Ectotherms Director Monica Peña Preps Audiences for Her Experimental Film's MIFF World Premiere
During one scene in Monica Peña's debut feature, the cryptically-titled Ectotherms, four young people nestle in the shade between two derelict double-decker buses and bitch about their high school grades. The scene unfolds in an unseen lot in Miami. The surreal presence of buses normally seen on the streets of London is true to a landscape few outside the so-called Magic City hardly see. Of course, those familiar with the city's backyard know where these lorries loom.
Peña has come to the Little Haiti bar responsible for bringing the buses to the area, the British Pub Churchill's Hideaway, to talk her debut feature film. Ectotherms will have its world premiere screening at the Miami International Film Festival Tuesday, March 11. She couldn't be more excited that the city, so quietly the focus of her brilliantly meandering experimental film, is playing host.
For MIFF Executive Director Jaie Laplante it was a no-brainer. In his synopsis for the film, Laplante writes, "Everything about Peña's approach - her mise-en-scène focused on the sides of the dialogue speakers, her unexpected cutting, her sound design full of ambient noises that enforce time and place - is simply startling, cinematic syntax that heralds a new future."
Though her film education comes from the formalist world of UCLA where she earned her master's degree, Peña has deconstructed her knowledge of cinema and breaks many rules of filmmaking.
"I've studied many different kinds of filmmaking, and I walked away with some impressions of certain waves of filmmaking," she says. "One of the things that was always interesting to me was styles and filmmakers who were okay with making imperfect films."
She offers long takes and improvised dialogue by non-actors, who were only made aware of a few tiny plot points. She particularly appreciates the small moments where man and nature inadvertently interact.
"We were shooting Kami [Critchley]," she says, referring to one of the characters. "He was sort of spitting rhymes by the side of the pool. We kind of let him go and go and go, and when I looked at the footage after, I noticed that every few minutes he was slapping mosquitoes off his body, and I thought that spoke to the sense of place and the atmosphere and the mood that we wanted to convey."
For Peña, it's personal. Specifically, she is a first generation Miamian from Cuban parents who shows a sensitive awareness of her background, from social history to the primal environment she grew up in. Subsequently, she has created a work that draws on her experiences as a young person growing up in South Florida. She even called upon her high school Spanish teacher for a presence in the film. Martha Miranda plays the disembodied voice of a grandmother who has just passed away while the film's only female character (Chelsey Crowley) languorously applies dark eye makeup.
Peña says Miranda's narrative came out of a conversation with her about the teacher's grandfather that resonated with her.
"She comes out with this very beautiful story about her grandfather returning to Cuba and dying of nostalgia," she says, "and there was so much in that. It spoke so much to our experiences."