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Overcoming the tyranny of image

Argentinian writer-director Lucrecia Martel spoke about filmmaking and her new film "Zama" after a screening at the UCLA Hammer Museum.

Overcoming the tyranny of image

Interpreter Leah Kemp (USC), filmmaker Lucrecia Martel and Verónica Cortínez (UCLA). (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

"If you go to a bookstore on film, 80 percent of what is written is about the image... but about the sound there is nothing. Sound is a like a volume that immerses the spectators. But all the language about film is about seeing."

UCLA International Institute, May 1, 2018 — Acclaimed Argentinian writer-director Lucrecia Martel spoke recently at the UCLA Hammer Museum following the U.S. premiere of "Zama" (2017), her first film in 10 years. The discussion session was moderated by UCLA Professor Verónica Cortínez, director of the UCLA Center for Southern Cone Studies.

The evening was part of a two-day event cosponsored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Center for Southern Cone Studies and Department of Spanish and Portuguese, together with the Departments of Comparative Literature and Spanish and Portuguese of the University of Southern California (USC). Martel’s films “Zama” and “La niña santa” (The Holy Girl, 2004) were screened on April 20 and 21, respectively. Both screenings were followed by question-and-answer sessions with the filmmaker.

“La niña santa” is the first in a series of three films shot in Martel’s hometown of Salta in northwest Argentina — “La ciénega” (The Swamp, 2002) and “La mujer sin cabeza” (The Headless Woman, 2008) bookend the trilogy. Her work is known for the intensive use of sound, which rivals the carefully composed images.

Filmmaker Lucrecia Martel and Verónica Cortínez, director of the
UCLA Center for Southern Cone Studies. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

A tale of colonial Latin America

 “Zama” is based on the 1956 novel of the same name by Argentine writer Antonio di Benedetto. It is the first time that Martel, who also wrote the screenplay, has made a film based on someone else’s work. The film follows the Job-like odyssey of Don Diego de Zama, a magistrate living at the margins of Spain’s 18th-century Latin American colonial empire, as he waits to be transferred to the city of Lerma where his wife and children reside.

“Zama” is both visually stunning and an immersive sound experience. It is primarily shot in close framing with many brief, hauntingly beautiful images that serve as visual tableaux. The camera repeatedly lingers on the stoic and pained face of Zama, whose every effort is rebuffed, whether to secure a letter of transfer from the governor, seduce a local noblewoman or capture a notorious thief and killer. (Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho is stellar in the role).

As the movie jumps from scene to scene without explanation, the viewer experiences the chaotic nature of the events that overtake Zama’s wishes. Abundant sounds—of animals, children, sonic noises, whispering, creaks, bells, wind, etc.—populate the film and punctuate the conversations between characters. In many scenes, the person speaking is not seen or shot from behind, so that their disembodied voices become another element of the film’s wall of sound, which is occasionally punctuated by disconcertingly joyful Brazilian music (sung by the 1950s indigenous duo Los Indios Tabajaras).

The film is simultaneously a withering contemplation of colonial life, with its omnipresent casual violence, malevolent racism and subjugation of African slaves and indigenous peoples, corruption, cultural and class pretensions and the visceral reality of nature and animals (in the literal and poetic senses). Seeing it once leaves a viewer wanting to see it again.

Using sound to overcome the dictatorship of the image

Speaking through interpreter Leah Kemp (UCLA Ph.D. 2010, now assistant professor of Spanish at USC), Martel shared thoughts about her approach to filmmaking. “I come from a region in the northern part of Argentina where the oral tradition is very strong, especially in my family,” she said. “There is a lot of storytelling, a lot of pleasure related to hearing stories. If I have to give thanks to something for my films, it is to that tradition.

“It was impossible to be a film lover in my city because there weren't any [cinemas],” she added. ”It is much easier for me to think through the dialogue and the conversations — it's not the only origin of things, but it is a deciding factor for me.

“My concern for sound begins before I start writing,” she said. “For me it works better to have the auditory concept first, the sounds, before the visual. I don't put all the notes about the sound in the script, because I would drive the producers crazy,” she added.

Asked about adapting the novel, Martel noted, “What happens with a reader is very close to [watching a] film…. Reading words generates sounds in the reader's mind, it resonates. It's something that has never been heard before. For example, if you read about birds, it somehow evokes the sounds of birds, or if it's horses, the sounds of horses.

“There is a problem today in thinking the book is the plot of the film,” she continued. “So that confusion between book, film and plot is what makes us feel that the film has to be constrained by the plot. We don't think about the sound material that I was referring to earlier, which is not plot.”

“If you think of the sea and you confuse the sea with the foam, that's like confusing the film with the plot or the book,” said the filmmaker. “And the plot is small thing in a narrative.”

To demonstrate, Martel put a smartphone side-by-side with a bottle of water. “I am doing this little magic show… because I’m frustrated that when we speak of film, we speak of the image,” she said. “If this is the screen [a smart phone with its light turned on] and this is the seating [the water bottle] — all of this invites sound. All of us are immersed in sound [in a theater]. But only this flat part — the screen — is the image.

“If you go to a bookstore on film, 80 percent of what is written is about the image. Hundreds of words are written about the framing, the shot, the traveling shot, etc., but about the sound there is nothing. Sound is like a volume that immerses the spectators. But all the language about film is about seeing. Nobody says they went to listen to a film — this is the dictatorship of film,” she concluded.

As for how she composes shots, Martel said, “I decide the framing, the position of the camera, on set. I already have an idea of how I am going to put it together, what the sound will be, what will be on camera, what will be off-camera,” she explained. “I don't concern myself with covering different shots, whether transition or establishing shots, because I don't have time for those shots,” she said.

A film, she insisted, is by its very nature something untrue. “Everything that I do is very artificial and untrue in [‘Zama’]…,” she said. “The most attractive thing about film is the lack of a search for truth,” she reflected. “In general, when you are making something so artificial, there is not a lot of room for improvisation. There are directors who believe in improvisation, but I'm not one of them.”

Despite careful planning, Martel said she rehearses scenes with actors as little as possible, but that she makes a point of becoming acquainted with all the extras on set. “I haven't had a long conversation with all of them, but I have said ‘hello’ personally to all of them and exchanged some words.

“This is the only way to give a specific direction to an extra,” she related. “In so many films, they just go from one side to the other. If you want them to seem like people, you have to have at least said ‘hello’…. Because if you don't know them, you treat them like objects.” This was particularly important in “Zama,” she said, because the film relies on extras to provide representations of blacks and indigenous people.

“I don't do it out of the goodness of my heart,” she said, “but to improve the quality of the film. And I also have a much better time when I know people.”

See the Los Angeles Times review of “Zama” here.