VdR54_Lucrecia Martel_Masterclass©Nikita-Thévoz_2

Source: Nikita Thévoz, Visions du Réel.

Lucrecia Martel in conversation

Argentinian writer-director Lucrecia Martel was candid about her long-in-gestation documentary Chocobar during a masterclass at the Visions du Reel festival in Nyon in Switzerland where she was being honoured for her life’s work - thus far

The work-in-progress was provoked by the 2009 murder, part-captured on YouTube, of Indigenous activist Javier Chocobar in Tucuman in northern Argentina, while trying to stop evictions from his ancestral land. “We’ve been working on it for 12 years,” she acknowledged. “It is very strongly based on facts, although it’s hard to specify that it’s a documentary - it’s in that area. I’ve written four or five versions, and fact or fiction isn’t clear. In this story, there is documentation that goes back for hundreds of years and the more you go back, the more fictitious it becomes - the fantasies of the colonisers of the country. 

Martel, who has made documentary works in short and TV form, said: “I’m learning as I am doing with this feature film. I don’t have experience here.”

Chocobar is also about land ownership in Argentina and control of the narrative - the denial of the existence of Indigenous people and, consequently, any of their rights. And a written “history with an extraordinary level of imagination” on the part of those who held the power and did the writing. This so-called historical documentation is swampy ground which her previous work has touched upon in fictional form.

She promised: “I will finish it this year. I hope, because I have a lot of material.”

A self-taught artist

On top of the three consecutive fiction features which made her name and are all set in her home of Salta, Argentina - La Cienega (2001), The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008) - and her last, 2017’s austere epic Zama, an adaptation of a novel, Martel has amassed another 20 works of varying and inter-mingled disciplines over her filmmaking career. She’s a rigorous artist, mostly self-taught due to the collapse of the Argentinian economy while she was at film school. 

The Indigenous people of her homeland and the psychological impact of the nation’s denial of their plight has been, in one way or another, felt across her filmmaking. Until Zama, she dealt with the darker undercurrents of Argentina’s middle classes - the people who carried on as if nothing was happening during the dictatorship and the psychological cost of their studied ignorance.

“It’s the evident racism that people deny and they don’t see,” she said. “Argentina doesn’t see itself as a racist country. When a country denies the evidence it’s impossible to not go crazy - the effort it takes to deny it all inevitably drives you crazy. That’s what The Headless Woman is all about.”

While Martel’s documentary work has mostly involved shorts (North Terminal, for example) or art works, Chocobar will address a conflict head-on. Yet direct conflict is not normally her milieu, and

Chocobar seems unlikely to take a regular shape.

“Where did this idea come that we can only express our films through conflict and resolution? Streamers require an arc - a character arc, a story arc,” she said. “But there cannot be one narration style for a planet like this. How can there be? Yet we are all using the same platform. There are too few companies for a world that is so varied.

“Believing the movie is the plot - that’s a problem. It ends up being something very small.”

Martel is someone who found her way to feature filmmaking in a non-linear manner - a Super-8 camera at home which she ignored, followed by a video camera which she used to document her parents and siblings for hours (“in a minimalist way”) before a patchy stint at film school in Buenos Aires during the economic crisis of the late-1980s. “There were no classes. We would just drink gin in the bars, so I went home to Salta. 

She won a short film competition before she left which led eventually to Rey Muerto, informed by her love of Westerns, and then the feature La Cienaga. She shot in 35mm because that’s all that was available. She worked with women from the start. “My background is not very elegant, but it is what it is

“On the first film everyone knew more than me. But that means you don’t know any other way to do it. I had a certainty of the sound, and that allowed me to carry on and not film too many takes.”


The films she made ended up being distinctive and rule-breaking. “But disobedience is easier with a lack [of knowledge],” she explained. “If you’ve attended a really good film school you might not know what you, yourself, really need. If you simply obey the rules of cinema, the canon, whatever they are, none of that will be useful for you, unless you know exactly what you want to say. You need to make it up for yourself. I’m not praising ignorance but you need to invent cinema — humbly invent cinema.” 

As for inspiration: “The same things are happening all over the world. People sleeping in the streets, eating out of garbage bins, and you walk by. The most incredible things are very close to you. If you think nothing is happening around you, I suggest you’re not looking.”

Martel hopes she has rewritten Chocobar for the last time. “I do like the writing because I don’t require a lot of money for this, especially when you know the film is not going to have a big budget. For Zama, at a very late stage I was told that I needed to cut 30 pages out of a script that was 120 pages. And I had to do it in a way that didn’t look like I was an offended artist, or else I couldn’t film it. It affected the film, yes. But it also meant the film exists.”