By Amy Thomas

Helen’s work is imaginative and portrays a deep understanding of human movement, picked up through her extensive career in dance and theatre. The Cuban & Austrian director has an eye for visual storytelling; she likes “straight to the point” scripts, and camera language that captures the vitality of the narratives she chooses to portray. Helen has worked with clients such as Vinted and Universal Music, along with directing and choreographing fashion films for independent labels. On top of her short-form work, Helen has dedicated the last 3 years to co-directing her debut feature documentary, Alma Anciana, about the beauty of growing old, which will premiere in 2023.

What's the most challenging film thing about filmmaking?

I’ve found that the most challenging thing for me is managing resources and scaling them appropriately. It’s important to be smart about how you allocate budget because I feel a 30k budget can seem like a lot at first glance, but as your ideas for the project grow, 30k doesn’t seem like much anymore. It’s important to find ways of getting around this; asking the crew to pitch in where they can, working for a smaller fee for example.

I also think in relation to that, persistence and patience are really important. I think that's really the key thing about filmmaking; you just have to stick at it and try your best to make it happen.

What animal would you be?

I love this question. I think I would be a tropical bird from the Amazon. Really colourful: green and orange and red! I’d love to just parade around all day and fly away when you’ve had enough. I'd love that. I always wanted to be a little bird. Friendly and charming, sort of inoffensive.

Like a bird of paradise kind of thing!

Yeah totally.

Did you ever consider a different career?

I was a dancer and choreographer before, and still am actually, but in terms of a different career to filmmaking… I think, funnily enough, it would be diplomacy, because that's one thing that I learned working in theatre and in filmmaking. I could imagine being a diplomat, working to get lots of people on the same page. 

I think there's a way of communicating correctly and making people feel seen and heard and appreciated. I love the complexity of it and how you can convince people to communicate with colleagues that they don't particularly like, finding common ground. I find that really interesting and in filmmaking or even in theatre, you often have big groups of people that you need to bring together in order to reach the same goal.

So what's your favourite movie?

I think this really depends on your age or your mood on the day. I mean my first thought was Aristocats [laughs] but my grown up answer would be “Soy Cuba”. I can't really say it's a Cuban film because it's made by Russians. So it's Russian filmmakers making a propaganda film really, about the Cuban revolution and the Cuban people. It’s in black and white and it’s absolutely a classic. I think it's 3 hours long, but it's the kind of film that is so visually striking.

I was so stunned that they were able to pull it off. It’s such a good social commentary of how people were back then and I love how they translated that visually. There’s obviously a bit of propaganda, but it's amazing filmmaking. The cinematography is incredible.

And then tell me about Aristocats!

It's just a film that makes me happy, you know, when you're having a hard day. It’s a film I've seen so many times, but it always makes me feel good. It's the music and the colours and the Paris setting, which I love! I am also a cat lover, so it ticks all the boxes and it's great on a rainy, cosy afternoon. I watched it for the first time with my nine year old nephew the other day and it was so cool to see his reaction, because I remember being a child watching the film and loving it, so it’s great to see the same reaction from kids of a newer generation. I think I'll still watch it when I'm 65!

What's your greatest achievement to date?

That is a big one. This one is really hard to answer. I think this is something that changes constantly, because if you would have asked me seven years ago or something, I would have said that it was becoming a dancer in London. That was a very big achievement and I was very proud of that because it's such a tough career. 

But I think now that’s changed a bit, so my biggest achievement is pulling off my recent feature documentary with very few resources. My partner and I actually went to Portugal and to Cuba during COVID and got our family to be part of this film and tell their stories, so it’s very close to home. We had so many setbacks, so it feels like I created something so big when at times it was me against the world. But we pulled it off and finished the film and it's out there.

Did your first feature documentary experience inspire you to make another one?

At first, I was like never again. But you never know. It certainly inspired me. I think that filmmaking for me is also shining light on certain areas that are a little bit underrepresented and I feel like living in Cuba gave me a pool of stories that I can explore and illuminate social dilemmas. So maybe!

What’s your favourite item of clothing?

It’s a dress that I got from my mum. She bought the dress in Paris at the Galeries Lafayette. I was maybe eight or so? It’s just a beautiful, very tropical old Cuban film star dress. I loved it when she bought it, she then gave it to me in my twenties and it's my absolute favourite piece of clothing. When I wear it, I just feel really special, like Sophia Loren, an old Hollywood movie star, you know? It's my favourite dress.

If you had the option to remake a classic film, which one would it be?

It would be Soy Cuba again! But the contemporary version of it because there is certainly a lot of Russian propaganda in the original. I’d take the structure of the film and look at what Cuba is today, which is really an island that is rundown and really struggling; people are so poor because of communism. So what you'd see in the film is today’s truth because people don't have access to medicine or antibiotics. People are hungry. There's not enough food on the island, there's no gas.  

When we went back two years ago for the documentary, there were no antibiotics at all. Usually when I go back, people ask me to bring back things like shoes or clothes, but this time round they said bring antibiotics and bring painkillers. Bring disinfectant. People were disinfecting their hands with chlorine. 

Cuban people are suffering so much and I think because it's a dictatorship, you don't really hear about it. You think of Cuba as a tropical island. I feel like Cuba started out as a really good idea and what it’s now become is not very far from what it was before the revolution, so it’s essentially done a really controversial full circle.

That would be so interesting.

If I tried it, I would be in jail. I would never be able to go back to Cuba. They are very strict about it. Even when we did the documentary, we had police basically on top of us. Because the second you point the camera to something that is anti regime, you're a person of interest. Sometimes they even stage it, for example they would have some crazy person screaming about something anti-regime and if you start filming it, the government uses it as an opportunity to take away your camera and send you away. There's this Cuban-American filmmaker who shot a film in Cuba that went to festivals. She went back to Cuba to visit family one day and went straight to jail.

If you could direct any actor or anything like that, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

So I think alive, I’d go for Daniel Day-Lewis, because I've never seen anything like his commitment as an actor, he really becomes the character. I love how he really prepares for a role and it would be such an honour. It's so beautiful to be able to trust an actor that much. He’s someone you could just sit down with and talk about the role and then just let him work with it, then come back and see what he's done with it. 

And then Marilyn Monroe, because I feel like she was just underrated and typecast and abused. Even the biopic [Blonde] was still very male gaze; I didn't enjoy how she was portrayed and the miscarriage stuff. It felt a bit like pro-life propaganda. I was really shocked. It was very pro-life. Like the baby would talk to Marilyn Monroe. I thought it was so anti-abortion and not very feminist. And it was clearly a male director portraying a female character in such an oversexualized way as well. It was not necessary. 

I think she certainly had talent and if she had been put into a dramatic role, maybe even with a female director who would challenge her, I think she would have excelled.

Who would you want to swap lives with?

To be honest, I think Jeff Bezos, just for the reason of taking his fortune and just spreading it around globally to the poor; transferring a bit of cash to everyone's accounts. I’d leave him with say 10 million dollars and then I’d spread the rest around the world because having that much money is crazy. You don't need it. So I think I’d just turn into Jeff Bezos for a second and then find out everyone's account details and transfer. I sound like a communist!

Well, on that note, let's round it off there! Thanks so much for sitting down with me Helen!

Thanks Amy!