GIVE THEM ‘LIBERTY’, GIVE THEM ‘THE DEAD’ : Lisandro Alonso speaks

Writing in Variety magazine last May, American critic
Deborah Young stated that “new Argentine cinema finds its poet and master in Lisandro Alonso.” She was reviewing his work Los Muertos (“The Dead”) which was premiering at the Cannes Film Festival.

A native of Buenos Aires, born in 1975, Alonso made his feature debut with La Libertad (“Freedom”) which won the international press award from the FIPRESCI jury at 2001’s Films From the South Festival in Norway. Los Muertos won two prizes at Austria’s prestigious Viennale last October, and was also awarded the main feature-film prize at the Torino Film Festival the
following month. We spoke to him in a cafe in Torino on the day before
the prize announcement.

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NEIL YOUNG : Would you ever consider making a film on digital?
LISANDRO ALONSO : No. I really like film: Super-16 or 35mm. I shoot my films on 35mm because if I can get a better image, it’s the best thing for this
kind of film. But the next one, maybe I’m going to shoot it on
super-16. It’s cool. it’s a format which I really like. I saw the film
from Mexico, this Japon by Carlos Reygadas. He shot it in 16mm ‘scope and I really like the image. And I also like the film!

Like Los Muertos, Japon also shows a creature being killed – the bird at the start which gets its head pulled off.
Yeah – maybe we are kind-of similar in those things.

Will the next film complete a trilogy, or are they separate?
Maybe they can go together as a trilogy or something. The next one I want to film in the snow, in a very frozen place down in the south of
Argentina, down near to the Falkland Islands. This place is very cold,
it’s a province called Ushuaia.

I think that’s where Daniel Burman shot Every Stewardess Goes to Heaven.
I didn’t see the film, but I think he shot it near to the airport, not too far away frosm Ushuaia.

There were several directors who made the first films in Argentina around the same time. Yourself with La Libertad, I’m also thinking of Fabien Bielinsky with Nine Queens…
Bielinsky is shooting his second film, which everybody is waiting for, he’s
shooting it in the south of argentina, not in Ushuaia but in a place
with lots of mountains, trees and roads, etc.

Do you all know each other?
There were some of us who started making films around 1999-2000 and I met many of them. Sometimes I have worked on Pablo Trapero’s films, and
Trapero was one of the producers of my first film. I know Juan
Villegas, Diego Lerman. Villegas is now making his second film in
Buenos Aires, he’s a very nice guy, we studied together in university –
many people came from this place. It’s Faculta Universidad del Cine or
FUC – everybody calls it FUC.

What’s the situation with Eduardo Antin (aka ‘Quintin’), the critic and champion of Argentinian films – I hear he’s just this week been sacked as head of the Buenos Aires festival while he’s been here in Torino.
Now he’s not the director anymore of this festival, I think because of
political reasons. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I can imagine,
and I think it’s not nice at all because he made a very good festival,
with a lot of people and a lot of films, a lot of contacts, I enjoyed
it a lot. And he was probably one of the more powerful people in
defending and supporting these “freedom-films” like my films and some
other independent films. I think it’s a political reason for his
removal, because he supports these films and these films don’t make a
lot of money, they don’t get a lot of audiences. The films that he
defends and supports was the one who get the prizes in different film
festivals. like Juan Villegas’s Sabado. But the people who are against him, they prefer more commercial films. Like Son of the Bride
– I don’t like this film, but I can understand it. The good thing about
cinema from Argentina is that we have many different kinds of films –
and I really like that. Son of the Bride – okay, I don’t
like, but it’s important because it’s a different kind of cinema. I
think they just want that everybody makes films like that – I think
that’s dangerous.

You mean commercial films which can be exported to other Spanish-speaking territories?
In Spain, yeah. But I’m not really able to do these kinds of films.

What’s the current situation with Argentinian politics?
Now we have this new President – I like him because at least he’s not worse
than the previous president we had. That man – if I saw him I’d kill
him! Carlos Menem – he’s terrible. Now he’s living in Chile, because if
he went back to Argentina he’d be in prison. Now he stays there, I say
OK.

The recent severe economic crisis in Argentina seemed to coincide with the country suddenly emerging as the source of interesting films from Latin America.
When I started to study cinema until when I finished, there was this
economic crisis – we had five different presidents in a month, and
things like that. I think many young people now believe in cinema as a
way of telling the world the result of this economic crisis. So you see
films like Trapero’s Crane World about this subject – about what is happening with people every day.

Even Nine Queens, although for much of its running-time a comic-tinged thriller, turns out to have a political angle because it culminates in the closure of a bank.
It happens a lot. There was a week in Buenos Aires when everybody went up the street demonstration and screaming. But you know in different ways
Argentina is always in crisis. When I was shooting Los Muertos
I said to those people who appeared in it, “What do you think about
this new economic crisis?” They said “What crisis? I don’t know.” It’s
a middle-class crisis, because the banks took the money from the people
in the middle-class.

It wouldn’t affect the people in the rural areas in the same way.
They don’t know anything about banks! There’s a lot of people living in
Argentina like this. It’s ten times the size of Italy, with 35 million
people. In Buenos Aires between 10 and 20 million.

So now with Quintin being removed, there will be more pressure on directors to make “commercial” films – will this be the end of the boom in independent Argentinian films?
Maybe it’s the beginning – I think the people who run the National Institute of Cinematography were the deeper cause why he is not running the Buenos Aires festival any more.

In Argentina is Quintin regarded as very important?
Yes, as the person who supports this kind of film. It’s like a ‘Mafia’ – this man is disturbing us, so we’ll have to remove him.

I heard of a festival in Slovenia, in Izola, which has lots of directors involved in it. Maybe you Argentinian directors could do something similar to support the independent scene?
It’s too soon to think about that. But I think Quintin won’t just stay lying in his bed – he’s going to make new things.

You live in the city centre of Buenos Aires – but you don’t make films there.
Because I’m just a little bit bored by films set in the cities. I want to make
films with people who don’t know about films. Because most of them –
Misael [Saavedra] who was the lead character from La Libertad, and Argentino Vargas from Los Muertos – they never saw a film in their life. We are different kinds of people – I’m a person from the city with some education, and some “culture”. So I enjoy it when different people can be together on the same project and we both respect the project.

Have they met?
Yes, when I released Los Muertos in the Cinematheque in Argentina – just one cinema, because I don’t care any more about multiplex cinemas (and they don’t care about me also!). We released the film and I called Misael – he came from La Pampa, I brought Argentino and they were together in the same hotel, and we shared some food, and that was for two days.

Did they get on?
I think so, but they don’t speak too much!

Like in the film!
Like in the film. But I want to make a short film, probably. Argentino is
watching the film, alone in the cinema (because the public don’t go to
see these films!) and Misael just arrives in Buenos Aires because I
call him, but when he arrives at the bus station I don’t go to pick him
up, because I’m in bed. He can’t arrange to get to the cinema, but
finally they meet each other and Misael says to Argentino “I saw you in
the film – I was in the first film of his – do you know where he is?”
and they start to walk around the city. They try to get some help from
city people but the people in the city don’t have time – they get lost
in different ways in the city. I will make this short film next year –
it’s kind of a comedy. Well, I can’t really make a comedy, but…

A “quiet” comedy, perhaps.
A quiet comedy – I think it’s some kind of way of saying thanks to them, and what they did for me.

Is Misael still living in the countryside?
Yeah but he lives better than he used to do, because he became friends of me and my family. But now he works half of the year in the country and
half in the town because –

he’s a movie star?
Kind of a little movie-star in his area. Now he’s with the town people some more.

Argentino is the actor’s name and also the character’s. Isn’t that also what the government was going to call the nation’s new currency?
That never happened – I didn’t know about this. They said too many things in those times of crisis… It’s a coincidence – critics say that he’s
called Argentino and therefore he’s supposed to represent all the
people in the country but it’s not like that. It’s a coincidence. But
when I wrote the script it was about only 20 pages, he had another name
– Jorge.

His real name is the same as in the film?
Yeah – Argentino Oliveira Vargas.

Where did you find him?
I wasn’t looking for anyone in particular, because first of all I find
the place where I’m going to shoot, before anything to do with the
character. I met him when I was looking for locations in this place by
the river. First I saw four persons, but the first two had some problem
with drink – alcohol is all around in this area. I really like alcohol,
by the way, and my next film is going to be about a person who has
several problems with alcohol.

Like the new Uruguayan film Whisky?
I really like it, but it’s not about alcohol – it’s what they say to make
you smile when you’re getting a photograph taken. It’s a very nice
film, we are friends with the director also. My sound director is
working on Whisky, we shared crew – his assistant director worked with me on Los Muertos, so it’s like a kind of club.

You were saying about how you found Argentino.
I met two people, they had some problem with drink, so I say, no, we cannot make a film together.

In the film he drinks mate all the time. Is that drink alcoholic?
No – it’s like an infusion, like coffee or tea.

And you drink it through a kind of metal straw that’s inside the cup?
You probably have to share it with people, it’s not for drinking alone.
They drink that kind of tea because if you drink it a lot you’re not
hungry any more. It’s hot water with some herbs. Sometimes when people
don’t have enough food they just drink mate for two hours, like dinner… So they just drink mate for two hours then they go to sleep. It’s a very cheap thing.

Before I met you I was expecting more of a “mysterious” kind of person.
Why?

When you see your films, the impression of you is-
– like I’m old?

Kind of, philosophical.
“Serious person.” (laughs)

Maybe somebody with a little more artistic “difficulty” about them…
I have all these things, but just in my head.

You don’t live life in the way of your films.
No, no… I get some money from the films, but if I need money for living I go to my family, they live on a farm.

What kind of farm is it?
Milk and meat. Lots of cows.

What do they think of you making movies?
They don’t understand them.

But they watch them?
I’m not sure about that. They saw them, but they don’t care a shit about
the films. It’s the way that many people saw the film – my two youngest
brothers, they just saw the first 15 minutes of La Libertad,
they said “Lisando, this is the worst film I ever seen in my life,” I
think many people think like that. They left! I enjoy this, because
they are so natural – they don’t try to be polite.

Of course, your films aren’t too long – 78 and 73 minutes, which is ideal length for a critic.
I want people to see my films – I know it’s very difficult for many
people, so I think that if we are going to make such a difficult film,
just, make it shorter.

When you introduce the films, do you point out how slow they’re going to be?
No, because I respect the public a lot, so if I say that then many people in the audience will think “why is he saying this?”

What is your family’s view of your career as a director?
With this second film they start to believe that maybe I can make more films.

Have they read the reviews?
Yes, my parents are proud, they’re happy that I’m happy making films and that I discover something that I like.

Would they prefer that you made something like Son of the Bride?
Yes, but they know that it is not very possible… But when my parents saw the Los Muertos – ¬†always the first people that I show the film to are my parents – I gave them a video with the last edit of the film. So they put it on
after dinner and when the film finished they just turned off the TV and
didn’t say anything and went to bed.

Because it was so powerful they couldn’t speak?
No, because they thought it’s the end of Lisandro as a film-maker.

What sort of films do they like?
Now they are going a lot to the cinema. They like some films that I like
but they’re not artfilms. They enjoy them, like I do, films from the US.

Did you grow up on the farm?
No, in Buenos Aires, but every weekend I traveled one hour to a little farm
with pigs and horses and cows. When I started to study cinema in
Argentina I didn’t know anything about film. But when I studied films
in university I saw films from the brothers Lumiere, who I really like,
and after that Italian neo-realism, and I think it’s those films which
are influential on many people now. After that I saw some films from
France – Truffaut, I really like Truffaut. Bresson, Kurosawa, Werner
Herzog.

I saw Herzog playing himself in Incident at Loch Ness – very funny.
I saw footage of him fighting against Kinski, that was a beautiful
relationship between the actor and the film-maker. I really enjoyed Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo

People don’t make films like that now – Fitzcarraldo originally was going to star MickJagger and Jason Robards… Which directors at the moment do you like to watch?
For me Tsang Ming-Liang from Taiwan is one of the best, and Hou Hsao-Hsien, and Bruno Dumont.

In your films it’s possible to detect some Bresson and some Herzog, I think. Have you met Herzog?
He was in Buenos Aires, but I didn’t meet him. I don’t know if I have to
meet film-makers, I just appreciate the films. The best work of
film-makers are films, not the words.

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transcript by Neil Young, 17th May 2005

Neil Young’s reviews of many of the films mentioned above – including Nine Queens, Japon, Incident at Loch Ness and Every Stewardess Goes to Heaven – can be found in the Jigsaw Lounge A-Z archive