselves from each other, they each exhibit physical manifestations of the separation. These manifestations are seen in Teresa’s natural change during pregnancy and in Emy’s bloody tears. How did you and your co-screenwriter, Giulia Caruso, settle on such intense bodily changes as the expression of growing apart?
The idea was to catch these two young girls, who were raised together and have lived very similar lives, at the moment when their desires diverge. It starts with Teresa wanting to get a boyfriend and start a social life, which pushes Emy to also discover what she wants, and that forces her to realise that they don’t want the same things. For us, we found it a good narrative choice to embody this change in a more heightened way. In the case of Teresa, you see her body actually become bigger and different from Emy’s. And that change awakens in Emy a part of her that was dormant, the gift that she inherited from her mother that allows her to flourish and that pushes her to follow her path and destiny, but in a more bizarre and intense way than Teresa.
You made the decision to have Teresa and Emy’s mother appear only through their video calls throughout the film, and have the reasons behind her exile back to the Philippines remain mysterious and ominous. Can you talk about these choices?
I think that their mother is a kind of ghost in Emy’s and Teresa’s lives, as they both carry so much of her inside of them, but she is not physically there to guide them either. I found that to be a very important element of the story because I think that at the heart of most immigrant experiences is a carrying of aspects of their lineage and family inside of them to this new place, but because the cultural context is absent, and the family is not there to explain things, a disconnect forms between the things you carry and the place where you have landed. So, that is the main reason why we decided to not have the mom physically present, but I also liked that in the narrative itself the reason why she was not there was because she was a kind of mystical person who was too big for this reality.
There is one more aspect to the mother’s absence: she’s a warning to Emy. Like a looming threat of what could happen to her, the mother’s story is, in a sense, a warning to the girls to not fall into their mother’s footsteps and end up like her. Everyone around them has attempted to brainwash them about the terrible fate of their mother, and these stories came about due to these people never fully accepting their mother in the first place. Basically, the people around Emy and Teresa are using their own mother to say that if you do not conform, then you will suffer the same fate that has befallen her.
You’ve stated in articles that the Filipino community in Greece is very insular, but that you were able to connect with them through the Charismatic Catholic church that we see in the film. Was there ever a moment at the church when this well known mystical healing power that Emy exhibits in the film was ever openly discussed with you?
So, I went there as an observer mostly, and I was very welcomed as a guest by the congregation. I had many conversations with people there, and they all had a very diverse range of beliefs. There wasn’t a strict canon of beliefs in the church. Some people said to me that if someone has a gift, and they have been blessed by the church, then it is like doing the work of God. Other people said no and condemned the gift completely. Those same people would say that this is a way that believers are mislead, and these are works of the devil. Many were skeptical and doubted this power, and then a few would say that this gift is not part of the church, but that they’ve seen it happen and have people in their families who have this gift. So, empirically they shared with me these first-hand stories. In the end, I found that members of the Filipino community in Greece had very diverse opinions on the subject. The Greeks also have equally diverse opinions, but in general, many are skeptical.
When it comes to your experiences in that church, the thing that is a bit unclear to me is the chronology on how you and Giulia developed Holy Emy. Did you begin to formulate your screenplay with Giulia prior to your observations in the church or after?
Because I have been writing it for so many years, I have also lost track of the chronology. (laughs) I’ll say that I think that inspiration comes in waves. Sometimes you have a lot of ideas, and magically they all come together. I think that it all began with this short story about two sisters and how I found their relationship interesting because one of the sisters was acting jealous and feeling like she was being pushed away by the other sister when she became pregnant. I then had a desire to expand on that relationship by making the girls Filipino, primarily because I was living in the Filipino neighborhood in Athens, and I then went to the church and discovered this link between the spiritual and healing. That link intrigued me further, and so I ascribed that ability to Emy because it brought back memories from when I was younger and my mom was looking into alternative forms of medicine. So, I think that was the chronology, but, at the same time, I recently met an old teacher of mine who remembered that years ago I was working on a project that sounded similar to this, which had a different entry point that I had totally forgotten about. So, admittedly, I am a bit lost on the exact chronology of how this all came together. (laughs)
As far as casting, I know that the extras in your film are from the Filipino community, and that Abigael Loma, who plays Emy, is Greek-Filipino, but Hasmine Killip, who portrays Teresa, is not. How did you prepare Hasmine to understand the diaspora so that she could prepare for her role?
That was the nice thing about Abigael and Hasmine—the way they exchanged experiences and information with each other. As Hasmine was an experienced actress, she shared her thoughts on acting, which was important as Abigael did not have any on-screen acting experience before my film. Also, Abigael was very good at letting Hasmine know about the dynamics of being a Filipino in Greece. Because Hasmine took extra time and arrived in Greece two months before shooting to do rehearsals, she went around and asked Abigael as well as the other women who worked on the film questions that pertained to her role, such as how common or uncommon was it for someone in their community to date a Greek man?
Another benefit of putting Abigael and Hasmine together was how Abigael possesses this natural instinct to change the way that she spoke and how she acted a bit shy when she spoke to elder Greeks like Mrs. Christina in the film, but Hasmine didn’t have this attitude, and that was a good thing as I felt that the characters of Emy and Teresa should be more rebellious anyway because they were raised by a mom outside of the community, and so she would’ve taught them to be more independent and to think for themselves. The introduction of Hasmine’s attitude led me to encourage Abigael to lose a bit of her shyness when it came to her interactions with the Greeks as I realized it befitted her role more.
I love your selection of Angeli Bayani to play the role of Linda. Lav Diaz’s film, Norte, the End of History is one of my favorite films from the previous decade. In that film, Angeli is heartbreaking as Eliza, the wife of an innocent man who is sent to prison. What had you seen from Angeli’s previous work that convinced you that she was right for her role in Holy Emy?
I had seen Angeli in Lav Diaz’s work, but also in some short films. I saw her perform well in very different roles in a few films, so I appreciated that she had such a wide range. Also, she had a great deal of experience working with non-professional actors, which made her perfect for Holy Emy as she would have to be part of the community where everyone else was a non-professional actor. We spoke before she arrived, and she told me about her other experiences, and then I asked her if she had any notes for me about the script, and she admitted that she had no idea about what life was like for the Filipino diaspora in Greece, and that facet was a huge reason as to why she was interested in the project because, for her, it would be like a new world. I found that to be a very insightful note. I knew that Linda was a very demanding role, and I just didn’t feel right casting a non-professional in the part, so I found her to possess the perfect balance of having the right experience and comfort with the situation.
Lastly, I saw that AFI Fest listed Holy Emy as a horror film. When I saw Holy Emy, I somewhat sensed a nod to David Cronenberg’s film, Dead Ringers, which utilizes some body horror elements in a story where twin brother surgeons react adversely to changes in one another. I myself wouldn’t specifically categorize your film as horror, but were you and Giulia cautious about that classification when you began using body horror elements?
It has been a bit tricky because we certainly don’t want to create false expectations. We like the idea of playing with elements of suspense and blood motifs that usually exist in more violent or gory films, and reinterpreting these motifs in a predominantly female world. Because there is suspense and mystery here, I believe that there is an element of fear in a psychological sense, and that’s because this film is very much about this creature Emy, who the audience cannot be sure of. We are uncertain about what she is capable of, and consequently, we do not know whether or not we should be afraid of her. So, there is this sort of fear, but for me where it gets interesting is that Emy herself doesn’t know if we should be afraid of her, or even if she should be afraid of herself, and that takes it into the territory of psychological drama. So, since the story changes tone the more we get Emy to open her Pandora’s Box, the film becomes something else. Yes, it has been a challenge to classify this for sure.
I understand that there is that danger associated with genre cinema, being that if you are labeled as a horror director…
Yes! And that is why I haven’t labeled this as horror or thriller. I have tried to stay away from these classifications, but I could see how a festival could see the elements in Holy Emy and think of it as horror. For me, the film is just Holy Emy. (laughs)
Holy Emy had its North American premiere at AFI Fest 2021.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Featured photo courtesy of StudioBauhaus and Utopie Film.