The Heiresses, Paraguay’s first international feature film, centres around the relationship of the middle-aged couple Chela and Chiquita. They are both from families in social and economical upper class in the capitol Asunción, but the inherited money is running out. Their relationship struggles because of the new economical situation, and they start to sell their personal belongings. It is always Chiquita who has been the outgoing part in the relationship, but one day she gets imprisoned for fraud charges. For the more antisocial Chela her partner’s imprisonment becomes and opportunity to get out of her shell, and she starts a kind of private taxi service for the elderly women in the neighbourhood. With director Marcello Martinessi’s sensitive and intimate cinematography we follow her new personal journey.
Was it hard to pitch a script with two middle-aged women in the leads?
– Not really. We come from a country where there are very few films made. So many funding sources would be interested in – at least - listening to a pitch or reading the proposal of a story coming from Paraguay. At the same time, we really had to make sure that the script was strong enough before starting the financial process. It’s very competitive out there. And about the middle-aged characters, we just had to be honest. In this narration, ‘time’ is important, so the lines in the faces of Chela and Chiquita were part of the construction of their characters and the awareness of their stories.
The funds for the film came from several countries:
– Besides modest funds in our country, the finance came first from Germany, Uruguay and Norway. France and Brazil joined later. The main thing for us was to have partners that understood and liked the project, so they would defend it with a lot of passion.
In addition to the characters in the film are mainly people with long life experience, The Heiresses is characterized by the fact that there are almost exclusively women in the roles. During the film there is only one man with a line.
– I grew up in a world shaped by women: mother, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, and ladies in the neighbourhood. I wanted my first feature to get into that female universe that interests me, even more since I started watching, for example, Fassbinder films.
The directors continues: – And the more I think about it, the more I realise that in the Paraguay of my youth, there was only one way of being a man, shaped by the military and the Catholic Church. This does not leave much room to be oneself, so a lot of us grew up stuck between borrowed identities. To create a female-centred world seemed organic and more comfortable for me, especially because I wanted to ask questions with this film, to interrogate the world around me.
Tell about the casting for the film. You used a fine mix of professionals and newcomers.
– This was actually Ana Brun’s first feature film. She has done some theatre in the past, about 7 plays, but the last one was 15 years ago. Margarita Irun (Chiquita) is a great Paraguayan stage actress with a career spanning more than 50 years. This is her second time on the big screen but she has also done fiction on TV. Ana Ivanova is a well-known actress in Asuncións’ theatre scene. She has done many plays, short films, art installations, so I have seen her growing through the years, and we’re the same age. During the casting I felt that these three were in a very special moment of their lives, looking for a challenge. And that’s great material for drama.
The rest of the cast is an interesting mix of professionals and people with no acting experience. Nidia Gonzales, who plays the housekeeper Pati is Martinessi’s real life neighbour, while María Martins who plays Pituca is Ana Brun’s best friend. The inmates in the prison are real inmates from the Buen Pastor penitentiary.
Some has compared Ana Brun’s Silver Bear winning performance to Isabelle Huppert. Can you see that comparison?
–I love the work of Isabelle Huppert and I’m sure Ana Brun feels flattered by this comparison. The character of Chela definitely belongs to the Paraguayan elite with a European background. So, I guess that comparison makes some sense. Chela is not as talkative or easy-to-read as many female characters in Latin American cinema. She’s quite distant.
– In the preproduction process, the first actress I chose was Ana Brun. I needed to cast a woman who had the ability to perform without so many words and portray a journey without the need for a lot of dialogue. Only after I found her, was I able to cast the rest of the film. And I was confident that she was going to be able to understand the character because she comes from that specific segment of my society. She knows how to manage the physical distances between her and the rest. She knows how different it is to talk to a maid compared to the way she talks to her partner. She also understands the whole world inside this woman, a world that doesn’t come out in words.
Which directors inspire you?
– I love directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Todd Haynes and John Cassavetes. I learned a lot from the films of Lucrecia Martel. Her narrative taught me that I could easily make films with the stories that are close to me, with my familiar surroundings.
And there is also the influence of Paraguayan writer, Gabriel Casaccia, who is perhaps my strongest inspiration in trying to portray the Paraguayan bourgeoisie. His first novel was published in the 50’s, when our literature only narrated heroes. However, he took away pretentiousness from the Paraguayan characters and gave them humanity in return.
Like earlier mentioned, The Heiresses is the first international feature film from Paraguay. How is the film industry in the country?
– It is impossible to talk about Paraguayan cinema without being aware of the years of darkness, many decades without any possibility of filmmaking. During the 60’s and 70’s, while the rest of Latin America narrated its own stories on the big screen, my country remained invisible. That’s why building our own cinematography is a key challenge for my generation. Our first cinema law was approved in July this year, so we hope that a film institute is created soon and film funds are available for next year. When I wrote the story of Chela and Chiquita, I realized that I was trying to create a dialogue with that time of obscurity and with a society that doesn’t want to change, one that prefers to remain hidden, clinging to its own shadow.
What have been the reactions from the LGBT movement in Paraguay after the film?
– The reactions have been very good. The girls form Aireana - An NGO working on lesbian rights for more than a decade in Asunción - were great supporters of the film from the beginning. They helped us for the karaoke scene, performing on screen. But still, Paraguay has a lot of homophobia. The film was offered a national recognition at the Senate last April. We were really proud and went to the Senate to receive it. Less than half of the Senate were there. Most of them left because they didn't want the film to receive any recognition, considering that it was about a lesbian couple. On top of that, a female senator yelled at our actress Ana Brun “Get out of here, you lesbian!”. She was not even aware of the difference between a person and a role played on the screen. I wasn’t really conscious of this level of prejudice. This example illustrates that Paraguay isn’t a very tolerant society.
How important has the success at the Berlinale been for promoting the film?
– The visibility both in the competition, in the press and among the audience was really important factors. This is a small film from a small country. Some journalist described the film as “New Paraguayan Cinema”. So, I asked them – What’s do you mean by new? There can’t be a New Paraguayan Cinema when there isn’t any old Paraguayan cinema.