John Sayles’s latest Casa de los Babys catalogs the emotional baggage of six would-be mothers stationed inside a South American hotel waiting for the processing of their adoption papers. What continues to distinguish Sayles from any other white filmmaker working today is his impassioned concern for the lives of women and the culturally underprivileged, above and below the Equator. The past is less a threat in Casa de los Babys than it was in Sunshine State, but the film’s nameless South American pit stop brings to mind the same ambient, allegorical landscapes of Matewan devastated by the specters of imperialism. Filmmaker and political activist, Sayles seems to continue exactly where William Faulkner left off, tracing the decadence, growth, decay and subsequent reinvention of lives devastated by institutionalized racism of the New South (Sunshine State) and the economic, political and spiritual upheavals of many a Latin American country (Men With Guns). Slant Magazine recently spoke with Sayles about the rocky dramas that continue to resurface in his films (the past, single motherhood and the difficult relationships between men and women) and the even rockier dramas that continue of physically and ideologically isolate his America from the rest of the world.
What kind of research did you have to do for Casa de los Babys regarding adoption agencies?
I approached it through the perspective of a would-be adoptive parent and got the adoption rules for every Latin American country, from Mexico down to Tierra Del Fuego. In some countries, no foreign adoptions are allowed. Some have very stringent rules, and in others the rules aren’t as stringent but there may be a long residency requirement. At the time that I did the research, the country that had the residency requirements closest to Casa de los Babys was Chile.
Did you find that a lot of American women went to these countries trying to adopt foreign children?
In Latin America, the women seemed to come mostly from the United States. When there’s a long residency period and one of them has to stay down there for several weeks, it’s usually the women. It’s easier for them to take the time off work. The men may fly down every weekend, or every other weekend, or when the lawyer says the process is getting serious.
What do you see in this desperate struggle to adopt?
I know so many people that have adopted children, both domestically and from other countries. There’s this thing that they want to be parents. Most are about to get their first child. The character that Lili Taylor plays is somebody who could probably conceive, but has decided that there are lots of kids in the world that need adopting and, since she doesn’t have a partner, she’s decided to do it that way.
What about the commerce aspect of the baby trade?
It’s one of the reasons the film is split into two worlds. One is that desert-island world these women occupy where they don’t speak Spanish. And then there’s the world of the people who live there. These two worlds agree on one thing, which is that it would be great for these children to have parents. But there’s a resentment and shame there. “Why can’t we take care of our own kids? What’s wrong with our culture and what’s wrong with our economy that foreigners can come and take our kids?” Sometimes there’s absolute economic desperation, which is sometimes compounded by racism. Many of the kids who are up for adoption are darker skinned or more Indian looking than the people who have the money to adopt them. The people in the United States may have gotten past that particular prejudice but some of the people in these countries may not have. Some people are horrified at the idea of these children being taken off to another place, wondering how they will know their culture or religion.
What about the bureaucratic hassles the film’s women encounter?
Those are different in every country. Because they vary so much, that’s one of the reasons I didn’t say which country the film takes place in. In some countries, the bureaucratic organization is efficiently handled but the process may take a long time. “If the people are serious about this kid, they have to have their shit together enough to send at least one of the parents down here to stick around for a couple of months. It’s not really about milking money out of them. It’s about commitment. If they are committed enough to have one of our children, we want them to come down here and they are going to learn something about the country and go through this bedding period. And if they can’t handle that and don’t have that kind of patience, then they’re not getting one of our kids.”
What about other places?
Well, in other places it’s truly not very efficient. There’s a church bureaucracy mixing with a state or federal one. Local lawyers get involved because that’s the way they make their money, and the rules aren’t very clear. And that’s what makes these people paranoid. “Because my application keeps getting bumped to the bottom, do I have to pay someone off?” The communication in these countries isn’t very good.
Besides the resurrection of the past, another recurrent theme in your films is motherhood.
Women who are going to have their first biological child are working on this kind of set nine-month schedule. The child can be premature or come very late, but the mother can usually tell when it’s coming. But when you’re adopting, you’re always waiting for that phone call. It’s like your photos have been finally developed and it’s time to go to the drug store to pick them up. It’s this kind of lame-duck period where you’re treading water until that phone call. I’m also interested in how the ability to have a kid rests on the woman, biologically and psychologically. Even if the woman can carry but the chemistry between the wife and the husband isn’t working, the woman very often takes the guilt upon herself. There are plenty of movies about groups of guys—because of army movies and sports movies—but there aren’t that many movies about groups of women thrown together. In some ways, Casa de los Babys is a female bomber squad movie. [laughs] In the film, the women have this range of issues and experiences.
You’re exposing a lot of these hassles in the film. Since so many of your films are such stirring works of political activism, do you ever anticipate a film like Casa de los Babys to perpetuate changes of any kind?
Well, I don’t think it’s a crusade in that way specifically. Even in this movie, the lawyers aren’t corrupt. He’s a hassled bureaucrat. He’s complying with the laws of his country and he has his own resentments. These women are coming down and they think they’re ordering a pizza. There are two sides to everything.
What do you see in the desperation of these women to adopt?
Each of these women has some kind of issue, and some are very common among parents. Daryl Hannah’s character is someone who’s given birth three times but has suffered the trauma of all of them dying. Obviously there’s something in her DNA that doesn’t bode well for her having another child biologically. As a result, some of these women have these feelings of failure. Or it could just be money. Some may have planned on adopting when the economy was good, and now that they’ve lost their jobs they’re afraid that the agencies may bump them if they find out. Others worry about being put to the bottom of a pile because they don’t have husbands. There’s anxiety always if you are a single mother adopting.
How was it working with such a talented, all-star cast?
It was a lot of fun, on both the Mexican and American side. We were able to house all the American actresses together so they got to do some of the stuff their characters do in the film on their days off. It was nice for them, because it’s very rare for American actresses to be on the set of a movie at the same time. It’s usually two at most. [laughs] They got to talk about their lives and their careers and do a little bonding off screen. And it was fun to see them work together, giving them a cage to wander around in and see how they reacted to each other within the framework of the film. And on the Mexican side, we were really lucky to get some really talented actors. Some are very well-known, like Pedro Armendáriz Jr., and some are getting to be well-known theater actors, like Bruno Bichir. Vanessa Martinez, who played the maid Asunción, is someone who I’ve worked with before.