Red Light, Green Light: Carla Simón’s Summer 1993 

By Diane Sippl


Stellar young actresses Paula Robles as Anna (left) and Laia Artigas as Frida (right)

A highlight of the 2017 AFI FEST presented by Audi, Carla Simón’s Summer 1993 is a film like no other.  Capturing all the innocence of childhood with neither the sentiment that idealizes children nor the malice that turns them into “entertaining” monsters, this writer-director captures in her first feature the memories that have made her who she is.  Featured in the New Auteurs section of the festival, Carla Simón’s work will set a precedent for other budding artists who unabashedly draw from their own life stories, not only because of the film’s deep social truths, long hushed in the world, but also because of the indelible performances of two very young actresses.


A special play of focus occurs in the children’s game—Red Light, Green Light—that opens Summer 1993. Frida, our little protagonist, stands with her back to us, and while we see her clearly in close-up, her point of view is blurred.  Her playmates ahead of her run and then freeze at the command of a blond boy.  He approaches a girl, punches her, tells her she’s dead, and then runs to Frida, where he is now in focus and she is not.  He makes taunting faces at her and shouts, “Why aren’t you crying?”  Then he tells her she’s dead.  She’s been caught, and she’s “out.”

The cut is to fireworks against a black sky and our first view of Frida’s face—she’s mesmerized—but then to the black shadow of Frida walking alone through an apartment home being dismantled by her relatives. This space is also out-of-focus until she scans the empty bed and climbs into a chair too big for her, quietly pondering the luggage on the mattress.  Voices in the background parcel out possessions while one man strums a guitar and sings instead.  It’s Frida’s uncle, the brother of her recently deceased mother, and the music sets the tone for a tender, contemplative look into the intricacies of an orphan’s adjustment to life.  At six years old, Frida is now whisked away to the lush Catalan countryside to live with another family. 

“I wrote from images that I had inside,” director-writer Carla Simón tells us regarding her debut feature film, which tells an autobiographical story.  “However, it was a bit harder to give some structure to all these images. That’s why I decided to preserve this feeling of ‘little moments’, picturing something similar to my first summer with my new family.”  

It’s not just that Frida finds herself in an entirely new situation—living with an aunt and uncle, Marga and Esteve, whom she suddenly must call “mom” and “dad,” waking up each morning to a breakfast freshly milked from the cow and hand-picked from the tree by a little “sister,” meeting neighbors who ask her to collect eggs from hens and show her how an animal is slaughtered—but she slowly feels herself in a strange emotional box with very little wiggle room.  Her own awareness and her acceptance by others are intermittent.

Frida doesn’t seem hyper-sensitive when she’s repeatedly taken back to Barcelona for doctors’ exams, or when she falls and skins her knee and no one is allowed to touch her, or when she overhears a woman in line at the meat deli say she didn’t know “people could die of pneumonia.”  None of this quite registers on her young mind still lacking in knowledge.  After all, tests show that her constant itching is simply an allergy to her new family’s cat. 

But somewhere in her heart lies the sadness of unanswered questions, whispers behind her back, the hushed yet irrepressible bad-mouthing against her birth mother by her grandmother, who repeatedly trains Frida in the “Our Father” prayer by reciting, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…”  The ambiguity is palpable—has this grandmother forgiven her daughter?  Can the others of the community do so? 

No sunrise, no sunset

In 1993 in Spain the AIDS crisis was a largely silent conversation, as taboo a subject as the girl who is “it” in the children’s game that opens the film.  Will she “tag” the others, who run from her as if she’s a pariah?  The dappled light and dark of the film establish a tone in which the brightness of childhood is threatened with danger around every corner. 

Much of the menace is due to Frida herself, who increasingly drums up ways to vex, resist, and even scare the others, not to mention jeopardizing their safety.  Frida rebels against the order of the day (recalling, for some, her deceased mother’s disposition), at first with minor gestures but soon enough with mean acts, “lording it over” her little sister, only four, by abandoning her in the woods and then luring her into water over her head.  Perhaps she wants her to feel the way Frida does, lost, confused, helpless, afraid.  Playing out a psychology of wishful retrieval, Frida dresses up like her mother in her bedridden days, and she role-plays the parent with Anna as the child (Frida in former times), issuing commands for service and attention.  Yet when Frida’s current mother, Marga, lies sick in bed with cramps, Frida panics, unable to realize how vulnerable she herself is to loss, deeply experiencing her fragile emotions.  Frida thinks she’s bold enough to run away, but the forest at night truly frightens her.  Light and dark play a crucial role in the psychological atmosphere of the film.

“The landscape in La Garrotxa is very particular. It’s surrounded by mountains; you barely see a sunrise or a sunset, and in summer the range of greens is huge,” Carla Simón tells us. She chose to shoot the film in the very location where she herself lived beginning in her sixth year, on her uncle’s farm with lush gardens and orchards and crystal-clear ponds.  The quiet mystery of the rural setting evokes other films made by women about their own childhood, such as Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders (2014), about a family of girls who rebel against their father, a beekeeper in Tuscany, when he won’t let them explore the very real magic of participating in making an exotic TV commercial.  Simón’s film is closer in some ways to Jacque Doillon’s Ponette (1996), in which the father must help his four-year-old girl come to terms with the death of her mother, since it involves the child’s introduction to religion, which she manifests through a magical vision of her mother, who appears to her and consoles her.  Frida has no such luck, even when she leaves presents for her mother at a grotto in the forest with the Virgin holding the Christ child.  Yet Catholicism—and “fathers”—figure largely in Frida’s cultural environment and history.

Bruna Cusí as Marga and David Verdaguer as Esteve

Capgrossos and Gegants

The film that we can most closely associate with Summer 1993 is another Spanish one, an earlier film (1973), also the debut of the director, who was also from Catalonia—Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive.  Its young protagonist, Ana, is haunted by the 1931 movie, Frankenstein, and she projects the film character upon a real man, a Republican fleeing the regime in Franco’s Spain just as the Civil War has ended.  Her father lives in internal exile.  Erice contrasts the monster’s childlike emotions and his giant-size adult body; it is patriarchal powers that are to blame for his perversion and destruction, just as the real man is a fugitive from the Fascists. Yet Ana sees him as Frankenstein (who kills the girl, Maria, in the movie she watches), and thus she feels both love and fear in his presence, just as Frida is brought up with both love and fear of God, “Our Father,” who seemingly has the power to take her parents’ lives.  Erice’s film relies heavily on elliptical storytelling of daily life in a small village and the symbolic power of concrete images, as if to pull focus away from the personal story of his young heroine and allude to the broader picture of such a culture.  Ana and her sister struggle to understand why the monster killed Maria and why the people killed the monster; Ana tries to invoke his spirit (which draws, in the editing, to the approaching train that delivered the refugee).  Ana can’t know it, but we see the train as figuring the reason for the man’s initial flight—fascism. 

Simón links Franco’s shadow over Spain to the way AIDS emerged in her country:

Nowadays almost everyone in Spain knows someone who died of AIDS over this period (the early 1980s into the 1990s). The Spanish Transition (following Franco’s death in 1975) was a happy time of sudden freedom, of maximum aperture in Spain. However, this sudden freedom also led to a big consumption of drugs. In the mid-80s media started reporting what they called the “Heroin Crisis,” which came along with the rise of HIV infections. The anti-retroviral meds didn’t arrive until 1994, which was too late for most people from this generation, including my parents. At the beginning of the 90s, around 21,000 people died of AIDS in Spain, the country with the highest incidence of AIDS in Europe. Moreover, in 1986, the year I was born, 30% of the mothers passed the virus to their children. Fortunately, I was from the 70% that were not infected.

So, this context shows this is not only my story but also the story of my parents’ generation, who lived the transition, and my own generation, who lived the consequences of it.

Carla Simón frames her film with a taste of Catalan folklore.  Most villages in Catalonia celebrate the ritual of Capgrossos and Gegants (Big-Heads and Giants) and perform their own traditional dances during the festivities.  “National folklore always attracts my attention because of its great cinematic value,” Simón tells us.  But she uses it in a more precise way in Summer 1993: “We think of our own folklore as something that is normal because we know it so well, but when it’s seen through outsiders’ eyes it takes on another meaning. I’ve always thought that Capgrosos are quite grotesque. They should frighten children, but children in my village love them and they can’t wait to grow up and participate in the carnival.”  These oversize and distorted figures certainly evoke Erice’s Frankenstein in Ana’s eyes.

Reminiscent of the poetic rhythms and painterly landscapes of Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, Carla Simón’s Summer 1993 proceeds with deliberate pacing amidst lush hues and textures.  In particular, the mysteries of the psyche are exquisitely rendered in the grotesque, mythic images of the Big Heads, which capture Frida’s fascination and sense of wonder.  When she is ultimately allowed to participate in the traditional event—as flag bearer, no less—it becomes a moment like all the others that will be etched in her memory.  Yet at the same time sensory details such as these are inscribed with the history of the culture, and the times elsewhere as well, by virtue of their ambiguity as images, their enigmas as emblems of tragedy, their singular and therefore universal embodiments of trauma.  Such resonant images may do little to resolve the questions of the narrative of Summer 1993, elliptical as it is, but they immerse us, by associations we make, in a bigger picture of painful events; thus, Carla Simón’s very personal memories speak to us all.

Screenwriter/Director Carla Simón

Summer 1993

Director: Carla Simón; Producer: Valérie Delpierre; Screenplay: Carla Simón; Cinematographer: Santiago Racaj; Editor: Didac Palau, Ana Pfaff; Designer: Mireia Graell; Sound: Roger Blasco.

Cast: Laia Artigas, Paula Robles, Bruna Cusí, David Verdaguer, Fermí Reixach.

Color, Widescreen, 96 min., in Catalan with English subtitles. 


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