"Exquisite. A vital ensemble drama that’s suffused with joy and love." - Wendy Ide, Observer

"Sublimely compassionate." Carlos Aguilar, The Playlist

In Lila Avilés’ tender TÓTEM, young Sol spends the day at her grandfather’s house, helping her family prepare for the birthday party of her dying father, Tona. As she wanders through hectic hallways and overhears emotional conversations from around corners, a rich portrait of family is revealed through her eyes. A study of mortality and a celebration of life, TÓTEM is a film of profound beauty that the Alliance of Women Film Journalists called “a compassionate little wonder.” Film Center exclusive. Co-presented with the National Museum of Mexican Art. 

National Museum of Mexican Art


Awards & Nominations

Winner - Ecumenical Jury Competition, Berlin Film Festival
Nominee - Best Film, Berlin Film Festival
Nominee, Best Feature, Chicago International Film Festival 
Nominee - Best International Film, Film Independent Spirit Awards


(Interview from the January/February issue of the Gazette)

TOTEM is a film about death that is full of life. How did you work with your remarkable ensemble cast to create a tone of grief and joy?
I like to work with people that I feel “comfortable.” For me, it is always the “key” word. As director, I always try to do my best, trying to catch the actors essence and help them to feel alive and free, to achieve the most naturalistic way, if possible. I love that process. Is like being a coach, but a mother, but a friend, but a shadow. Being there without being there. Is just like music, you need to catch the tone, from that point is only playing.

TOTEM is such a symphony of space hallways, corners, rooms. How did you approach directing your large ensemble cast within this labyrinth of space?
I knew from the first moment that it was going to be really important to film in a house. That the house was the other character and I wanted that the house can have a soul. The hard thing about doing a choral film is to find that fluidness between every room and the characters. So,  don’t feel pushed into going back and forth, but just with some flexibility. The hard thing is to catch the rhythm between every scene without music and to maintain the emotion of each character in their own way of expressing the day to day life.

TOTEM is your second feature film. What advice would you give to students and emerging filmmakers as they find their voice and tell their story?
To alway try to fight for your own voice. It doesn't matter if it is not perfect. That the beauty! And to be like a mole, to dig in a topic profoundly - then you have a story. Don’t think so much and do. Have mistakes, and obviously: PLAY.

What is a memorable moviegoing experience you’ve had?
I guess when I was young! I loved to go to a really old and big cinema in Mexico City, it was always full of people. The most amazing moment was in the intermediate, when all the kids were going to play in front of the screening. It was so much fun, we were all playing, but the moment when they asked us to return to our seats, we’d return super properly and in silence to keep catching the films.

What film do you watch again and again? 
All of John Cassavetes’ films.

The Film Center is ADA accessible. This presentation will be projected without open captions. The theater is hearing-loop equipped. For accessibility requests, please email filmcenter@saic.edu