Marcelo Martinessi is the writer-director of the award-winning The Heiresses, a story of relationship breakdown set in his native Paraguay – a country which after decades living under a dictatorship is only now starting to develop a film industry.
The film won two Silver Bears at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival: Best Actress for Ana Brun, and the Alfred Bauer Prize, given to a feature film that opens new perspectives in cinema.
Martinessi’s first feature follows Chela and Chiquita, in a lesbian relationship for 30 years, who now find their old life in tatters; as their wealth disappears and Chiquita, the dominant force in their relationship, is jailed for fraud.
Without Chiquita, Chela is forced to venture out, facing her fears as she drives women to and from meet-ups and appointments. But it also turns out to be an escape route from her stultifying, corroding relationship with Chiquita when she meets the free-spirited Angy.
As much a metaphor for Paraguay itself as a story of a relationship breakdown, The Heiresses shines a light on a conservative culture that is gradually becoming more open, forced to learn to fend for itself.
I spoke to Martinessi earlier this summer when he was preparing to go to the Edinburgh International Film Festival with the film. (Read my review of The Heiresses.)
The thing that really struck me was that your cast is entirely women. Men are gossiped about, they carry furniture, one buys a car. But the rest are all women. In terms of the set did that kind of change things? Did it feel different?
I think the story of Paraguay has a history of women; they’re really the protagonists of Paraguayan history. I mean, in the country we have many wars – for example one in 1870 that destroyed, like, 90% of the male population. So in a way, women were always the ones constructing the internal fibre of society.
They were really the ones that were rebuilding the country. And even though you think of Latin America as these very macho countries, we are still on the surface a macho country but when you dig deeper it’s really the women who are the backbone.
There’s no visibility politically, for example women’s representation in politics, but I think they’re key to our society. And if I wanted to talk about Paraguay, I knew I needed to make a film with women.
Besides that I always say I really like the work of Fassbinder, Todd Haynes, directors that work a lot with women.
Ana Brun (Chela in The Heiresses) was a first-time actress wasn’t she? Do you feel any nervousness when you give someone a big role who hasn’t acted before? Or any protectiveness?
The same nervousness I felt from outside, because this is my first feature film as well – so in many ways I felt that we were all first-timers.
Ana Brun did some theatre early on in her life but had never done a film. And when you meet a person that doesn’t have the training of an actor, the person puts herself in the film; that makes the film a lot more special and unique because she puts [in] her own experience, her own way of seeing the world.
And I feel that even though Ana Brun probably wouldn’t relate to the sexual orientation of the main character, she will relate to the moment that this character was going through: her failing relationship that she no longer believes in, an economic crisis – in a country full of oppression.
So I think her work, when I met her for the first time, that made me confident about giving her the role. I knew she could understand a lot more than, for example, an Argentinian actress or a Chilean actress. If I hired a trained actress to come to Paraguay – that would be a mistake.
I read that quite often because the film industry in Paraguay is relatively new you have to bring in trained actors.
Yes we brought in people for the crew. I always work with people from abroad so the crew was mixed: half Paraguayan, half from abroad. But the cast was all Paraguayan.
Theirs is a lesbian relationship and Paraguay is a conservative country…
Homosexuality doesn’t exist in Paraguay in the papers. There’s no same sex marriage or anything like that. I wasn’t aware of how behind Paraguay was until I made this film.
Because we were the first very visible Paraguayan film in European festivals like Berlin – we were the first Paraguayan film that went to Berlin – the Senate, which is held by a progressive president, wanted to give us a homage.
And when we went there to receive the homage, half of the parliament left because they didn’t want to be linked or seen with us. One female senator started yelling at Ana Brun “you stupid lesbian, I don’t know why we have to give an award to a lesbian in the Senate. The next thing… you are going to come and ask us if you can get married” so in a way I couldn’t believe it.
I’ve lived abroad a lot for the last few years, and I didn’t realise that this was going to be such a big issue in Paraguay. You see comments in the papers a lot about the sexual issue in a film that is nothing about that.
So how much in Paraguay, if they were a real couple, would their wealth have protected them? Or would they still have to keep things quite under the radar?
I think in order to be completely free they would have to be in the prison of that house. For me that house is in many ways a prison. Very dark, and Chela always looking through doors ajar, or trying to be in the dark.
I think in many ways they would be a couple that’s not overly expressive in any sense.
With the real prison scenes, you see a lot more honestly and people are more comfortable with their bodies, and with their happiness than in the outside world; so one of the things I wanted to ask in the film is: which one is really the prison?
And Chela, at the beginning she almost makes herself housebound doesn’t she and then goes out into the wider world. What do you think happens to them afterwards?
The thing is as the writer-director I had this character of Chela for years under my control and then on screen for an hour and a half doing anything I wanted. So finally when she’s released from the screen I don’t even want to know if she’ll come back, if she’ll not, if she’s around the corner, if she definitely left.
And people call Ana Brun asking her “where do you go?” because an open ending is not something common in Paraguay. They are not used to seeing that in films so they’re really obsessed, you know?
The relationship traumas they have are something I see a lot in couples when women go back to work after having children. Being a mother is low status unless you’re rich, and they’ve lost their confidence, then they go back into work maybe after being at home for a few years and quite often it creates the same situation. They’re realising that they have value, they can do things they didn’t think they could do, like Chela driving on the motorway…
I didn’t think of that.
There are so few stories about older lesbians, and I don’t want to appropriate a lesbian love story. But did you think when you were making it that it would resonate in different ways or was it really, okay, there aren’t many stories like this, it needs to be for this particular group?
No, when I was thinking about the story, as a child I grew up in a world of women, always listening to women talking. My mum would take me the hairdresser when I was a little boy, and I’d sit there listening to women going “ah ah ah ah ” [mimics chatter] so that was the beginning of this story.
And in many ways, I knew characters that were very similar. For example, I do know someone who has a tray like that [In the film Chela is very particular about how her refreshments tray is laid out by their maid]. So building the story, I didn’t think of it being a militant lesbian story, I didnt think about judging anything.
I just thought about the thing that resonated in my head and that I needed to talk about in order to portray my society at this moment, you know?
This is a very oppressive society – it was coming out of a dictatorship and was not able to manage by itself. When the dictator left, my society wasn’t able to drive… you know, Chela driving her own destiny, and I think in that sense I feel that my society failed.
So many times I wanted to finish the film when Chiquita comes back and just takes over, but at the end of the day I said no this is not the ending for this film, it is my ending metaphorically, but no. The film needs a more open, hopeful at least, ending.
In terms of the Paraguayan film industry, from what I’ve read there didn’t seem to be any film industry apart from some propaganda films before the 1990s.
Is it gathering pace or is it still a slow process?
We are fighting for a cinema law at the moment. It passed through parliament and the president needs to issue the law. But of course we need funding, we need an institute, we need a cinematech, we don’t have anything.
So we are talking about early Paraguayan cinema, let’s say. There are a few films made every year; some of them with a lot of technical difficulties, with very low budgets, but I feel we are starting. I mean, it is a beginning but still very, very little.
And in terms of being a Paraguayan filmmaker do you ever feel you have the weight of everyone’s expectations on your shoulders? Because I suppose you’re seen as a leader of the industry now.
Yeah but I don’t want to have that weight, I really don’t want to have the responsibility. l always say when people ask “what are you doing next?” maybe a very tiny project. I had a short film before that won Venice [The Lost Voice which won Best Short Film at the Venice Film Festival in 2016], and people were asking, and I said if I want to do something that is important to me on a very personal level I will do it anyway.
I think it’s a mistake to believe in the responsibility that anybody has, because I think it will take away my freedom and I think, I could make a film like The Heiresses which I thought was going to be tiny, to tell the truth. I said were going to get all this great European funding mixed with Latin American funding to make a tiny intimate film that will probably be seen very little, and all of a sudden, for some reason, the film grew a lot.
Even with Ana Brun – that is not her real name, she changed her name to perform in the film, worried about the conservative society and the lesbian issue. Of course, now everybody knows who she is.
But just talking about responsibility, I think I don’t believe in this type of responsibility and I think it is important to not feel it.
Before, say, 2000 what was art life like generally in Paraguay, apart from filmmaking? I mean, were there frustrated filmmakers who had gone into other branches of the arts, or was there just nothing?
Paraguay is a small country. We have a ruling class probably between 5 and 10%, and a very tiny middle class, and then a lot of people with a tough background, let’s say tough working class.
And we had a dictatorship – I mean, my dad was 10 years old when the dictator came to power and I was 16 when the dictator left. So this is a whole lost generation that grew up under a dictatorship. All my school life was also under a dictatorship so you couldn’t do much. There were very limited things you could be.
With a very strong presence of the Catholic Church, a very strong presence of the army, so anything creative or artistic was… I mean writing – all the writers left, all the musicians left.
We had great musicians, for example José Asunción Flores, who directed a Moscow orchestra – a communist of course so he had to leave the country. Carmen Soler, an amazing poet had to leave the country. Augusto Roa Bastos, winner of the Cervantes award [The Cervantes Prize, a lifetime achievement award, given each year to a writer in the Spanish language] had to leave the country.
So this is a country where everything creative, or everything that wanted to be out of the norm, had to leave or had to adapt.
And I guess the art that comes out now from people living in Paraguay is going to be very different from expat artists who are yearning for a country…
Yes but you know what, it’s interesting what you’re saying because in many ways I see myself as an expat because I think I wouldn’t be able to make The Heiresses if I was living there.
I needed to look at my society from a distance in order to be able to make a film like this, because being there for me is still a claustrophobic experience.
Where did you find Ana Ivanova, who plays Angy?
She’s an actress. She had done some short films, I think she did some supporting roles in feature films, and she also poses nude for painters.
I did very little casting. I mean, to cast Chela and Chiquita I knew they had to be women from the ruling class, so I only cast actresses I knew from that world. You cannot fake class in Paraguay – I don’t know about other countries, but in Paraguay the way you talk, there are so many things that are important. I chose Ana Brun [Chela] first and then I cast all the rest, including Angy.
So when we cast Angy I brought in three women I thought could work, and discussed it with Ana Brun. She said Ana “is the one that makes me uncomfortable, you know… under my skin”.
Angy’s a disruptive influence.
Yes. I think she’s very interesting. Also Ana’s a very technical actress and she knows how to manage her body very well. So because she was so comfortable with her dialogue, almost all her dialogue was changed during the shooting, to make her uncomfortable too.
I didn’t want her to be so confident [in front of the camera]. So changing her dialogue made her think all the time when she was talking, you know? The threesome [Angy relates an incident about this in the film]: something, not exactly that, but similar happened to her. So “Angy tell me something I don’t know”, you can really build the speech in your mind as you talk – and I’m more curious about knowing, than seeing her confidently repeating the same thing in every single take.
Do you have in mind what you want to do next or are you continuing with The Heiresses?
I’ve just finished this film, because we presented in Berlin, and we had to run to present it in Berlin. And from Berlin onwards I was travelling with the film and I haven’t had a chance to think. I know I want to do something in Paraguay again. I feel Paraguay is the place where I want to work.
Even though sometimes I write abroad or I develop a project abroad, I want to shoot in Paraguay. I feel that I can mainly place the camera in my society.
It would be difficult to make something in London, for example. Even though I spent a long time here [Martinessi studied at the London Film School] I really don’t find any stories I want to tell.
Read my review of The Heiresses here.