Laureled way back in 1995 for her short “Dead King” in feature anthology “Historias Breves,” a Sundance/NHK Award winner for the screenplay of her debut feature “The Swamp” in 1999, Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel is no stranger to jury prizes, handing them out as president of the Venice Film Festival main competition jury last year.
That said, her top Pardo 2020 prize in the Locarno Festival’s The Films After Tomorrow – awarded Friday – may be special, both for its money, as Argentine cinema hits a perfect storm of economic crisis capped by COVID-19, and because of the festival that gives it. It may be special too for Locarno. If any filmmaker were to embody the films that Locarno has championed and loved, it may be Martel, a filmmaker who always questions received wisdom, but whose films have a visual power to entrap the spectator while she does so.
In a brief interview with Martel, after she had received news of her Locarno Pardo 2020, an award to help filmmakers whose productions were halted by COVID-19, Martel reacts to the prize and adds some reflections on the the film that won it, her upcoming hybrid creative documentary “Chocobar,” inspired by the assassination of indigenous activist Javier Chocobar in 2007. Chocobar was protesting the appropriation of indigenous community lands by a white would-be landowner.
When Martel talks about her films, which with “Chocobar” she had done very little until a presentation on the Locarno Festival website, Martel has a habit of adding rich new layers of meaning and interpretation to them. The upcoming “Chocobar” is no exception.
Argentina’s state film incentives have been hit hard by economic crisis, exacerbated by COVID-19, which has decimated Argentina’s Incaa film institute funding sources. Does that make this prize particularly important? Or maybe the prize has other importance as well?
Martel: The award is of course highly important financial aid, but also a mark of prestige that will encourage further investors. Not just in this context of crisis, Locarno has offered indispensable support when it comes to projects that don’t offer the market guarantees that other types of films can offer from their initiation. When there’s narrative risk, there’s economic risk too. Funds like this encourage narrative challenges.
“Chocobar” has been described as unraveling “the 500 years of ‘reason’ that led to this shooting, both with a gun and a camera, and contextualizing it in the system of land tenure that emerged across Latin America.” Could you comment very briefly?
“Chocobar’s” challenge is to expose some of the guile – the clever stratagems – with which we justify getting ahead of other people, abusing their time, their rest and their territories. The mechanisms via which our culture, whose rallying cry is property, denies that of indigenous communities. The film’s about rendering Argentine racism visible which is the only explanation behind all these skilled and righteous justifications. That may seem simple but is extremely difficult in a country that doesn’t even imagine itself to be of mixed race.
You talk in your presentation on the Locarno Festival website about the film being about “the impossibility of seeing others,” which can be related to a colonial mind-set you explored in “Zama,” but still resonant in the present day. Again, could you comment?
What I meant was that “Zama” portrays a parallel world of procedures, letters and hierarchies, while outside that world its officials were assaulted by things of an incomprehensible nature. When an indigenous community claims something in this country, first of all it has to prove its own existence. A dialog where one side has to convince the other that it exists is exhausting.
You describe the film as a “hybrid, creative documentary.” Does that mean there will be elements of “fiction” in “Chocobar”?
I believe ever more that “Chocobar” is a documentary which is mortally wounded in its pretensions to be a documentary, because the problem in this story is the document. What is registered, and what’s not. Fiction doesn’t resolve this conflict, but can animate the documents. We depart from the idea that racism is a fiction which is rehearsed daily, so, so much so that the actors forget they’re acting.