Martín RejtmanAn Interview with Martín Rejtman James Vaughan January 2024 Interviews Issue 108 Nine-tenths of our movements obey habit and automatism. It is anti-nature to subordinate them to will and to thought. – Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer The cinema of Martín Rejtman is a cinema of prattle. Everyone speaks quickly and without affect, as if propelled forward by something inside them, or acting upon them. The results are occasionally reminiscent of one of my favourite Australian films, Bert Deling’s Pure Shit (1975). But where Deling’s characters are desperate junkies whose logorrhoea has an obvious cause, the rapidity in Rejtman’s conversational purgatories is harder to account for. Everyone has their schemes, their hang-ups and their loneliness, which seems ubiquitous – in prattle and in silence. But where is the meaning? Which way is up? Beginning in 1992, across five fiction features, Rejtman crafts arabesque narratives from the frustrations that consume more of our daily lives than we would like to admit: petty resentments between friends over favours not reciprocated; inconveniences caused by technological and bodily malfunctions; irksome interactions with low-level agents of capitalism. His protagonists get stuck in ruts so banal that suicide never feels far off (in Two Shots Fired it is attempted) but even this feels drained of any would-be symbolic value, because there is nothing to transcend – no up or down in Rejtman’s universe, only onwards. Motorcycles and cars are crucial, thematically and as narrative sinew, propelling people forward, or round and round, from one mediocre relationship to the next. Yet even in action, passivity prevails. Life happens automatically, not only as if it were scripted, but as if the entire recitation was also part of some cosmic determinism; every manner of wonky human fixation of no consequence proceeding as light travels through space or the moon revolves around the earth. This world may seem desolate, but under Rejtman’s microscope everything is alive with humour and serendipity. Poetry can be found not so much in things themselves, but in the beauty of their connecting arrangements. La Práctica In his latest film, La Práctica, a hangdog yoga instructor, Gustavo (Esteban Bigliardi), trudges on after the breakdown of his marriage to Vanessa (Manuela Oyarzún). An unfortunate knee injury and a theft of his students’ valuables threaten his incident-prone practice. Resulting financial difficulties mean shacking up with Vanessa’s chain-smoking brother, bringing on new stresses and obligations. As is typical in Rejtman’s films, both he and his wife are quick to move on to the next romantic prospect, but as is also typical, this only seems to make life more difficult. Biglardi is brilliant as the hapless teacher whose attempts to transcend worldly suffering only seem to increase his susceptibility to it. I sat down with Rejtman at a cafe near Film at Lincoln Centre, where the film played in the Main Slate at NYFF63. The conversation began with the revelation that in the early ‘80s he very nearly came to study in Australia. – JV I still have the flyers from the Australia Embassy with information. I keep everything. Really? Do you have a filing system? Oh, no, no, no. Just a box system. Everything’s a mess. So if I want to find something, I have to go through everything. Was it AFTRS? Do you remember the film school? I don’t remember. I don’t even remember if it was in Melbourne or Sydney, but I went to the Embassy. It was one of the possibilities. Then I came here. But it was a time when Australian cinema was Peter Weir, and I don’t remember the other guy who made a film called Patrick (1978, dir. Richard Franklin)… early sci-fi horror. Why did you want to study film? When I was 13, I used to go to the cinematheque every day. I used to watch films that, in the program they would say, ‘[Battleship] Potemkin – the best film ever made’. Of course as a 14 year old kid, I didn’t understand anything. But since it was written there I would tell my friends, I just saw the best film ever made (laughs). Then I convinced myself. So yeah, I think I started watching movies that I didn’t understand, but instead of really trying to understand them, I think they grew in me organically somehow. That’s what I want to believe. It was more like when you go to a country that you didn’t know, and you learn the language just by listening, speaking and not going to school. That’s how I started loving movies. But then I went to school to learn how to make them somehow, I dunno if I learned much in school. How did you come to study in New York? Because I wanted to make movies and in Argentina it was very difficult. That was in 1981, and we had a dictatorship then. There was just one film school in Argentina, which was from the state, and it was very, very difficult to get in. They would take only, I dunno, eight or nine students, but you had to know somebody to get in and it was very bad. So that was not an option. There were some private courses and I did some of those. But after a while, I didn’t have anything else to do there. I went to university in Argentina also for one year. And then I decided to come here. You’ve mentioned elsewhere that Taiwan New Cinema was an inspiration of you in the early ‘80s, and you discovered that in New York. Yes, that’s right. Could you talk a bit about that influence? At that time? I saw some films here at the New York Film Festival, like some things by Hou Hsiao Hsien. And also, I remember I used to go to film festivals in Chinatown. I think what attracted me to Taiwanese cinema was the relationship with houses. Yes. And the idea of rhythm, the idea of scenes that take place in a slow way; that make sense because they have a moment that is like a little revelation. And it’s not that they’re not constructing movies in terms of plot, but in terms of more like – I wouldn’t say impressionistic way – but more like the scenes build the plot incidentally and then they become a movie. That’s the way it works somehow. I mean, it’s different. I don’t do the same thing they do. I think they were much more contemplative than I am. I’m more straight to the point. But when I started making movies, I was trying to be more slow paced. I didn’t know how to use dialogue. I was really scared of dialogue because the dialogues in Argentina movies were very artificial. They were always trying to convey something like a message or the meaning of the film, or they were very much plot-oriented. And I just hated that. So when I started, my first films were almost silent. Rapado Do you mean before Rapado (1992)? Yeah, I made a short film in Buenos Aires which has almost no dialogue. And then in Rapado there is a little dialogue, but then more and more dialogue in the other movies. So it’s like I gained a little bit of confidence and I understood how I wanted the dialogues to sound, and that’s why I, and also at the same time, I started making faster dialogues, and the movies became more full of humour somehow because of the speed, I think. And then I liked that and I used that. But at the same time, I liked the idea of having fast and slow in the movie, like a counterpoint, working with rhythm. So the pace, in terms of the delivery of the dialogue, was that an organic discovery you made just in response to comedy, that it had an effect on the comedy, or I was wondering if there was a thematic justification for that, that was separate from the effect? No, I think I discovered that when your dialogues are fast, you can get away with things that you would never get away with. When the dialogues are slow, you can say stupid things and nobody would really think they are stupid. They would just try to listen to the next line and then they go back and say, oh, that was stupid. But then they’re already thinking of the next things. So you can get away with many things. Something I really love about the way you write dialogue is that one in five things people say is completely ridiculous. And then maybe one in five is disarmingly insightful. And it’s all flattened to the same level. And it makes you very active as a viewer trying to work out… What is meaningful What is meaningful, yes What is funny What is normal. Maybe the funniest is meaningful too, that’s what I like. It makes you look in a fresh way. When you come back to real life, you’re sort of hearing the absurdity in everything. And everybody has something, I don’t know what the word in English is, it’s like a rule of life. Everybody seems to know that there is a way to do things. And also a notable lack of embarrassment. Oh yeah. Completely shameless. Because they are not conscious of themselves, I think. Nobody. They just keep going. And there’s aggression. But it’s a very particular kind of aggression too, because it’s never the ‘outburst’ aggression. Yeah, yeah. Certain characters, Vanessa [in La Practica, played by Camila Hirane] is quite aggressive, but it rarely gets above a certain point. And you often don’t have angry reactions from people, but there will be anger and aggression in the words themselves. La Práctica Right, right. Think it’s a reaction to neutrality – usually my films, the main character is very neutral and not reacting. And for me, this is related to this film actually, the idea of yoga and not reacting and having your mind quiet and stopping your mind and just accepting. And I think in all my films, it works that way. That’s why, in a way, I wanted to make this movie because the subject matter relates to the way people in my films move. Do you generally feel that you need to have in your mind a pathway to making the film before you can really write? Or are you able to just write a script and then wait and see? That’s what I have to do because I don’t know. I can’t write a treatment before I have a script. Yeah, I understand. I’m the same. Very few people are like that. But it’s difficult because you cannot start looking for money until you have the script finished. It’s very frustrating. It’s not about subject matter, it’s more about the scenes and the flow that you built while writing the scenes. I have to watch your movie. I love the way that the narrative moves in your work, it feels very intuitive. And I’m wondering about the way that you … you’re thinking about connections perhaps between scenes that you’ve already written and between characters that are already established. And maybe there’s objects in circulation, but you haven’t found that the final shape when you’re writing. How do you find the connections? Walking, watching movies, watching TV, reading. I mean, when I’m writing, I’m very alert. So anything goes, anything that I, I never feel like I’m copying when I take an idea from, because I know that that idea, I’m not going to take it literally in the script that it’s going to be transformed. And maybe I’m not even going to use it, but I try to develop scenes with whatever I hear that interests me. And then I see if they fit in some sort of plot at one point or not. So I don’t feel guilty about anything. No, why should you? It’s a bad world. (laughs) Yeah. I watched Daughters of the Nile (1987) recently, the Hou Hsiao Hsien. Oh yeah. That’s an old one, right? I don’t remember very well, but I remember that I liked it very much. What you just said reminds me, because there’s extended sequences in KFC in Taiwan – one of the main character works in KFC, with those amazing uniforms. Oh yeah right! Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Yeah I probably saw it before Silvia Prieto. What year is that? ‘87? Yeah. Yeah, because I made Silvia Prieto in the ‘80s. Yeah, of course. I saw it before. In Silvia Prieto with the detergent sales girls’ outfits, which have such a big role in the film. That’s a good point. Yeah, probably. Yeah. Very likely that I stole that from there (laughs). It’s an interesting time because the influence of art cinema and gallery influence and crossover between filmmaking and video art seems like a really positive thing to me in terms of opening film language to different ways of thinking. Not that there’s always completely original ideas there. Often it’s things that were present in experimental cinema earlier and are being recycled. But this to me seems like a positive development. I was wondering if you’ve ever had any work with galleries? No. Sometimes I feel, about what you are saying, that many filmmakers turn to museums and galleries because there is more money there. You can get money for an installation, but you cannot get money for a feature thing. I mean, as an artist, you can get paid a lot more in a gallery than your salary as a film director. And sometimes I see things that I really don’t like in galleries. But for example, of course, the work of Chantal Akerman. But that’s for me, she’s one of the best filmmakers. But she showed some pieces in galleries and they work, I mean, the films she made in the eastern countries, D’est (1993), she did that as a film and also as an installation. It worked separately. And that worked really well. But that’s not always the case. I saw installations by Apichatpong, for example, that I didn’t like. And I think that his films are really, really good. D’est Yeah. It’s interesting with Akerman, because she talked about her brain sort of being in a different place depending on whether she was making a documentary or a work of fiction or a work for a gallery and how it would sort of use different creative muscles depending on which one. And what’s amazing about her, I think what makes her really, really great is that some of the films are very bad for me, and some of them are the greatest. And I think that that quality of being, just having the audacity, the freedom of making different films that don’t work and films that really work. I mean, it’s amazing. I don’t know. For me, it makes her more human. And when she hits the right point, nobody better. Stylistic diversity too. She is very brave with comedy, but then an austerity that’s so far from that. But then some films that combine them, I don’t know how you feel about A Couch in New York (1996). Oh yeah, with Juliette Binoche, William Hurt. No, I didn’t like it. I really like it (laughs). I have to see it again. Because it’s like you go to the movie theatre with some expectations and then maybe at that moment you expect something. I have to see it again. It’s such a strange combination of different things for her. On paper, it’s a rom-com, but then there’s an austerity and a strangeness that’s applied to that genre. I’ll watch it again. That’s good. No, for me, one of my favourites is a short film she made actually from one of these films in episodes, called I’m Hungry, I’m Cold (1984). I love that. Incredible. I used to teach, and I used to use that film a lot, because it’s so beautiful. Yeah, so beautiful. Voiceover is an interesting thing in some of her films too. And I wanted to ask you about that because that’s been something that you’ve used a lot too. Yeah, but I use it in a completely different way. I remember the voiceover in News From Home (1977), for example, reading the letters, and that’s a masterpiece for me. Actually, I want to do a remake of News From Home. Here in New York, just going and shooting the same places she shot in the ‘70s, because the city was so, I mean, the portrait of New York that she makes, it’s not only a portrait of New York, it’s a portrait of the time and also of the innocence and the freshness that was there in the air. And look at this, I mean this is… (gestures to Broadway in disgust) And also her too, at that point. Of course, it’s completely personal. Interesting for you because you had this similar experience being here when you were young. Yeah, a little later. But yeah. You should approach a gallery about that. Just doing exactly the same shots… There’s also a voiceover, I’m thinking of Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974) which is one of my favourites of hers. Oh yeah, That’s very good. She has a voiceover at the beginning. That character eating sugar alone in the apartment. Yes. And it’s funny, but very strange. I saw those films in the early ‘80s when I was studying here at the public theatre. They had a very good film program there. And I never saw them again. So I have to watch it again. But then your girlfriend is Belgian, you say? In Brussels we were walking and she was like, “Ah, there’s the apartment where Jeanne Dielman was shot”. Oh wow. Is there a tour? There might be. We were just walking, it’s on one of the main roads. I went to San Francisco Film Festival several times and I did the Vertigo tour, a couple of times. But then there is voiceover also in the documentary she made in Israel. I don’t know if you saw. I haven’t seen that, no. It’s a very strange voiceover. I mean, it starts in the middle of the film and it’s just a few words. It’s strange, but it’s a good movie. How important is voiceover for you? Is it something that you think when you start a script, ‘oh, maybe I’ll use it, maybe I won’t’. Or you are always thinking ‘I’m going to use voiceover’? No, it depends. I start writing and maybe at one point I say, okay, I need a voiceover here. But for me, it’s a way also, in the same way as the objects and the repetitions is a way to make the story move forward. Because sometimes there are scenes that I don’t want to shoot, but there are things that have to happen. So I just put them in the voiceover. I try to shoot only what I want to shoot, what I like to shoot. I don’t want to shoot transitions. I don’t want to shoot things that I don’t like. I wouldn’t enjoy shooting. So then I put them in the voiceover sometimes. But then I play around with it a little bit. Sometimes in the voiceover, I repeat things that you already saw in the film. In Silvia Prieto for example, there is a moment that the voiceover tells exactly what’s going on, what’s happening. Silvia Prieto Yeah, it can be very very funny. But for me it’s more like having a different perspective of the main character. Yes. But it’s not the psychology of the main character because I’m not interested in that, but just having… Narrative perspectivity. Yeah, one more thing. You see the character. The character is usually very neutral, somehow passive. But then when you hear the inner voice, there is one more aspect of the character that you know. In La Práctica, I added the voiceover at the end of the editing. The first voiceover was not in the script, but I showed it to a friend who’s a director who has a film here, Rio Moreno. Los delincuentes (The Delinquents). It’s a good Argentinian movie, maybe you should watch it, it’s in the festival. Yes I’m going to see that. And he’s working with my same actor. I would say that I’m working with his actor. He’s amazing. So good. Yeah, he’s good. So I showed the film to him, and the only thing he told me was maybe the voiceover starts too late in the film, maybe. And then I realised that he was right. And I added the voiceover when he’s running towards the therapy session. I just added that short voiceover. But that’s the only one. The only thing that changed from the script. There’s often a real micro focus on recurring objects in your films. Obviously the stolen motorcycle is hugely significant in Rapado. And then there’s the jacket and Silvia Prieto. In every film there’s something like this. And now in La Práctica, there’s the divider. What’s that? Ah, the biombo. The folding screen. The folding screen – that he can’t get rid of, and then it causes the injury. And also the table set that he sort of becomes involved in trying to get rid of on behalf of his ex-wife. These objects that are completely insignificant in themselves, but sort of take on a narrative function in your films. I think I use these objects to make the story advance. Because since I don’t work with psychology, the psychology of the characters, and they don’t seem to have a motive or a goal in life, I need to build a story somehow, and I use those objects to move forwards. When they appear again, there is a progression. It’s just a narrative strategy. How do you feel about the difficulty of financing films? You’ve mentioned that earlier in your career you storyboarded and worked with a crew of a decent size. But can you envisage alternative ways of working to avoid some of the challenges with financing? I made a short film that’s on MUBI, Shakti (2019). I love that film Shakti I made that with film students. I wanted to go back a little bit to the way I made Silvia Prieto, which was very cheaply. And I enjoyed it a lot. It was such a pleasure to make it. I didn’t have all the pressure, producers. We spent $10,000 or something like that. It was very cheap. And we sold it, and it went well. But I think the way that things are structured now with platforms, it’s easier to make a movie, but it’s much more difficult for a small movie to become a hit. Before it was a possibility when you made an independent movie, there was a possibility that the movie would become very successful. But now I think it’s much more difficult. It’s interesting because with digital, a lot of the hard costs that you used to have to make films, the big lights, the film stock itself, and the processing, are gone, and now you can work with relatively cheap equipment. It’s just the cost of having people there. Not only that but also the difficulty of shooting in the streets. For example, in the cities, before you could just put a camera someplace here in New York and shoot. I made some films like that when I was studying here. Now I think you need the permits and they’re more expensive and it’s much more complicated. In every city. Insurance… Everything. Making a movie involves a lot of very little expensive things besides the rented equipment and salaries, (pointing to our table) having a four (US) dollar coffee. Doesn’t make any sense. And the feeling that you’re busy all the time, even though you’re not doing anything. You have your phone… It’s something in your films too, characters, the pace that they’re speaking, but they’re always, they’re doing things but also not doing anything. Right, right. There is this last moment in La Práctica. I knew I’d like to finish a film there. When the new boyfriend was giving her cell phones – why do you need more cell phones? One is enough, we’re already slaves, and that’s where the movie ends. It’s such a great moment because it is also the reveal about that character and the question of whether he was stealing the phones or not… And then he falls in the hole. It’s a perfect ending. The falling in the hole for me was, until I saw it one week ago for the first time with an audience, it was like a question mark. I didn’t know if it would work, the second time. And it was very risky because that’s the only way I shot the scene. It was just one shot. No, I mean, it’s a perfect ending to a film. The character just disappearing. Well in Two Shots Fired also, there is one character that disappears at the end. And in Silvia Prieto too. She changes her name. So she’s not there anymore, I mean there is this idea of the characters somehow, when the film ends, they dissolve. This one doesn’t dissolve (laughs). It’s a little bit more practical. Maybe this is a good point for us to dissolve too. Thank you for your time!