Helmer Martel makes Bear necessities work

'La Cienaga' overcame repeated rejection

BUENOS AIRES — Argentina helmer Lucrecia Martel’s recent Golden Bear at the Berlin Intl. Film Festival for best debut was a triumph of spirit over adversity. Martel had already picked up international prizes for her 1995 short, “Rey Muerto.”

But the script for her first feature, “La Cienaga,” had been rejected repeatedly in contests organized by the Argentine National Film Institute.

Discouraged, she decided to ask for credit instead. But arguing that the film was not commercial, the institute gave her just $200,000.

“La Cienaga” relates the experiences of two families on vacation in northern Argentina.

“It is about the relations between them, but there is no intrigue or conflict,” Martel admits. “The idea is not to portray everyday life: It is a bit more morbid.”

The Sundance Institute showed more enthusiasm for the script, which received a Sundance/NHK Filmmaker Award in 1999. Together with several international producers, the rest of the film’s $1.2 million production cost was met by Argentina’s Lita Stantic and local indie producer Cuatro Cabezas.

But Martel still had to defend her vision. A Columbia director told her to increase the dramatic incidents and give the film a clear lead character.

“I told him that the big problem with this picture was the decision not to go down that route,” she says.

After her first big success at 34, Martel now plans a low-budget horror movie — but she says she still doesn’t know if she wants a film career.

“I like telling stories. If I stop filming I will write, or I will grab children and pay them to listen to my stories.”

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