Lucretia Martel grew up in Salta, a northeastern province of Argentina, where her films are now often set. As a child, she planned to become a physicist.
“But I started to have doubts about this career path and I enrolled in a series of programs for various careers: zoology, advertising, and art history—all in different provinces of Argentina. I was willing to travel anywhere, but I didn’t know exactly what I would end up studying. Finally, I decided to take a history course in my hometown, and think about what I wanted to do,” Martel said in an interview with BOMB Magazine.
At the end of the year, she went to Buenos Aires, where there was a social communication program designed for students to become journalists and media analysts. While finishing that program, Martel took a course in animation at a separate school.
“Something of the scientific spirit in me remained, and I liked how animation was very technical, precise, and controlled. At this time I started to meet people who were studying film, and I began producing short films. So I decided to take the exam for a state-sponsored film school—the only one at that time. You had to take a huge qualifying course, because over 1,000 people signed up and there were only 30 vacancies. I spent months preparing for that course. I finally got in, but when school was supposed to start, the economic crisis was already so severe that there weren’t any professors or materials. We didn’t have classes. The only real possibility was to study autodidactically, to watch films and analyze them,” Martel explained.
Martel continued her film education through watching films and analyzing them and by working on friends’ short films. “Just when I was starting to think that film was impossible, that it was time for me to get a job, I entered a script contest where the prize was the budget to produce a short film. I won, and was able to produce Rey Muerto (Dead King). Afterward, thanks to that movie, I started to get jobs in television.”
Rey Muerto then became part of an omnibus of other short films called Historias Breves I. The group of filmmakers who made those shorts banded together to ask the contest organizers to premiere them all in a theater. “This was unprecedented in the country,” Martel said. They finally convinced the Instituto de Cine to hold a screening and that screening is often cited as the beginning of the New Argentine Cinema.
“There were 10,000 viewers and it also inspired people to study filmmaking and to start making shorts. It was a really important phenomenon in spiritual terms. Five years later, there were 7,000 film students. I’m not saying it’s the only cause, but the interest in film in Buenos Aires is incredible.”
In 2001, Martel directed her debut feature film, La Cienaga (The Swamp). A play on the title, it’s about two sprawling families who get bogged down in their lives. The film has a foreboding, uncomfortable undertone, and Martel said that horror films were very popular during her childhood.
“When I was a girl, what I mostly saw on television were Westerns—Rey Muerto is, in a way, a Western—and horror movies. These were the genres that I paid the most attention to. They also formed part of the general “climate” of my area of the country, with its deep affection for horror stories, for stories full of apparitions and fantastical situations.”
Family is a reoccurring theme in Martel’s film, starting with the large family in La Cienaga and continues The Holy Girl, Martel’s 2004 film and in 2008’s The Headless Woman.
Martel says she uses elements of her own family in her films and was influenced by the stories she heard growing up, mostly from her grandmother. “I was raised on stories where fantastical things cohabitated with everyday life. For me this has nothing to do with the “magical realism” often discussed in Latin American literature and culture. I don’t agree with this idea that there exists some sort of layer of magic over reality. Because this assumes that there is a concrete reality and every now and then something magical appears. In contrast, our real experience is based in the intermingling of reality and the fantastical.”
This interest and belief in reality and the fantastical is what makes up the idea behind The Headless Woman. Vero, a middle-aged upper middle class woman in Argentina, experiences a car accident where she runs off the road and hits her head. The head injury causes her to not remember who she is. But because she is well known in the community, she is returned to her family home, and must wade through interactions with family members and other loved ones that she has no context for.
When she finds out that a boy and his dog both died near the spot where she had her accident, she begins to suspect that she had something to do with the deaths and her actions to find out whether her suspicion is true may alter the course of her life or drive her insane.
Last year, Martel worked on a documentary El Aula Vacia, which much like the omnibus shorts film, is a project where multiple directors worked together to tell the story of the dropout crisis in Latin America.
Her next project, Zama is based on the novel by Antonio Di Benedetto and will be released later this year.