Instead of answering, Lucrecia Martel prefers to draw. She bends over a small black leather backpack that rests at the foot of her chair and fishes out a black ink pen. Then she traces a straight line on the brown kraft paper tablecloth.
I’ve just asked her about the relationship between foreground and background action in her films.
“This is how it works,” she says. “Look. In the systems I create, the screen is flat, but it is also a window through which you can perceive volume. That volume”—she points the pen forward into the air and moves it in circles—“exceeds the limits of the screen. It goes deeper; it goes beyond.”
Lucrecia Martel rarely repeats herself. She hasn’t done it in any of the interviews she gave in her native Argentina to introduce Zama, perhaps her strangest film, nor will she do so during our conversation today.
It’s November 2017, and we are talking at Roman’s, one of restaurateur Andrew Tarlow’s places. Diners stand by the bar waiting for tables. Martel drinks a languid lime soda in bird sips. It’s nearing six in the afternoon. Brooklyn’s autumn is heavy, fragrant with dried leaves, withered. Martel arrived in New York two weeks ago in search of an international distributor for Zama. Before heading back to Buenos Aires, she will find one, and also learn that her film has been selected to compete for the Oscars representing Argentina. It’s an odd choice; Zama won’t even make it to the nominations. Martel is not, in fact, an industry director, but in the United States she has garnered a cult following of which, she says, she is rather unaware.
Since 2001, when she released her acclaimed debut, The Swamp (La ciénaga), Martel has been the star of the New Argentine Cinema (NAC), a thematic and stylistic renovation spearheaded by filmmakers Bruno Stagnaro, Adrián Caetano, Pablo Trapero, and Lisandro Alonso, and coalescing around a key producer, Lita Stantic. NAC leaves behind the main themes of Argentine filmmaking’s post-military coup (genocide, state terrorism, and censorship, all of which were a cinematic response to the last military dictatorship), and starts to delve with sharp minimalism into the destinies of the new democratic lower and middle classes. Zama is, in that light, both a break in continuity and a change of direction.
But Martel is in a class of her own, among the most innovative Latin American filmmakers of all time. Her aesthetic combines in strange proportions, the thrill, suspense, and visuals of the American zombie apocalypse flick with the discarnate social commentary of Italian neorealism. Martel’s first three films, The Swamp (2001), The Holy Girl (2004), and The Headless Woman (2008), take place in her native province, Salta. The Salta Trilogy has been the subject of several professional and academic reviews. In a retrospective last year at the Harvard Film Archive, Brad Epps, the noted scholar of Latin American film, hailed Martel as “a dominant figure in contemporary world cinema and one of its great stylists.”
After The Headless Woman, however, and at the peak of her popularity, Martel withdrew into a ten-year silence. In those years, she played with the idea of a sci-fi movie based on the Argentine graphic novel El eternauta, by Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Alberto Breccia, but the stars never aligned. And suddenly, in 2010, Zama came knocking.
Based on the eponymous novel by Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto, the story follows an officer of the Spanish crown, Don Diego de Zama, who, after being stationed by the king somewhere in Paraguay during the years before the revolutions in South America, ends up falling into a spiral of despair. Martel uses Di Benedetto’s story structure to cast a visual web of masculine anguish, intricate stalking, semi-paranoid internal monologue, and disillusionment, tracking her main character with the narrative intensity of a horror movie.
Martel’s parallel interests in colonial history and suspense can be traced to some of her childhood experiences. Until the mid-’70s, her family lived in a modest house, as big as it was worn-out. Like many old estancias in Salta, the Martels’ featured several rooms, all of which opened onto a huge, bright-tiled patio that reflected sunlight back into the rooms from behind glass-paned doors. The largest space in the house, Martel remembers, was used for storage. Her father, a businessman who in those days owned a paint shop, stacked paper bags of pigment powder and sacks of wood chips in hulking towers, leaning like giants, tall and steady, against its walls. During her clandestine visits to the room—the place was off-limits to children—Martel would pretend to be an astronaut walking on the red, mountainous surface of Mars, or exploring the darkest pits of a hidden lunar crater.
Next to the storage room was a guest room (the “habitación de huéspedes”), which, due to a phonetic confusion, Martel and her siblings knew as “the Güemes room.” Martín Miguel de Güemes was one of the heroes of Argentine independence. A bearded gaucho and horse-bound caudillo born in the Northwest, Güemes fought side by side with General Manuel Belgrano in Suipacha; he was pierced by a treasonous bullet in Salta, but rode his horse to his death in the town of Chamical, La Rioja. The young Martels, however, had imagined Güemes’s remains hidden somewhere within the four walls of the guest room. These forbidden spaces soon became portals into another world.
In the storage room, there was also a bookshelf, and among the books was one that featured on its cover the effigy of an Arab prince: Tales of the Alhambra, by Washington Irving. The sheer sight of its spine sent the Martel siblings screaming in terror, and scrambling onto the piled-up paint bags. That book had starred in a family episode: the death of Martel’s great-grandfather.
“When my mom’s grandfather took his last breath, two books mysteriously fell out of the bookshelf,” Martel recalls. “One, my sisters and I were sure, was Tales of the Alhambra. Perhaps, I think now, the unjustified presence of books in the middle of those piles of paint powder and wood chip bags, a place where I spent my most fantastic hours, defined the relationship I have with reading. Strangely enough, when we left that house, I barely knew how to read the word Alhambra.”
Three decades later, the emotions of those stories, of that setting, still haunt the edges of Zama.
I. “WOMEN RECEIVE A TYPE OF EDUCATION THAT ALLOWS MUCH MORE FOR FAILURE THAN THE TYPE MEN RECEIVE.”
In September of 2001, when Martel arrived in New York to showcase The Swamp, she was met by a city in a state of convulsion. Today it is Hollywood—with its male-dominated structure on the brink of implosion—that is teetering.
THE BELIEVER: Why are there so few women directors on the commercial circuit?
LUCRECIA MARTEL: It’s very mysterious to me how many interesting [female] directors have been isolated… Why? I don’t know. I find it hard to believe that it’s pure machismo. It’s too simple of a thought. I don’t know what the reason could be. I also think that it makes sense that, as time goes by, [filmmaking] should become more of a women-dominated activity. To me, of course, I feel like it’s going to happen. I don’t know why I have that certainty… Actually, yes, I do know.
LM: Because it seems to me that, especially for a certain cinema with its own language, you need to take a lot of risks. And women receive a type of education that allows much more for failure than the type men receive. It is easier for a woman to take risks than for a man.
But I’ll also tell you another thing—I tell this to my students when I offer a workshop—women need to learn to master the tools, to solve technical problems, to control unscripted situations. There is also a totally macho attitude that many women have internalized in terms of not solving certain technical problems on their own. That also makes them a little less capable.
BLVR: But you don’t think there are good female DPs [directors of photography], for example?
LM: There are, but there are not many, because [female] DPs often think that their technical area is limited to pen and paper. And that’s wrong. You need to learn a lot of things to be a good DP. For me, machismo breeds both a masculine education and a nefarious feminine education. Macho culture engenders an education for men and another for women. The education for men we already know, and [it] is easily criticized. And the nefarious education that machismo has for women is exemplified by women who ultimately ignore how to use tools, who—when something breaks, or when it gets dark—are rendered useless and get desperate. Women who do not even know how to build a fire. They don’t know how to deal with these situations, because these were activities that have traditionally been delegated to men. That can make us… not very… prone to achieve certain things. For me, we first have to fight against our own education, and also against an external model of erasure that has rendered women less capable than men in certain fields.
On the day of our initial talk, the Harvey Weinstein scandal was barely breaking, so I proposed we do a follow-up by email a few months later.
BLVR: With the development of the #MeToo movement since we last spoke, I would like to bring up the question again: why do you think there are so few women directors in Hollywood, and do you think the same thing exists in Latin America, which is considered more macho than the United States?
LM: That doesn’t happen in the Argentine film industry, for instance. I don’t think we are at exactly 50 percent men and 50 percent women yet, but there are many women in our industry in Argentina in key roles. As far as what is happening in Hollywood, it’s quite understandable. The American film industry was consolidated a long time ago, when the cultural matrix was strongly macho. What is happening now is the fracturing of that dam. But the water has been gathering for decades. The moment is explosive, and it may be unfair in some cases. Hopefully the justice system will soon abandon its indifference to women’s denunciations of abuse of power. If it doesn’t, the media will continue to be a place of lynching, of summary trials. And nobody wants that. But we are fed up.
II. “THERE IS NOTHING MORE DESPERATE THAN A BOTTOMLESS FALL.”
In the ’80s, Martel’s father bought a VHS camera. There weren’t too many video cameras in Salta, nor were there many places to learn how to use them. She applied herself to the task intensely, however, with the idea of becoming proficient at operating the camera in all its functions. “If it had been a microwave, I would have put in the same amount of enthusiasm,” she tells me.
Martel has six brothers. They were her guinea pigs on film. “I started to set up the camera in different parts of the house, and leave it there for four or five hours, changing cassettes occasionally. When I started looking at what I had recorded, I realized that there was something special there. The first thing that struck me was the off-screen sound. There is something happening outside of the plane of what you are looking at.”
BLVR: Some aspects of Zama have nothing to do with anything visual, but rather with the score, or sound effects. Why do you put so much emphasis on that aspect of the film?
LM: If I have a sound concept for the film, then when I’m on set, I know what to frame. But I cannot imagine any film without having a sound concept first. To see better, sometimes you need to be able to not see everything. To understand better what is happening within the frame, sometimes it’s better not to see everything. Cinema is the realm of the fragment. Audio fragments, image fragments…We use fragments to tell stories. With images, we have to choose. And within a frame, we choose a fragment. So with sound we bring back traces of a larger universe that [lies] beyond that fragment.
The first thing that the Foley artists do [Jack Foley was the pioneering sound engineer in Hollywood] is to give sound to what is seen on the screen. But what I do is try to add sound to what is not seen. If I don’t start with that, sound to me feels just like repetition. My job as a director is to put sound onto what is not seen on-screen. The unseen has more narrative weight than the seen.
BLVR: Do you think that your work with sound has to do with a female sensitivity, the same sensitivity that several critics have attributed to Zama the book, and to this movie in particular?
LM: In the sense that one would normally associate this sensitivity in our culture with the female perception, with someone who is aware of her desire, frustrated in her desire, unable to carry it out, it could be the case. But what makes Zama so masculine is that obstinacy, clinging to a function and to a position…
BLVR: Is the sound meant to punctuate that masculinity? There’s an effect that you use a lot and it is not present in your other movies.
LM: The Shepard tone.
BLVR: It sounds like when your ears are buzzing.
LM: It’s a Shepard tone, an auditory illusion. In fact, it’s a series of scales that sound like they are in continuous descent. The illusion is of something that is falling and falling, but in reality it is a note that begins over and over again. What [Roger] Shepard discovered is that between a note that is lower on the scale and one that is very high, there is an acoustic similarity that allows for your perception to connect them. I was looking for sound effects for the film, and I don’t know how I got to the Shepard tone. I started listening to it and I thought it was perfect for the movie. It’s like a bottomless fall. There is nothing more desperate than a bottomless fall.
BLVR: Zama is a bottomless fall.
LM: Of course. There are many types of cicadas and frogs that have that Shepard sound: uooooo, uuoooooo. I wanted to use those, and we were trying to use Shepards from natural sources, but it didn’t work. So we decided to do something more experimental, purely musical. This movie is a bottomless fall, and that sound replicates the entire movement of the film. It’s a sound that one would not associate with a period film, which is something I also found interesting. That sound placed us in an emotional modernity with the character.
BLVR: The movie has two parts, one that seems more real and one more dreamlike, feverish. In an interview you said you were sick…
LM: Yes, but it was before filming.
BLVR: Did that contaminate the movie?
LM: It gave me some peace of mind regarding some of the themes in the film, like a different perception of reality.
BLVR: Were you in treatment?
LM: I had cancer. I was in treatment for about six months starting in March . The last results showed that I was in remission, there was no trace left… cervical cancer… the treatment is exhausting. Radio, chemotherapy, everything. But… when you have a systemic disease, you have to take care of yourself, make sure that it does not reappear.
III. “TO READ THAT NOVEL AND SAY, ‘I WANT TO MAKE A MOVIE OF THIS’ IS TO SAY, I WANT TO DO SOMETHING IMPOSSIBLE.”
There’s a massive dam in Salta, near the place where Martel grew up. Sixty-two thousand acres of water in an otherwise dry, landlocked setting. That is where she learned to sail. Unlike in a river, the experience of sailing in a lake is wide open, doesn’t involve following the line traced by the riverbed. And Martel believes that sound is to vision what lakes are to rivers. Vision, like a river, moves the mind in a line. Sound is volumetric; it expands perception.
“When you shake a bedsheet, and a little light is coming in through the window, you will notice millions of floating particles,” she says. “You could imagine that those are small fragments of time in a nonlinear space. There are so many possible ways to write, so many new ways of seeing and showing emotions, so many different points of view that don’t conform to our ideas of linearity and sequence. That open, volumetric representation is, to me, much more akin to an organic perception of time than the line.”
BLVR: When did you read Zama?
LM: In 2010. I was sailing along the Paraná River. I decided to sail out in a wooden boat I owned, with two friends, and get to Asunción, Paraguay. I took a lot of books with me that had to do with the river, river expeditions…
BLVR: When did you learn to sail?
LM: At the age of fifteen I learned to sail on a dam in Salta, and later, when I moved to Buenos Aires, I took a sailing course for bigger boats.
BLVR: Do you like water?
LM: I love boats. I like the water, yes, but I like boats more.
BLVR: You were sailing through the Paraná…
LM: And there I read Zama, because one of the books I had was Zama.
BLVR: What other books did you have?
LM: Expeditions of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries by river, in Argentina, particularly along the Paraná and the Paraguay Rivers, of the Argentine Mesopotamia. The Bermejo expeditions—the authors are the explorers who led them. There is one of these books by [Juan and Manuel] Solá, there is another one by [Adrián Fernández] Cornejo, there are others by Felipe Azara, several by him. Some of these books are not very famous.
BLVR: And when did you start reading Zama?
LM: A week or two after we left Buenos Aires. The whole trip took a month and a half. And as soon as I read it, I told my girlfriends, “I think I want to make a movie of this.” It was delirious to say that, because to read that novel and say, “I want to make a movie of this” is to say, I want to do something impossible. Especially if you think of the kind of movies I had been making. But that certainty started to grow, and…
BLVR: Zama’s final question is “Do you want to live?,” which sounds more like an ontological question than a contextual one. Do you think that question transcends the main character?
LM: Yes, I think that this is a question that is addressed to Zama in the film, but it is also a question that we all ask ourselves, especially when life is difficult. And we ask that because there is a chance that you will want to disengage, forget everything, be done with it. What makes the film end on a happy note is that he says yes—some people notice it, others don’t hear it. That “yes” is where the unknown begins. And because it’s the unknown, maybe Zama has better chances.
BLVR: Do you think that we will have better chances if, like Zama, we arrive at that instance of asking ourselves, as humans, whether or not we want to live?
LM: I think that if everything you’ve planned has gone wrong and you are in the process of changing that, you are in the best possible moment that a human being could be [in]. That is, moving away from what holds you back. If Zama surrenders to death, it means that what he lost—all that status, all that past life that he lost—was the best he could have aspired to. On the other hand, if he decides to continue living, he is telling us that he still has a chance ahead to live a better life.