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Picaresque – a conversation with the Argentinian director Anahí Berneri

Films from the South 2017: The Argentinian director Anahí Berneri (b. 1975) visits Oslo this week with her new film Alanis, which is partaking in the main competition during this year’s Films from the South. In this interview Berneri discusses her visual philosophy, thematic exploration and the position of female directors in Argentina and internationally.

Av 17. nov 2017

Until it became clear that Anahí Berneri would visit this year’s Films from the South festival, she has been a blank page for the undersigned – and probably for many of our readers. Even more enjoyable to make a new discovery, and three of her feature films will be screened in the section Director’s Special Portrait this week; the debut A Year Without Love (2005), the moral drama It’s Your Fault (2010) and then her newest film Alanis that is coming straight to Oslo from and award shower during the film festival in San Sebastian earlier this fall, where awards were bestowed on both Berneri (best director) and lead actress Sofía Gala (best actress).

In Alanis we meet the title character Alanis (Gala), a young mother that is a sex worker at an illegal brothel in Buenos Aires, where she also lives with her one and a half year old son – a adorable little lad that is well taken care of by the other women every time the mother is visited by a customer. One day the authorities raid the brothel, and with everyone evicted Alanis ends up on the street without belongings or a job.  With her son on her arm she starts putting the fabric back together and tries to secure a safe place to be – not too easy in a metropolitan city, here depicted in all its brutality, distant from the romanticized tango streets we might be more accustomed to when Buenos Aires is shown on film.

The conversation with Anahí Berneri below is done ahead of the festival, and will expand when the director is meeting for a talk with Montages before the screening of Alanis Thursday November 16th at 6:30pm at Filmens Hus in Oslo.


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Karsten Meinich: We will see three of your films in Oslo during Films from the South: A Year Without Love, It’s Your Fault and Alanis. In total you have made five feature films, and if you look back at your debut film A Year Without Love  - made 12 years ago – what does it mean for your now? And how do you remember the process of making your first film, compared with your fifth film, Alanis?

Anahí Berneri: The production of A Year Without Love was a joyous experience, and it became a door opener for me towards making film. It was distributed in 17 different countries and given awards at many festivals but the most important for me today is that the film still lives. As a queer film it was a genre opening work in Argentina, which means a lot to me. My debut has also more in common with Alanis than anything else I have ever made. Both films have a protagonist that is marginalized in society, put aside because of sexuality, and both films use the city – Buenos Aires by night – as a character in the narrative.

Additionally both production were similar in how they started with low budgets and wide liberties to play; in other words without barriers for artistic exploration. During the filming of A Year Without Love I reassured myself by saying it was a sort of game; that if the end result showed me to be a bad director, then at least I had fun while making the film. This same sense of freedom returned when I made Alanis, a film that arose when I gave a short film idea to a project in an organization for actors. I found the experience so inspiring that we agreed to develop the short film into a feature film.

KM: Even though the two films have similarities, you have changed some as a director along the way – what is the biggest difference from when you were a rookie?

AB: Affected by my experience as a director, I can now better separate between what is essential for a film and what are “accessories”. This again can determine what is worth working hard to achieve and what can be dropped. I don’t think I could make Alanis as a first or second feature film; the challenges during shooting and in organizing the project would have been unmanageable.

KM:  The lead character in Alanis has a fascinating appearance: I experienced that one quickly became very engaged in her situation: a sex worker with a child on her arm. Just this one picture of that alone radiates a strength and contrast that makes us curious. Can you tell a little bit of how you got to this character? Was it through the writing process or is she based on a real person? I assume you did a fair amount of research along the streets of Buenos Aires to ensure credibility for the character interpretation?

AB: Absolutely, we did a lot of research. We talked with the sex worker’s organizations, and women we met on the street or in various brothels. These conversation fostered many questions. Should prostitution be legalized in Argentina or not? Some see it as slavery; others fight for rights to do the job with better protection. Sofia Gala, who plays Alanis, became so dedicated to the project that she used her own son in the part as Alanis’ son in the film.

For me these pictures in the film became even stronger because it is her own son she is breastfeeding, and this bond between mother and son exudes a force and even a sensuality, that I wanted to show. Alanis is not a character that takes herself too seriously and Sofia Gala added an attitude that was … picaresque – something real. That is how we avoided Alanis being a victim; instead she has enough backbone to solve her own problem, without special reflection (or later regret). I try to observe my actors as close as possible, and find out what makes me fascinated with them, that way I can have them use their own personal traits in front of the camera. This builds the characters around the actors portraying them, and I therefore never ask the actors to compose new character traits; they have to be themselves in the situations.

KM: Alanis is also experienced as a very realistic film. But your visual style is still under a stricter esthetic disciple than for example films that are closer to reality, that use a more of a vérité and documentary style (like the Dardenne brothers). How did you develop the visual plan for Alanis? Your picture are patient, and let us study the movements in the room without you breaking in.

AB: A central concept for the visuals was that we wanted to use as few settings as possible, and that the frames then were composed such as the story could play out realistically in within the given frame and give the actors freedom. I wanted to break out of the cinematic power given to the close-up and facial gestures, and instead let the whole of Alanis’ figure and body control how the frame would be composed. For example the film has many frames where Alanis’ head is cut off by the edge of the frame, because the camera is either at the level of her breasts or it shows the perspective of the baby in her arms. 

KM: Interesting. Can you then also say something about the collaboration with the cinematographer and how you balanced the long takes with the story’s progression?

AB: The cinematographer, Luis Sens, suggested that we use reflections, glass and mirrors in the staging, to give an inner rhythm to the frames and the opportunity to change perspective without breaking the setting. This became an excellent strategy, baked into the production design, since I did not want, or even could do many camera moves during a scene. The short time we had I wanted to give to the actors. The use of mirrors gave us also a metaphor I enjoy, thinking about representation and identity – a question that is in the story and in the lead character.

 

KM: Your themes in Alanis – poverty, class differences, motherhood – are also found in your Argentinian director colleague Diego Lerman’s new film A Sort of Family, that is also screened at Films from the South this week. Do you consider these themes especially relevant in today’s Argentinian society? Are there any specific movements or debates in your home country that gives inspiration to these stories, in your and in Lerman’s films?

AB: Yes, the themes are both pertinent and relevant in Argentina today. The last years we have seen the emergence of feminist movements, like Ni Una Menos, and we have as a result of that started to discuss discrimination and violence against women in our society. Both Diego’s film and my own springs from these social processes and the society we live in.

Argentina has signed international treaties pledging not to pursue sex workers, but the truth is that the prostitutes are being hunted, punished and persecuted. All of them have with being harassed by the police and stigmatized by the society – including the fear of having their children removed. So the politics being exercised is hypocritical. In our character Alanis we explore the worst insults, “the whore mother” and “son of a bitch”, to create identification and recognition with outcasts. I like to go directly into the audience’s prejudices. In Alanis I show a woman that of her own volition chooses prostitution, between her limited options, as a way of survival. The comparison between human trafficking and sex workers in Argentinian society is a political simplification that gives a false sense of clarity, when it in reality is far more complex.

KM: It is always uplifting to discover new filmmakers, and it is also pleasant to see more and more female directors emerging – even though the gender representation in the film industry is still not in balance. In Argentina, your colleague Lucrecia Martel is a profile, and recognized on the international festival scene. What is the position of female directors in Argentina today, and what other filmmakers have been an inspiration to you in your career?

AB: I am proud of my country in this regard because we have so many good female directors: Lucrecia Martel, Celina Murga, Ana Katz and Albertina Carri, just to mention a few of those I like the most. Many years ago, Argentinian women started fighting for a place in the film industry through the organization La mujer y el Cine. They were pioneers, with the director Maria Luisa Bemberg leading the work. So since the 1990s, in step with the new wave that came in Argentinian film well into the 2000s and the importance of the film academies, women have – also through their talent – earned a place.

Myself, I am also heavily influenced by films directed by women, and Alanis is specifically inspired by Chantal Akerman’s outstanding film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). For me, Akerman is one of the most influential female directors in film history. I love her way of capturing everyday life, through frames where real time feels real, and how her characters are rooted in a deep and gripping humanism.

KM: At this year’s Films from the South, a large number of Latin American films are screened, and in the last years we have seen an emergence of many dynamic film environments in countries like Colombia, Venezuela and Chile, as well as Argentina and Brazil. What are your thoughts of Latin American film in 2017? Do you work across the borders?

AB: Yes, I certainly feel like we are in an exciting period for Latin American film. Still it is a worrisome time, because few of the Latin American films get a commercial distribution in their respective and neighboring countries, which means the dialogue between filmmakers is mainly confined to the festivals. But we have to hope that this will get better in the future, as the films keep spreading.

Tickets for the three films by Anahí Berneri that are shown in the Director’s Special Portrait-section at this year’s Films from the South festival in Oslo (November 9 – 19) can be found here.

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Intervjuet er presentert i samarbeid med   filmnettstedet Montages.no