What happens after a child soldier has to come to terms with the horrendous crimes he/she was forced to commit out of fear? The guilt, the trauma, and all of their ramifications remain long after reaching safety. In his Oscar nominated short film Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn't Me), Spanish director Esteban Crespo retraces the events that marked the life of one of these African children coerced to become killers by militant groups. Nothing short of an expensive Hollywood production, Crespo’s piece aims to shine light not only on those kids still being used as soldiers in war-torn regions, but on the aftermath and how their lives are perpetually scarred. The director talked to us about creating the expensive look without having a sizable budget, the importance of film to bring attention to social issues, and the Academy Award nomination.
Carlos Aguilar: Have you always been interested in this type of social issues? Or where did the idea for the short come from?
Esteban Crespo: I read an interview in a Spanish newspaper. It was an interview with an ex-child soldier. He was now an adult that talked about the things he had done, or the things he was forced to do as a child, when he was a soldier. Everything he retold was very powerful and harsh, I saw in there a person that was suffering, a person who was going to have a hard time recovering from the things he had done. I thought there was a story there. There had been films about child soldiers but I didn’t know of any that dealt with the sequels, what happens after, so I started working on that story.
Aguilar: This seems like a story that could work as a feature. Did you always think of is as a short film?
Crespo: At first, one always dreams of making features. Almost any idea I have I think of making it into a feature. This was going to be a feature, but we quickly realize that it was impossible because of its theme, no production company or television station wanted to invest money in it. They didn’t think it was a story that could make money.
Aguilar: Now that you mention the money issues, how did you manage to obtain financing for a short like this that seems to be expensive?
Crespo: This is a short that seems to have a big budget behind it but it didn’t, on the contrary. This short was shot in 4 days and a half. Everything that takes place in Africa was shot in 4 days. We didn’t have money for lighting, so we had to shoot with natural light. We were ready as soon as the sun came out, and at sunset we would stop shooting. For the most spectacular parts we managed to get help from the Spanish army, they lent us the tanks and the weaponry. That collaboration gave the film that big, spectacular touch. I also hired two friends who did the VFX and everything was kind of like that. At the end it looks like a film with a huge budget but is not.
Aguilar: How would you describe the process of working with your actors in this project?
Crespo: The process was wonderful. This has been the easiest short film I’ve made, even though it seemed very complex it was very simple. The hardest thing was the casting, finding all those kids, who are all from Madrid actually. Once you have a great cast, people who are great actors, everything becomes so much easier.
Aguilar: The subject of child soldiers is a tragic global problem. Do you think that your film - now with the Oscar nomination - can bring more attention to this important human rights issue?
Crespo: What I think it can do, which it is already doing, is shine some light on this problem. This is a short film that has the support of all the NGOs (Non-governmental Organizations) in Spain that work with child soldiers. When we won the Goya last year they were very satisfied and very happy because it gave their fight more national exposure. The Oscar is an internationally famous award, the fact that it is nominated means it could be seen all over the world and that the attention on the issue is now global.
Aguilar: What has changed for you after the Oscar nomination?
Crespo: The biggest change is in terms of media coverage and interviews. We can’t forget that until now I have only done short films, this is my sixth short film. I’m the only nominee from my country this year, which has given me a lot of attention from the media and a lot of interviews. It is a huge thing for a short film.
Aguilar: What do you want the audience to take from watching "Aquel No Era Yo"?
Crespo: What I want is to shake them from the inside out. Grab their insights and make them feel things, that’s what I’m interested in. I want to take them to a final climax where they can face their own convictions.
Aguilar: Is there any pressure or expectations since you are representing not only Spain, but also the organizations that supported your film?
Crespo: No, none. This is a short film, and I’m just excited to be here. There is no pressure. Of course we want to win, but there is no pressure. We want people to watch the film, that's what we really wan. We want it to be seen.
Aguilar: What are your future plans? What is next after this experience?
Crespo: I have some projects, and we are starting to look for producers. One is a comedy based on another one of my shorts called “Naide Tiene la Culpa” (It’s Nobody’s Fault), the others are thrillers, one is kind of on the more political side and the other is more about adventures. There is still no producer attached to any of these.
Aguilar: Would you like to pursue a career here in Hollywood, like your compatriot J.A. Bayona? Or would you prefer to stay in Spain?
Crespo: I’ve actually never thought about it. I’m open to everything. I will make films wherever they want me. If they want me here, I’d stay here, if they want me in Spain then I’ll be there. Film is what I do, the only thing I want is to work on this.