YIDFF 2023 International Competition

The Visit and a Secret Garden
Irene M. Borrego (Director)

Interviewer: Yuki Hidetake

The invisible

Yuki Hidetake (YH): Why did you decide to make this film about your aunt, Isabel Santaló, who was once a famous painter?

Irene M. Borrego (IMB): Isabel had cut her ties with our family, and I wasn’t particularly thinking about making a film when I saw her the first time. I went out of curiosity. But the two of us were the only artists in our family. I heard a lot about Isabel when I was growing up, and I saw her just a few times when I was a child.

I had a gut reaction the first time I visited her flat. I felt that a film was hiding there. I still didn’t know what the topic or the shape might be, but I just had the feeling.

The things that she said left a big impression on me. I was just getting started as a filmmaker, and her story about beginning as a painter wasn’t just interesting, it felt like my own story. What she said about her relationship with the family also felt relevant to me.

I was particularly surprised to see her in a state of poverty and poor health. It was a huge shock to go see this lady and find her in this harsh situation. And I didn’t want this to be the end of my connection to her.

When I decided to make the film, I saw Isabel as a role model. Of course, I didn’t want to be in poor health and poverty like her, but she was a role model that I couldn’t avoid as an artist myself. So it really is a transformational film.

YH: Had you already seen Isabel’s paintings?

IMB: Yes, I’d seen several of her paintings. But her main body of work had mysteriously disappeared. I knew what those works were like through my research, but I wasn’t able to see them.

I did a lot of research in preparation for this film. I read all of the art criticism and reviews, and I looked for people who actually spent time with her, and people who knew her as a painter.

YH: As a result of your research, the celebrated painter Antonio López García appears as the sole person who remembers her as a painter. It seems that his testimony is extremely important for this film.

IMB: The important thing is that only his voice appears in the film. From the start, I asked him to just let me record his voice without filming him.

Isabel is very much forgotten and lives holed up in a small flat, so I needed someone to prove that she wasn’t crazy, and that she was unmistakably an artist. I needed another artist from the same generation who could talk about the past. And his voice was important in bringing back the invisible past of the elderly woman before us living under harsh conditions. The “invisible” is very important in this film.

Antonio Lopez is an extremely well-known person, so everyone has their own image of him. But through deliberately not showing this famous person’s image in the film, I wanted people to pay attention to the existence of images that no one remembers. I liked the idea that the forgotten painter is in the foreground as the protagonist, and the famous artist is in the background.

YH: Speaking of the “invisible” within this film, the audience doesn’t get to see Isabel’s paintings.

IMB: That’s because her main body of work no longer exists. Two or three minor works are hidden behind the door, but I don’t show those either.

That which is “invisible” is most important in this film. Antonio Lopez provides information about Isabel, but his information is incomplete. Other people talk about her personality, rather than her work. The “invisible” always remains, and the audience has the leeway to fill in the missing elements. I don’t show Isabel’s paintings in this film, but instead her choices and her way of life are her legacies.

So this is an anti-biopic. You don’t get to see the artist’s works, or find out what year she was born or where she studied. I didn’t want to make her biopic, and in fact I don’t think that I even wanted to make a film about Isabel. Through Isabel, I wanted to share some questions.

YH: Antonio Lopez describes her paintings as a “hidden garden.” And that phrase is part of the film’s title.

IMB: He speaks about her paintings and personality in a very evocative and metaphorical way. And as he says, if you managed to get to that garden, it would be a place filled with beauty. But that is hidden beauty. For this film, Isabel’s beauty is hidden within her small flat. It isn’t obvious at first glance. Imperceptible and hidden beauty lies dormant within the elderly and weakened Isabel.


YH: The film begins by showing Isabel’s everyday life, and her cat Ramsés appears as a very important character.

IMB: That’s right. From the start we understood that he wasn’t just a pet. He is a character in the film. That is because Ramsés is her everyday companion. They are very close.

This is a funny story, but this cat was quite aggressive toward everyone in our crew, except for Isabel (laughs). And, the only crew member who wasn’t attacked by the cat was the producer. Ramsés knew who was in charge (laughs).

YH: After seeing her quiet life and hearing comments from people who know her, Isabel speaks out with vigor. She argues with you.

IMB: Yes, she talks back (laughs). That is also part of the film.

It was an editorial decision to have her speak out late in the film. That is because I wanted the audience to first feel the physical weight of her old age, isolation and weakness. Through seeing those things first, some people might think she can’t speak because she is ill. I thought it was important for her to speak out with vigor after that.

I think the audience is astonished by her strength when she speaks for the first time. Until that moment, I think she seems to be on the verge of death, like she is on her last drop of life.

YH: In this film, you deliberately leave in the clapperboard at the beginning and end of cuts and show the mic in shot.

IMB: This work is like training for making a film. One naïve artist is in the process of learning to be a better artist from someone who is wiser. This is our joint creation. Reflexivity happens between the two of us. So in that sense, it is also my own self-portrait.

In keeping with the nature of a self-portrait, I show the filmmaking tools that I used to depict myself. A painter creating a self-portrait will show their paints and canvas in the picture, and similarly I show the clapboard, microphone and camera that are my tools for filmmaking.

We did a lot of research and put a lot of thought into the theory of painting. It was very important to find the “right form” for this film. And I tried to translate what I learned about the theory of painting into the methods of cinema. I thought about how to film a painter while being inspired by the theory of painting.

YH: The most touching part of this film is seeing that Isabel is still an active artist.

IMB: That’s right. She is an artist. She has Parkinson’s disease and can’t paint because her hands shake, but even so, she is an artist. Her creativity and desire to create are so pure. Whatever she makes will not be exhibited, and it won’t be seen by anyone but her. But that doesn’t matter to her. She creates for the sake of creating.

She made lots of things even when we weren’t shooting, too. She kept searching for hidden ways of combining objects.

This really was an art lesson for me. She speaks about being open to the process. You make your best effort thinking things will turn out well, but something unexpected happens and then you keep going, to make it better.

Isabel’s legacy

YH: I was moved by Isabel’s remarks about living as an artist.

IMB: I think her remarks apply to everyone, not just artists. In other words, she talks about how to be true to yourself. This is the most profound lesson that I learned from her. The film isn’t long, but it is very condensed and contains multiple layers.

I think that a piece of art, not just film, gives us a new encounter each time we revisit it. That is what I aimed to create with this film.

YH: Isabel’s difficulties are not just being an artist, but being a woman and an artist, especially given the era that she lived through.

IMB: Yes, we discussed this as well. She was close to getting married but decided to call it off. She lived under Franco’s dictatorship when she was young, and it was very conservative and women were expected most of all to get married and raise children. She wanted to be free. To borrow her harsh words, “I didn’t want to become someone’s servant.” For her, existing only to raise children was not equal at all. At that time, women were not legally allowed to have their own property. Even so, she decided not to get married. To repeat, she wanted to be free.

However, since she didn’t get married then, she lived without financial support.

YH: As far as I can see in the film, it seems that she doesn’t regret her decision. Her example gives me courage.

IMB: That’s right. Before making this film, I didn’t want to be like her, and I was afraid of being like her. But by the end of the process, I felt like, “What a surprise! I’ve found my role model!” (laughs) Although I still don’t know if I can live as courageously as she has.

YH: Did this film lead to Isabel Santaló receiving more recognition?

IMB: Yes, it is a beautiful story. When we started working on this film, there were no images of her paintings or references to her online. Of course, I could find a few things about her at the library, but there was nothing about her online. But after our documentary was released and got a good response, artists and people in the art world responded, saying, “Wow! Who is this remarkable woman?” and they started doing more research. A feminist activist told me, “We’re making a Wikipedia page for Isabel Santaló!” So she has a Wikipedia page!

Now some art historians are looking for her paintings. I couldn’t show her paintings in the film, but I think she had a strong presence as a person. Art historians are saying, “I didn’t know she existed, and I want to see her work!”

YH: I think that’s the case. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this film reinvigorated the forgotten Isabel.

IMB: She was very aware of that. I think she was aware that she was forgotten.

I think her spirit can have a positive influence on many different people. I think the film has had a good influence on her, and on the cleaning woman with eight children who are proud that their mother is in a film. It’s the same for me. Isabel has been a huge influence on me as a person, not just as a filmmaker. The same goes for my colleagues and people close to me. We often refer to things Isabel said in our conversations.

YH: I think this work can give a lot of encouragement to young artists who want to create something, just as it did for you.

IMB: I hope that is the case. The six years I spent making this film felt like going through the shadows. It was a dark time.

Getting through that time has enabled me to become freer, braver, and more filled with insight.

While each person is different, I think we share the same concerns, fears and worries, and I hope this film has a good impact on such people.

Compiled by Yuki Hidetake
Translated by Yamamoto Ann

Photography: Makita Miki / Video: Kato Takanobu / Interpreter: Hirano Kanae / 2023-10-06

Note: This interview was done for an online interview collection that was only to be in Japanese. Therefore, the text was prepared in Japanese based on a transcription of the words of the English-to-Japanese interpreter. When funds were found to create an English version, the Japanese text was then translated into English. Please thus be aware that the text above will not necessarily reflect the exact words spoken at the time of the interview.

Yuki Hidetake
Film critic and editor. Yuki co-edited Eiga kukan 400 sen (LIXIL Shuppan, 2011); co-authored Edward Yang saikou/saiken (Film Art, Inc., 2017); John Carpenter dokuhon (boid, 2018) and has contributed to film brochures.