Las Herederas (The Heiresses): An interview with director Marcelo Martinessi
Las Herederas (The Heiresses), the graceful film from Paraguayan writer/director Marcelo Martinessi is a stunning debut centring on a middle-aged lesbian couple and their places in the world of privilege. It was awarded not one, but four awards at this year’s Berlinale. It received the FIPRESC prize, the Teddy Readers’ Award, Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize, which celebrates a feature that opens new perspectives, and Best Actress for the sublime Ana Brun.
The actress who plays Chela [Ana Brun] is a first-time actress. Can you talk a little about that?
Well, Paraguay is a very divided society. We don’t really have the culture of the working class. We have very poor people who really depend on the elite for their needs. We have the elite that behaves with all the normal behaviours of the class of the privileged. That’s what really amazed me – travelling to other countries and I see more equality. Like, wow, society really has an opportunity to grow and to make sense. It’s natural for me to see people that move, behave and have an idea of how this class works. So I didn’t do a lot of casting. I cast about 12 or 14 women who were wanting to make the film and were also born with privilege. I come from a family of privilege and I was telling this story that needed a certain character. And I cast [Ana Brun]. She has done a few theatre pieces, and she has done one poetry piece in a documentary, years ago. She was reciting a poem.
She always liked cinema but never had a chance. I imagine that this woman, when she was 20, she was going to start her career and go whoosh and her life was going to be completely different. Of course, she is touched be being here at Berlinale. She always dreamt of films or making theatre professionally but she was born in a country like Paraguay, and not given that chance. I really felt like when I met her that she could connect with the character in many different ways. And it was a risk because she had never done films and, of course, at some point she wanted to abandon the project. And she said, “This is not for me”. You know, it’s a lot of time. She’s a lawyer. She had to quit her lawyer office for 40 days, which was almost two months, and fully dedicate to the film. Plus one full year of rehearsals. I was travelling back and forth, in and out of Paraguay, but every time I was in Paraguay we were rehearsing in my bedroom with them both [Brun and Margarita Irún] and trying to make sense of what we were trying to do. So…with [Ana] it was a very special process because it was her first time. And, of course, I needed some support from an actress like Margarita Irún, who plays Chiquita, who has 50 years of theatre experience. So it was this balance because if they were both first-timers it was going to be difficult.
Didn’t you say at the press conference that you came across Ana Brun reading poetry on Youtube?
No, after I met her I saw on Youtube this poetry. And she had forgotten it. I said, “This is you Ana Brun”. Because she has a different name – Ana Brun is her stage name, and I think in a way she created [her] in order to stop being… herself. One day, she came to rehearsals and there was a masturbation scene that she didn’t feel comfortable [with]. And there were other things that she didn’t feel comfortable [with]. She was not able to do it with her real name. That was very strong for a person, I think. She came to me and said, “I cannot do this. I have to become someone else. I am now Ana Brun”. Ana is her first name, which she never used. Brun is her second last name that she never used. So she put them together and created this new personality.
How about Ana Ivanova? Is she big in Paraguay?
I love the decision of her to live off acting, which is something incredible in Paraguay. I think that she is the only person that said, you know what I love acting and even though I was born in Paraguay I want to do only acting. So she does a lot of performance. She posed nude for painters, and she does a lot of short films with students. The few films that are made in Paraguay, they have a role for her. She is also well-known in the artistic world. So they will invite her. But this is her first major role. She had less important roles in her previous films. And I saw her in the casting. I knew her for a long time but I didn’t follow much. And when I saw her I really was sure she was a woman for the cinema – her face, her movement, her voice. But I wasn’t sure she could play Angy because I had a cheaper image of Angy and she gave it a lot of things that I was impressed with. So the Angy character really changed a lot, with her in the role.
Regarding the casting, did you start out with those age groups specifically in mind?
No, I always wanted people to be seduced with people, let’s say, over 40. Angy is 43. I always thought that I didn’t want someone too young because I think what makes Angy who she is is her maturity, her experience with men. She is a woman with experience. And also, for me, she gives a freedom to the character and the story. She also means a change in no gossiping. All the women are gossiping, gossiping, all the time. And she talks about her own man. You know, I did this and he did this. And this is really weird in Paraguay; people don’t talk about [themselves]. We only talk about other people. And that always impressed me in Paraguay – which is similar to your societies but we don’t realise. A lot of societies were like that. So I was really interested in her kind of bringing this new, this fresh…personality.
What about the situation of the cinema in Paraguay? Because on the festival circuit we have a lot of films from Argentina or Chile and not really Paraguay. So what’s the situation?
Well, we didn’t have cinema for many, many years. We don’t even have a film institute. We don’t have regular film funds. And we don’t have an archive, which is really tragic. The only images of Paraguay are official images of the time of the dictatorship, which finished in 1989. So very similar to Eastern European stories. And these images are in Madrid, in Spain, so we don’t even have access to our own official history because they are colonised. They are in Spain because Franco is the one who sent his people to work with the dictators of Latin America. We had an amazing medium-length film in 1969 called El Pueblo and then in 2006 we had Paraguayan Hammock, which was the first Paraguayan film in Cannes.
What is happening in the last ten years is that there is a boom of cinema, everybody wants to make films. There are four digital film schools because digital makes things easier. It’s an emergency to tell stories. And of course with the first Paraguayan film in competition at Berlinale, it’s huge in Paraguay. All of the news, they are all very excited to be here. We are very happy about it mainly because it’s also about many issues that we think that our society needs to approach. And also because it’s the cinema we believe in, what we want to make. I often say that about Europe, that they want to shape the cinema from abroad – we want exoticism, we want this this year. They are trying to rule. In this case, this is what we want to do and if you like it or not we’re going to do it. And we had a lot of good support from Europe. That was weird. Some people like Pandora [production company] really risked it – we believe in this small story of the Paraguayan elite and we’ll see how it goes. That was great.
I have family in Asuncion and London so I move between. I studied cinema in London. I cannot see the world from London. I always feel like a very, very just-arrived immigrant even though I have been going to London all my life almost. And in Paraguay I feel that is the society where I can tell stories from. How much is this European cinema in Paraguay and how much is this a Paraguay movie? There is this scene where the maid is watching TV and she probably wouldn’t be interested in Las Herederas or other kinds of movies, so what’s the relation with those tastes and distinction of tastes?
For me it’s difficult yet to see what is a Paraguayan movie because we are just starting. But I think it’s a very interesting question because I was thinking about this during the process. Usually, storytelling is about people who leave their small little towns going abroad, coming back to tell people in his hometown what he has seen in the world. That was the traditional storytelling format. And in this case what I tried to do was get him out of this little town, look at the little town, look at the people there…because only distance, if I didn’t travel a lot, if I didn’t go away from Paraguay I would never be able to make this film because I’m talking about a prison. And a prison is a lot easier to see from the outside, to realise what is happening. So in a way I think travelling helped me to develop this story. I feel it is extremely Paraguayan, and I was impressed that many people laughed [in the screening] at things – I said, “How do they get it?” In Paraguay we laugh a lot more because we laugh all of the time.
What is the situation for the LGBT people in Paraguay?
Some people are still hiding, some people are not hiding. We have very big LGBT fighters in the country. We have three or four organisations. We have a great organisation fighting for the rights of people with HIV. And I just think that, as a film, I wish that we can support and push the work. I had the leader of the trans-community of Paraguay writing to me a lovely email yesterday. I mean we feel that we can connect with people that are fighting for a Paraguay of the future. Of course, we don’t have any law against discrimination. We are way behind in LGBT rights. But I think that these kinds of movies can help a bit.
Las Herederas (The Heiresses) does not have a UK release date yet. Read our review here.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.