Lucrecia Martel. Photo courtesy of the Cartagena International Film Festival. 

How Argentine Director Lucrecia Martel Pointed Her Camera at Colonialism

After a nine-year hiatus, the New Argentine Cinema pioneer is back on the scene with 'Zama.'

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Mar 22 2018, 5:00pm

Lucrecia Martel. Photo courtesy of the Cartagena International Film Festival. 

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE en Español. Leer en Español.

After Lucrecia Martel made her feature-length film debut with La Ciénaga back in 2001, critics—and the international film world in general—were hypnotized. Martel, who had studied at the National School of Experimentation and Cinematographic Production (ENERC) in Buenos Aires, had just begun to explore her particular style in the short-film realm during the 80s and 90s. There were almost six years between her short Rey Muerto, whose screenplay won a “Short Stories” prize from the National Film Institute of Argentina, and La Ciénaga. From then on, there was no turning back.

Not only did La Ciénaga lead to Martel becoming the subject of countless academic film studies and breathless reviews, rigorous analytical pieces sought to unravel her process, her narration, how she designed her soundscapes, and why her work was so magnetic—to such an extent that the film came to represent the totality of her body of work and led to the establishment of the “New Argentine Cinema” genre. La Ciénaga also garnered awards at Sundance, the Latin American Film Festival in Toulouse, the Havana Film Festival, and in Berlin. She released her follow-up, La niña santa, in 2004, followed by La mujer sin cabeza in 2008, both of which continued to enchant and unsettle even the most entrenched moviegoers. And then she was completely silent for the next nine years.

Zama, which made its US debut in April, broke that silence. Delving into the colonial past of a spectral American place, Martel narrates the wear and the asphyxiating ruin of Diego de Zama, an official of the Spanish crown who urgently awaits a letter authorizing his transfer. Based on the novel by Argentine writer Antonio di Bendetto, Zama is a frenzied explosion of the colonial imagination, a narrative negotiation of Latin American history and identity, rooted in the gaps found between official accounts.

Earlier this year, Martel was at the Cartagena Film Festival (FICCI) presenting her movie, which she submitted for consideration in the Official Fiction Competition. VICE talked to her about colonial wounds and her self-critical belief that cinema continues to be exclusionary.

VICE: Many post-colonial thinkers and artists argue that Latin America has yet to heal from its "colonial wounds," which is why we must continue returning to that era in order to narrate the past in different ways. With Zama, it seems that you’d like to join that inquiry. Why did you think it was necessary to retell a history of the colonies?
Lucrecia Martel: I don’t see the past as a wound. It’s something that influences us in a certain way and something that we have to try to unravel. That “something” is very skewed by all the efforts of “official” history, that history in which the ruling classes have needed to be known in a certain way. I think that in that sense—and because of that dominant will to see history in a certain light—it becomes an attractive, almost urgent need to revisit the past, develop hypotheses about it, and, above all, imagine different ways of representing it. I did that with Zama.

But I don’t believe in a smear campaign, either. Of course, I know that the Colony has been a stage for disputes and massacres. But for me the worst smear campaign began after the Independence, when the Creoles took charge of history and decided to continue committing the same injustices. So despite what many people think, this film is not at all an attempt to "give the Europeans a hard time."

Although the protagonist is Diego de Zama, a white official of the Spanish Crown, there are those who harass him: the subjects of colonial oppression, historically, like indigenous peoples or black slaves.
Yes. Di Benedetto's novel is written as a monologue, but I wanted to multiply those voices and put together a large mosaic that staged a monologue made of many voices. What I did was take all the words of that monologue, transform them into scenes, and enact on the stage what the character of the original novel narrates. For example: Let’s say you tell me about a marriage. Instead of filming you telling me about the marriage, I film the marriage. And all the things that are said there are a few things that you tell me, or that in some way determined the way you tell me about that marriage.

A still from Zama. Courtesy of Cinecolor Films

Sometimes those voices are spectral presences, conveyed through repetition and sound, making annunciations that are never fulfilled...
Exactly, the film is composed of things that are announced but don’t actually happen. The novel had that same quality, and I found it very interesting from a narrative standpoint because of what happens to Diego de Zama. The imminence of what doesn’t happen, the announcement of something that ultimately doesn’t happen, is a narrative strategy that works well. Not only does it carry the movie, but it also makes you think.

In some press conferences, you’ve talked about cinema as a "machine of exclusion" because it’s a device that has been constructed from a certain privileged gaze. What is that gaze, and why do you think the cinema reproduces it?
The hegemonic gaze of cinema has historically been a white, middle class gaze, with certain temporal categories that shape it. That's because culture is biased for a certain class. Here in Cartagena, for example, it’s very easy to see. You see that very beautiful, colorful part [of the city], but if you walk 20 blocks you’re in absolute poverty. So, who’s coming to get married in Cartagena, the poor people of Colombia? No. The rich come to get married, the rich come to the Cartagena Film Festival; the rich represent themselves.

A still from Zama by Lucrecia Martel. Courtesy of Cinecolor Films

The other day I saw a wedding that reminded me of Zama's setting—it was like having black slaves again. [The servants] were all dressed in white, playing drums, and next to them were some bigwig gentlemen entering the church. Today, it seems that many privileged subjects still have nostalgia for the colony and for slavery.

We have that problem—all the benefits of being a citizen are now privileges. What do you do when you know that something should be a general benefit but you’ve transformed it for the benefit of a few people, and you don’t want them to bother you? You have to normalize it, to make everyone believe that what the white middle class produces is the mindset of the entire country. That’s what happens throughout Latin America. That’s why certain sectors must exercise force and violence on occasion in order to express themselves. The media, the newspapers, the cinema itself—they’re all in the hands of the same people.

Sometimes in Argentina I pick up a newspaper and I’m very impressed. Look at a newspaper and pay attention: What news is useful for a poor person, someone who’s suffering from a flood, someone who needs the intervention or attention of a public entity? All the ads, all the information—it’s just stupidities intended for the middle class. A newspaper is useless for certain sectors, just like movies are.

Do you think the same thing happens with your own movies?
Of course. Look, what kind of people are going to see the movies that I make? My films are in the realm of the uselessness, too. That's why I—knowing that’s the case, knowing that the people who go to see my films are the people who are just like me—the only thing I can do is criticize myself. If I’m critical of myself, I’m critical of them too.

I put the most B-movie horror titles that I could on my films, but unfortunately all “auteur cinema” falls into the category of “intellectual,” which is the way in which the mainstream takes us out of play. It’s as if being "intellectual" or "thinking" is something boring, as if there was no thought involved in making Pretty Woman, or as if there is no thought involved in writing the effective scripts that Hollywood movies have. So it seems to me that what I’ve unfortunately done is still under the weight of that category. It didn’t help that my films were called La ciénaga [the swamp] and La mujer sin cabeza [the woman without a head], either.

Do you think that, within the world of cinema itself, you can de-normalize the structures that reproduce certain privileges, or break out of boxes like "auteur cinema?"
Yes. I think so, but very slowly. So slowly that sometimes it seems that you’re not doing anything. You have to try not to lose hope. At the same time, don’t think you’re the salt of the sea, because you’re not.

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