By Guillermo Severiche
In anticipation of the theatrical release of Paraguayan film The Heiresses / Las herederas, TropicalFront dialogued with its director, Marcelo Martinessi. Here, he speaks about his challenges, his vision about Paraguay’s history, and the political aspects that define his debut film.
I was wondering if you could tell us how the creative process started. What mechanisms were useful for you in terms of screenwriting?
Before making this movie, I worked with short films in which I adapted stories written by Paraguayan authors. For example, I’ve been interested in the work by Gabriel Casaccia, a novelist who breaks with nationalist tradition in Paraguayan literature in the 1950s. He writes about women who gossip, who are not saints or innocent as you would find in nationalist literature. I tried to adapt one of his texts, but it didn’t work. However, I gained a lot during this process. I learned about this world of decadence, which is a world very close to me because I grew up in this universe. I think this stuck in my head when I started looking for ways to tell stories that were closer to me. With these things in mind, I started to write.
Also, during this period, I was the director of the Paraguayan public television network until 2012. During the short progressive government that we had, 2008-2012, a public television network was created. It functioned until a parliamentarian coup d’état took place. I got upset at the privileged social class I come from because they supported this coup d’état. So I think it was important for me to create a distance from this group of people and to say “I don’t want to be like you.” This helped to set me free and find new places of belonging. I think all of these events mixed in the process of writing The Heiresses. I was also fortunate to be selected by the Cannes Festival’s Cinefóndation, which founded my residence in Paris to write the screenplay. I also participated in Torino FilmLab, whose focus is on the process of writing itself.
It is possible to see in Chela, the main character, three dimensions that the film explores in depth: womanhood, homosexuality, and old age. How did you develop this character?
It was important for me to work with older people because I wanted to talk about time. It was also important for me to show that this generation is a consequence of Paraguay’s recent history, authoritarianism, and darkness. I always had in my mind that my first film would come from a place of darkness, which has always been my view of Paraguay.
Also, I needed the main character to be a woman. In a machista society like Paraguay’s, men are raised to know everything and do not ask questions. So women are the only ones who can have the fragility to interrogate and pose questions. Now, in terms of her age, I felt comfortable working with a woman of my parents’ generation. I call it ‘the lost generation,’ because they were raised during Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorship and this was a time of closure and darkness. In terms of her sexuality, it just made sense that she was in a relationship with another woman. In my mind, her lesbianism was never taboo or had anything to do with identity struggles. I saw it as a universal story told through the eyes of a lesbian woman of her age. Besides, I also saw that many things were happening to her beyond her sexual orientation. So I thought that we have to get used to seeing films that work with diversity and do not focus solely on the conflicts around identity. In a conservative society like Paraguay’s, I felt it important to present a film whose central focus was not on sexuality and identity per se.
In the film, you can notice an almost absolute absence of male characters. Instead, the network among women is the most important element that The Heiresses presents. How did you manage to explore this idea?
I thought that working only with women was organic to the film. I knew there would be men to lift the piano, to buy a car, to be the frustrated boyfriend or to sell burgers. Men would exist in the margins. Because I thought Chela’s story was very feminine, rooted in a women’s world. I think that Paraguay is a country of women. They had extreme importance in the reconstruction of the country, especially after many wars. Also, I was raised in a world surrounded by women: neighbors, aunts, grandmother, etc. These were the characters I knew the best and I knew I would be able to work well with them. This was my refuge.
The domestic world of the film seems to be at the center. However, one could connect this world with a broader social and political framework in Paraguay. How do you think these two are related?
These lesbians are not activist as one would see nowadays. I would say they are homophobic lesbians. They didn’t grow up feeling comfortable in their own skin. This is a consequence of a whole political moment. Also, this story gave me the opportunity to explore other things that were important to me, which may be easier to read within Paraguay than outside of the country. For example, the relationship between these women, a relationship of love and oppression, is similar to the relationship that our society had with the dictator. I think this was a sort of romantic relationship that lasted around 35 years. So when the dictator left, the country started to manage itself, alone. Desire started to come out, for example. This journey that the country had is similar to the journey that the protagonist had in my film. This is why, at the end, when obscurity and confinement seem to come back, we had to leave open a way to escape. We needed this luminosity.
What were the challenges you had to face during the shooting of this film?
In Paraguay, the challenges appear before you start shooting. There are no institutions, no funding, nothing. You have to do everything possible to get the funding. However, once you get it, I think the advantages of living in Paraguay start to appear. People are very enthusiastic about filmmaking. The actresses came to my house all the time. We rehearsed for hours and then had some wine. We laughed. There were no rules given by any industry. For example, the actress that plays the role of the employee in the film, Pati, works in the house next to mine. I didn’t do much casting and locations were ten blocks away from my house. The whole setting was almost a student-like setting. We made the film in 40 days, which is a luxury. The main actresses didn’t have much experience with cinema, so we needed this time. Also, we shot chronologically, which is another luxury. These were many advantages that were extremely positive for the film.
How do you think this film inserts itself within an “industry” or network of films in Paraguayan cinema?
Paraguayan cinema has started in the last fifteen or twenty years. It’s just starting. So it’s very difficult to talk about a solid or consolidated Paraguayan cinema. There are great films that came from Paraguay and had a worldwide circulation; others didn’t have this circulation but are equally exquisite. I am from a generation that wants to make cinema and this is what connects me with the rest of my colleagues because I think we all have this ambition. But I can’t tell if there is anything in The Heiresses that relates clearly to a history of Paraguayan cinema. To me, the film is closer to literature and Gabriel Casaccia’s work above all.
There are two objects that become very important in the story: the tray and the car. These are objects that relate strongly to Chela’s character. Could you tell us more about them?
When I was a child, I had an aunt who had a tray like Chela’s. She was walking around always with that tray. So in my mind, the first scene of the film always had the image of this tray, because it shows a person with limitations. This object gave me the opportunity to describe the character with an image. For example, if the tray has a rosary, sparkling water, coffee, etc., all of these little things give me the chance to narrate and say more about this character with no need for many words. So this has always been an essential element for the film.
The car gave us the opportunity to show how Chela was moving towards her own emancipation by losing her fear of driving. I share this fear. Feeling more confident with driving was almost a very direct metaphor of her confidence in managing her own life. This was a very magical process. Because this thing with the car was not very premeditated. Even the ending was not defined beforehand. I never thought about the importance of the car as a narrative element. It grew during the shooting process. It was a collective achievement.