The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
In October the Argentine director Lucrecia Martel visited the Harvard Film Archive for a weekend-long retrospective of her films, marking the first time that her three features—La Ciénaga (The Swamp), La Niña Santa (The Holy Girl), andLa Mujer Sin Cabeza (The Headless Woman)—have been shown together. One of the most prodigiously talented and critically adulated filmmakers in contemporary world cinema, Martel helped launch the influential New Argentine Cinema which has flourished since the early 1990s and awoke interest in Latin American film in general. Martel’s hypnotic, mysterious, and deeply immersive films have traveled far beyond Salta, the tropical northeastern province where she grew up and where all of her films are set. She has a loyal following and has won awards from the most influential film festivals—Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, Sundance. On a radiant Indian summer afternoon before the last of the well-attended screenings, I engaged in a conversation with Martel on the patio of the Charles Hotel in Cambridge about her unique cinema and, most interestingly, about her remarkable approach to narrative, sound, and offscreen space. I had been warned that Martel was somewhat reserved, but my memorable encounter with the affable and curious artist proved this to be patently wrong. An extraordinarily intelligent and engaging conversationalist, Martel generously answered my questions while sipping tea and smoking a toscano cigar, interweaving reflections on her life and career with a discussion about the mysteries and materiality of film, storytelling, and human desire.
Haden Guest Let’s begin by talking about your education and upbringing and how they have informed your career as a filmmaker.
Lucrecia Martel I studied in a Catholic school in Salta, Argentina, where Greek and Latin were taught. It had pretensions to being the place where the provincial elite were educated. My family was solidly middle class. I only attended the school because they offered Greek and Latin, which really fascinated me at that age. I had an uncle who was a minister who had sparked my enthusiasm for Latin. I thought I was going to study science. Before finishing high school, I even visited the Instituto Balseiro, a specialized postgraduate institute for physics, where I was convinced I would finish my studies. But I started to have doubts about this career path and I enrolled in a series of programs for various careers: zoology, advertising, and art history—all in different provinces of Argentina. I was willing to travel anywhere, but I didn’t know exactly what I would end up studying. Finally, I decided to take a history course in Salta, my hometown, and think about what I wanted to do. At the end of that school year, I went to Buenos Aires, where there was a new degree program called Social Communication—a typical post-transition-to-democracy program made to train journalists and media analysts. Of course, it was an area of Argentine culture that had been hit especially hard by the years of dictatorship. There were very interesting professors who were returning from exile at the time, people with more left-leaning ways of thinking. It was a good moment for the program because no one quite knew exactly what this career entailed.
HG It was pretty open—
LM I finished the entire program, plus additional subjects. I didn’t do any of the paperwork toward receiving the degree, but it helped me out a lot. At the same time, I took a course on animated drawing.
HG Was animation part of the communications school?
LM It was totally separate. It was taught at night in a school that was pretty far away, in Buenos Aires. Something of the scientific spirit in me remained, and I liked how animation was very technical, precise, and controlled. At this time I started to meet people who were studying film, and I began producing short films. So I decided to take the exam for a state-sponsored film school—the only one at that time. You had to take a huge qualifying course, because over 1,000 people signed up and there were only 30 vacancies. I spent months preparing for that course. I finally got in, but when school was supposed to start, the economic crisis was already so severe that there weren’t any professors or materials. We didn’t have classes. The only real possibility was to study autodidactically, to watch films and analyze them. I watched Pink Floyd The Wall 23 times, analyzing the montage—
HG (laughter) Yes, it has animation, too.
LM We would watch a film many times to learn how it was edited. I was learning in many different ways—participating in short films that friends were making, helping with production or photography, anything just to keep learning. Just when I was starting to think that film was impossible, that it was time for me to get a job, I entered a script contest where the prize was the budget to produce a short film. I won, and was able to produce Rey Muerto (Dead King). Afterward, thanks to that movie, I started to get jobs in television.
HG Was the contest designed with the idea of Historias Breves (the 1995 omnibus film that included Rey Muerto and is often said to inaugurate the New Argentine Cinema) in mind?
LM No, it was designed simply to encourage short films. But afterward all of the directors of the winning short films banded together to ask the contest organizers to premiere them all—as a string of films—in a theater. This was unprecedented in the country. We regularly went to the Instituto de Cine and sat for hours until they would meet with us. We argued that it was a waste of state funding if they didn’t exhibit the finished films. It’s still a worthwhile idea; we didn’t actually resolve the problem, we resolved that premiere.
HG Historias Breves is really where the New Argentine Cinema began.
LM Yes, although Martín Rejtman’s Rapado and Esteban Sapir’s Picado Fino were before Historias Breves. The curious thing is that a screening of a compilation of shorts was so successful; there were 10,000 viewers and it also inspired people to study filmmaking and to start making shorts. It was a really important phenomenon in spiritual terms. Curiously, many of the directors who began their careers at the time—’95 or ’96—are still making films today. That event inaugurated the activity of a lot of directors, and also a lot of young people’s interest in film.
HG It created a new generation.
LM Five years later, there were 7,000 film students. I’m not saying it’s the only cause, but the interest in film in Buenos Aires is incredible. Students come from all over the country.
HG Buenos Aires has a pretty deep-rooted history of cinephilia, doesn’t it?
LM Yes, but in Argentina nothing is really based in tradition since there are so many forces that cut traditions short. Our culture is riddled with holes and ruts, in cinema above all, where continuity has never been respected. The new enthusiasm for film in the 1990s was distinct from other periods in Argentine history. In truth, the different chapters in Argentine film history have been separated by very violent periods of dictatorship or economic crises; this impedes the possibility of continuity, which can be so nourishing for a country.
HG Let’s return to your student years. Other than Pink Floyd The Wall, what films were important for you?
LM Above all, the films of that time, like Blade Runner, which you could get really bad copies of on video. When I was a girl, what I mostly saw on television were Westerns—Rey Muerto is, in a way, a Western—and horror movies. These were the genres that I paid the most attention to. They also formed part of the general “climate” of my area of the country, with its deep affection for horror stories, for stories full of apparitions and fantastical situations. It was the ideal cauldron for getting interested in those genres. There is something from my formative years that was very important: I first used a video camera when I was 15 or 16.
HG Your father gave it to you, right?
LM He bought it for the family, but I was the one who used it. My family got used to it because I was always filming, but it eventually annoyed my brothers, who told me, “Enough with the filming!” (laughter) There are two or three years in our family life where I don’t appear at all in videos or photos, because I was always behind the camera. It was the discovery of something that fascinated me, but it didn’t seem to me then that my future could be related to that.
HG Family continues to be one of your most important themes.
LM I think all of humanity’s themes appear in the family scene; it’s just a question of observing. Also, I’m very attracted to children, and to the mixture of ages—of very old people and children—a mix that you find in Latin American families, above all.
HG That’s something that we have lost here in the US, where we are more separated by generations. You have talked about narration and oral traditions as an important source of inspiration. Was it your grandmother who would tell stories?
LM My maternal grandmother took great pleasure in telling stories, and she was very good at it. They were altered versions of well-known stories—by the Brothers Grimm and, especially, Horacio Quiroga, a Uruguayan-Argentine writer who wrote a very feverish and mad literature that takes place in the jungles of Misiones, in the northeast of Argentina, and in which crimes, deaths, and fantastical animals figure predominently. My grandmother never told us that these were just stories and the invention of another writer. I always thought that what she told us were actual events, things that had happened in my house.
HG There’s a dimension of science fiction there too, isn’t there?
LM They’re fantasy stories. The Quiroga story she used to tell us is called “El Almohadón de Plumas” (The Big Down Pillow) and it’s about a woman who is sick and nobody knows why. She gets weaker, and when she dies, her husband notices a little spot of blood on her pillow that begins to move. Inside is a parasite the size of the pillow that was hungrily drinking the woman’s blood. The husband hacks it to death with a hatchet. I sincerely thought that this had happened to one of my grandmother’s close friends. We believed in a world in which the real intermingled with the fantastic.
HG It’s like the story of the African rat in your first film, La Ciénaga.
LM That’s an urban legend, one that I heard when I was older. All throughout Latin America, and I think in Europe, there are different versions. It is such a simple but unnerving story.
HG It seems to me that at the heart of the story, and the reason why it is so disquieting, is the idea of a loved domestic animal living within the home, the family nest, who suddenly turns into something ferocious and wild.
LM Something very similar actually happened in my home when I was young. When we were kids, my grandfather gave my mother a bobcat. My brother was a baby, still in his crib, and one day my mother caught it licking milk off my brother’s face. Up to that time, the bobcat had shown a lot of feral attitudes but he didn’t seem interested in us. After that, they threw it out of the house because they were afraid it would eat the baby.
HG How strange.
LM I was raised on stories where fantastical things cohabitated with everyday life. For me this has nothing to do with the “magical realism” often discussed in Latin American literature and culture. I don’t agree with this idea that there exists some sort of layer of magic over reality. Because this assumes that there is a concrete reality and every now and then something magical appears. In contrast, our real experience is based in the intermingling of reality and the fantastical.
As a child, and even today, I have always been captivated by the form not only of stories and storytelling, but also of conversation and the way people pause and leave space for someone to intervene. All the ways that, especially when you’re a child, you’re charmed and steered just by words alone.
When I saw La Ciénaga finished, I realized that the overall structure of the movie was very similar to the way my mother would have told the story of a child’s death, trying to find a lot of small situations to foretell that death that was going to occur.
HG The interesting thing about Luciano’s death in La Ciénaga is that it’s also due to the power of stories, particularly that of the African rat, which absolutely terrorizes him. For the boy, the African rat exists, and this leads him to climb the ladder to see if the animal is on the other side of the wall.
LM That’s where that movie and La Mujer Sin Cabeza come together. It doesn’t matter how real or true the facts are; the issue is how something that somebody says is transformed into something that will change the world. In one story a child climbs a ladder and falls to his death. In La Mujer Sin Cabeza, the mere suspicion—never confirmed—of having possibly killed a person or a dog causes the woman to make a series of decisions that will affect her entire life. That happens a lot in oral communication. I can say something—it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not—but your reaction and the emotion it generates within you are real. It happens a lot in lovers’ quarrels, where people say things that they probably don’t even mean, but once stated, they are reacted to as if they are true. It is actually the person being spoken to who gives these words their power. The actual facts are not important but the consequences of what is said are real and tangible. I feel this way about the world in general. And for this reason I feel that my films have a certain political aspect. They show how a person can transform the world. It is totally possible for someone to transform the world through sheer willpower and through the collective willpower of others. We are the creators of our own reality. Reality is not something that exists but is something that we have constructed, and since we have made it, we can also remake it differently.
It seems that pessimistic readings of my films and claims that I have a pessimistic view of humanity are not very profound. In truth, the fundamental premise of my films is that the people seeing it are alive. When they leave the movie, they’re going to continue living and they have the willpower to make any decision whatsoever. Luckily, the experiences of the film don’t put their lives in danger. (laughter)
HG But at the same time, you can see that in La Ciénaga and in La Niña Santa there is a circularity, a series of repetitions that exist as a possibility. The daughters can repeat the errors of the adults.
LM But that doesn’t mean that they cannot escape.
HG Exactly. At the end of La Ciénaga the girls are there, next to the pool, repeating the gestures of the adults at the beginning, but, on the other hand, the context is completely different.
LM Also you don’t know what’s going to happen. I make my movies fundamentally for them to be watched in my own city. In Salta, repeating the lives of others is a goal. Establishing continuity gives security and prestige: the doctor who has a son who is a doctor, and who uses his father’s office. In this city, traditions—not in the good sense that traditions can have—are a connection with the past, an affect. But tradition is one thing and conservatism is another. You conserve something that is not alive, something that no longer functions, that is rotten. If something is alive there is no need to conserve it. Nobody conserves a garden.
HG In La Ciénaga there are a lot of echoes between the characters. The two men are always looking in mirrors, they use the same hairdryer, they’re identified more by the women they’re with than by themselves.
LM All the stories in La Ciénaga—in all my movies, really—are things that I’ve heard. There are people in my family, in fact, who are very similar to the characters. A great-aunt of mine went to see it and when she was leaving she said to her husband, “Gregorio is just like you!” I had made that character thinking of him!
HG Oh my God. (laughter) Can we talk a bit about structure? La Mujer Sin Cabeza is a little different, but in both La Niña Santa and La Ciénaga you have three or four stories linked together.
LM It’s easier for me to explain with paper. (Takes a piece of paper and begins drawing.) When I was filming in my house, the table was here, the kitchen was here, and my mother was definitely cooking over here. My brothers were doing the chores, and since there were a bunch of us, there was always some friend around. The exit was here—there was always somebody coming or going. A lot of times I would stare at one fixed place and simply watch all the characters’ movements. But sometimes I would switch to another person, and another, and it would go on building like that. The narrative lines occur in different layers but within the same scene. You can have this character in the foreground, but over here there’s something else going on—an argument between my mom and one of my brothers, for example. In the next scene, that person, who has some problem in school, let’s say, is talking on the phone and maybe my mom is also offscreen. And then here’s another person, complaining to my mom, who’s also offscreen. So the themes are superimposed on each other in “layers.” The characters’ movements and the themes get closer and farther away from the camera. The important thing is to define where I’m going to place the focus in order to give one of the layers a place of importance, and weave the other things in and out.
HG So the focus is that of the script but also the focus of the camera?
LM The camera’s focus is the real focus. And with regard to sound, I’ll put the background here, but I’ll emphasize the sound in this other layer that, let’s say, is an offscreen argument between mother and son. So in this scene I focus on a third character, but I have the dialogue between the mother and son with utter clarity. It’s very difficult for me to make cuts to my scripts; I have it all pretty balanced. Within my films there’s a way of administering information through depth with respect to the frame, through superimposition, that allows for all of the themes, problems, or issues to be simultaneously present. For me, this complexity is something that exists especially within family scenes.
HG The characters in your films always seem to already know one another.
LM I’ve never thought about that, but it’s true. I never wrote anything where people didn’t already know each other.
HG This is really important, because there is always a certain ambiguity between your characters. We don’t know exactly what their relationship is, familial or otherwise. Often times, characters are vaguely implied to be “cousins.”
LM That allows me to return once again to the “What exactly is reality?” theme. The sociology manual says, for example, that this man is the father of this baby because he engendered it, and that this woman is this man’s wife because they’ve gotten married. But families don’t have any law, or rule book, and relationships can be anything at all! If you spy on your family through a camera, it’s not easy to tell who’s who.
HG Freddy and Helena, in La Niña Santa, for example, are side by side in some very provocative positions in bed. Naturally, one assumes that they are—
HG And we are left with that impression, even after we know that they’re brother and sister.
LM As a matter of fact, in Love Streams, the Cassavetes movie—
HG I wanted to ask you about Cassavetes.
LM First of all, a lot of Gena Rowlands’s characters remind me of my mother. She raised seven kids…. Women who dedicate themselves to their children, truly and with love and passion, go a little bit crazy. It’s inevitable. There are a lot of things in Cassavetes’s films that seem familiar to me. When I saw Love Streams, I sometimes said, “They’re brother and sister!” just thinking about my family. Gena Rowlands says, “Streams of love cannot be held back.” They go where they go, and I love that idea.
You can take an establishing shot of relationships, but I never take those shots because it’s very important to me that the spectator sees that things in the world are not as reason dictates. No one is a father simply because they have a son; they are a father because they care for a son. If you read the most orthodox American script guidebooks, by the tenth minute you’re supposed to know who all the characters are with clarity. They always give the example of Pretty Woman: by the tenth minute, I know that she’s a prostitute, and that he’s a rich man …
HG Right, they’re narrative formulas. Another way you reject that idea of defining characters is through their sexual ambiguity.
LM Of course. Desire is something that can’t be governed, that someone can feel toward any person, really. It is always much easier to think of someone in terms of desire than in terms of sex. Everything is complicated if we think in terms of sex. Desire is always above the law, beyond limitations. Desire is precisely where we see that the world can be anything.
I always try to make the camera see like a ten-year-old child. I do that consciously, because in that way I can observe things without prejudgment, with more curiosity, without condemning. In La Mujer Sin Cabeza, it’s a little different, because it’s as if the whole movie were in her mind.
HG La Mujer Sin Cabeza is the first film of yours that isn’t about adolescence; you’re entering into new territory. All your films begin in medias res, and there’s never complete resolution in your endings. There are pools in all of them, too. There’s a dichotomy between the weight of existence, of bodies that fall to earth and to death, and a search for lightness. People are always floating on top of the water, in a state of ambiguity.
LM La Niña Santa, La Mujer Sin Cabeza, and La Ciénaga all seem like B-movie titles, and I love that. La Ciénagatranslates as “marsh,” a place that’s flooded with water in the summer where a lot of bugs live and the leaves rot, but not all of humanity sinks in. Birds come to eat the insects. A cow could get stuck, break its leg, and die. When I wrote the synopsis for La Ciénaga I said that swamps are dangerous for some animals, but are also full of life.
HG That has a gothic dimension. It makes me think of Faulkner.
LM When I read Faulkner’s work, I felt very close to it. I read it after La Ciénaga because somebody told me they saw a relationship there. The meaning that animals have in his stories is the same as in my movies—they’re an omen, and at the same time have all the mystery of the universe that some animals attract with their presence.
HG I am fascinated by the use of sound in your films. At the beginning of La Niña Santa a girl tells someone offscreen to be quiet. It’s as if she is telling the audience to prepare themselves to see and experience something else. Can you talk about your general attitude towards sound?
LM There are two aspects of sound that are extremely interesting to me—pure sound and sound that carries meaning, like conversation. In particular, how the rigid categories with which we typically organize our perception disappear when people are engaged in conversation. When someone speaks, age and identity recede. This a very important pillar for the construction of my films. Sound is also the only truly tactile dimension of the cinema. It is the only way in which the cinema physically touches the spectator. Audio frequencies are experienced through the entire body.
HG La Ciénaga opens with a remarkable soundscape.
LM A lot of times it’s necessary at the beginning of movies to place a clue so that the viewer prepares in some way to comprehend the movie. I wanted to start La Ciénaga in an unreal way. If I hadn’t, everyone would try to see the film as a documentary or a story of customs and manners. From the beginning the viewer must know that this is a movie, this is not life.
HG Those characters are like zombies, aren’t they?
LM The other day I saw it that way for the first time.
HG Hunting is an important motif introduced at the start of La Ciénaga and present throughout all of your three films.
LM I know the sensitive side of the hunter; it’s not a world that seems brutal to me in and of itself. My father would go hunting with his friends and a lot of times he would take us. All of my brothers hunt. The hunter is actually someone who loves animals a great deal, the opposite of what one might imagine. It’s a ritual, a very masculine moment to converse, because men are alone, surrounded by nature.
But that’s filmmaking, too—you’re stalking the scene. In chasing after an animal or a person, there is some desire to meet and know, and at the same time to destroy or to trap. When I’m filming, I have to desire the actors. I need to feel that desire to know who the characters are, and that’s why I don’t want to think through or conceptualize their entire lives in my scripts. I need to be driven by a curiosity to know more when I’m casting an actor, to be drawn to a mystery that I can perceive within them. When I film a person without desiring them, it comes out badly. When the actors in my movies do well, it’s not because I’ve told them something and they’ve followed my orders, but because they have been doing something, and I’ve wanted to watch them. If there’s no mystery, you get bored on the set. And that’s the worst thing that can happen to a director. It’s the death of the film, for sure.
HG In addition to hunting, there’s also the motif of teeth. I’ve heard that you have an antique dentist’s chair in your office.
LM Yes, and there’s a hair motif, too. I realized that in Brazil when a girl asked me, “Why is there always something going on with hair in your movies?” One thing I love about hair is that it’s like an appendage with which you can modify yourself.
HG Gregorio in La Ciénaga is dyeing his hair all the time. Everybody talks about him; they even say he’s staining the sheets—almost like a menstrual stain which is obviously a suggestive affront to his masculinity. One of the rich parts of your films is in the double or triple meanings.
LM One very impressive thing about teeth is that humans actually change teeth, grow new ones. I can’t stand how on North American television shows everybody has perfect teeth. Perfect teeth completely lack humanity!
HG I’m thinking of “Smile Week” in La Mujer Sin Cabeza, whose protagonist, Vero, is, after all, a dentist. In the film the idea of the smile is a type of socialization for children, but it also guards the abyss into our bodies where doctors begin their examinations.
LM To look into someone else’s mouth is also an extremely intimate act. In that movie the students having their teeth examined are in a school of the lowest social class. I should point out as well that Vero is not treating or curing the childrens’ teeth, but simply giving the most cursory examination.
HG To finish, can we speak a bit about your new project?
LM The new project is based on something that was extremely popular—and is now mythical—in Argentina, especially in Buenos Aires. It’s about a comic strip published in 1957, in chapters, called El Eternauta. The author is Héctor Oesterheld, who later, during the dictatorship, was assassinated together with his four daughters. Oesterheld writes that story around an extraterrestrial invasion that occurs in Buenos Aires, inaugurating the city itself as a setting for science fiction. Before, the invasions in his stories always occurred elsewhere. The entire story has a lot of elements that make it very dear for readers of that era, and even for readers nowadays. I thought at first that the producer wanted to make something like Sin City, with faithful correspondence to the comic. For me, adapting something that already has a place in our culture and trying to make it exactly the same on the screen is absurd. But I sent my idea of how to adapt it to the producer, and he was interested. I also know that members of the Oesterheld family liked it. So I started to work on that, which of course means making a ton of transformations, especially because the fear in the comic strip is due to an alien invasion. It’s a fear that in the 1950s could be found in Latin America, because American imperialism was imposing itself upon all of the economies throughout the region. Now that this model has triumphed completely, the work I’m doing is simply trying to understand what the fear is that we feel today, what it is that horrifies us.
Translated from the Spanish by Phillip Penix-Tadsen.
Haden Guest is a film historian and Director of the Harvard Film Archive whose duties include curating the Archive’s year-round cinematheque program. He is currently editing a critical anthology of unpublished and uncollected writings by maverick director Sam Fuller.
Originally published in
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.