Sebastian Silva rebelled against authority while growing up with six siblings in an upper-class household in Santiago, Chile.
"The phenomena of living with a maid is something I went through during my childhood and adolescence," the gregarious 30-year-old says during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "It wasn't comfortable at all. You already have a mother and father, so you don't want a third figure bossing you around. Then when you are more mature you realize that her situation is quite sad."
It was his experiences with the family's longtime servant that inspired him to co-write and direct "The Maid," which opens in L.A. theaters today. It won the 2009 Sundance Film Festival's World Cinema Jury Prize Dramatic and Special Jury Prize for Acting.
The drama also was nominated this week for two Gotham Independent Film Awards: best feature film and breakthrough performance for actress Catalina Saavedra, who plays Raquel, a woman who has worked for a family for more than 20 years but has no friends or life outside the job. When her work seems to become too much for her, the family brings in someone to help her. Fearing she'll lose her position, Raquel makes life miserable for the new help, but the carefree Lucy (Mariana Loyola) eventually manages to befriend the veteran housekeeper.
At the film's beginning, Raquel "is losing her mind because of this claustrophobic feeling of having a total lack of a social life," Silva explains. "There isn't much biographical data about Raquel. I made that totally on purpose because that is how the families sadly relate to their maids. They live with them 24/7, but they don't know anything about them."
Silva, who is also an accomplished artist and songwriter, initially intended to obscure some of the autobiographical elements of his movie.
"I did sort of hide that a little in Chile," he says. "Everything there is really small, and I didn't want the press to harass my family because the film was shot at my home. Everybody still lives there. I have been more open in America. . . . I don't think I will go through that experience again as a filmmaker. I sort of overexposed myself and my family."
Ironically, his reel-life counterpart isn't the family's teenage son Lucas, played by Silva's youngest brother, Agustin, but the rebellious daughter Camila (Andrea Garcia-Huidobro), who bristles every time she's around Raquel, a dynamic that existed in the Silva house.
" 'The Maid' is based on a special person," the director continues. "She worked for my family 25 years. She got there when I was 3 and was still there when I left home when I was 19. The Lucy-Raquel story took place in my family house."
The inspiration for the Lucy character, he says, is still with the family. "She is from the south of Chile and had never been a maid before. She was really strong and managed to put up with Raquel's shenanigans for more than two years. Then she was able to crack Raquel's emotional shell. That is such a huge human achievement. Lucy is still working at my family house, and Raquel quit her job after watching the film."
But Raquel's reasons for leaving were much more complex than simply not liking how she was portrayed, Silva says. "She had already fallen in love with a man, and with time she grew up to be disconnected to the house. And thanks to Lucy, she was getting out and meeting people. So I think the film actually pushed her over to take that decision. Two weeks after she saw the movie, she said, 'I'm out of here.' "
Lucy is still there but may be moving on as well. "She has plans," Silva says. "She has a boyfriend, and she's making money, and so she is going to leave. Most of these maids don't have a plan. They just start working, and they get consumed by their work, and then they are 80 years old."
Earlier this year, Silva held a screening of the film in Santiago for some 300 maids, all part of a profession that doesn't seem to receive the attention or respect it deserves in the South American country.
"It was a touching, amazing screening," Silva says. "They were like crying, laughing. . . . They were extremely emotionally involved. The maids loved the film."
They weren't the only ones. "Even the president of Chile sent me a personal letter acknowledging the work of the women who are such an important link in Chilean society," Silva says.