An Interview with Lita Stantic

By Haden Guest

Producer Lita Stantic (b. 1942) played a crucial role in the nuevo cine argentino that surged to international prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s by discovering and supporting young, emergent filmmakers- Lucrecia Martel, Pablo Trapero, Israel Adrián Caetano, Pablo Reyero, among them- who would together redefine Argentina as a newly vibrant center for cutting edge art cinema. Equally renown for her eleven year partnership with Maria Luisa Bemberg, one of Argentina’s most important women directors, Stantic also proved herself as a filmmaker with her powerful and autobiographically inspired debut feature, A Wall of Silence/ Un Muro de silencio (1993), a candid exploration of the still deeply sensitive topic of the desaparecidos during the darkest years of the dictatorship. Incredibly generous with her time and opinions, Lita Stantic was kind enough to receive me on two early autumn afternoons in May, at her beautiful office in the Palermo Hollywood neighborhood of Buenos Aires where we discussed the course of her long and storied career.

“EL NUEVO CINE ARGENTINO”

Haden Guest: What does the term “New Argentine Cinema” mean to you? Every new director that has come on the scene since the 1990s is grouped together in this category, despite the group’s heterogeniety that embraces directors with very diverse talents and perspectives. But if we consider this new cinema more precisely as a historical era beginning with Martin Rejtman and with Israel Caetano’s Pizza, birra, faso (1998), can we consider that el nuevo cine argentino is still well and alive or is it something else, a type of variation?
Lita Stantic: There are now new generations and perhaps with the new generations, the same impact is not felt as with the so-called New Argentine Cinema. And moreover, in previous years, there were generations of young folk in film that were quite mixed, no? The generation— the one that began in the late 90s——is more homogeneous in regards to age, with everyone 20-ish to 30-ish. And I believe this hadn’t happened since the 60s, when a generation of people were making film in the style of the New French Wave. In regards to the generation of the 60s, this generation was more individualistic. The generation of the 60s was more of a cohesive group. This generation isn’t as supportive of each other. Here they are...I don’t know; the world changed, and directors became much more individualistic.... Because of this, many of them don’t like to be categorized as “nuevo cine argentino.” They don’t want to be considered part of a single generation. It is not a generation, because it is a group of people who began to make their first film over a number of years, but these films represent a departure in Argentine film.

HG: And certainly we can’t keep using the word “new” forever?
LS: And the new is already starting to be old, right? The ex-new. I remember once when René Clair was coming back from the Mar del Plata Film Festival in the 50s, he was asked about the new wave. And they say that, looking at the sea, he said, “All the waves are new.”

HG: Many of New Argentine Cinema’s first films have a sense of specifically Argentine settings such as Lucrecia Martel’sSalta or Bolivia, which is a portrait of a Buenos Aires neighborhood, or the suburbs in Un Oso rojo, or Mundo grúa that capture the texture of the city, or Tan de repente, that creates a sharp contrast between the city and the sea.
LS: I am the daughter of first-generation immigrants, and I believe that one sets down one’s roots more deeply, no? Ever since I was a little girl, I saw Argentina as a place of salvation. I associated Europe with the war. It seems unbelievable after all that has happened in Argentina. I could not live in another place, and during the dictatorship, I did not leave, in spite of the fact that I was connected to many people who disappeared. I thought at one point that I was going to leave, but I had a very strong relationship with the country and I decided to stay.

HG: One of the very interesting points about New Argentine Cinema is the political strand underlying it, sometimes quite subtle. One of the most well-known films is Lucrecia Martel’s La ciénaga (2001),which is for me is a good example of a work that has a certain political dimension, if we consider the very strong comparison that the movie makes about the two families from very distinct socio-political classes.
LS: I met Lucrecia Martel in 1998. The screenplay for La Ciénaga had already been written and for her the film was a more existential one. What happens is that history imposes itself. At times, an author is showing what she has lived without any intentions of pointing out a certain theme, of marking a historical moment.

HG: Most certainly. But, let’s take another example, Pablo Trapero’s Mundo grúa (1999). If we look at that film retrospectively, one notes that it captures a historical moment perfectly. In this case, the moment of Argentina’s national crisis. Wouldn’t you agree?
LS: The times I asked Pablo Trapero himself when he was making Mundo grúa, if the film had something to do with the crisis of the 90s in Argentina, he denied it. The curious thing is that there are coincidencesand at time the context filters through; the context always appears, and the context is political. He himself did not think the picture was very political, because in a certain way, Mundo Grúa is the failure of Menemism.

HG: And depicting the working class on the big screen is in and of itself a political act, isn’t it?
LS: But he did not like giving the film this connotation at the time. But it happens. Neither was La ciénaga a film about the decadence of the middle class when Lucrecia Martel conceived it.

HG: But as a producer, do you yourself—with a bit of distance between yourself and your projects—see these political aspects in your work?
LS: No. I did not read a political context in the screenplay for La ciénaga. When I read the screenplay for La ciénaga, as I’ve recounted many times, I thought it was Chekhov, and after that, I discovered it wasn’t Chekhov after all, it’s more Faulkner. isn’t it?

HG: In your career, you’ve given support to many directors and have helped a very talented new generation. But can we also understand your career in another fashion, as a way of fomenting national cinema, of helping to create a new Argentine cinema? Were you thinking of this during the first years of the New Argentine Cinema in the 1990s?
LS: I would say no. If someone of my generation had brought me a book that I liked, I would have produced it. I did not opt for a particular generation, first of all. I like films that leave something with me. That is, I like to leave the movie house as a transformed person. And well, the selection has to do a bit with this factor. I want to direct a screenplay that tranforms me, or will transform those who view it. I was shaped as a young woman by film and reading. For me, I am what I am,let’s say, and I have a certain ethic and a way of seeing life because of what I read and saw in the movies during my childhood, and a little later on, also. I think that in a certain way film tells us something about humanity. It makes us undertand more. This is what makes me select a film to direct—-also in the films I like to watch. I like the Dardenne Brothers more than I do U.S. action films. I don’t generally watch action films. But I like the films that make me keep on thinking, that can still transform me, that can make me see life in some other fashion, and understand mankind, humanity.

In general, I don’t think of how a film is going to do until I have to screen it. That’s when I begin to think about the business of film, but I do not choose the screenplay by whether I think it is going to do well comercially or not, that’s for sure. I pick something that I like, that gets to me in a certain way. I watch shorts that the director has done previously in order to decide, “Well, I’ll go ahead with this project.” But no, I don’t think about the commercial aspect of the film. I save that for later.

FROM EARLY ON

HG: What was the first time that you realized that film had the possibiity to transform, to change, to create a distinctive viewpoint, a way of understanding and seeing the world?
LS: Let’s say that I had a passion for film ever since I was very young. My idea, when I was an adolescent, around 13 or 14 years old, was that I wanted to be a film critic. Because, well, at that moment, and even when I was finishing up high school, it was highly unlikely that the future of a woman could be in the film industry. Women weren’t involved in making film.Production teams were completely masculine. So it seemed to me that the closest I could get to film was by being a film critic. But, let’s say, the closest I thought could come to the world of film would be by becoming a film critic. But I watched a lot of film in my adolescence, a whole bunch of film, and in a certain sense, much film of revision.

For me, the films that most influenced me going into my 20s were the Polish films from the 50s and the beginning of the 60s and New Italian Realism. I believe the experiences were the strongest I’d lived. I wanted to see absolutely everything that had been done in this genre. But naturally, I went through this stage and later a new one came, the stage in which one thinks that one can make the revolution through film. And so I got involved with activist film, the so-called cine de compromiso. This was at the end of the 60s.

Fundamentally, for us, La hora de los hornos was a very strong experience in 1968. At that moment we thought that film had to be political. We began to distribute La hora de los hornos clandestinely.

HG: This was the Liberation Film Group, known in Spanish as Grupo Cine Liberación?
LS: Yes. The group enlarged and others were formed in which film was shown clandestinely with a 16 milimeter projector in people’s homes.

HG: Certainly. And how were people invited to see the films? By word of mouth?
LS: Someone would invite his or her friends or study group and circles of 15 or 20 people were formed. They connected up with us and we would project La hora de los hornos followed by a discussion.

HG: And did you all organize these discussions or were they spontaneous?
LS: No, we organized these discussions at the end of the films ourselves. In 1969, we added another film about the Cordobazo that was made by a collective of ten directors. A few years ago, Fernando Peña rescued this film, whch had been completely lost.
Well, it was the period of the dictatorship, the years 69, 70. But it wasn’t like the dictatorship later on. One faced very little risk compared with what happened after 1976.

The film about the Cordobazo,whose anniversary is precisely today, depicted the students and workers movement in Cordoba that exploded on May 29, 1969, as a more politicized prolongation of the movement events in France in 1969. To take to the streets, well, it was to think you could change the world. In all of Latin America, this happened in the most political way. The Cordobazo was a very fundamental, significant, date. Workers, students, everyone took to the street, it was a complete mess. In all of the television channels, there were images of the Cordobazo. These images showed the mounted police retreated in the face of rock-throwing students. This was quite a crucial moment. Many young people thought it was possible to make the revolution. These were beautiful times because it’s marvelous to think that one can change the world.

HG: What was your role in the Grupo Cine Liberación? Were you one of the organizers?
LS: No, no. I participated in Grupo Cine Liberación only by helping to circulate the films. I helped Pablo Szir, who was my partner at the time and is the father of my daughter, to make a film that he directed. It had its own screenplay on which I and Guillermo Schelske collaborated. The film was about some Robin Hood-type bandits that the police and Army had killed in 1967; it was a fairly recent situation. The film was called Los Velázquez, and it has entirely disappeared. Pablo today is also among the disappeared. We also spent two years filming the movie about a peasant who denounces police arrogance; he gets together with the Robin Hood-style bandits and together they are supported by the peasantry in the Chaco region because with the money they make from robberies and kidnappings, they help the peasants. Today Isidro Velásquez is a myth in the Chaco region, where he lived and died.

This is all very strange because the story was investigated and published by sociologist Roberto Carri (Albertina’s father) in book form Isidro Velázquez: formas prerrevolucionarias de la violencia in 1968. Pablo read Carri’s book and wanted to make a film, a mixture of documentary and fiction about the Velázquez group. A documentary about the Chaco’s economic situation which caused these folks to rebel against injustice, and subsequently to be protected to a certain extent by the peasants. Because of the peasant support, the police couldn’t get anywhere in their attempt to defeat Velásquez; they had to call in the Army to kill him. Much has been written about the Velázquez group and nowadays Isidro Velázquez is celebrated as a hero in Chaco. Moreover, in the era when Perón returned, graffitti sprang up on the walls, “Perón vuelve, Velázquez vive.” (Perón returns; Velázquez lives on!) We experienced this Velázquez phenomenon as a prerevolutionary form of violence because in 1969 armed groups had already begun to spring up.

UN MURO DE SILENCIO

HG: Let’s talk about Un muro de silencio (1992), your only long feature film and a highly personal one. Can you tell me something about the origins of this project and your objectives and wishes as its director?
LS: Well, I began with the idea of Un muro de silencio long before I actually directed it. In 1986, I made Miss Mary together with María Luisa Bamberger, with Julie Christie as the female lead. It was Julie Christie who stimulated me about the idea of telling this story that has much to do with my personal experience. Because Julie set herself up here in Argentina and began the quest to learn about out recent past.

Julie came with the intention of staying seven weeks and ended up staying many, many months. She fell in love with Argentina and this was the origin of the idea of the English woman who comes to the country to understand what happened here. After this experience with Julie, I decided to write a screenplay, which I ended up doing in collaboration with Graciela Maglie and Gabriela Massuh.

What I wanted was to talk about memory,about a person who wanted to forget. But memory always returns. And it returns in the most hellish way, with hallucinations. The character believes she has seen her disappeared husband in the street. At times one wants to forget ab out the traumatic experiences one has had in life, and wants to say, “Well, my life is beginning right now,” and it’s not that way. For me, the basic and indeed the only way of keeping one’s sanity is to preserve memory.

What makes me proud about this film is that I feel that many peope who work on human rights identify with this film. History is recounted from within, no? Because all of a sudden one begins to talk about something that one has never voiced before——that many of the disappeared were kept alive for a while. One didn’t talk about this much during the time of the dictatorship. It’s almost as if to have been kept alive could signify something incorrect. But afterwards, things were whitewashed even more.

HG: It certainly does complicate the story. Completely. The history that was already known throughout the world up until now. No just in Argentina. But also, through taking an individual perspective, a personal persepctive, is one of the most effective and powerful ways to talk about a very complicated and extensive situation. It’s a way of looking at history not as a sweeping epic, a huge melodrama, without taking into acocunt the way it is seen from the intimate two eyes of a person. I think this has even more power. And I believe this is the importance of this project.
LS: In a way, this film is about secrecy, about hiding. It is not only about the need to forget and the impossibility of forgetting, but also about secrecy, because there is secrecy in regards to the daughter. And well, they are personal things. Very painful things, and I believe that it is because of this that so many people who have lived this type of experience identify with the film.

HG: But it also seems to me that the film demonstrates an attitude about how to talk about political themes through film, and to have, as it has been said, a transformative experience. But it seems to me it is also a way to tallk about the political through film and, as has been said, to have a transformative experience. And no to hace an attitude of didacticism in film. Because I believe that’s the problem with political film.
LS: I believe that this is a film in which the process begins when the film ends. And in this sense, yes, this is a thinker’s film.

Haden Guest is the director of the Harvard Film Archive.

See also: Argentina, Film