MORELIA, Mexico – “Zama,” Argentina’s official entry to the foreign language Oscar race, screens at this week’s 15th Morelia Film Festival as part of its passage through the festival circuit. It’s had an auspicious start on the international stage with The Match Factory handling international sales, a world premiere at the Venice Film Fest, and North American distribution via Strand Releasing.
Martel’s adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 epic novel marks a couple of new experiences for Martel: This is her first period film, and her first with a male protagonist. Played by Spanish-Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho, whose long-ranging credits include Guillermo del Toro’s 1993 career-launching “Cronos” to Santiago Mitre’s 2017 political drama-thriller, “The Summit,” “Zama” turns on late 18th century Spanish officer Don Diego de Zama who anxiously waits for his transfer to Buenos Aires from his tedious outpost in Asuncion, Paraguay.
According to lead producer Benjamin Domenech of Argentina’s Rei Cine, the film’s $3.5 million budget was a “living organism” due to its multiple sources of funding from 15 companies in eight different countries with “extremely volatile and macro-economic situations.”
“It was an amazing challenge to circumvent the pitfalls and assimilate the economic, sometimes historical events that ended up impacting the film,” said Domenech. “There were moments when we felt like the protagonist of the story,” he added.
Martel concurred: “Making a film with so many co-producers was very complex, because there were multiple funds that had to be tapped. When it seemed that it was impossible, another Argentine company, Patagonik, boarded the project. Some people laugh in the cinema when they see the list of co-producers. Every time I see that list, I admire Rei Cine more, because not only did it have to juggle so many partners and financing models but it had to make very intelligent decisions during the shoot to protect the cast and crew in some hazardous locations.
I see that Pedro and Agustin Almodovar’s El Deseo is one of the co-producers. This isn’t the first time it’s backed a film of yours, correct?
No one understands auteur cinema better than Pedro Almodovar. El Deseo understands the risks and difficulties of having a voice of one’s own. It’s truly a privilege to have worked with El Deseo since “The Holy Girl.” “Zama” was a risky film; it was not possible to do it with just a few producers risking a lot of money. From the beginning, I had Vania Catani from Bananeira Filmes, Marie-Pierre Macia from MPM and Joslyn Barnes from Louverture Films backing me.
What inspired you to adapt Antonio di Benedetto’s novel?
Di Benedetto’s novel is immense. There is much talk that the novel is about waiting, and that may have put off some readers. When I finished reading it, I felt a release, an inexplicable euphoria that surpasses the happiness you feel after reading a good book. He had understood something about human existence, but he was not sure what. The process of making the film was somehow a way to investigate that feeling. Di Benedetto devoted the novel to the victims of waiting. But what was the wait? When does the wait appear? It’s a human invention, I think. An animal, when stalking, does not run the risk of standing in front of a cave all its life waiting for the prey to come out. We do. The idea that somehow gravitates to “Zama,” the movie, is that the trap that makes us wait needlessly is a strong sense of being someone: Identity. To be someone first of all is a belief about ourselves. We attribute some virtues, some defects, some merits, and quickly a timeline is drawn before us. That timeline says more or less what our goals should be, and what the rewards will be. A rigid identity is dangerous for a human being. Despite this, we believe individual identity as an unquestionable human asset. This movie tries to address that paradox.
What were the challenges you faced in adapting this book to film? How long it did take you to write the screenplay?
The book is a soliloquy. It’s the voice of a man who narrates the facts, from his perspective, without ever concealing that it is a skewed perspective from which he cannot escape. My challenge was how to achieve that, to be a kind of objective narrator, and at the same time be wary of that reality. I started writing the script in August 2011 in tandem with other research and development.
Why did you wait nine years after your third film, “The Holy Girl, to make this film?
The interesting thing about long stretches of time between films is that you always feel like you’re making your first film. And that keeps you bold. Cinema is not a matter of urgency for me. I film when I feel I have something to share. I like to meet different people, and it is difficult if one does not have a good excuse to approach them. Cinema is an excellent excuse to enter places we normally would not enter, to converse with people that we would otherwise never talk to and that for some reason, the fact that we make cinema, encourages others to tell us their dreams and reveal details about their lives. The time I take to prepare a movie, to research, is so delicious that sometimes I deliberately extend it.
What do you think about the state of Argentine cinema today? Of Latin Américan in general? What challenges does it still have to face?
Distribution is still a challenge; it’s useless to make films if there are no distribution and marketing mechanisms that work. We need political support, we can’t expect market forces to solve these issues, not in countries like ours with their fragile economies. A political leader who sees the film industry as only a source of entertainment, and thinks that the powerful North American film industry is able to fully satisfy the demands of the whole region, is woefully ignorant.
What are you working on next?
I’ve just finished research on a documentary about an emblematic crime in modern Argentine history: the Javier Chocobar case, about an indigenous rural worker who was murdered in 2009, set against the backdrop of the land struggle in Argentina. In this case, video and photography intersect with indigenous land conflicts in a revealing way. It’s a documentary that needs to find a very particular narrative form; we’re working on that. And to edge even closer to failure – the source of all transformation and challenge – I am developing a very ambitious project, perhaps more so than “Zama,” a little more fantastic perhaps. We’ll see where it leads.