Apr 29, 2008

XXY: Interview with Lucía Puenzo

First conceived by her husband Sergio Bizzio as a short story titled Cinismo, Lucía Puenzo’s first feature film tells the dramatic story of Alex, a hermaphrodite facing the challenges of her medical condition and the prejudices of a small Argentinean town, all in the midst of the crisis of being a 15-year old teenager. So far, XXY has won fifteen international prizes including Cannes, Athens, Bangkok, Cartagena, Edinburgh and the Goya.

Thirty-one year old Puenzo, daughter of famed Argentinean filmmaker Luis Puenzo, has published several novels such as El Niño Pez (Beatriz Viterbo, Tusquets, 2004), 9 minutos (Beatriz Viterbo, Tusquets, 2005) and La Maldición de Jacinta Pichimahuida (Interzona, 2007). Lately, she collaborated with her father writing the screenplays for his film La Puta y la Ballena (2004) and Rodrigo Fürth’s A Través de tus Ojos (2006).

I had the opportunity to meet Lucía through the MoMA Press Office, which first debuted the film in New York at its annual New Directors/New Films, presented by Lincoln Center Film Society, and through Film Movement, one of the few U.S. distributors devoted to independent Latin American films like Mexico’s El Violín or the Peruvian Madeinusa. Lucía had just arrived from Buenos Aires that morning, and straight from JFK to the Film Movement headquarters in Manhattan to do press, with no time to sleep or eat. Nevertheless, she was spotless, excited about her film in spite of having finished a previous interview, and extremely kind.

Pablo Goldbarg: Beyond the genetic codes, the film title appears on screen as an XXX, and then the last X has a mutilated leg. What does the title represent for you?

Lucía Puenzo: Well, one of the ideas was exactly what you just said. Having those three “X”, and having one of them being mutilated had a lot to do with the idea and name that is given to these surgeries: normalization. The ideology behind the surgeries lies in that word; if we are all “X” some have to be mutilated. And, of course, the idea of women and men. There was an internal conflict to decide if I had to use that title or not because the title doesn’t respond exactly to the diagnosis of Alex (Inés Efrón), and it was part of my own conflicts: Having an extreme medical realism or making a fiction out of the subject, even with a lot of investigation and many months of research. The script was so dense, filled with medical information that it had almost become a documentary. At some point, I decided to make a respectful fiction and because it was respectful, I was able to use a title that wasn’t exactly the diagnosis.

P.G.: Alex is so special, like the turtles we see in the beginning. It’s not only because of her sexuality, but also because she is a homeopath, a vegetarian and she even has a pet lizard. I wonder if Alex is the maximum expression of being different.

L.P.: We worked that idea a lot with the actress Inés Efrón when we started thinking of this little Alex growing up in a place that wasn’t her own city. She had been put there when she was very small, in a place that she didn’t know. She was very lonely growing up in this place, so she made her own world, her own toys from things she found in the beach. In a way, I thought this character had to be very peculiar, not because of her physical condition but because she was a very lonely child. I spoke with a lot of parents and doctors about growing up with this secret. Many parents, whether the children had been operated or not, tell them to be careful about speaking about this with others, and this makes a lonely child. That loneliness creates a very fearful character, or a very strong character such as Alex.

P.G.: Kraken (Alex’s dad, played by Ricardo Darín) talks about the day Alex was born. He remember saying: “She’s perfect”. What is perfection in a society like Argentina or many other modern ones?

L.P.: What I like about a father saying that is that anybody can find anything perfect. It’s a very strong word, like a maximum. Perfection can be found anywhere, what a father sees, what a lover sees, if it’s perfect, that’s all it counts. I was playing with such a strong word on purpose, almost to question what is perfection, because in this society everything seems to be divided in a binary. When a third part comes into the question, conflict arises and the problem now is what do we do with three? So, the meaning of the word is related to that: I can see perfection in another place.

P.G.: How can Alex survive in a macho Latin American society? I wonder if she should she move to Europe instead of Uruguay, or if she would have more fun with people that hide behind the “macho” icon?

L.P.: Actually, when I started writing the film I was quite surprised with how open- minded Argentina is about these issues today, even more than in some European countries. There have been a lot of step forwards, even legally. Not only we have now gay civil unions and adoptions between gay are also legal, but also today the inter-sex organizations are for any person no matter what sex they choose, and you can even change your name under the new sex. That was a big surprise, and also how the film has been received. I also had my prejudice in a macho society like Argentina. I met some inter-sex activists after the film, and not before, which was good for me, and they agreed. It would have been more political, and it wouldn’t have been good for the sake of the story. Actually, something I realized when the film was done is that this big fight about inter-sexuality begins when the film ends: they decide they will defend this body as it is, and the fight begins there.

P.G.: It is still very difficult to find a fair representation of gays in mainstream media like television or films. Did this bring you even more obstacles, or did this unusual and untreated theme present you with a window of opportunity?

L.P.: What happened with XXY is that gay communities also adopted the film. They recognized themselves in many ways. The other main character, Alvaro (Martin Piroyansky) is a young virgin discovering his homosexuality but he is so terrified by his father that he can’t even talk about it. When he connects with desire and what he wants after desiring Alex and not caring what she is, he is stronger. That character made a great connection with gay communities, also unexpectedly, because it wasn’t something I looked for. The polemic that arises in the film is then what is the real subject of the film. One day an inter-sexual friend told me, and I agree, that the most interesting part in the film is not the freedom of choice or inter-sexuality in itself, but the place that desire has in the story. The film is really about desire, and if you connect with desire you are saved. Any person that connects with what brings them pleasure and makes them alive will be fine.

P.G.: Desire plays a constant fight with image, and we usually try to balance what we really want and what people will think about it. Why is it so difficult to choose desire instead of image?

L.P.: In a way, that is embodied by the family that comes from Buenos Aires. They are a very adapted family, father and mother are very beautiful, and they seem to be the normal ones, and actually they are the real dysfunctional family en la intimidad. The other family, the “freaks” with no place in the world, they really care about each other. Many times people are afraid of not belonging. You need to be very brave to not care about what society rules. It’s easy to say it, but when you meet people that every day of their lives they are fighting to belong, that’s courageous. They do it every single day, and you should take your hat off.

P.G.: Literature and cinema have been borrowing elements from each other for many years, but they are still different worlds in so many ways. Being a novelist, what advantages or disadvantages did you face when you had to adapt Cinismo to the screen?

L.P.: Everything, everywhere, all of them! (laughs). It was very hard. Sergio Bizzio is my husband, so that was a new difficulty. But the good thing is that he told me the very first day: “You have to absolutely betray my story and make it yours. If you make an adaptation that is faithful to me it won’t be good.” I was very comfortable in the area of literature because I always wrote novels and even screenplays for others, but then when I started to imagine that the story would be directed by me it was very hard. I knew about words but not about film directing. It was a lot of learning, like walking on eggs (laughs). The big surprise was that once you have the script and think about how to shoot it, you must then run a team. That’s a big challenge and a key difference between literature and cinema: solitude vs. teamwork. A big percentage of a director’s work is to have a happy and passionate crew. That was a huge learning experience.

P.G.: In another interview you mentioned the influence of John Cassavetes. His last biography is a recent and amazing book by Marshall Fine called “Accidental Genius”. I wonder if you, being you a novelist first, if you’re also a filmmaker by accident?

L.P.: Maybe! (laughs) Many times, when my husband and I are writing novels we say that we can be everything: the actor, the director, the editor. You can create a Hollywood super production on paper and nobody will tell you to make something smaller. You have a lot of freedom and you’re able to be on your own and do whatever you want. Especially in art cinema that you don’t have a big budget, you’re always fighting and it creates anxiety. You want to tell a story but you know you have difficulties in every way. I think I became a filmmaker because I couldn’t help it. (laughs). One day I was with my husband and I asked him if he would give me his story to write a script, and I started writing without thinking I would direct it; probably a friend would do it. But then the support from Cine Fondation, the Residence at Cannes Film Festival made the whole thing to take another turn. After that some co-producers came in, and it became a more serious film. I had planned to shoot it with a few friends in Uruguay with a camera I had at home. So, yes, it was kind of by accident. Then I liked it and now I’m gonna make another one. (laughs)

P.G.: Can you please tell me about your experience in the Residence at Cannes, and why do you think those European film funds support so many Latin American films?

L.P.: Cinéfondation changed a lot of thinks. For the last twelve years I’ve been working as a writer for other people, so in my everyday life writing my stories was at the beginning of the day or at the end of the day. During the rest of the day I had to write for living, so many times it was tiring to write my own stuff. The Residence at Cannes was the first time in my life that I could write for myself during the whole day, and explore something that I wanted to do for me – I wrote a novel and XXY. It’s strange but when you are earning your money to live, you don’t have the time for yourself – let’s say I need five months for my project. Then after the support from Cinéfondation, other major co-producers like Fond Sud came to the project and XXY was turned around. It wouldn’t have been the same film without that support. The same happens with the support of other film funds like the Huber Bals from Rotterdam Film Festival: they change the destiny of a film. We asked the people at Cinéfondation when we started to meet them and being close to them “please tell us a real reason why you’re doing this” (laughs). It’s not only about giving; they should be taking something back... They are looking for directors that are interested in them too: they create faithfulness. Cannes took my film to one of the sections, then I won a prize, and I will never forget everything that happened with the film there. If I must choose where I want to submit my new film, it will be Cannes. I will be forever grateful.

P.G.: Argentineans will always remember Norma Aleandro saying “...and the winner is” in 1986 [when Luis Puenzo’s La Historia Oficial won an Oscar for Best Foreign Picture – first and only time in Argentinean cinema history]. You were two steps away from repeating your father’s story as the official Argentinean selection for the Oscars this past year. How do you feel representing your country in so many other film festivals in the world?

L.P.: It was amazing what happened in all the international film festivals. The first time that I watched XXY with an audience was in Cannes. I was there with Inés Efrón – her first time out of Argentina, and we were like in Mars (laughs). We didn’t understand what was going on. In a lot of festivals it was interesting to see the different reactions from audiences, i.e. in Bangkok or Japan. In the case of the Oscar, I have to confess I was happy nothing happened (laughs). The best thing that could happen to me as a first time director, who wants to keep on shooting the second, and the third film peacefully, living in Argentina was this: making the first one and being ready to shoot the second one (laughs), nothing else. I remember Volker Schlöndorff, who is for me a hero, saying about his first film The Tin Drum (1979), that it was his best dream and worst nightmare, because he won so many prizes. He continued making films, but people used to ask him “when you will make another Tin Drum?” Sometimes too much is bad.

P.G.: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to find new directors like you.

(Written for Remezcla)

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Apr 15, 2008

HFFNY 2008: Interview with Carole Rosenberg and Diana Vargas

The ninth annual edition of the Havana Film Festival New York (HFFNY), which runs this year from April 10th to the 18th , will show a selection of both classics and emerging Latin American films at Quad Cinema. As always, the HFFNY presents a unique opportunity to see Cuban films that make its premiere in the US before – and could probably not even show if it wasn’t for this festival. At the core of HHFNY’s mission, around 15 filmmakers each year from all Latin America to be present in panels, Q&A’s and other events. This year, the festival will honor Cuban director Juan Carlos Tabío, Cuban actor Luis Alberto Garcia and American documentary filmmaker Estela Bravo.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with two key people that make the HFFNY happen: Founder and Executive Director Carole Rosenberg and Programming Director Diana Vargas. Carole, an art collector and longtime supporter of Cuban culture and affairs, is also the President of American Friends of the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba (AFLFC), an organization that fosters exchange between Cuban and American artists and educators. Diana Vargas, originally from Colombia and a filmmaker herself, is a tireless advocate of Latino cinema and Latino culture in New York. Besides spearheading HFFNY, Diana is also involved in Cinema Tropical, Queens Theatre in the Park, and Nueva York, a CUNY TV program in Spanish.

Over a tasty breakfast in Carole’s Upper Manhattan home that made me forget about the rainy and cold New York weather, Carole and Diana spoke to me about this festival, unique not only in its groundbreaking content but also for its inherent political tinge.

Pablo Goldbarg: How did the idea of starting a New York version of the prestigious Havana Film Festival come about?

Carole Rosenberg: In 1999, the Cuban director of the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema – which is also known as the Habana Film Festival and takes place every December - came to New York for the first time. I took him to the Anthology Film Archives for a new filmmakers’ screenings, and the idea to have a Cuban film festival in New York was dreamt up. Why Havana? As part of my cultural exchange activities with the Cuban and American artists and at the Festival de la Habana, the idea of creating a Cuban film festival in New York and inviting Cuban directors seemed enough of a reason. After the first HFFNY, which was only a Cuban film festival, we thought it made more sense to present Cuban films in the context with Latin American films as does the festival in Havana. This program is the biggest program of the AFLFC.

Diana Vargas: People tend to think here that Latin American cinema started with Amores Perros or Y tu Mamá También, but there is a long history of Latin American cinema – in fact it’s more than a hundred years old. We thought we should show the audience the trajectory of how Latin American cinema, that’s how we started to combine the classics with new releases.

P.G.: What are your criteria when choosing the films? How much do you depend on the repertoire of the Havana Film Festival in Cuba?

C.R.: Our aim is to premiere the latest award-winning films by the most recognized filmmakers in Latin America, as well as new directions by emerging filmmakers and great classics.

D.V.: We want to show a wide spectrum on the films being produced in Cuba – by ICAIC (Cuban Cinema Institute), the young filmmakers and co-productions with Spain, France and other countries. But because of the restrictions on how to get the films here, sometimes it gets very difficult. One of the things Carole has done with the Ludwig Foundation is also to provide ways in which filmmakers can subtitle their copies, something that many times keeps those films from being released in the U.S. Sometimes the films screened in “Festival de Nuevo Cine” (Habana Film Festival) come to the US first because distributors here keep an eye on those releases, especially on the hot filmmakers like [Argentineans] Carlos Sorín, Pablo Trapero and the ones in Brazil. Now, there is a new phenomenon: Latin American films are hits in their local box offices – which didn’t use to happen, for example, in Bolivia or Guatemala. Those are films we want to share with our audience, because have a special value: they show a country and its culture.

P.G.: Why do you think that Cuban films are not that well-known around the world, even with such a ground-breaking film school and tradition?

D.V.: The Cuban cinema was very important opening a path for Latin American cinema in the sense of a political concept – not only about politics, but the use of cinema as a cultural tool, for any country. Julio García Espinosa, a leading Cuban filmmaker, said that a country without cinema it’s a country without history and without memory. There is another part: the industry. Cuban cinema (and the rest of Latin America) is a little behind in terms of knowing how to deal with the product. In Europe, especially in Spain and France, Cuban cinema is well-known. In fact, some Cuban actors have made a career there, like Mirta Ibarra, Jorge Perugorría, Luis Alberto García… But this cinema hasn’t been able to create a star system. They are famous actors in their countries, but there is no industry to create a buzz around them so that people maybe go see a movie just because of the celebrities. But the market is changing and theatrical releases are not so important anymore, with DVDs and TV.

C.R.: I do think Cuban cinema is getting recognition all over the world, winning prizes at film festivals. It’s just here in this country, because of the relationship and inability to bring the films here. That’s one of the reasons we try to bring as many of the Cuban films, classics and new releases.

P.G.: Why do you think that in the past 20 years Latin American cinema has captivated world wide audiences more than ever?

D.V.: Before, Latin American cinema was very political and socially-oriented, with Tomás Gutierrez Alea [Cuba], Miguel Litín [Chile], Fernando “Pino” Solanas [Argentina]. Those kinds of filmmakers had a commitment with society, they wanted to change those social issues like poverty or inequity through cinema. But then, the new filmmakers were influenced by MTV, the internet and a world where everything goes faster. They are producing stories that are more related to the world in general, and not only to their countries. They are stories that can touch anybody in the world.

P.G.: Why is it so difficult to distribute Latin American films in the U.S.?

D.V.: Right now, we are in a transition because the new technologies. The classical system of “theater release first” is unclear now, and the distributors don’t know what to do. To distribute a film right now takes a lot of that cash and they are not willing to do it. It is changing and getting better: you can find DVDs and TV stations dedicated to Latino cinema, and people refer now to Latin American cinema in a different and more interested way. Another problem is the clearance. In Latin America you probably use a Beatles’ song, and then your film comes to the U.S. and it turns out you have to pay for that song what you spent for the entire crew of the film, so it’s a learning process.

C.R.: It’s more probable probably you’ll find a Latin American film in art houses. It’s not a great distribution like in 25 Multiplex screens, except once in a while for an unusual film, maybe by a very well known director.

D.V.: When the European Union was formed they decided that art is culture and can’t be treated as a product. So you need special laws to avoid people treating a film like any other product. Those things don’t exist here. To be screened in an art house would be fine if they were more, like in Europe, or if you get subsidize at least you could use money for promotions and compete a little more with bigger films. The theater owners don’t want to lose money.

P.G.: The New Children / New York Youth Program is one of the best initiatives in any U.S. film festival. When did you start it, and what is the plan to follow up with the young filmmakers?

D.V.: Our program has filmmakers ages 13 to 23 years old. We are trying to show that cinema and art in general can change your life. A few kids from Bushwick (Brooklyn, NY) are presenting their second films. At last year’s screenings, when they saw they were able to answer questions from the audience and people were so enthusiastic, they worked for the whole year to produce the second part, so it’s going to be very nice. I hope these kinds of initiatives are repeated in other festivals.

C.R.: A few years ago, we were working with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies and a Cuban project through the AFLFC. We were featuring Puerto Rican cinema and they asked us if we would be willing to give the awards to the seventeen kids that won the Learning Leaders prize. To see those children dressed up, coming to get their awards – and they actually got their awards that can treasure forever, it was a very heartwarming experience for me, to sign those awards, to be there and see them get them... The New Children New York Youth program just seemed natural, because it will make a difference in the future of these children’s lives.

P.G.: What will happen in the next edition of the Havana Film Festival in Cuba this coming December ’08 in this new era after Fidel? How will it affect the HFFNY?

D.V.: The festival itself (in Cuba) always brings films that are controversial, so I don’t think about a change in that sense. But one thing that affects the film right now is that filmmakers from the U.S. can’t go there. Beyond that is like any other festival in the world, with its own criteria. People tend to criticize but I’ve been to other Latin American film festivals, and what they do there with the little resources they have is amazing. Now that I know how to suffer a film festival from the organizational point of view, I can say their work is incredible.

C.R.: It’s a very important international cultural event, and in this new era there will continue to support it because of the magnitude and the quality. In terms of affecting the HFFNY, there will be a change only if the cultural exchange is opened up allow Cuban and American artists to freely travel between the two countries to promote the exchange of cultural and artistic ideas. Not only the Americans can’t go there, but also we can’t get visas for the Cuban filmmakers to come and participate in our festival because the American government is not issuing those visas. When we were able to get these visas it was incredible to attend a panel and have this discussion between the filmmakers and the audience. I can remember one panel we did “Meet the filmmakers”, where many of these important filmmakers hadn’t met each other in person before. And it was interesting to see their reactions discussing their problems with distribution or various issues in the industry. When a group of people get together it makes the problem a little bit easier to resolve. That’s what I think some of our panels directed toward the industry and the filmmakers have accomplished.

P.G.: What is that special ingredient you need in your festival so when its over, you can say "mission accomplished"?

D.V.: Carole is an educator by heart, so she is always pushing us to have the educational component. We’re increasing the free events each year. It’s beautiful to see people asking questions, raising hands so the director can explain directly a particular scene. Even for me, and I’ve seen the movie before, when a director answers those questions, the movie changes in perspective. The program at the Metropolitan Museum is amazing because we have been bringing films and animations for kids. In the beginning we had 70 people and now it’s closer to 300. It makes you feel proud.

C.R.: In January, people were already making reservations for the Met program. For me, the cultural exchange between the Latin American countries and the U.S. is important. To feature emerging talents in the U.S. film industry is important. We are always very proud when we see that a film we showed gets picked up. We are also very happy when we hear from the public that they’re seeing films that they would have never had an opportunity to see. That’s how we feel the mission is accomplished.

P.G.: How do you envision Latin American cinema in the next twenty years?

D.V.: In those countries where they had no cinema, they have filmmakers now and also schools – one of the keys to have more films coming. Those films are getting recognition by their own people. One of the problems before was that they were acclaimed in international festivals, but they weren’t successful in their own countries. So, what is the point in making a film if your own people don’t go to the theater? Rodrigo Bellot’s Quién Mató a la Llamita Blanca is a Bolivian film is now a huge success in Bolivia, with two indigenous actors in the line of Bonnie & Clyde. It’s the first time in Bolivian history that around ten thousand people approached the theaters. People are expecting their own films, which is very important. In Latin American we are learning also how to present the movie from the marketing point of view.

C.R.: Latin American countries are focusing more on supporting the art and culture, in a way that they can present themselves to the rest of the world. As long as the countries help new filmmakers develop by putting money into film schools, they will start to be seen more and more around the world.

P.G.: Please define the Latin American cinema in three words.

D.V.: Witty, repentant and risky.

C.R.: Innovative, cutting-edge and sexy. Now you have the Latin and the American points of view (laughs).

(Written for Remezcla)

More information:
Havana Film Festival New York