Writer/director/producer Lucrecia Martel was born in the northern province of Salta, Argentina. After relocating to Buenos Aires, she directed a series for Argentine television and a few short films. One of them, “Dead King” (1995), won an award in the Havana Film Festival, earning her some notoriety. In 2001 Martel released her first feature film, “The Swamp,” and won the Alfred Bauer award at the Berlin International Film Festival that year, and her film, along with Iñárritu’s Amores Perros and Meirelles’ “City of God” inaugurated a brilliant decade in new Latin American cinema.
Martel’s films deal with many issues in a subtle way, with many of her main characters are women undergoing personal crisis. She portrays small towns where boredom and mediocrity reign, and also delves into class tensions. Together with “Dead King” and “The Swamp,” her other two features “The Holy Girl” (2004) and “The Headless Woman” (2008) were screened in journalist Howard Feinstein’s Panorama section tribute to her at the 17th Sarajevo Film Festival, which ends this weekend. indieWIRE caught up with Martel in Sarajevo to talk film, career, the “women of Lucrecia Martel” and more.
indieWIRE: Three feature films in ten years, and a tribute. Do your films improve like wine? How important is the maturing of your projects?
Lucrecia Martel: It’s necessary, at least in my case. I really admire directors that make one movie a year. When I finish one it takes some time, first of all, before wanting to make another one, and second, feeling that I have something I want to share in a film. I’ve always been lucky to finish my films in industry standard time. What takes time is the birth of a new script … I search for themes, I write – I go around and around.
iW: How does this tribute make you feel?
LM: This is probably my eighth “tribute to.” Generally speaking, when you already have three films, then the tributes start. Since I finished “The Headless Woman,” I was invited to England, Canary Islands, Brazil and other countries that did some sort of retrospective of my films. But this is a very special one – very moving – because of what happened in this city, and also because of my close relationship with Howard Feinstein.
iW: People talk about “the women of Almodóvar”. Could we talk about Lucrecia’s women too?
LM: I’d love to, but I haven’t made so many movies to be able to establish that kind of relationship with actresses. I love actresses that I’ve worked with, and I’d love to work with them again, but I have never, so far, had a role for them. I don’t have actor fetishes. Now, as a woman, it’s much easier to think about situations starred by women, because I’ve lived them before, but that is the only reason I choose women for main roles.
iW: How do you go about the casting process?
LM: I may have a character in mind, but every time I see an actor in a casting session, he/she will do something special for that role. Sometimes that act enlightens you. The simple presence of that actor proposes something else, and your character already changes. The difficult part is deciding between different actors, because in doing so, you also choose the transformation that an actor brings and you want for your movie. Almodóvar once asked me if I think about actors during script development; he sometimes does, I can’t. I only have a vague idea, and not one but many actors fit.
iW: Can I say that a swamp, as a symbol of outter stillness but inner movement, somehow represents all your films?
LM: I like that description. Yes, I agree.
iW: Does it happen unconsciously?
LM: Using your description, I choose topics where there is a kind of stillness or a situation with no perturbations. But as you get closer, you find perturbations, as if you were using a microscope. You see now this surface, but through a microscope, the weaving has a completely different design or pattern. Every filmmaker chooses a different path in the narrative system to approach the story. Some directors prefer to take a vast distance and see the characters like little dolls. I’d rather try to go through the weave.
iW: You are always very subtle in how you suggest what we can’t see on the screen. How do you choose what you show and what you don’t?
LM: The criteria change minute-by-minute. The viewer could be infinitely smarter than me, so I can’t underestimate him/her. But sometimes, in the process of trying to avoid obviousness — something that bothers the audience – I generate darkness that makes it difficult to access the film. Nevertheless, in the exercise of avoiding the obviousness, I discover other things. Yes, many times my films are superficially inaccessible.
iW: What is the importance of class struggle in your stories?
LM: Naturalization of power is key in my characters’ relations. By “naturalization” I mean believing that somebody must naturally be at your service, or naturally perform some activities at home. That is horrible, it requires much reflection. It’s so difficult to see it, precisely because it’s naturalized. I don’t make value judgments about the roles of men/women, but if, in a couple or a family, somebody takes for granted that another must be at service, I can’t overlook it in the narrative construction.
Social classes in Argentina are still like castes; most of the middle class has European heritage, and most of the lower class has indigenous heritage. We can’t overlook something so evident. Prisons have a majority of people of color; that fact says something about our country. With such a high level of corruption among the European middle class, prisons should have equivalent proportions. Obviously there is a naturalization of power. Certainly some people are serving others that will never be punished for the wrong things they do.
iW: What happens when a character in your movies crosses the lines of power?
LM: When somebody transgresses in a naturalized power situation, let’s say underestimation or disdain, he/she produces a grand disturbance. The same happens when it’s emotionally evident that an underestimated person is also taking another role. For example, in “The Swamp,” there is this girl that works as a maid, but she is also the affective and logistic support for the whole family. She is not transgressing, but by observing her closely, we will find that the line established by our culture — used to determine her role — doesn’t actually exist.
iW: How do your characters go through crisis or transformation?
LM: I don’t feel that my characters go through an evolution, if we compare it with a classic narrative. You can build human drama in many different ways. The most classic and effective is the one in which the main character goes through misfortunes and at the end he/she learns something about him/herself. My plots work in a different way. It’s very difficult for me to think in terms of transformation. I never approach the plot in that direction.
iW: Producing in Latin America: is it true that most of the films are independent films?
LM: No, it’s the opposite. There is no such thing as independent film in the world. From the moment that you need one single dollar, the independence is over. When you are facing a market, independence goes to hell. You can either abuse your friends that will work for free or help you because they love you, or you try to get subsidies or prizes. It’s impossible to make films without money. The concept of “independent” refers to the ideas for making a film. Stanley Kubrick made films in Hollywood, how would you categorize what he did? I think “independent film” was a concept to try to make films outside Hollywood, but if we analyze it deeper, it’s nonsense. Argentina doesn’t even have a Hollywood-like mega industry.
iW: Ten years ago, Amores Perros’ “City of God” and “The Swamp” were released. What is the difference with today’s Latin American cinema?
LM: It’s amazing the amount of new directors that came up, with different narrative systems. That’s very healthy: more diversity, more health. Nevertheless, I don’t think the production conditions have improved. Actually, the situation in Argentina is more complicated than when I made “The Swamp.” That’s a pity because the vitality of cinema depends on continuity, but also on new people and new ideas.
iW: Are there any similarities between Latin American cinema and Eastern European cinema?
LM: Yes, we share difficulties. If we see the credits at the end of many films in the [Sarajevo] festival, we [Latin Americans] also depend on the same subsidies and European funds that they depend on. The lists of foundations, funds, organizations are endless in their films; the same happens with our films. It’s evident that we both walk the same financing paths.
iW: There is a pattern in your locations: small town, big hell…
LM: All the stories happened in Salta, or a similar place — I actually never mentioned a city name in my films. I don’t impose that, it happens naturally. I don’t say, “what else could happen in Salta?” I just think around certain ideas or characters, and then the place comes up.
iW: What’s next?
LM: I’m working on a hybrid with a documentary style, but structured as fiction. Also on a book adaptation, but I can’t say more.