April 15, 2002|The film industry in Argentina reached its pinnacle in the 1930s and '40's when five-thousand artisans produced an average of forty-two films annually, each of them honouring popular and political themes primarily interested in social criticism. The prohibitive censorship of the first Peron presidency in 1943, however, precipitated the decline of the Argentine movie industry by forcing native films to turn their backs on the homegrown issues that spoke to the common audience. As Argentine cinema steadily lost viewership, foreign product (mostly from the United States, natch) gained a large foothold in the Argentine market. The problem eventually became so bad that Argentina tried to curb the influx with the Cinema Law of 1957, which, while not doing much to stem the influx of Yankee product, established the Instituto Nacional de Cinematografía to provide education and funding.
Making little impact throughout the Sixties and Seventies (a period during which Brazilian cinema flourished), the Instituto Nacional de Cinematografía would bear fruit at the end of the millennium after the Argentine film industry reached its nadir in 1983. Aided by a ticket tax and a pledge to devote 50% of total box office to the fostering of new cinema, by 1995 the Argentine cinema enjoyed a new golden age, only to have it possibly truncated by a recent series of economic and political scandals and collapses. Forced to look for funding outside of their country, Argentine filmmakers, made bold by decades of Hollywood bloat and the rise of independent cinema, have a difficult road ahead of them.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL sat down recently with two of the directors working in the new Argentine cinema; both of their films were funded and finished prior to the collapse of their country's economic infrastructure. Juan José Campanella, writer-director of the Best Picture in a Foreign Language Oscar-nominated Son of the Bride (l Hijo de la Novia), and Fabián Bielinsky, writer-director of the seven-time Condor-winning (Argentina's equivalent of the Oscar) Nine Queens (Nueve reinas), spoke with us about their films, Zorro, the pleasures of narrative, and the state of their country's film industry.
JUAN JOSÉ CAMPANELLA
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I wanted to start by talking a little about the now-canceled Comedy Central series "Strangers with Candy"--I was terribly sorry to see it go.
JUAN JOSÉ CAMPANELLA: Oh! That was my most rewarding work in the United States. It's the most vulgar concept married to the most literate writing--it's so fucking smart and funny. I think it's such a pity that it was dropped, I hope that America will someday see it for what it is.
Son of the Bride seems a very personal film.
The inciting element, the trigger of it, was a conversation with my father. One night we were having dinner and he told me he wanted to get married to my mother in a church to restart a cycle. My mother has Alzheimer's disease--so you can see that this film is about a 42-year-old guy who needs to reassess his life.
I'm a big admirer of Ricardo Darín's--I know this is your second collaboration with him.
The thing with Ricardo is that we like to work together: we see eye to eye. It's necessary to play the dark aspects of a character to have a contrast and a full-fledged human. The importance of him--and this is something that you see even more so in his performance in Nine Queens--is that he can play this despicable character but he has this charisma that causes you to still root for him.
Tell me about the importance of exorcising the past in your film.
When you see someone you love very much get consumed by Alzheimer's disease, there's a whole set of questions that you ask yourself: What is the soul? What makes a person? What is the core of that person and what role do memories play? You realize that the saddest thing to lose is memories because that's all that you have. It is what makes you who you are.
Son of the Bride starts with a memory.
Exactly. When your life becomes "now" and not "before" or "after," it's a very sad thing.
Tell me about Zorro and why that recurring image is important in your film.
Zorro is a very popular character in Argentina. The ultimate version is Disney's Guy Williams, everyone else is a fake. In the Seventies he went on a convention tour and he found so much love in Argentina that he retired, married, and died there in suburban Buenos Aires. He's a guy, Zorro, who fought for ideas. He didn't just fight the bad guy, but he fought for the people. He was an idealistic character, which is what I saw Darín's character as--someone who discovered that he had to fight for the ideals of his life and identity.
Was there ever any doubt that Norma Aleandro would play your mother?
Never. It wasn't because of her stature as an icon in Argentina, but her skill as an actress. She proves that we made the right choice with every minute of her performance. It's a mercurial character, she had to switch 180 degrees on the spot--her character is so internal and her eyes are so expressive. She has no subtext: it's a character who doesn't know where she's going and makes no sense a lot of times. She has to react instant-to-instant.
Was it personally painful to watch it?
No, strangely enough. I could be distant on the set--there's so much I needed to worry about while we were shooting. But I had a hard time writing it and I was very emotional watching it for the first time with an audience.
I think Natalia Verbeke is going to be a star.
She was the only one besides Darín and Blanco that we didn't go through a conventional process to cast--Darín and Blanco's roles were written for them and we knew they were going to do it. [Verbeke's] a Spanish actress who I saw in a couple of films and I knew I had to have her for my film. There was something in that movie I saw--she was wearing sunglasses and was being told something and without even seeing her eyes you knew she was breaking down. She has an amazing talent.
What are the difficulties of making a film in Argentina?
Well, we shot last year before the catastrophe. It's a different thing now in Argentina whereas before the difficulties shooting there were the same, more or less, as the difficulties shooting here. With so much uncertainty surrounding the value of our dollar, it's impossible to set a budget. The film industry is essentially frozen.
Do you think that your Oscar nomination will aid Argentina's film industry?
I do hope so. I hope that at the least it will convince the government not to cut the cultural funds. An interesting thing about that nomination: I found out we were nominated watching E! entertainment television and then a couple of weeks later I got a letter congratulating me on my film, No Man's Land.
That's at once embarrassing and not terribly surprising. Tell me about what you see as the future of your country's film industry.
I think that we were doing well. We were coming out with a few movies being shown around the world and little by little gaining a little market. We were trying to get a following like Iranian cinema did. For that to happen we need a consistent flow of films and a national commitment to get those films made. Making movies is not that cheap. But there are so many great directors that are waiting to make a movie this year that are up in the air--I hope we can keep the flow going somehow.
What will your next project be?
We're starting work on a script to be shot in Argentina in 2003 about the new poor--the "nouveau poor" (laughs), which is now of course the middle class. It will be a loving look at it, like Son of the Bride, but that's what I'm looking at right now.
With Darín and Blanco?
(laughs) Of course, of course. It's a family.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Tell me about your primary influences in film, respecting your admiration for the pleasures of narrative cinema.
FABIÁN BIELINSKY: I spend a lot of time watching films--mainly American films. The 1970s in the United States were possibly the best period of filmmaking in any place or time in the world. I was a teenager then and these movies awakened feelings in me at a period in life when you are most vulnerable to passionate feelings. I realized in my own film that while it's not a conscious thing, I'm trying to emulate the feeling of those 1970s films--something personal, different, something that you feel is real to your soul and your artistic heart.
Ricardo Darín has this genuine quality about him that reminds me of protagonists from the 1970's--maybe Gene Hackman's character in Night Moves: conflicted, fallen, but likable.
He's so smooth and easy--he was a great help to me. As a first time director, I needed that help--I needed all the help that I could get. (laughs) Every single moment he was "point blank," y'know, very calm and very direct. You have so many things to do as a director, you really need help from people who are easy-going and know exactly what they're doing. I was very lucky with Darín and [Gastón] Pauls.
Did you have much rehearsal time?
No, I wanted to but there was no time. We spent a few days sitting around a table just talking about the characters, about how they saw the characters, how I saw the characters. We tried to understand these characters, to sculpt them and get deep into them. We never put these scenes into action. The first time that we blocked was in front of the camera and ultimately I think that was a good thing.
Knowing how important the narrative is to you, how much improvisation did you allow?
None. It was set in stone once we got to the set. Once on the set that was it--this was very important to me. We fixed certain lines and scenes before we shot, but the wholeness of the script was very important to the film.
How much structure do you impose on your screenplays?
I wrote Nine Queens very quickly with no structure in mind. I never build the acts, the plot points, the rising actions, whatever--I can't work that way. But when I came back to it later drafts, I began to slowly pull out the structure from the words--I found the acts, and the breaks, and the rhythms of the piece.
Nine Queens also honours '70's cinema in that it clearly works within a genre.
Inside a genre you can say whatever you want--it's liberating, not constraining. I love the feeling of talking to people coming out of the theatre energized, people so happy to pay their money to have things conveyed to them because they think they know what to expect from a genre film, but then you can subvert their expectations and make a different impact because they aren't expecting it. Genre movies done well access pleasure in a way that pretentious movies or blockbuster movies can't.
Tell me about director of photography Marcelo Camarino's minimalist lighting package and "found" footage look.
When I was thinking about the formal aspects of Nine Queens, I wanted to do it as minimal as possible, as real as possible. The lighting, the cinematography, was going to be the key to this ideal. Before we started shooting, I explained to Marcelo that I wanted a natural feeling--no stylizing, nothing artificial. I wanted a loose feeling--I wanted to shoot a lot of footage and to be able to set up a shot in ten minutes if the feeling was right.
Was this hard for Camarino?
Definitely, definitely. It was a professional sacrifice in a very real way. He's a brilliant lighter and cinematographer--he's a perfectionist. So it was definitely a sacrifice for him.
Did this cause friction?
I was afraid there was going to be a problem for sure, but he did it. When he bought into my vision, he was in all the way. He understood what I wanted and he gave it to me. I was ready to shoot with hidden cameras on the streets in ten minutes and I'd ask him if we were ready and he'd say, "Yes, yes." But then I'd see him turn away and go off a little way by himself and hold his head in his hands and moan, "Ohh. . . they're going to kill me, oh my God." But he never said "no."
He won several awards for his work.
Right--he won many Condors and a few festival awards, too, so I hope he feels okay about it now. The idea was for a feeling of vérité and Marcelo captured it perfectly.
There's an ironic balance in your film between the artifice of your screenplay and the naturalism of your visual structure.
That was the intention for sure--it was the substance of my idea. The heist/caper genre tends to be very stylish and I wanted to go another way. To see what would happen if we gave that 1970's visual sensibility to a traditional genre piece. I was most gratified by the way the Argentine people felt so immediately connected to the film, the places and the characters. They felt this natural identification.
Tell me more about the socio-political depiction of everyday life in Argentina--could this film be made in today's political and economic climate, or was Nine Queens a predictor of the scandal to follow?
Things haven't changed at all, I mean, what's happening now is calamitous, but it didn't occur in a vacuum. What you see in the film, the animosity and the deception--all of that just deepened and exploded. I was just observing the zeitgeist, I wasn't trying to document what we are as a people, but a feeling. A mood that everybody's a liar, everybody's cheating you. It's not reality--you know that everybody's not like that, but I wanted to capture that feeling, even if it's momentary. That the law of the world is cynicism.
Is it difficult to find funding now in Argentina?
Very much so. It's difficult. There's state support for the film industry and some big international companies might back you up, but now the money is going to other places. Ten percent of every ticket sold in Argentina goes back to the National Institute to fund new movies--the government took control of that fund and took half of that money for other purposes, but even that half was enough to help up make movies.
Now the value of your currency has fallen.
Yes, now even that half left over is worthless--the situation changes day by day, but I have to say that I don't feel very optimistic. It's so sad--the last couple of years we had so many new and young voices coming out of the Argentine cinema, we had over fifty films the last two years--lots of different faces and names. It was a very healthy time for us. Now, well, nobody knows, but I don't feel very optimistic.