Keeping up appearances

Marcello Martinessi on cultural conservatism and filmmaking honesty in The Heiresses

by Amber Wilkinson

"Honesty" is the key to the success of The Heiresses (Las Herederas), its Paraguayan director Marcelo Martinessi says when I ask him to tell me the most important thing he learned while making his feature debut.

Marcelo Martinessi on set: 'Sometimes, if I see something’s working, I continue that way, sometimes, if it’s not working, we try something different. This is the advantage of working in a non-industrial way'
Marcelo Martinessi on set: 'Sometimes, if I see something’s working, I continue that way, sometimes, if it’s not working, we try something different. This is the advantage of working in a non-industrial way' Photo: Marcelo Martinessi
"Whenever you’re not honest it shows on the big or the small screen," he adds "When I see the film, I’m so glad that, especially during the editing process, we took out everything that was not organic or honest to the characters or the story. I hate manipulation in cinema and I feel like every time I go to the cinema nowadays, a lot of them are just trying to manipulate me to cry or do this and that. I can even cry - I can be manipulated – but at the end, I come out of the cinema with a weird feeling, thinking why did I allow myself to go through this manipulation. Films I really love are those that are there for two hours and then they continue growing in you because they really were an experience."

Honesty, it seems really is the best policy, as the result, is a compelling character study of a woman, Chela (Ana Brun in her first big screen role), who redefines her life after her long-term love Chiquita (Margarita Irún) is jailed for debt. In between prison visits, Chela finds herself running a sort of ad hoc taxi service for a group of elderly bourgeois ladies, running them to and from their card sessions, also sparking up a surprising friendship with the much younger Angy (Ana Ivanova) in the process.

Themes of oppression and self-suppression run through the film, which gives a matriarch's view of the country from behind closed doors. Martinessi is happy to give me a history lesson, outlining the 35-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, which lasted until 1989.

"It’s not only about women, it’s about a society where you always feel trapped," he says. "When the dictator left, we thought, ‘Oh, it’s over, now we are free’ But it’s not like that, this need to be ‘locked’ stayed in the mind of the people and stayed also in the system – in the schools, universities and families - you're always trying to build walls around. I live abroad and travel a lot outside of Paraguay, and every time I go, I have this feeling that you’re imprisoned in a social class, you’re imprisoned in a last name sometimes, you have to live up to certain expectations. I feel this is still there even if we think it’s not, so this was, for me, a starting point.

"And, of course, for women the situation is much worse because we’re in a very partriachal society but I still think the women are the ones behind, building the internal fabric of society. We had many wars where the male population almost disappeared. So always the women were the ones who were very strong."

Martinessi spends quite a lot of time in London, where he went to London Film School and his mother's family is third generation Scottish, from the Borders - so does he think spending time outside Paraguay gives him a different perspective.

Marcelo Martinessi: 'When you are inspecting from a distance you have more focus'
Marcelo Martinessi: 'When you are inspecting from a distance you have more focus' Photo: Thunderbird Releasing
"Yes, I think when something is too close you can’t see it," he says "When you are inspecting from a distance you have more focus. I always talk about a Paraguayan writer, Gabriel Casaccia, he wrote amazing novels about the Paraguayan ruling class - from Argentina, during the time of the dictatorship. Also blaming them for being part of this system. But he had to leave and go to Buenos Aires with his family.

"When you go outside Paraguay you forget how conservative the society can be."

The sense of cultural conservatism and preservation of face are both key to the film with Chela and Chiquita are determined to keep up appearances, even as they are selling off the family glassware to service their debt. And, even though they've been a relationship for decades, their cultural conditioning shines out, in the way they are dismissive of younger lesbian women.

"For me it was key to include that because I feel that when you live int hat society and you do anything outside the norm, it’s underneath your skin," explains Martinessi . "It’s always conflict. So when I was referring to them all the way through the development process, I was always talking about 'homophobic lesbians', in a way, because, for me, it was important to put through the fact that these are people who are not militant. They’re from a time and a social class that everything is fine as long as you keep up discretion in everything."

The discretion extends to the script, which is spare and relies heavily on gesture and looks from its leads actresses, a fact that seems all the more remarkable given that this is the first film for Brun, who is a lawyer by trade but who now has an acting Silver Bear from Berlin to sit with her court accolades.

"Really, I knew that I had to cast woman from that social class," says Martinessi . "Plus, we don’t have a tradition of actresses or cinema so we don’t have many trained actresses for the screen."

In fact, it was his cousin who suggested Brun for the role - four years before the director began shooting. He says: "Three-and-a-half years later I was casting and I said: 'Wow'."

He adds: "In many ways I wanted to work with Ana Brun but I wasn't sure it was for Chela but she has these eyes, this expression. When I think about it now, I think if we didn’t get someone with that ability, we would probably have had to add extra words to the script. That’s because we work in a very artisan-like way. Sometimes, if I see something’s working, I continue that way, sometimes, if it’s not working, we try something different. This is the advantage of working in a non-industrial way.

"The actors also had time. Ana Brun gave me a lot of her time to research and to kind of find her character. But Ana Ivanova, who plays Angy, is very trained and felt she had to have her script in mind. When she came to set, we did what was originally the script and then, immediately after, I changed completely to see what would happen and it was a lot better because you could see in her face she was creating this world and it’s a lot more real. So I think you have to find a way of working with everybody. I was also very lucky to be able to work with such good actresses. Margarita Irun is a very good, theatre trained actress and Ana, it’s her first film but she did some theatre about 15 years ago."

Brun also brought very specific personal experiences to the role, particularly in a key scene where we see her shock and discomfort at visiting the prison where Chiquita is being held for the first time.

"I’m glad you mentioned it because it gives me a chance to say something I’ve never said before," says Martinessi "Ana’s husband was a political prisoner so she had this inside her. She had this weight of going into prison to visit the person you love. Besides her husband being in prison during the years of the dictatorship many times, it was also shot in a real prison. When you are not a trained actor, you put yourself in the role. I think she allowed herself to be there and created all those great moments."

There's a real attention to detail in the film, from the items that are on Chela's tray, neatly set out for her every day by Chiquita and then a maid, to the smallest of interactions with others. Martinessi - who spent five years working to bring the film to cinemas - argues much of the success is down to teamwork.

Marcelo Martinessi: 'When you are not a trained actor, you put yourself in the role. I think Ana allowed herself to be there and created all those great moments'
Marcelo Martinessi: 'When you are not a trained actor, you put yourself in the role. I think Ana allowed herself to be there and created all those great moments' Photo: Thunderbird Releasing
"I think I was lucky to have a good group of people that I was working with. I worked with the same art director and director of photography for ten years now, so we have grown up together in that sense. I went to bed every day with the story, it was always on my mind. It is a weird feeling now that the film is done that I can go to bed and think about something else.

"People say: 'What’s your next project?' I say: “Please wait for a bit.” It’s weird. Of course, coming from Paraguay you know if you make a mediocre first film, you’ll never make a film again. So, this threat of not being able to work on a film again, because it’s a country where making a film is really difficult."

The film allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions - so is Martinessi optimistic for his country's future?

"After everyting that happened in the last few years politically, I don’t have much hope," he says "At the moment, on August 15, we will have a new president who is basically the son of the top aide of our dictator. So, the story is kind of going back to where we were.

"I’m sure he’s not going to torture people like the dictator did or be as awful, but we are talking about a country that needs to cling to its past strongly. We had two or three different endings with a slight difference but I understood that it was important for the film and the characters this kind of open ending more than leaving the film in a claustrophobic way."

The result is a breath of fresh air - and you can see it in cinemas from tomorrow, August 10. For more information about where the film is screening and when, visit Thunderbird Releasing's official site.

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