“Yo no quería hacer una pelicula sobre víctimas” – with these words director Lola Arias described to us her approach to making a film about a dozen former inmates of various Buenos Aires women prisons. Reas, which translates as female inmates, is a documentary cast in the mould of a musical in which the inmates re-enact scenes that draw on their experience of incarceration, staged with music, songs and colourful set designs – an exuberant, unclassifiable film that confronts viewers with serious issues recast in a highly unusual format. In February, the film premiered in the Berlinale’s Forum sidebar, where Arias’ first film, Teatro de Guerra/Theater of War, had premiered in 2018. For that film, Arias worked with both English and Argentine veterans of the Falklands War (1982). Both films operate along the same artistic premises, namely to work with non-actors who have experienced trauma, and to create a form of re-enactment that is based on their memories and experiences and that allows them to gain a distance from, and ultimately a better perspective on what they have gone through. These re-enactments are then shaped by Arias into her own dramatic work. In both cases, Arias used the material to create a film and a play. With Teatro de Guerra, the play partly preceded and partly coincided with the film, while with Reas the play will be developed out of the film. Importantly, though, film and play take on different forms, with the film never just being a recording or adaptation of the play but rather its own medium-specific creation.

It is the theatre, however, that figures most centrally in Arias’ prolific career. After writing six fictional pieces between 2001 and 2007, Arias switched to working in documentary theatre in 2007, creating over 12 plays that draw on non-actors who have experienced tumultuous or traumatic events, often related to dramatic historical and political shifts and ruptures. Arias usually starts out by offering a series of workshops on poetry or theatre, revolving around a particular theme (the prison system, trauma, war, dictatorship, motherhood, etc) in which participants (actor-witnesses) talk about their experiences and over time learn to re-enact them. She films these workshops and slowly begins to write the script to what will then become a play or a film.

Among the best-known plays to-date are My Life After (CTBA, Buenos Aires, 2009), which is based on the life stories of six performers who re-enacted their parents’ lives during the dictatorship in Argentina, and Melancholy and Demonstrations (Wiener Festwochen, Vienna, 2012), a play about the depression Arias’s mother suffered in response to the Argentine dictatorship that began in 1976. In Atlas des Kommunismus (Maxim-Gorki Theatre, Berlin, 2016), Arias gathers the stories of women between the ages of 8 and 84 with backgrounds in East Germany, while What They Want to Hear (Münchner Kammerspiele, Munich, 2018) is the reconstruction of the real case of a Syrian archaeologist trapped in German bureaucracy for years with no legal status. Her most recent theatre work to date is Mother Tongue, subtitled “An Encyclopaedia on Reproduction in the Twenty-first Century,” which Arias created from different stories intersected by motherhood. Her film Teatro de Guerra draws on the play Campo Minado/Minefield (Royal Court Theatre, London, 2016), which brings together British and Argentine veterans of the Falkland/Malvinas war to share their experience of the conflict and life since.

Beyond being a director of film and theatre, Arias is also a performance artist, musician, and composer, and she has done video installations and conceptual installations. As author, she has furthermore published books of fiction, poetry and plays. A native of Buenos Aires, Arias has lived in Berlin for the past 15 years. While a foreigner in Berlin, her life in Germany and her constant coming and going between Buenos Aires and Berlin have transformed her into a foreigner in her native country as well, giving her the distance artists need to question what everyone else merely takes for granted. Her audience is truly global, with her plays being performed not only in Buenos Aires and Berlin but all over Latin America and Europe. Both of her films premiered at the Berlinale before going on extended runs on the international festival circuit.1

Arias’s artistic practice leads her to put her finger in the wounds of cultures – of exploring the fissures that open up in every society and around which we circle, yet which we keep at bay through stigmatisation and fear. From the ravages of war to the new conceptions of the family that are currently emerging as gender identities have come into question, to the traumas experienced by imprisoned women, to the aggression survived by trans men and women in different disciplinary institutions, Arias is never afraid to touch vulnerable people and topics. But her touch is always light, as is her presence. She is not interested in creating victims or focusing on the effects of victimisation. She believes that art liberates and that it is important to make culture and art accessible to all; indeed, her greatest contribution is to provide that access to those who do not have it and never did and who only learn of that lack after they collaborate with her.

Arias’s training and background have also shaped her interest in film, which she has been exploring since 2018. As noted, her two films to-date are both forms of re-enactment, and both use various theatrical devices to create spaces that allow participants to gain distance from, and ultimately control over, their personal trauma. Arias often chooses locations that function as a proscenium, such as an abandoned, ruinous hall in the opening shot of Teatro de Guerra, or the former prison in Reas

The opening scene of Teatro de Guerra

These are constructed spaces, which in the context of the films become re-signified and assume a new meaning. The title of Teatro de Guerra, with its allusion to the theatre and to the notion of theatres of war references this dual dimension of space. Using music, costumes, and choreography, she works with her actors’ authentic experiences and re-works them into a scripted reality, thus creating a unique artistic in-betweenness. As Arias has commented, “All the scenes in the film are at the same time authentic and artificial,”2 reminding us of Richard Schechner’s dictum that performance is twice behaved behaviour. In other words, there is no spontaneity.3 As a result, viewers of her films become very aware that what they are seeing is not a traumatic repetition but creative re-enactment. 

Reas is even more radical than Teatro de Guerra in reshaping a given reality because the new film blends the documentary format with the musical – two genres that seemingly have nothing in common. Reas brings together stories of cis women and trans people who have been in prison, retelling the former inmates’ personal stories and experiences through music and choreography. The film eschews what Arias calls ‘prison realism’ – the widely accepted conventions of portraying the hardships of prisoners, their experiences of abuse, of powerlessness, and of justice withheld. Reas vehemently rejects any attempt to show its subjects as victims, or as angling for the viewers’ pity and compassion. Instead, it is a colourful and campy over-the-top production that shows its actors as exuberant and embracing life, even though the scars and pain of trauma are always visible under the surface, ready to irrupt at any moment.

* * *

The following interview was conducted in Spanish on February 20, 2024 during the Berlin Film Festival.

– S.S. & G.G.

You have been a longtime resident in Berlin, and you work in theatre and in cinema in both Berlin and Buenos Aires. How does this dual perspective impact your work? Is there a mutual influence between the German and the Argentine context?

I worked in theatre for 20 years and I have made two films. I have been living in Berlin for the last 15 years, with a lot of coming and going. However, my audience is not only in Buenos Aires and Berlin; it is in all of Latin America and Europe. This new film brings together the best of my two worlds: my Argentine team, Gema Films, as well as my German and Swiss co-producers. Because I have lived in Berlin for many years, I have access to the German funding systems, which is very important. In this manner, the film could find its form, which was particularly difficult in this context. It took about five years of research and workshops.

When did you first think of this project? 

I was giving workshops in theatre and film in a jail in Buenos Aires. We were training the inmates how to act and sing. That’s when I began to think that this would make for an interesting film, because there were so many captivating stories. Originally, I wanted to film inside the jail, but then the pandemic came and the jails were closed. So then we began to think of making the film outside the prison, with former inmates and with far greater creative freedom than we would have had in the jail. There was also more time to find the real protagonists of the film. We began to hold workshops again, and I began to write the script. And we settled on this docu-musical, which is unheard of, and which conjoins very real stories with fiction and fantasy. 

So none of the characters we see in the film knew each other before the making of the film?

Some did, some didn’t. All the stories we hear did actually happen. The protagonists do not invent anything – the beatings they suffered, the violence, the love stories, the fact that they got married in jail, that’s all true. The frame, however, is fictional. Yoseli was not in the same jail as Nacho, for example. Nor was Paulita. All of the protagonists were in different jails, and at different times. While we were filming, things began to take on a life of their own. Only during the shooting did it become clear, for example, that Yoseli and Nacho were attracted to one another, just like they are in the film. Or that Nacho and Estefy had a rock band together and that they already knew each other. Yoseli knew Paulita but did not know the others, and so on.

You have explained that this new film will now become a theatre piece. This process is in fact the reverse of what happened with Teatro de Guerra, which was a play before it became a film. How does it work to turn a play into a film, or the other way around?

Even though the film Teatro de Guerra appeared later than the play, both the film and the play were actually created simultaneously. I was rehearsing the play and filming at the same time. And even after the play was premiered, I kept on filming. Teatro de Guerra was filmed under far more precarious conditions than Reas; we filmed when we could and where we could. With Reas, the theatrical production will not be an adaptation of the film. Instead, the play will be like a sequel, a Part 2. It will not focus on the experiences in jail but on what it is like to return home: to try to get a job with a criminal record, to integrate into your family when you have been absent for so long. When you’ve been put away for five or ten years, there is a lot you have missed. You may not know what a QR code is, for example. So the question of re-integration will be central in the play. We will use six of the 14 actors we see in the film.

Do you train them to act?

Yes, of course we train them, it’s a long process. When you see them in the film, you think that they are actors. They are performing a situation; they are not talking about an experience as if they were in an interview. To reach that level of performance takes a lot of training. They have to understand the scene and how to connect with the audience. They have to memorise lines; they have to learn to express different emotions; they have to do improvisations. For them, it’s not about figuring out who they are but who they are on stage – what type of character are they representing? I do not do this all by myself. I have a big team, including musicians, choreographers, assistant directors, and so forth. Right now, as we are speaking, they are all working in Buenos Aires. The training doesn’t stop.

Do you teach them the difference between acting on the stage and in a film?

I do, but that difference is not so big since my theatre does not rely on overly dramatic performances. It’s an intimate form of theatre, very close to peoples’ experiences, very sensitive and vulnerable. And it is also documentary. Therefore, acting in my plays is not that different from acting in my films.

How did you bridge the class difference between you and the women in the prison? How did you get them onboard so as to trust you and the project?

I was known in the jail as a teacher of theatre because for my many years I had been doing workshops with the inmates there. When I first proposed my idea, they knew me already. And through the workshops it became clear who wanted to participate in the film and who was not committed to the project. There was no traditional casting.

How did this work in Teatro de Guerra? In that case, you entered a male-dominated world.

Yes, that was different, also because it’s the military. So they wondered, what does she know? For the English, I was an Argentine who could not be impartial. In Reas, to be a woman worked in my favour. Of course, they knew I come from another world. But over time they realised that I wanted to build a meaningful relationship with them. I was not there to take something from them and then disappear. At the same time, these women also wanted to understand me and the world I come from. When I took them to see a play for the first time, they were amazed. We think that culture is for everyone but it’s not. In Argentina, culture continues to be something that only one class has access to. Working on my project we saw the inmates flourish, because we gave them access to something they did not even know existed.

Teatro de Guerra

How would you describe the transformation that you witnessed in the inmates?

They learned that art can be a tool to express what they are thinking, and to frame what had happened to them. That it also allows them to gain distance from their own reality. And that their life is very similar to that of many other people who are oppressed, and who are deprived of freedom and opportunities. They learned that their own stories have value, and that these stories need to be told. Their story belongs within a social narrative (relato social). What I think of as my pain is actually part of a larger social problem. Recognising this distance empowers them. This is fundamental to the artistic project. The other part is that, by participating in the workshops, they get to know other worlds. This is particularly important today, as we all increasingly live in our bubbles.

Central to the kind of work you are doing is also the question of trauma and re-traumatisation. In Teatro de Guerra, it’s very clear that the English and Argentine protagonists are suffering from PTSD, and that participating in the film brings back some of the traumatic memories of the war. How did this work in Reas?

When I watch Reas, I see the pain in these bodies, and that what the inmates experienced was very profound and impactful. During rehearsal, the actors broke down many times, reliving the anxiety of what had happened to them. It was important for me that that pain not take over the film. I did not want to make a film about victims. The war veterans, in contrast, are not viewed as victims. They are sometimes viewed as crazies or as assassins; they are stigmatised in other ways. Yet when people are about to see a film about women in jail, they expect a downer. It’s going to be all pain and tragedy. In the film you feel it when Carla tells how her lover was killed by the police, and she is about to cry. Yoseli is about to cry when she is told that she cannot leave the jail for short periods, despite having done everything right. It’s important for the film that these emotions be contained. But the pain is there! As for the question of re-traumatisation: what I have learned, over many years of working with people who have been traumatised, and also working with psychiatrists, social workers and others, is that you only retraumatise a person if you do not give them the tools with which to revisit their trauma. When you can reconstruct what you experienced from a space of autonomy, and when you feel that you are in control, you do not get retraumatised. You can now re-live this situation – not as victim but as someone who can control what happens. Psychologically, there is a big difference between revisiting a traumatic event when you feel you’re in control. It is very different from just simply retelling the same story over and over and feeling the same way you felt before. What theatre and representation do is create a distance, and through that distance a sense of control that allows you to live with what happened.

The cast of Reas: Carla, Nacho, Yoseli, Estefy and Paulita (from left to right)

At what point did it become clear to you that this film had to be a musical?

During confinement, your body is constantly policed, controlled, and oppressed; dance and music create a sense of freedom that transcends containment. In the jail, I worked with a choreographer and we realised that dance and song and music created a much-needed space. I also learned during the workshop that Nacho and Estefy had a band in their cell called ‘Sin Control’ [Out of Control]. Music got them through; it was a means of empowerment, agency, and liberation. We therefore decided to work with music as it was something that had changed their lives.

In Teatro de Guerra, the Argentine and British veterans also play in a band, but their songs are full of anger. There is little joy here. In Reas, music is used very differently.

In the new film, the genre of the musical is the driving force. It opens up a space of fantasy within reality, and it shows the women prisoners in another way – as glamorous and beautiful. It was important for me to create an image in which they could see themselves as beautiful and powerful, because their self-esteem is so low. They have been told all their lives that they are worthless.

In terms of opening up other spaces we also noticed that in both Teatro de Guerra and Reas, there is music and there is water – a swimming pool in the former, and a beach in the latter.

It was important to re-signify the space. The jail we filmed in was a men’s jail that was abandoned in 2001. During the dictatorship it was a site of torture and killings; it had a very negative charge, it was a cold, oppressive space. For us, it was important to transform that space, to give it life and love. Our task was to work in a space of horror and through art transform its energy. I think we succeeded. In the film, that space gets transformed into the airport, the beach, etc. – and into a theatre.

Teatro de Guerra is very decentred in its focus and there is no clear protagonist. In this new film, the storyline of the film is very traditional: girl enters prison, she meets new people, and at the end she is released. Why did you decide to work with such a traditional arc? 

It was important to have a red line that was very classic and chronological. This allowed us to then insert episodes that interrupt the chronology and reference different times and different characters. As a result, the film becomes choral. Since the film has many layers, it was important to have a simple storyline that unifies everything, with the sensation of a beginning and an end. In a way, the whole film is a flashback because it is reconstructing a time when my protagonists were in jail, which is not now. In the beginning, you don’t realise this, but after a while you do. It was important for me not to spell out everything to the viewer right away. Viewers should ask themselves, Are these actors or not? Are they in jail right now or not? Is the story real or not? 

Dance as liberation in Reas

How do you think the film will be received in Buenos Aires when it’s released, especially given the current political situation?

Right now, my actors are dying to see the film because they could not travel to Berlin since the situation in Argentina is very bad. The election of Javier Milei as president [in December 2023] was a blow that nobody anticipated. He is an ultra-right-wing president who wants to destroy the welfare state, the state itself, everything. His first political proposals included withdrawing all state support for cinema, theatre and the arts. He even abolished the Ministry of Culture. He is attacking all civil rights. My film will be viewed in this context of resistance to everything Milei is proposing. It’s my hope that it will bring some light in this terrible current political scenario.

In Reas, there is a respect for the fluidity of gender that is very noteworthy in the lives of younger people today everywhere. It is accepted by everyone. Are jails in Argentina really that progressive?

The penal system is a binary system – there’s a prison for women, and one for men. But society is not like that. It is no longer a case of men here, women there. Today we have cis-women, trans-women, and there are trans-men, and then there are non-binary people. Society can no longer be contained or grasped by that old binary model. My film shows the women’s jail to be a queer space, you have trans women and trans men, heterosexuals, cis-women, and lesbians. They live together in community, solidarity and respect – all this within a place that constantly denies gender differences, and that does not want all this multiplicity to exist.

In which kind of jail was Nacho?

Nacho was in several jails. The Ezeiza prison, where we started the workshops, is a women’s jail that had a section for trans men, because at some point the authorities realised that they had to protect trans people. Historically, trans women went to the men’s jail where they suffered incredible abuse. And trans men in a men’s jail usually were also abused. The best solution the authorities at Ezeiza could find was to create a wing for trans men and women. It was the only jail in the country where this accommodation exists. Yet this does not mean that trans people are free of all stigmatisation. Often their hormone treatments are withheld, for example. Trans women’s identities were recognised and they were given their hormones; Nacho, as a trans man, however, does not get his testosterone. The authorities do not recognise the need for the equality of hormonal treatment.

It seems to us that Reas also invokes Manuel Puig’s novel El beso de la mujer araña/The Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976), as well as Héctor Babenco’s 1985 film – especially the use of stories within stories as a utopian space of liberation from imprisonment.

For me, Puig is an endless source of inspiration, all of his novels, really. His use of melodrama and fantasy were really inspirational. The same goes for Pedro Almodóvar. I watched all of Almodóvar’s films again when I began to make this film. What interested me is his use of humour in melodrama, which is over the top. And of course his use of colours.

Do you consider Reas a form of camp?

Oh yes, camp, kitsch, melodrama – these all work a lot with minor genres, both popular and bastardised genres.

What made you decide to make a film about a women’s jail?

The Ezeiza jail had a film series and they invited us to show Teatro de Guerra. I had already been giving workshops there and after we showed the film, I sensed a tremendous gratitude from the inmates for having brought the film. We had a moving discussion after the screening during which I realised how important it is to have access to culture. I sensed that the inmates wanted to be creative – and that’s when I decided that I should not be only showing a film here but actually making a film.

The Berlinale has a sidebar called “Berlinale Goes Kiez,” in which they show films in neighbourhood theatres. Usually, one of these venues is also a jail, this year it’s the JVA Plötzensee.

That sounds really interesting. I’ll find out if they could show Reas there!

The authors with Lola Arias (centre) at the Berlinale Palast, February 2024


  1. For an overview of Lola Arias’ career, consider the artist’s personal website: https://lolaarias.com. Accessed March 11, 2024.
  2. “Todas estas escenas de la película son, a la vez, auténticas y artificiales.” Press Kit for Teatro de Guerra, 2018, 3.
  3. Richard Schechner, “Between Theater and Anthropology,” 1985. https://hemisphericinstitute.org/images/courses/spring-2009/schechner_bta.pdf. Accessed March 18, 2024.

About The Author

Silvia Spitta is Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College and Robert E. Maxwell 1923 Professor of Arts and Sciences. She is the author of Between Two Waters: Narratives of Transculturation in Latin America and the award winning Misplaced Objects: Collections and Recollections in Europe and America. Gerd Gemünden, author and editor of 11 books, is the Sherman Fairchild Professor in the Humanities at Dartmouth College. His most current projects are a short monograph on Kleber Mendonça Filhos’ Neighboring Sounds and a longer study on realism and the supernatural in contemporary Latin American cinema.

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