It’s a crisp morning in Nyon and Lucrecia Martel is going off on one. “To arrive at a meaning you need a sentence, so that is the word order,” she begins, her translator gamely keeping pace, “then there is the sound material of the dialogue, which is completely different from the sentence, and it can sometimes oppose the meaning. But it’s the chronological order of the words and the meaning which dominates the process of writing a script, which is odd. Everything which is not in the script is the sound; it’s the most difficult thing to capture in the script. Those are the tools we work with. That’s why it’s so difficult to write dialogue: because you’re capturing only the sense of words and leaving the sound out. We’re not talking about an obsession here; this is something that happens in any conversation in a family.” Growing nervous about our dwindling time together, I decide to interject.
Martel was born in 1966 in Salta in North Argentina. She says that the region’s “evident racism” and stark class divides informed much of her work, a history that she describes as “extremely complex.” The same could be said of Martel’s unique approach to cinema, as it could about the artist’s worldview. In a 2.5- hour masterclass, conducted at the Visions du Réel festival in Switzerland, she spared no time in railing against the homogenizing effect of things like film-studies curriculum and production labs. (“Better to be personal and maybe not connect with anyone,” she argued, “than to be universal and maybe not reach anyone.”) She’s held up as a hero by a new generation of cinephiles––trendy t-shirts and all––yet she rejects being called a feminist filmmaker and has spoken out against cancel culture in the past. As head of the Venice Film Festival in 2019, and after saying that she wouldn’t attend a dinner in his honor, her jury awarded Roman Polanski best director; then hilariously awarded Todd Phillips’ Joker the Golden Lion. (“Identity is a prison,” the director observed to a packed house of mostly university-age attendees, “that obliges you to be who you say you are.”)
We met earlier that day at Nyon’s hotel ambassador. As an interviewee and conversationalist, Martel is generous and delightful, searching and humble, with a kindness in her eyes that can only be concealed for so long by those iconic pink sunglasses. For a short and sweet 20 minutes we talked about her near-obsessive fascination with sound, her brush with the MCU, and how things are going with her upcoming documentary about the murder of the indigenous activist Javier Chocobar.
The Film Stage: You’ve described cinema many times as being like a swimming pool on its side. It’s such an interesting concept. Could you unpack it a bit for us?
Lucrecia Martel: That, for me, is the best way to explain how a film actually works mechanically. Our culture is focused on the image. Our entire culture has faith in vision more than the other senses. The idea of the arrow of time, that we arbitrarily found a representation of time that is very closely connected to vision. The future is always from now, from out, face-forward; no one is thinking of the future as something behind us. In the Mayan culture they are always looking behind. Just imagine what it is to be old in such a culture: the old person is someone who can see furthest and is therefore someone very important.
In our culture it’s youth who has the future in front. Just imagine everything that defines this. So in cinema, the image has had a dominant role to play when you think of this time arrow, with the chronological order of images in this process. If we had based ourselves on sound instead of image we would have wound up in a different place, especially regarding the idea of time. So imagine you’re in a cinema, that’s a volume, and then the images are running over a flat surface, but everything that surrounds you––everything that’s tactile, that touches you––is the sound. And everything which is outside the image is implied by the sound. Of course, if you just have a cutout of an image you can imagine a lot around it, but it’s the sound that makes it material. So to observe this at work is very interesting when you imagine what you’re going to do when you make a film. In terms of physics or spatial characteristics, the volume that you’re sitting in is enormous compared to something that is very small. It’s something you can observe very easily with the concept of a swimming pool.
You obviously think on a very profound level about the sound in cinema. I’m curious if there was a particular film that you saw when you were younger, or that you appreciate now, that triggered this fascination with sound in a cinematic context.
What Happened to Baby Jane?––this film triggered something in me in spite of the fact that it’s a conventional movie. It’s a spectacular movie, a magnificent movie but a classical movie. The leitmotifs were important, the music, there was something there that triggered something in me. Apichatpong feels very close to me in the way he uses sound, but there’s no one of his films in particular; I like all of them.
Can we talk about the documentary you’ve been working on about Javier Chocobar? With Zama you told a story about colonialism in the 17th century. With this next film it sounds as if you will, in a way, talk about that same history in a present-day context. Do you see it as a kind of distant sequel?
Well, I started working on this film in 2010––so if anything Zama, from 2017, is the sequel. I’m still editing Chocobar. I don’t know if the title will be Chocobar at this point, but the film is all about the crime involving this man. It’s been 13 years. I live very far from that community so I can’t spend large periods of time with them. I also feel very uncomfortable when I interrupt the lives of these people. There are people, like people who make documentary films, they have this facility to connect with people very easily and I don’t have that. It’s a huge effort for me. And imagine: I have to use a cane now and these are mountainous areas!
What stage are you at with it?
I have 300 hours of material. I have edited some parts of it with Miguel Schverdfinger, who edited The Headless Woman and Zama. There’s much more material than there is money so I’m trying to concentrate things, to make it shorter, so that the budget will allow me to work further.
In aesthetic terms, will it be a more conventional style of documentary than we might expect from you?
I’m sure it’s going to be much less interesting than many of the documentaries made by filmmakers who make documentaries. But you have to understand this is a topic that is absolutely crucial to my area, to the Salta region.
I’m curious about some things that happened since Zama. You were offered Black Widow by Marvel––did you see it when it came out?
No, no, no––I didn’t see Black Widow. I tried to. They contacted a great number of female directors. I never would have imagined that Marvel could contact and bring together a pool of directors and I would be a part of it; I never thought that would be possible. I would have loved to make a film with them but I would have had to provide something that I would like to see in that world.
It turns out some of the Marvel films are available on planes so I’ve seen a few. I find the sound in them is absolutely in very poor taste, the visual effects and the sound of the effects.
That’s interesting. Could you describe what it is about the sound that you find in poor taste?
It’s the selection of the sounds that they’re connecting to the effects, which is actually very ugly. And the way the music is used is actually horrible.
It was such a funny story. Had you ever been offered something like that before?
Some very interesting things, but I was involved in something else. This documentary I’m working on is extremely difficult. It requires a huge amount of time. Those films that are opportunistic, the third line of the mainstream, they have tiny budgets and don’t have much ambition. This is often what Latin-American filmmakers are offered. Remakes of movies from the ’30s, for example. The big companies have the rights to the scripts. It might be that a director who’s a cheap director––probably from a Latin country––they put them together with some stars and a script they have the rights to. Sometimes it can happen under these circumstances that the film is a success.
The other big story was your time as jury head at Venice in 2019, awarding Joker and Polanski and all that. Has enough time passed that you can talk about it?
Joker is incredible for that particular group of films. But my favorite was the Chinese film, an animated film.
Oh, with the cats and the nipples?
[Laughs] Yes, No.7 Cherry Lane. When the vote was cast it was Joker, but I liked that Chinese film enormously. You could see figures of a man and a woman, but it was clear to me it was two men. It’s a love story. So I was looking at it but I perceived something different. I really loved that movie.