A Conversation with ‘ZAMA’ Writer and Director Lucrecia Martel at the New York Film Festival

At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin interviews ZAMA writer and director Lucrecia Martel.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin interviews ZAMA writer and director Lucrecia Martel.

Amy Taubin (L) Lucrecia Martel (R)

“Our history was written by white men, so falsifying that history didn’t seem like a big deal to me.”

–Lucrecia Martel

At the New York Film Festival press conference, film critic Amy Taubin opened her interview with Lucrecia Martel, with the news that the Argentine Film Academy had just announced that Zama will be the country’s submission to the Oscars’ foreign-language category.

About ZAMA

Lucrecia Martel ventures into the realm of historical fiction and makes the genre entirely her own in this adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 classic of Argentinean literature. In the late 18th century, in a far-flung corner of what seems to be Paraguay, the title character, an officer of the Spanish crown (Daniel Giménez Cacho) born in the Americas, waits in vain for a transfer to a more prestigious location. Martel renders Zama’s world—his daily regimen of small humiliations and petty politicking—as both absurd and mysterious, and as he increasingly succumbs to lust and paranoia, subject to a creeping disorientation.

About Lucrecia Martel

Award-winning director Martel began her career making short films and documentaries for television.  Her three features La Ciénaga (2001), The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2006) were set in her hometown of Salta in northwest Argentina; an area known as socially and religiously conservative—a subject she addressed in these films that center on the Argentinian self-absorbed bourgeoisie.

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ZAMA Literary Adaptation

This film is Martel’s first literary adaptation and her first period film. (Among the other ‘firsts,’ it is also her first film set outside her native Salta, and her first film with a male protagonist.)

Not intending to be historically accurate, the film challenges conventional historical style, and linear time with the use of narrative ellipses.

As seen in Martel’s three previous features, Zama’s themes address class, gender, race, and place.

The Interview

Amy Taubin: You had been developing a science fiction film for a while and that didn’t happen.  (This was an adaptation of El Eternauta a cult comic in Argentina.) “It seems to me that this film is both something very real with its roots in colonialism but it’s also looks like a science fiction.”

Martel: Yes, I had been working on a science fiction film from 2009 and when the film didn’t work out I went away on a trip and brought the book from which Zama was adapted. So, I also escaped on a boat and I read Zama.

I was allowed to think with a lot of liberty in science fiction but in a historical document you’re constrained to thinking about how it was in the past. When I decided to do Zama I went about thinking about it in the same free way that I had planned on working on El Eternauta. For political reasons our history was written by white men, so falsifying that history didn’t seem like a big deal to me.  As you can see I made decisions that contradict history, for example like representing the Catholic Church. (There were no crucifixes or symbols of crosses.)

It is also about existential conflicts too. I don’t think the film is that far off from the intention of the novel, regarding this very Catholic idea of waiting.  This very Catholic idea that the meaning of life comes at the very end and all the suffering that we undergo acquires some kind of reason once it ends. I wouldn’t say that the character of Zama is the anti-Christ but he does push against that.

Script EXTRA: Tap Into Your Core Wounds to Bring Your Characters to Life

Taubin: All your films begin and end with the body, the experience of the body. When you read the novel, there’s a lot more about character and thoughts, but this film, out of all your films, is most rooted — in every scene with the experience of the body.

(Taubin then commented on this period of Colonialism and how Martel examines how “the body manifests itself and how the others relate to the body and particularly violence on the body”.)

Martel: I think we are all in our bodies. We are alone in this island of our bodies and we invent ways to get off this island through language, through expression. We do all these things to transcend the existential solitude we feel.  Especially thinking about colonization, which imposes violence and dehumanizes the body as its first step. The first thing to do to destroy another person is not to see them. Negating other people to justify that violence.

(Martel responds to a question about the music used in the film.)

The pretentious element of the music reflects on Argentina in the way that it doesn’t identify itself as Latin American but it identifies itself as situated between Miami and Europe.

The music in the film also makes me reflect on situating the film in the past.

The novel is set in 18th century but it was written in the 1950s, and I’m here producing this film in the 2000s – so what time is it actually set in?  And in that sense, narrative time is also occurring in the present; it has to make sense today.

The 55th New York Film Festival runs from September 28 – October 15.

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