Lucrecia Martel on time and Zama – ‘Many shots are not what you expect’

Sound and vision make the past feel like science fiction in the new film from Lucrecia Martel, an intoxicating period drama set in colonial South America. Here Martel explains her use of time, and what makes Zama tick.

Georgia Korossi
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Zama (2017)

Zama (2017)

Nine years after her disorienting arthouse thriller The Headless Woman (2008), Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel has returned with Zama, an existentialist period piece set in South America during the 18th century.

Adapted from a celebrated novel by Antonio di Benedetto, it follows an officer of the Spanish crown, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who is waiting in frustration for a transfer from his backwater colony on the Asunción coast to return home to his family.

Voyeur, womaniser and coloniser, this central figure embodies a fierce critique of violent masculinity and the oppressions of the colonial era. Martel’s film is no ordinary costume picture, however. Through the immersive textures of tropical sounds and colours, and the film’s telescoping time frame, she’s created a beguiling distortion of history that at times feels like otherworldly science-fiction.

The result rode high in many best-of-2017 lists, so with Zama at last arriving in UK cinemas, we caught a moment with Martel to speak about her extraordinary return.

Zama makes fascinating use of both sound and our sense of time. Could you speak a bit about how that works?

I am very concerned about sound. In order to understand my film, rhythm is much more important than the story. Some people who hate my films say, “What rhythm? This film has no rhythm,” because they think of metric rhythm, like in music. There are different types of rhythm, and this film has a rhythm that’s difficult to define.

Zama (2017)

When you work like this, you work with time. On the one hand there’s real time, the time that the spectators need to watch the film for two hours in the cinema. Then there’s time in terms of history, and the number of years that elapse [in the story] – and all that’s captured in two hours. And then there’s the time given to the viewer to pick up on things in the film. Having less plot helps the spectator to notice details. The effect of that is to make time last longer.

How important is time to cinema?

There’s this idea that a timeline has enabled us to create a narrative. No-one sees time as linear. Emotional time is not a line, and emotional time is very important to cinema. For example, when something sad or something nasty happens, or when we recall a negative memory, what difference is there whether it’s a sadness that happened in the past or whether it’s a sadness that might happen in the future?

Zama (2017)

We’ve got many expressions for something like that. For example we say, “no, leave that for later” or “leave that behind you”. We organise time linearly like this, forwards or backwards. But that doesn’t work for me. Instead of thinking about time visually, if you think about time in terms of sound, time then expands in so many directions like sound waves. It becomes a kind of volume, and that’s much more akin to how we experience time emotionally.

In organising a film, many actions are jam-packed with cause-effects, which is what a plot would do in US crime drama, for example. The whole plot is so busy and packed with activity – who’s been killed; which person is here or there – that the viewer would probably leave and forget about it afterwards.

Zama gives the viewer the space to reflect on other things and focus on other details. Many shots are maybe not what you would expect, or mean that the viewer is much more immersed in the film.

Zama (2017)

The language of the indigenous people featured in Zama is an important part of the film’s mix of sounds. Where were these communities from?

They’re from the north-east. They come from poor neighbourhoods, underprivileged communities, the poorest places you can imagine of the indigenous population in Argentina. I invited them to act not as themselves but as other people, and to me their language sounds like water. They’re not based on reality, they’re based on the history of the Guaycuru community, which is now extinct in Argentina.

This is your first period film. Did you feel trapped by history at all while making Zama?

Yes, I did a bit. Always when I’m making a film I’m making the effort to try and get out of my own confines. Also when it comes to the moment when I have to talk about the film to people, I find myself recreating that trap. There’re many details in the film that I know why I made them, but there are also elements that I didn’t know or I wasn’t aware of the reason behind them.

Zama (2017)

There’s a sense of existential futility to Zama’s life in this outpost. Were writers like Kafka an influence on the film?

I know his work, which is enough to have an effect for the rest of my life. I don’t feel in Zama I was trying to portray any of that; I’m not such an avid reader of Kafka. Very often, perhaps correctly so, it’s said that films should be connected to other films, or to the work of writers like Kafka or Brecht. And of course directors should watch as many films as possible.

Most importantly though, what matters for directors is to be alive with what’s around them. Because that’s where the key problems in our society are. Kafka and Brecht weren’t focusing on other authors, they were looking at what was around them. They wrote of their own personal experience in the world.

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