“I Shoot the Body as a Mysterious Geography”: An Exclusive Conversation with Lucrecia Martel

Lucrecia Martel with Dennis Lim, director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Photography by Arin Sang-urai,  Film Society of Lincoln Center. 

Lucrecia Martel with Dennis Lim, director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Photography by Arin Sang-urai,  Film Society of Lincoln Center. 

By Guillermo Severiche

During the recent visit of Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel to New York City to participate in the theatrical release of her most recent film and in a retrospective of her work organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, TropicalFRONT was able to sit with her to talk about her latest film Zama. She shared some of her insights about the film and her directorial practices, which offers a glimpse of the creative and political tensions in her work.


Something that is very important in your films is the presence of bodies and physical sensations as a strong and determinant force: sick bodies, aroused bodies, dying bodies or even corpses. You can also see this in Zama.

When I’m being asked this question I always wonder how other films work with bodies. Why is this something noticeable in my movies? Because there are bodies in all movies. So why is it more noticeable in some films more than in others? I can tell you what I do in the set, which can have this strong presence of bodies as a consequence. I shoot the body as a mysterious geography. I never focus people as something already known, but as something that I don’t know how it’s going to behave.

This is the idea of the “monster,” something strange and unknown, which is very useful for me not only for shooting but also for writing. You have to get closer and closer to find out what is this that you have in front of you. When I write about characters’ behaviors the idea of the “monster,” an unknown nature, is very useful, because it allows me to escape all prejudices around gender, age, etc. So then if I have to choose between shooting in a strange place and shooting with many people, I always choose to shoot with many people, because I love how unpredictable bodies can be.



How did you think about the colonial past in Zama? Were you having in mind its possible relation with our present?

The theories of a past that are put into play in Zama are not things that cannot happen in the present. I’m not trying to guess how the past was, but just to apply common sense. I worked with the past as if you were working with science fiction: projecting things from the present. Even though I read a lot about 18th century expeditions and everything by Félix de Azara and I used some indications from these readings, the rest was completely invented. For instance, if you see a movie with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan you will see many signs that you wouldn’t understand if you were not from our time period. There are a lot of systems that become validated in a particular epoch. One follows these systems and they are not necessarily explained.

I did the same in Zama. I invented systems that characters would follow but these systems are not explained: greeting with two kisses, shaking the dust from the boots before entering a room, a particular way of grabbing glasses, etc. These are little details that you don’t have to explain, because if you explain them you fall into the problem that many historical movies have: being pedagogical about the past. I was thinking that it is not important to understand everything about the past. You can’t have the whole picture, but you can have fragments that look strange to us and nobody would stop and explain them for you.


Regarding Argentine cinema, you have talked about the supremacy of films made in Buenos Aires and about Buenos Aires. However, you move away from this tendency.

Cinema is like that in Argentina. For me, Buenos Aires as a resource is exhausted. A big risk that people making films in Buenos Aires have is to repeat a format, a way of looking; because it’s very hard to move away from that norm. Besides, it’s always a white and middle class perspective. That’s poverty for cinema. I tolerate this less and less; and I don’t exclude myself from this criticism. It’s boring.


May this change in the future?

I think we have to make an effort to change this faster. It’s going to happen inevitably. But it should happen faster, so the world can be more fun. It’s very Manichean, obvious, and evident that cinema represents only a white middle class. I read the other day that Guaman Poma’s text (Nueva crónica del buen gobierno), which was one of the first texts with a vision about America from America, written by a mestizo with a critical perspective about colonies, a very consistent work, was published three hundred years after it was made. So how long does one have to wait for people with power to appreciate what has been done without their ideas? I just hope we don’t have to wait other three hundred years for a cinema that is not white middle class.



Did you find something of this “moving away” from the center in Antonio Di Benedetto’s Zama that caught your attention?

I liked everything in the novel. First, it caught my attention that this guy, Di Benedetto, from that periphery which is Mendoza – it’s incredible to call Mendoza a periphery – looked at the colonial past in a very hypothetical way. Di Benedetto didn’t even visit the area were the story takes place. This produced a displacement in the text from all perspectives: historical, spatial, etc. And that was attractive for me. Di Benedetto and I found each other in this aspect, as people from the interior of Argentina looking at other temporalities.


How did you work with Di Benedetto’s text, in terms of its style and techniques? Were these challenges for you in the adaptation?

I think schools teach how to read badly. There should be another method for reading. Understanding the text shouldn’t be the first concern, but getting its rhythm. Understanding should come afterwards. The first thing that schools should teach is how to read with rhythm. What Di Benedetto does with his writing forces you to enter into a whirlpool. Every two or three lines you have to go back, because you can’t continue. That system makes you enter into particular state; it modifies your perception. It’s like a mystical procedure. For me, that’s very easy to translate into cinema. Thus, Di Benedetto’s procedure is not that far from cinema. Most problems with literary adaptations happen when one doesn’t get the material aspects of texts, their rhythm.


In terms of writing screenplays, what are the key points that help you go through this process?

I always start thinking about the sound. That’s the path I found to be in my cinema. This comes from my interest with oral tradition, with conversations; that world gives me many ideas in terms of structures. In general, writing has classical parameters. However, in poetry or poetic prose you can find somebody making ruptures or searching something through language. You can also find it in spoken language. There is a particular creation with language when it is spoken.

It’s incredible how people create with language when they talk with each other. The spoken word is an area where a legitimized culture does not necessarily have a positive impact. If you go to a neighborhood where Harvard or Yale have no impact whatsoever, people are very creative with language. That’s very interesting. Because there are a lot of structures that people use to organize information, which has nothing to do with classical parameters. This has always been the origin of my work.