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Marcelo Martinessi Speaks on His Recent Film ‘The Heiresses’, Politics, and Gender.

February 6, 2019

ATM: How did you think to up rise the gender bias dynamic in your country and show it in this film?

MM: There are certain things that happen naturally in the society where you were born, but it takes you a long time to realize or analyze them. Growing up in Paraguay, as a boy, you are expected to be confident, to know all the right answers. We (boys) are supposed to show no delicacy. So, I found it difficult to have a man at the heart of this film. My aim with this story was to question many things that are given in my society and to try to explore the place where I come from. That angle would need a women’s perspective, will be approached better through female characters. Maybe, I see that most men in my society are shaped by a fake security and that doesn’t give room for any vulnerability. And vulnerability was key in this film.

ATM: How does your film being female dominated manipulate a male viewer’s observation?

MM: Perhaps the same thing might be happening to you when watching a film from Paraguay. It does not belong to your culture. It shows you other angles of life or a different sense of humor, other ways of behaving that many of you might not be familiar with. It is still the film I wanted to make. And it allows people to explore worlds that are culturally, sexually and age wise away from their comfort zone. It’s beautiful for me to see, for example, a 22-year-old straight man talking about the film and saying lovely things about it. Film affects us in different ways. I always try to present it as a universal story told through a lesbian woman. Many people who have different life experiences can still feel connected to Chela’s aspiration in the film, they can also connect to the desire of breaking from barriers. I always say that one of the starting points in the film was the feeling of confinement in Paraguay. As well as the strong class system.

ATM: When have you been pushed out of your comfort zone? How did you continue to deal with this?

MM: That’s a good question. Most of the time you learn a lot more when you are pushed out of your comfort zone. In 2010, I started working as Executive Director of the first Public Television in my country, during the only time in recent history when we had a progressive government. We created a project of communication with a public spirit. At that time, I felt that we were part of the construction of the country we really wanted. Most of us were excited and ‘in love’ with the idea of being Paraguayans.

But two years later a majority of the (corrupt) politicians decided to provoke a coup d’état against the president, with the support of the private media and the petit bourgeoise. So, the president was impeached and replaced by a new conservative government, belonging to the same group that ruled the country for more than 60 years.

Seen that, in order to keep their privileges, the social class I was born into supported a coup – that kicked out a democratically elected government – was very strong for me. More than abandoning my comfort zone, I would say I lost the feeling of belonging to a certain social class. It might sound difficult but at the same time, it was a moment full of excitement. I was 38 at the time. It was good because even though I lost the sense of belonging to the society where I grew up, it also opened many new possibilities. It gave me a possibility of reinventing myself and rethinking life. I lost some confidence and there was a sad side to all these. But at the same time, that moment helped me to understand the feelings of non-belonging. The Heiresses is somehow a result of that moment.

ATM: When the main characters started selling the objects of sentimental value, would you agree that this opened a new space to let them bring in more stuff?

MM: Yes. That is in a physical sense but also in a metaphorical sense. It forces the character of Chela to be exposed a bit more. It was not only about selling stuff. They lived in a very dark house and the crisis also pushed them to start opening the windows, then the breeze and the light come in. It is a moment of opening in many ways.

ATM: What is a sentimental object that you have once given away or may have lost?

MM: To tell you the truth, I have given up sentimental objects many times. Especially when I decided to get out of Paraguay because I wanted to become a filmmaker. I did sell furniture, bed and other objects I really liked in order to save money, travel to London and study cinema. So, I can easily relate to this feeling of giving away something you love. It can also be a beautiful feeling. It seems difficult but once you do it, it’s interesting. You are allowing some things to go for new things to come. Right now, I’m torn because I feel the need to sell my old 1978 Citroen. It is a car that I had for 15 to 20 years. I have to sell it because I cannot take care of it in the way I used to. Do you know the Citroen Dyane 6? It’s almost a collector’s item today and I will have to get rid of mine!

ATM: When you give up something, the universe will give you something better or more valuable in return.

MM: Yes. This is why I am not scared of doing it. Even though when you get rid of something you very much like, it feels as if there’s a part of you that goes with it. But I’ve done it many times. I’ve to move countries again and again. So, I had to get used to it, to letting things go.

ATM: What is the lifestyle or expectations of an average Asunción male?

MM: It’s a very macho society. It’s a country where men are expected to be a lot more independent, to leave the house earlier, to do whatever they want while women traditionally were expected to be taking care of house chores and needed to be very careful about any step they took. Happily, this is all changing. But there’s still a strong structural violence against women. It’s in the language and common practices of everyday life. We are a very conservative society, probably with similarities with some small town in America.

ATM: What do men do with their freedom? Do they use it in a less artistic way than a female would?

MM: I’ll try to explain myself better. Men were usually expected to support their family. So, on the one hand, the average Paraguayan men would look for a secure profession such as being a doctor, architect, or businessman, he’ll look towards traditional roles of a breadwinner father. Doing art, music, cinema is still not well seen by the older generation. For them, what we do is considered a hobby, even if we can support ourselves or our families with our work.

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that the average men would always be responsible for the children he has. We have a huge number of single mothers that raise and support their children by themselves.

Ana Brun, the main actress of the film, has mentioned in many interviews that she always felt the need to postpone herself in order to support her husband in his profession or to raise her children. Now, when she is more than 60, she is finally allowed to do what she always wanted to do – which was acting -. I don’t think this is good for men or for women. Sometimes it feels like a society that wants to tag you or force you into being someone you are not. It takes some courage to break from this. Chela in the film would not usually have the courage to change, but the circumstances have put her in this specific position to rethink her own life and do something.

ATM: It seems as if women more inherently have to become selfless.  

MM: Yes, they always have to be there for other people, to abandon their dreams, or what they want, to support their husbands or families. Historically, it has happened like this, even though it is now changing. Cinema gives us a mirror and lets us rethink our roles as well. Many people told Ana Brun at the end of the film “I am looking for my car keys” which means ‘I am looking for a way out from my own prison.’ This means there are many men and women wanting to break from whatever circumstance is trapping them.

ATM: Would Asuncion be considered a third world country to you?

MM: I do not know what the idea of a third world country really is. Especially when it comes to people in the film.  Chela and Chiquita belong to a world where they probably live in a similar way then they would live in Kansas City. They have a car and they have all the means that a person in America would have. If you’re rich in America, you might also have maids, people serving you, have a gardener, etc. So, you have helps doing things for you that probably in a first world country it would be very difficult to afford. We have been fighting for a long time for the right of domestic workers. They get a very low payment for many working hours. They are exploited by the system for not having the means to survive. And their world (house, food, access to clean water, education, health system) is closer to what is conventionally called ‘third world’.

ATM: They are exploited by the higher class. This sort of fits into the term Karl Marx supported called relations of production. This is the domestic workers or the proletariat getting exploited by the aristocrats or the rich.

MM: In a Marxist logic, the means of production in my country are only owned by a very low percentage of the people, the ruling class. Our wild political history did not give us the sensibleness to discuss and change that. In addition, we do not have a strong or a solid middle class. So, the case has always been: a ruling class that exploits, and a working class that is exploited. And even today, the fight for worker’s rights is still not well understood.

ATM: This term was used to show the relationship between the people who own the means of production and those who do not who are the domestic workers. It shows how the ownership of the production is systemically used to exploit the domestic workers or the working class. They become used to it and they do not consciously realize they are being exploited.

MM: We did not have a revolution like 1917 Russia. Our country still needs a huge transformation. We need to rethink our social order. I was talking earlier about the 2012 Paraguayan coup d’état. It had to do with the fact that the country’s ruling class will not allow any government to take their privileges away. So, today, the rich still pay fewer taxes, they exploit their ill-gotten lands without any problem. Basically, no one cares.

ATM: I see why the coup d’état was started. The people aside from the ruling class had no power. It sounds like people are in power because of nepotism or red taping. This is sometimes the avenues as to how and why a coup d’état gets staged. Sounds like people are mishandling the government for various reasons. I do not think a lot of people over here in American knows of this.

MM: The United States has been a strong influence and one of the reasons why we could not have positive changes in Latin America. The dictatorships of our sub-continent historically had a strong support from the USA. Torturers from the Paraguayan police came to learn their lessons in America. So, we have always been very connected to America in many ways. I don’t know if that is known or not by the average citizens in the US. Today, America is still strong but has less control in our region, compared to the 70s and the 80s.

ATM: How did your hometown regain its social structure or go back to normal after the coup d’état was staged?

MM: Hmm. People do not realize it. Most of the country isn’t self-critical and doesn’t have the means to analyze what is happening. 98% of the population just continued with their lives. They have to worry about everyday chores, surviving, business, or earning money. So, they can only see political matters from a distance. And the media doesn’t help, keeping an agenda too close to their own interests. If we can help a bit from the arts: photography, painting, literature, or cinema, maybe we should aim at finding a way to rethink what happened in our recent history, or even in our history.

ATM: It would take people living where you are to know about their history and to become educated. I would assume your society should educate people to know what exactly is going on. It is important. You chose two lesbians, why did you choose two lesbians? I understand you wanted to make a female presence in the film, but why two lesbians and not two female friends who were just close together?

MM: For me, it wasn’t an issue. I’ve never thought of this. It’s a story about aging and an economic crisis. They could be sisters or friends. Considering their age, I thought it wasn’t going to be a scandal in Paraguay to portray their relationship as natural. But it was.  Two women who have been living together – I always use the phrase ‘as a fading couple’ – and they are no longer passionate about each other. The awakening of desire was new and key for one of them. This was one of the many things that will happen to this woman, besides feeling confident about doing a bit of work, earning a bit of money, and being a bit more independent. It was not well received in Paraguay because Chela and Chiquita are lesbians. But, at the same time, if we never force a bit the fundamentalist limitations of certain audiences, I don’t think we can ever make interesting films, and nothing is ever going to change. It was natural for me to have a female couple at the center of the film, and I’m glad we did it that way.

ATM: How would you express the black race and immigrant presence in Asunción?

MM: Our racial issues have a lot to do with the class system and are kept underneath the surface. It’s awful to realize that many people want to see themselves separate from their racial or class origins. It’s a society where today, the only and main parameter to measure people is money.

People do not care where you get your money from. We had drug dealers becoming presidents. If you have the money, you can buy almost everything. In recent years, a man that comes from an obscure background bought the main political party to become president. And he was president for five years! Politicians are at the service of anyone who has money. It does not matter where it comes from.

ATM: Are white people dominant in Paraguay like in America?

MM: No, It’s people with money. There is no racial issue when it comes to power. It does not matter if it comes from a dirty business, drugs or corruption. It is just whoever has money.

There is supposed to be a democratic government. But when it comes to real politics, the dominance always has to do with money.

ATM: It seems like the government is more so through monetary nepotism. The true depiction or authenticity of what a high political figure is sometimes scraped away, and it is replaced here with the dominant trait of money. The media does not concentrate on this. The average American would not know what has happened or is happening.

MM: Of course. It has to do with American international policies that you guys do not really know. Perhaps because they’re government’s secret issues. America begins wars, but people have no idea why. This is the decision of politicians and the country’s elite. I do not think the decisions are ever made by people in America.

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