Director María Victoria Menis
FilmMatters and Programmer
Toronto Jewish Film Festival
Camera Obscura, this year’s opening night film, is a cinematically beautiful, understated romance. Gertrudis is a Jewish immigrant born on the docks when her parents’ ship arrives in the harbour of Buenos Aires at the beginning of the 20th century. Labelled ugly by her jealous younger brother, she tends to blend into the background, especially when photos are being taken. Married off to a wealthy Jewish rancher, Gertrudis appears to have a happy life and loving family. However, when her husband hires an itinerant photographer to photograph the ranch, Gertrudis finds herself strangely drawn to him and discovers that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Camera Obscura is the fourth feature film by director Maria Victoria Menis whose previous films include the award-winning El Cielito and Arregui, News of the Day. In preparation for this interview, Maria Victoria submitted the following director’s statement about Camera Obscura:
“The territory of ugliness, is a place known only to those who live in it. With my camera, I would like to open the frontier of that world, immerse myself in it, and discover its overwhelming beauty.”
SUSAN STARKMAN: The film marks a departure from your earlier films that deal with contemporary society. What was the inspiration for this film and why did you decide to make it a period piece?
MARIA VICTORIA MENIS: Twelve years ago, I read the short story “La Camara Oscura”, written by Angelica Gorodischer. Immediately, I felt it would be interesting to translate it to the cinematic universe. The story is a profound reflection about the subjectivity of the way we see things. It is told through the intense relationship between a woman considered “ugly”, obliged since she was a little girl to look down, and a photographer who sees everything. The story takes place in another period of time and with my camera I went there. I must confess that I was concerned because, at the end of the day, it had to be credible. Argentina is not a country known for period pieces! But I had so much enthusiasm for the project that I overcame all of my fears. Years had passed since I had first read the story, but sometimes there are things that keep coming to your mind and don’t leave you, and that’s when you know that you have to do something with that material. Between first reading the story and making the film version, I shot two other movies but I felt that I owed a debt to Gertrudis, the main character, and her story in some way drove me to make this film.
Young Gertrudis' family in Camera Obscura
SS: I read that your last film, El Cielito, was based on a true story. Is that so?
MVM: Yes, it was inspired by a true story. I read a short article in the crime section of the newspaper that I read every day. The police had shot a young man. On the floor, seriously wounded, he asked them to take care of his son whom he had left at an emergency shelter. After a time, the police discovered that the 10-month old baby was not, in fact, his son. The young man had taken it from a home because he believed that the boy was being abused. That love between a very marginal young man with nothing in his life and a 10-month old baby represented an intense protective bond that captivated me. That story still affects me today and sometimes when I watch the film – my own film – there are moments when I cry because I know that it is a true story.
SS: Although religion does not play a central role in the film, we are frequently reminded that Gertrudis and her family are Jewish. Why did you decide to centre the story on a Jewish family?
MVM: The original story had that element and I think that Angelica made a very good decision. Gertrudis’ mother was a woman who escaped from the discriminatory and bloody Russian pogroms to start a new life in Argentina but, in spite of that, she discriminates against her daughter. Isn’t that a paradox? A discriminated person can discriminate too. It’s tremendous. On the other hand, my grandparents came from Russia and that was a topic that was hardly discussed in my family. I’m sure that was because it was too painful to bring up. Evidently, almost without knowing it, I wanted to get into my own “silenced” story. It must have been really hard for all of them and what a powerful instinct of survival they had.
Lastly, I was attracted to the idea of showing the integration of the Jews and the gauchos, the natives of the interior of Argentina. Argentina is a country that is built mostly thanks to the efforts of millions of immigrants. I also have a project that I want to do about the life of the indigenous people before the arrival of the immigrants. This is also a culture that suffered all kinds of discrimination during and after the conquest and their story deserves to be told. The problem is the budget: making a movie about South America Pre-Spain is very expensive and money is tyrannical in the world of cinema.
SS: Your characters rely mostly on nonverbal gestures to convey what they are feeling. Gertrudis, like Felix in El Cielito, say very little yet their expressions and gestures reveal more about them than any words. How do you cast your films? Do you have particular actors in mind when you are writing?
MVM: In the case of both films, I did not have any actors in mind. Many times, I write thinking of actors as in the case of Carmen Maura in my film Arregui, the News of the Day. In this case, I imagined Felix and Gertrudis in their most minimal gestures. Only in the casting, after seeing many actors, I found them. Neither Leonardo Ramirez (Felix in El Cielito) nor Mirta Bogdasarian (Gertrudis in Camera Obscura) had any film experience. They came from a theatrical background. That can be a big risk! But they were very committed to their characters and they turned out to be excellent cinema actors.
SS: From the moment she enters the world, Gertrudis is made to feel alienated. She is even denied Argentinean citizenship because she was born on the boat. How much does her statelessness contribute to her overall sense of alienation?
MVM: Gertrudis is born on the footbridge of the boat that brought her family fleeing from Russia. She is born just as they arrive in Buenos Aires. I think that’s a very interesting situation. It’s not Russia, its not Argentina, it’s not what her mother expected (a boy), and she’s not the pretty little girl that her mother desired. The look of Gertrudis’ mother sentences her. Later on, her family decides her destiny and, in that life they impose, they make her feel invisible and foreign at the same time. When you are little and made to feel different or “ugly” as in the case of Gertrudis, you don’t want to look for attention. You don’t want anyone to look at you and you don’t want people to hurt you anymore. The external world can be so hostile. After having assumed that role for years, you feel like you have dropped out of society. You can stay all of your life in this position, or one day decide to change. I’m very attracted to these crossroads. The characters of my last three films also experience those feelings – do they stay? Do they change? Do they escape?
SS: The characters in your films either have no family or they feel disconnected from them. Is this reflective of a general kind of breakdown of family life in Argentina?
MVM: It’s true, some don’t have family or they are foreigners in their own families. This is a reflection of the large political and economic crisis that occurred here in Argentina. Many families disintegrated because poverty forced them to emigrate to another country or town in search of work. The story of Felix in El Cielito is a glimpse of that. The mother and the father both leave and the boy is left to be raised by his grandmother on the farm. In other cases, there are families that live under the same roof but they are unhappy because they are unemployed and living under a lot of pressure.
In the case of Camera Obscura, we are situated at the beginnings of the last century, when women’s destinies were decided by their families. Gertrudis’ family came from Russia with very little money and they need her to get married. For an immigrant during that era, it was better to have sons who would have contributed financially by working. In other words, then, like now, social conditions generate situations that directly affect families.
SS: Gertrudis finds solace in the beauty of nature. We often see her arranging household objects to look like still life paintings. Are their particular artists or specific paintings that you had in mind for these shots?
MVM: In preparation for the film, I immersed myself in Marc Chagall’s world, his small villages and his magic. All of that fascinates me. I wanted to have almost still frames, simulating photography. I looked at many photographs dating back to the birth of photography. I looked at black and white photos of the photographic pioneers. These photos have a lot of brightness and were very artistic. Surrealist photographers like Man Ray were also an inspiration, as were the French Surrealist directors of the Thirties. Obviously, contemporary cinema was also in my head. In the last few years, I have been very attracted to Asian cinema, in particular Zhang Yimou films such as Raise the Red Lantern, Ki-duk Kim’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring, and Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. These films are made up mostly of images rather than words; the frames and the shots, almost still, create a cinematic synthesis. I must say that the Argentinean director Leonardo Favio also inspires me. His first films from the Sixties have been an enormous inspiration throughout my life. He’s a “pure image” director.
On the set of Camera Obscura
SS: Jean Baptiste identifies with the artists of the Surrealist movement and his personal photographs bear the influence of artists such as Man Ray. Did you model his character after any particular artist?
MVM: I read, with my co-writer Alejandro Fernandez Murray, that during the early Twentieth Century, there were many artists and photographers who came to the Americas - Canada, the U.S., Central and South America. They were inspired to photograph nature, the natives, the wild America that was so different from Europe. They were explorers and adventurers. This idea was very interesting to both of us: the life of a French photographer, radicalised in Brazil, whose photographs focussed on trees, plants, stems and petals. Jean Baptiste survived the First World War taking photos of the battle camps. He’s a hurt man, body and soul, and he needs to go and look at nature. He possesses the Surrealist spirit that broke with the traditional canons of “beautiful” art that had dominated for centuries. He introduces the art that dives into the unconscious world and he takes photos of America in a Surrealist way. Unfortunately, I think that fixed attitudes towards beauty continue to exist in our own society. We in the West (and now even the East is affected) are slaves to a definition of “beauty” that is imposed by a world full of marketing. Globalisation turns it into a fixed and singular type of beauty that again and again is imposed on all of the screens across the planet. What is beautiful? What is ugly? This is taught to us through brands and consumerism that dictate the way that we see. These are very blinding glasses, by the way.
SS: The black and white photos of Gallipoli provide a stark contrast to the otherwise idyllic images captured in the film. Why did you focus on this particular battle?
MVM: I needed to tell Jean Baptiste’s suffering in the First World War and I did this through his own, very painful, photographs. As he talks about the war, I needed Gertrudis to listen, feel and connect with him so that she could “see” those same photographs in her head, and that we could see along with her. I needed Jean Baptiste to say that war is the most horrible, ugliest thing in the world. Jean Baptiste looks at the world in a different way and Gertrudis immediately feels it. It’s a shock to her, and when she discovers this new way of seeing, a feeling of attraction is generated between them. It is though she has been hypnotised. While I was writing the film, I remembered the film Gallipoli directed by Peter Weir. I suffered a lot in that film and, well…cinema has always been my biggest inspiration. Gallipoli was a huge massacre (every war is unfair and cruel). Almost a quarter of a million soldiers died, young soldiers, from both sides, in one battle.
SS: Camera Obscura can be described as a collage of visual techniques. How did you decide to approach the story from a multi-media perspective?
MVM: It’s a film about the human look and that concept was very liberating. It gave me a freedom that I never had. I thought, I’m a filmmaker, why do I have to stick to only one technique? Besides, this is a film about the infinite ways of seeing. Why not a Surrealist movie? Over the last few years, cinematography has opened up to mixed techniques that incorporate photography and video. Museums now have expositions that mix painting, cinema, photography and video. Why does cinema have to be only animation or live actors in black and white or colour? Let’s play and make those collages that I was so fond of when I was very little! I knew it was a risk, but I must say that the essence of the story responds to this format. People were moved by the little animated sequence that appears surprisingly and describes the feelings of the main character when she was five years old. People have embraced this multi-media approach with a great deal of enthusiasm (luckily!!!)
Menis' El Cielito (Little Sky)
SS: Both Camera Obscura and El Cielito begin with a black screen and the sounds of the outside world. Why did you choose to have your audience focus on the aural, rather than the visual initially?
MVM: My grandfather was my initiator into the world of literature and cinema. He was the principal narrator of the stories I heard as a child. He narrated the story of Lawrence of Arabia and with his words I “saw” the movie. In fact, when I saw the film, I felt like I had already seen it! (I love that movie!!) I think that sounds, voices and noises are united to form a “Once upon a time…” It’s possible that the black screen and listening to the sounds is a way of immersing yourself into the film with little steps, or like slowly opening the cover of a book. It’s the “once upon a time” of my grandfather’s voice.
SS: Although set almost a century apart, both Camera Obscura and El Cielito depict marriage and motherhood as something which women have to escape if they are to have any kind of autonomy. Do you think that women in contemporary Argentine society have a harder time than their North American counterparts balancing their personal and professional lives?
MVM: I don’t think that all women have to escape from marriage or motherhood to have autonomy. In fact, I’ve been married to the same man, I have four children and, up to now, I haven’t escaped anywhere! (laughs out loudly) I was very interested in telling the story of women who, because of social conditioning, economic crisis, mistreatment, violence or silent humiliation, need to rethink a change. By no means does this mean that they don’t love their children. I’m just saying that there are women who, in some defining moment, can’t handle their children because they are depressed and their psyche is fragile. This occurs in El Cielito. For many years, it was common to think that the most important thing for a mother is her son. But people who thought this way did not see that a mother is also a human being with her own troubles, frustrations, and sadness. These women had their own personal longings and vocations that they wanted to develop. Sometimes these women became victims who really didn’t know how or couldn’t take care of their children. Did somebody ever think that maybe a woman didn’t plan to be an animal procreator of children for a husband that only chose her for that reason (as in the case of Camera Obscura)? I am writing about those women.
In my film Arregui, News of the Day, it is the man who needs to find the time and distance to reflect on what he is going through and make people understand him. I don’t differentiate between male and female characters; they are equally marginal beings that can’t take being on the sidelines anymore.
SS: Jean Baptiste frees Gertrudis from her self-imposed prison. Is this because he is the first person to consider her to be beautiful or because he is the only one who recognises (and shares) her artistic sensibilities?
MVM: Gertrudis did have the loving look and the affection of her father. However, he submitted to his wife’s authority and he couldn’t understand how Gertrudis felt when he sends her into a marriage that was supposed to be “ideal” for her. Maybe it was her father’s look that allowed her to survive childhood and create an internal world that was so intense. We all need in some way a loving look in our childhood. It can be from our parents, grandparents or anyone who gives us their love. We can even get sick or die if we don’t get that look. The look of Gertrudis’ mother sentences her to a life of feeling ugly. Jean Baptiste’s look is one that values her and builds a bridge so that she can look at herself in a new way. Gertrudis looks at herself in the mirror for the first time and she is pleased with what she sees.
SS: Jean Baptiste convinces Gertrudis not only to pose for a photograph, but he also empowers her to stand behind the camera. What (if any) options were open to women of that era to express their artistic talents beyond their domestic settings?
MVM: It depends on the places where those women lived. Obviously, a woman living on a farm in Argentina in 1912 (or nowadays a woman living amongst the Taliban) did not have it the same as a woman living in Paris or New York. Women needed a lot of personality, character and courage to develop an artistic, scientific or commercial vocation. How many women couldn’t express their talents even amongst those closest to them? Writers, painters…when did they stop being invisible and appear in society? There are so few considering the time! Creativity was also expressed in the way they raised their children, managed their homes, the seam of a beautiful tablecloth and the clothes they sewed. Their creative talents were evident in the stories they told their sons and the lullabies they sang to make them sleep. In the end, it was not easy to find a “room of one’s own” as Virginia Woolf said. She was a brilliant writer, a “woman of her house” who was driven to madness because of daily life.
SS: The end of Camera Obscura is open to interpretation. Why did you decide to leave it ambiguous?
MVM: We tried to ensure that the film was filled with subtle details. We aimed for a Chekhovian atmosphere where things that don’t appear to be meaningful, are. Much of what happens occurs behind the scenes. That is how we worked the ending of the film. But for me, there is a sum of small details that would indicate with certain clarity the ending of the film.
However, it is true that there are people who see the ending to be open to multiple possibilities. And it’s true that some people have the opposite view and think that the end is absolutely clear and concrete. It’s amazing the surprises you can have with an audience, and I am not saying that just for this film. All of a sudden, people tell me interpretations that I would never come up with. Some of them are really creative and marvelous and reveal to me, almost as if it were psychoanalytic therapy, aspects that wouldn’t have occurred to me in the creation of this film but that perhaps I had included unconsciously.
SS: What projects do you currently have in the pipeline?
My mind was worn out after I finished this film. It demanded a lot of time and effort on my part. I needed a vacation to disconnect myself, or perhaps connect myself back to earth! My beautiful planet Earth, my family, my friends, my teaching, long naps, gym classes, coffee and reading the newspaper. To summarise, I’m shuffling some film possibilities, though I also want to do short projects such as writing a play, lecturing at University, writing a few texts and probably doing a documentary for television. Wim Wenders said that the director of cinema is a Samurai. This is true; there is creativity but, at the same time, it is a struggle to translate this creativity into something concrete. Well, in spite of being very satisfied with Camera Obscura, I would like the Japanese sword to be much lighter in my next film!
A Maria Victoria Menis Filmography
2008: La Cámara Oscura (Camera Obscura)
2004: Cielito, El (Little Sky)
2001: Arregui, la noticia del día (Arregui, News of the Day)
1989: Los Espíritus patrióticos