IN A FARAWAY LAND: LUCRECIA MARTEL ON ZAMA
The Salta trilogy was perfect. The Swamp delved into the decadence of aristocracy in the Salta Province; and, at the same time, it suggested a perverse and secretive exchange between wealthy people and servants within the domestic microcosm of a typical well-to-do family. La niña santa staged a series of situations around a medicine congress at a Salta hotel in which the insidious and paradoxical relation between desire and theological discourse was measured. The Headless Woman dealt exclusively with power nets and the place of privilege of those who belong to the middle class in Salta; those who are able, in face of some adverse circumstances, to change medical files and even evidences of a deadly accident in order to erase criminal responsibilities.
The three films made by Lucrecia Martel in seven years had the benefit of a thorough knowledge of the symbolic order in which those secretly oneiric—and openly moral and political—tales happened. For the young filmmaker from Salta, this Province and the peculiarities of its inhabitants were a universe she had carefully studied since childhood. The filmmaker’s curiosity, and her prodigious sensibility, offered her first-hand knowledge which she coated with pertinent sociological notions and underpinned with great poetical wit. In Martel’s films, all of these constitutive elements were brought together to form a custom-designed universe. Which perfectly explained why her three first films were so flawless.
Martel never lacked words to explain her work; right since the start, she was part of that remarkable, and small, group of filmmakers who know why they do things in a certain way. The opening minutes in The Swamp are a synthesis of it. The sound of thunders, the eco of wine as it is served on empty cups and of beach recliners as they are being dragged over the floor; these, together with a series of small shots of segmented male and female bodies, introduced—in her first film—the signs of an inert world in which an accurate social portrait would happen. Those shots were like the starting kicks for a whole body of work—and not just a single movie—and, perhaps, established the genetic evidence of a whole poetics. That filmic opening is memorable. That opening is Martel, objectified forever.
However, great filmmakers are measured not only by the perfection of their poetics and by the rhetoric they may possess in order to make explicit the basis of a particular aesthetics. They are measured, also, by the risks they assume and the paths they choose to troth when they are already in control of a certain area and feel that carry on within it could lead to a perpetuation of their prestige but, also, to a betrayal of the initial gesture made at the beginning of their career. Martel knew that another Salta film could imply a gentle conformism; however, staying within a comfort area was not in her plans.
Thus, for a while, she focused on a remarkable project to bring to the screen a mythic and complex Argentinean story, El Eternauta, by Héctor Germán Oesterheld, an author and scriptwriter who was forcefully disappeared in times of the most recent Argentinean civil-military dictatorship. This was a very promising project, but it tanked for reasons that went beyond Martel. How would a film by Martel following the rules of science fiction have been? What would have become of science fiction under Martel’s rules?
Not long after that, we got another piece of news. The Salta-born director had decided to take to the screen a masterful, incomparable novel, Zama, first published in 1956 and written by Antonio Di Benedetto (1922-1986), a writer born in Mendoza, and one of the greatest Argentinean authors, together with Jorge Luis Borges and Juan José Saer.
Di Benedetto’s elegant style can be perceived in any of his texts, regardless of them being novels, short stories, or chronicles. The miraculous conceptual intensity of his prose manages to exteriorize the discreet consciousness of a character, to offer a microscopic description of a place, or to nail down a social event in terms which make any kind of interpretative nonsense impossible. His words stick, without deviation, to the circumstances and characters involved.
The novel’s singularity demands an aesthetic system which goes beyond genre poetics. The fact that it is set in 1790 only determines a time period; the rest of it is incredibly perplexing, because the text has an expressive force which is concrete and abstract at the same time. How to film such a unique literary piece as Zama?
A few decades ago, an Argentinean director, Nicolás Sarquís, tried—without luck—to do it. The novel seemed destined to be put into motion by Martel. So, the most sophisticated filmmaker of her generation conquered a difficult matter and managed to find that secret passage from paragraph to cinematic shot. The book she chose practically institutes a whole world and, for Martel, that means to materialize it into a physical space away from the characteristic operation of imagination any reader undergoes. The matter of films is what actually exists; to disrupt reality and order it to originate a world is a prodigious thing. That’s why Zama seems to have been filmed, literally, at the end of the 18th century. It is as if Martel’s crew time-travelled to shoot, live, the adventures of Don Diego de Zama, a Spanish-Crown officer eager to return to Europe, where his wife and kids wait for him. Meanwhile, time passes by and the Crown-appointed mayor has to patiently undertake the wait.
The mysterious dedication of the novel says: “To the victims of waiting.” It is known this novel is part of a trilogy marked by that behavior, of a psychological nature. In Zama, waiting is not the same as in El silenciero or Los suicidas, but the three of them work as a phenomenology of that activity of consciousness that makes the waiting person to feel a disagreement between the present and the future. The poetic principle of the film lies on reproducing Zama’s displaced consciousness by working meticulously on the relation of the character and a spatial perspective which takes away any sign of escape and, at the same time, on intensifying the dimension of sound, which makes everything stranger. This sound dimension includes the emergence of four non-melodic musical moments which cannot even be classified as extradiegetic.
However, Zama is not a self-absorbed film. Having the point of view anchored to the consciousness of a single character doesn’t fix the viewer’s attention to the semi closed universe of the character. Martel has said that the film revolves around identity. What does this mean? In a passage of the novel, in which Zama refuses to take part in an erotic party with some half-breed Black girls, it can be read: “I hadn’t confessed my reasons in their totality, but I did confess one of the main ones. Until doing it, I was never able to foresee that, thus, I would discover to a person outside from my own intimacy my apprehensions and a motivation for my behavior.” This alienation of consciousness is stimulated by the presence of the others, the non-Europeans.
During the last 30 minutes of Zama, the true Others—Westerners—appear. And when that happens the film becomes a trance of perception because Zama’s consciousness has lost all of its basis and he is completely uprooted. A convinced European may think that the ones who arrive are savages. But this is not what Martel anticipates. American natives are there, they are part of an ontology. Thus, Zama’s desolated cosmos finds its limit. That is the difference of identity, of what resists and is not equalized. That is the abyss of identity opened by the others.
Roger Koza: Many years have gone by, almost 10, since your last film, The Headless Woman. In Zama you take an unexpected turn; perhaps, even, a double shift—on the one hand, you leave Salta, the symbolic land of your three preceding films and, on the other, you travel in time, into the past, to 1790. And there is something else. Your three earlier films didn’t have any previous reference, they were inventions of your own. Here, Zama, an extraordinary novel, is the backbone of your tale. Why so many changes? What challenge did you think you would face by taking these decisions?
Lucrecia Martel: When I finished The Headless Woman, I had the sensation that something had concluded. However, I didn’t quite know what. These are things that it is not necessary to stop and try to understand because to do so takes time. Afterwards, there was an exercise in trying to get into someone else’s world, the adaptation process for El Eternauta, and then, finally, immersing myself in the world of Zama. The difference is that Zama is a language invention, mercury in one’s ear, a fulminant and hard-to-detect poison, as they said. To associate this process with an intoxication, or an illness, offers a good shortcut because there is an order that is being altered, a mutation forced into the body. Any comment on this seems somehow insufficient. In the order of words, in verbal tenses, there is a power that has huge consequences over the body. It is possible to realize this when you write a dialogue. Verbal tenses are a devilish invention. And there is also something else, something which happened to me way before, when I visited the prison-museum in Ushuaia. I was about 25 years old. There were many cells decorated to recreate the time period when the prison hosted its most renown inmates. In one of the cells, as part of the setting, there was a cigarette packet, Particulares 33 was the specific brand. In the late 1970s, my dad used to smoke those same cigarettes. A cigarette packet circulated throughout the world connecting the kitchen furniture at my house and the Ushuaia prison. There, for the first time, I got a glimpse at The Circulation. It took me a long time to understand that was it—not invention, but circulation. A novel is read by someone who then goes and makes a film. It’s all part of the circulation; a membrane that expands from individual to individual. The more circulation there is, the more blood supply the tissue gets and, thus, we move from being lonely somnambulists to become part of a community.
RK: Zama is a demanding novel of awesome precision. To me, the film you made is a very demanding one too and its precision is just as awe inspiring. The novel itself seems to cast away all possible detours or unnecessary anecdotes. How did you work in its adaptation?
LM: For me, the market’s inclemency has become a good substitute for rigorous writing. The lack of modesty in the earliest drafts of my scripts has always had to pass through that guillotine. Sometime I imagine life in rich countries and these would have been obese, fat films with unnecessary, self-indulgent scenes. So, I have to confess that this rigor and precision derive, mainly, from the lack of the resources we experience in these latitudes. It is embarrassing. I trusted Fabiana Tiscornia—with whom I have always worked together in the direction—with the adjustments to the script because she has the capacity to see the chore of things. All the cuts we have to do—after talking with the guys at the producing company REI and realizing we just didn’t have a big enough budget—were carefully checked by Fabiana.
RK: A good example, right at the beginning of the film, of some of the procedures you used is the way in which you introduce the description of that heterodox fish who inhabits the edges of the river. The off-screen voice we hear belongs to a punished indigenous man, and not to Zama, as it does in the book.
LM: That’s indeed a good example to analyze some of the procedures. The intention of that scene was to be the extraordinary scene of the prisoner’s confession. One night, the man wakes feeling that a bat wing is growing on his back and he cuts it away. The next morning, a dark-skinned woman is dead. And he says he loved her. This is a horror I can understand completely and one that we all are moved by—after a violent deed, someone looks at himself without recognizing what he sees. I wanted that scene in the movie, as a new way to think about identity, which is the main line of the film. But, in our country, every day women die killed by their partners, by their exes, by family members or neighbors. It is unbearable. You might say this is an extremist position and that it denies events that actually happen. And it might be true. But, at least for a while, I prefer the non-proliferation of crimes against women in films, literature, or whatever. Because I’m not sure we are being able to reflect on that and I suspect these portrays imply the banalization of women’s bodies and even promote some sort of violence. Thus, I took the text about the fish rejected by the water—which was said by another character—and put it there. Right from the beginning I wanted the title, Zama, to appear over a background of catfish, or tiger-shovelnose catfish, in a reddish river. Actually, what I really wanted was gilded catfish.
RK: In Zama, the first thing you read, before the novel starts, is a mysterious dedication: “To the victims of waiting.” This description marks the sign of the character’s experience. And I get the impression that you tried, by all means, to materialize this situation in everything that is perceived in the character. It appears as if the key is to duplicate, in the staging, Don Diego de Zama’s inner experience, to which we don’t have a direct access.
LM: What is, exactly, to wait? If no sailor is looking into the horizon, the storm arrives all the same but there is no waiting. Waiting only exists when there is a human being desiring, or fearing, which are identical but opposing emotions. The main thing within this outlining of the wait is that the one who fears or desires is a subject, an individual with an idea about himself. What does publicity sell? Things? No, it sells identities. If you’re not interested in being the kind of guy who gets out of his work and rides a noiseless car to go pick up a well made-up blond girl maybe you won’t be interested in the Macho Alpha perfume that guy used copiously before leaving home. Waiting has a different kind of particularity—it does not depend on oneself. That is to say, it is a desire which submits us to others. And this path towards thinking on identity as a trap is what took me to have the other ideas present in the film. Why does Zama suffer? Because he waits. The Mayor, the Judge, the one who delivered justice without using the sword deserves his reward and waits for the King to send this reward. But, if he stops being all that, he escapes from waiting. When you have an appointment for a job interview and you know you’ll have to wait (because the humiliation waiting entails is a form of discipline), what do you do? You take a new book with you and you make the decision to finish the whole book. When, finally, you are received for the interview the humiliation has failed. That is why I think that the film, like the novel, has a happy ending. Our Judeo-Christian culture has turned waiting into a cult. And, at the end, Zama tells us it is not worth it.
RK: Zama’s desire to leave is translated into a way of being not in tune with his own environment. The character is ontologically inadequate to his environment. And I get the impression that the sound underlines that dimension of the character’s consciousness. In the final credits, we can read: “Zama’s Sound,” to indicate the creator of that particular sound effect which breaks with the spell of being in a world that belongs to another time. Why did you choose to introduce this sound that goes down in terms of its tone? It appears in four very specific moments.
LM: That sound is called the Shepard Tone, it is an aural illusion which was described in the 1970s and it gives the sensation of an endless falling. There is a lot of information about it on the Internet. Many elements in Zama were derived from that modern vice of not being able to go to sleep without surfing for a couple of hours on Youtube. Guido Berenblum asked for that sound to Luciano Azzigotti, a musician who loves weird experiments.
RK: Another way in which you convey the character’s experience is the relation of his movements within the space. During the first 70 minutes, interiors tend to convey the spiritual claustrophobia experienced by the Major. This is remarkable because you consciously work with depth of field; the exceptional usage—throughout the whole film—of windows and doors as elements to establish new frames within the main frame helps to expand space but does not cast away the sensation of confinement. And, in its last 30 minutes, the film expands towards another direction. The exhausted character seems to have surrendered to an elusive fate, but the film as a whole enters into another dimension. What did you want to achieve with this decisions in terms of the filming register?
LM: Well, I don’t plane framings that much, unless it entails a big problem in terms of production. I look for spaces where I think that I’ll be able to set the scene in a natural way, but the framing itself is defined when we are all there, with the lighting, the clothes, as most directors do. Rui Pocas was always kind and patient with these hesitations and never imposed lightings that hindered possible changes. The doors organize a system of frames within the frame, which is always useful. Anyhow, I think that the main element which defines the image system is the movement within the frame. And that was a very well-planned strategy—which I worked together with Fabiana Tiscornia and Federico D’auria, with whom I had already worked at The Headless Woman—to encourage crossings.
During the edition, the key was a tone within a specific rhythm rather than the clarity of the tale. We worked this together, first, with Karen Harley, a Brazilian editor, and then I worked with Miguel Shwerfinger, with whom I also edited The Headless Woman. At a certain point of the edition, I needed many adjustments in the Spanish dialogues, the off-screen voices, and the sound elements. I have a very good working understanding with Miguel.
RK: How did you think about the historical period? The clothing, the objects, the musicality of the languages, the relation between the body and its nakedness, the naturality of slavery, the secret interaction between animals and men, all of these offer, as a result, a visual transit towards a specific time period. The film looks as if it were shot live, right at the moment depicted.
LM: I think we did get it right in terms of that. It was a whole reconstruction work with a team working in the spirit of Di Benedetto. We were shameless in the way we invented our 18th century. During the writing stage, María Alché collected all kinds of information; she interviewed navigation and utensils experts, whatever we thought could help us to get ideas. We had worked together before, doing that, for Eternauta. María Onis was responsible for the settings research. We wanted some objects which were right from the 18th century in order to establish the time period, but we didn’t want to dig our heels in about that.
The key was the working team we established with a group of Brazilian people. Karen Pinheiro and her team of Brazilian amazons gave us the reference of the religious architecture of the Chiquitanía region, but we used it for civilian buildings. Also, Karen used the colors of the sands in Empedrado, Corrientes, to set the palette. The Government building was filmed at Chascomús, in the middle of the winter. Karen gave us details about clothing in the Sertao area. The film is more set in the Portuguese frontier than the novel.
Julio Suárez was a key man in Zama. Clothing was going to be a more definitive aspect than the set design, and the clothing-related work deserves to particularly focus on it. As a reference, we decided to use the runners from Formosa; that is, the gauchos who go into the mountains to look for wild horses. They dress with leather jerkins and their mules use a series of leather protections that make them look like a whole different animal. These runners use bent hats and we also used that element. We also used the clothing of the “menchos correntinos;” they are gauchos from the estuaries, and they use leather leggings and canvas sandals instead of boots because they often have to get into water. And, for the Crown officers, we used elements of the French court, which our 20th-century petit bourgeoisie looks up to. But this was not so in the 18th century, especially in the colonies. So, Julio was very daring at choosing fabrics and Alberto Moccia, the wig magician, devoted himself to the actors’ hair. And, of course, he did research, but I know that his instinct and his playful spirit were essential for the film and allowed for unique things to surface and for many actors to allow him to do his exotic head shavings. Marisa Amenta, with whom I’ve been working since my first short film, brought in many ideas from paintings and tattoos, specially from the Chaco region. Thus, we formed the characters. She worked with local clays for some characters and, as always, she curbed actors at the moments they were more confused. That’s her specialty.
The whole crew involved in Zama had studied the script. And many breakdowns and pages were written in order to avoid lack of time, and being outdoors, would make us lose control over details.
RK: The final 30 minutes are a true anthropological prodigy. The scenes of the confrontation, and some passages at a party, are also magnificent. How did you work with the peoples you depict? And, in general terms, how did you work in these two scenes I just mentioned?
LM: The professional-actors casting for Zama was in the hands of Natalia Smirnoff, a friend of mine with whom I’ve been working since The Swamp and we understand each other really well. The casting for non-professional actors and the minor roles were in charge of Vero Souto. Vero is a woman who is capable of going to places where not even the police dares to go. Looking for the right people she spent months on her own, in a 40-Celsius-degree environment, at Formosa. And even at a moment in which we, in Buenos Aires, were taking the decision to stop the film because of lack of funds, she’d keep on sending some of her findings for characters and I have to confess that, more than once, that gave me strength to carry on.
The main thing about cinema, where everything is a lie and we save no one’s life, is to spend a good time working. Together with Vero we would rehearse dialogues in which we would be told things in Qom language and we would answer in Spanish. Anyway, nothing teaches you more than ridicule. We were allowed to use a school and we had the meetings there and we found a way to speak that wouldn’t make us fall into that horribly paternalistic way we sometimes relate to Indian people through dreams. In dreams, we are alike, because especial effects are for free.
We decided to shoot the scene at the Mbayá party at the Tourist Hotel we were staying at, in a hall they rent, precisely, for parties. We didn’t foresee that in the script.
It was easy to take these decisions because—before accepting any changes—Javier Leoz, the production director, would ask me just the right questions a director must answer before drifting away from the script. Leoz is a cinematic legend. Someone who loves Argentinean cinema should write a book on Leoz.
RK: I’ve always had the impression that you conceived the sound for your previous films as if it adjusted to the way we experience sounds in our consciousnesses just before we fall asleep. In Zama, sound decisions are decisive but in this case I am not sure, or I can’t completely decipher, how you planned the sound. The presence of sound prevails in some passages, or it has decisive poetic implications.
LM: I worked right from the beginning together with Guido Berenblum. He’s got a metronome inside his hypothalamus. He can detect rhythms and sounds where the rest of us hear nothing but a horrible noise. As most people involved in sound work, Guido and his team went insane a long time ago and they try to hide this fact by coming up with diseases and talking about exotic cuisine. We wanted the sound to be subjective and very related to the Chaco region. We liked a lot the sound of the grey-potoo bird—which is almost human-like—and the sound of the bare-throated bellbird, which is almost cybernetic. Guido got together a collection of birds from the region, which he found in ornithologists’ web pages, and also used cicadas and other bugs. This time I left him very much on his own while making the tracks. And we only had two weeks to correct things. Luckily, before and during the shooting of the film we had already talked a lot.
The concept on the dialogues was that many of the other characters’ texts are said off-screen, over shots of Zama. What I intended, and this was there since the earliest draft of the script, was to repeat this procedure several times so at the end the viewer would get a notion that the whole tale is Zama’s invention. And now, after Venice, and many articles written on the film, I know it worked.
Emanuel Crozet, the French sound mixer who did the mix for The Swamp and The Headless Woman, proposed to do a less tight mixing, a noisier one, almost sloppy. Guido and I looked at each other thinking “this is weird,” because the tracks were very well organized for a specific kind of mixing. But we soon understood what a great finding was to follow that concept in Zama.
RK: Another new element, if one remembers your previous films, has to do with the songs that every now and then interrupt a diegetic universe without songs. Why did you feel now the necessity to add music?
LM: Youtube has given me back my hope in humanity, in all human beings, I think. As most of the Internet population, there is not a single day I don’t end watching something at Youtube. Sometimes I search for a random word and just see where that word takes me. Some other times I am looking for something very specific and, after 15 minutes, I am, again, surfing aimlessly. That’s how I found about the Indios Tabajaras, a couple of Brazilian guitar players form the 1950s who played music with some humor, sometimes intentional and sometimes derived from their huge ambition.
And, in a film about the difficulty of being, that was a good idea.
Roger Koza / Copyleft 2017
English version by Tiosha Bojórquez