Julita sits at a cluttered table beneath a huge, densely shadowed still life oil painting. Both elbows resting on the quaint checked tablecloth, she dips a biscuit into a tall glass of tea, chews noisily, then re-dips after each bite. Director Gustavo Salmeron’s voice emerges from behind the camera; “Mum, I don’t know how to start the documentary” he comments, while Julita distractedly reads the back of the biscuit packet. With the biscuit packet in hand and a playful glint in her eye, Julita launches into a fairy tale-like framing of her life. “Once upon a time there was a mother…or a recently married woman, who made three wishes.” Though a fairy tale conceit establishes the documentary’s focus, the story that unfolds is far from formulaic or clichéd. “The three wishes were,” Julita continues, “have lots of kids, a monkey…and a castle.”
In his debut feature documentary, Salmeron collates an eclectic array of footage — myriad family events, conversations, domestic scenes and celebrations — into a loving and celebratory portrait of his vivacious and determinedly spirited mother. 15 years lie between the release of Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle (Muchos hijos, un mono y un castillo) and Salmeron’s absurdist directorial debut Salad Days, a comedic short film which takes as its premise the love between a trout and a mixed salad awaiting death in a restaurant cool room. Salmeron’s return to directing evinces a decisive shift away from the theatricality and stylization of Salad Days toward an intimate focus on the personal and familial.
In the first ten minutes of Lots of Kids…, Julita explains that after her sixth child, she bought the monkey she had always dreamed of and, when she unexpectedly inherited a large amount of money, the third and final wish for a castle became an actual feasibility: “I had the kids, I had the monkey, now all I needed was the castle.” So Julita, her husband Antonio, and their flock of children moved into a turreted castle replete with tapestries and frescos, chandeliers, four poster beds, lavish medieval wall hangings and a peacock roaming the verdant garden.
Searching and sorting through Julita’s possessions proves to be a loose structural thread woven into the film. A bizarre motif is established early on when Julita comments that she has misplaced her grandmother’s vertebrae, the bones having been passed down to her through generations after her grandmother’s death during the Spanish Civil War. Salmeron’s obsessive search for these mysterious remains leads the viewer on an archaeological dig through the castle’s rooms, cupboards and boxes, unearthing the illimitable mountain of possessions and objects Julita has crammed behind every door and on every surface. The mobility and proximity enabled by Salmeron’s handheld camerawork invites the viewer to become closely involved in this process, allowing us to peer into boxes, wander through chaotic rooms and enter into claustrophobically cluttered spaces along with the director. It is through Julita’s animated descriptions of (and tangents from) the memory laden objects being clumsily uncovered that her idiosyncratic obsessions and fears, her regrets, her fiery passions and her almost childlike excitements and fascinations are brought to light. As Julita herself at one point eloquently comments, “everything here, even if its old, has the life that you have left in it.”
Julita’s family history, and its entanglement with Spain’s tumultuous past — from the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s rule to the recent financial crisis — emerges in fragments and flashes as emotionally significant objects are uncovered amongst the chaos. Boxes labelled ‘Santa Claus Hats,’ ‘Winter Socks’ and ‘Old Stockings’ sit alongside the urns containing Julita’s father and mother’s ashes; the baby teeth of all of Julita’s children are kept in emptied artificial sweetener canisters. History is literally embedded in the material stuff of everyday life.1 The erratic movements of Salmeron’s untethered camera and Raúl de Torres and Dani Urdiales’ animated and jarring editing style creates a sense of spontaneity and unpredictability in this uncovering of Julita’s story. Allowing Julita’s memories and experiences to emerge in this fragmentary, tangential manner, Salmeron avoids a teleological recounting of his mother’s life in favour of an unpredictable and ever-evolving portrait.
Toward the end of the film, Salmeron asks Julita, matter of factly, “any final comments?” She is quiet for a moment, then says, “I can’t think of anything.” Refusing to leave its viewer with any singular, neatly articulated take away message, Lots of Kids…instead succeeds in imparting a vivid and kaleidoscopic image of Julita’s incredible gusto for life; her chaotic vitality itself emerging as a form of wisdom. Julita’s melodramatic expressivity, her obsessiveness, her fierce desires, unrelenting talk and uninhibited laughter are given the space to emerge gradually and accumulate, like the objects she collects, forming a joyous celebration of life in all its mercuriality and messiness.