Best film of the 2018 Sydney Film Festival

16 July 2018

Image: The Heiresses
Image: The Heiresses

By Chloe Callow

In the current film climate of remakes, reboots and pop culture adaptations, The Heiresses is a refreshingly humanist film that explores familiar cinematic tropes and themes with a careful and precise eye. The film's gravitas lies in its subtle and intimate approach to filmmaking that enhances the compelling performances of its actors, culminating into a feature that is exceptionally charming.

This unusual coming of age film cleverly foregrounds socio-political commentary in a sensitive and organic way, using personal conflict as a springboard for a deeply moving story. An upper class, middle-aged lesbian couple in Paraguay face dire straits after their lifetime inheritance dries up, leaving one woman to pick up the pieces after her partner is sent to prison for fraud. But through her reluctant journey towards financial stability, she gains priceless liberties that were thought to be long lost.

The Heiresses is a remarkable directorial debut for Marcelo Martinessi and a deserved winner of the Sydney Film Festival's top prize. I caught up with Marcelo at this year's film festival.

Chloe: One of the reasons I adore The Heiresses is because the premise is so unique-you don't get these types of personal stories told in cinema anymore. What inspired and motivated you to create this film?

Marcelo: I made many short films that were either literature adaptations or collected works written by people living on the street and stuff like that. But when I started writing for my first feature film, the first thing that came to my mind was my own stories as a child and all of these women who I heard talking-my mother, my grandmother and great aunty-everyone who is always talking, talking talking! That dialogue then formulated all these stories. I come from Paraguay-which is a country with not a lot of cinema-so in many ways I admire the cinema of women, from directors such as Fassbinder, Todd Haynes, the female characters of Cassavetes. So that's where I feel safe and confortable. I started to think about the film's story and many of the characters in the film are very similar to people I know, so I had an opportunity to talk to people and work with them for inspiration. I feel that with this kind of cinema, we have the great advantage of not having the pressure of time, so I could really work around what I wanted to talk about. Not just about the intimate story of this couple, but also to work on a metaphorical level about Paraguay. This is a country that is very repressed and has always had this protective but repressive relationship with its dictators- we even used to call them 'big fathers.'

Chloe: The intimacy of the story really shines through the cinematography-the camera angles, the depth of field and the colours really add to the narrative's nuances. Could you talk us through the film's creative process and how this distinct vision was executed?

Marcelo: I've had relationships with the art director and cinematographer for over a decade now. We were together for most of my short films so of course we know each other very well. We had the opportunity to develop the visual style from scratch-we had this empty house, so we could choose the colours, the wallpaper, the tone of the paintings, the doors, the kind of curtains, the furniture-everything! That is a huge advantage because in the world of Latin American cinema budget is usually limited. But Paraguay is still a country that is very excited about making films, so everyone was happy to lend us things or help us complete the film. So that was very important for me. Luis Arteaga [the cinematographer] and I discussed making this film from the perspective of someone looking out of a closet-we wanted to treat the house as a prison. We didn't want to show the outside of the house, the garden or anything until the very end. Mainly because this is the world of a woman who feels trapped and she's awfully conscious about that.

Many important decisions were made in relation to this, such as not using establishing shots and the need to give attention to certain objects. For example, the [meal] tray-we really worked around what the tray should be like, what it should contain and how it limits Chela's life in many ways. So we had the opportunity to work on very specific objects. We didn't do any storyboards. We would get to the place and Luis, Carlos Spatuzza [the production designer] and I would sit down and they'd both present what they'd been planning and then we would start discussing. Sometimes we'd make a visit of the set before shooting but really the decisions about how we saw the film and what we wanted were made there on the day. Sometimes I feel that storyboards really limit what you can dream or what you can think of, because you're with this energy when you shoot.

Chloe: That's interesting, because the film feels so natural-it has this effortless aura of authenticity. I guess that if you restricted the film into storyboards, you would hinder that energy. Am I right in saying that?

Marcelo: Yeah! Of course it's difficult to begin. The first week was extremely difficult. But after you start and you eventually find the pace for it, it became a lot easier. You also have to be aware that we're working with a lot of people that were not actors. So we also needed to be prepared-because with any shot we took, we never knew which one was good or bad. So sometimes we'd have to do 7 or 8 takes, sometimes 20. But we really had the chance to work with time, which is a luxury today.

Chloe: That's so true, it's become the industry standard to shoot films as quickly as possible. That must stifle creativity.

Marcelo: It does.

Chloe: In the film there is this recurring theme of liberty through modern reinvention-through Chela's job as a taxi driver, her replacement of antiques with cheap furniture, through her trying new fashions and cuisines. Considering Paraguay's tumultuous history, do you believe that the country's true liberation lies within rejecting the old and embracing the new?

Marcelo: I don't really know how to answer to that. I think in many ways I made the film to question things more than answer them. In Chela's case, this is a woman that has been oppressed all her life by her social class, by her relationship, probably by her last name, by many things that put you in a prison even though you don't realize it. So for me it was important to depict the actual prison in the film as appearing more free, honest and fun than the outside world. Chela has always been used to not showing her desires-she's always trying to fit into a society that wasn't really for her. So all these issues add a political layer.

I come from a country with a history of many dictators making decisions for us. But I also feel that recently we have the chance, which is similar to Chela, to drive our own destinies-but sometimes, we fail. This film's ending for me came a lot earlier-originally it was going to be that Chela fails to really be free. But when you make a film, you also discover new paths and directions to take with it. So I thought to leave the film with an open ending, which hopefully makes it feel more organic. Sometimes you want to put a lot of metaphor in something, but film shouldn't only be about that. It's about trying to create a world on its own.

Chloe: I agree. What is great about The Heiresses is that the political commentary is there, but it's subtle enough that it doesn't overpower the film. I'm glad you brought up the tray earlier-seeing that reminded me of imagery from T.S. Eliot's poems, particularly about the restrictions of the upper class. You certainly get the impression that Chela measured her life with coffee spoons.

Marcelo: I wanted to write a story that's as close to me as I can. And I actually know someone who has a tray like this and they were in a way limited by everything that was on it. With the story, Chela needed to have the character of the maid as a reminder that she was in a class that she no longer belongs with. So it was really interesting for me to explore the relationship between Chela and Pati in the film. Pati obviously comes from a different background, but she is the one who understands Chela and that creates an unusual complicity between them. Pati's actress is actually a maid, she's a domestic worker in real life and so we brought that into the film. I think that when you make this kind of film, it allows you to work around these issues without being too obvious in some ways. It allows you to ask interesting questions of 'what if?' What happens if these classes are in touch with each other, what if they talk? What happens if we aren't always so distant?

Chloe: Your film has been selected to screen at many film festivals worldwide this year, including Berlin. Compared to the other festivals, what has the Sydney Film Festival been like for you?

Marcelo: Well, I only got here yesterday, so I'm very excited! I really want to say that I am very impressed with how welcomed I feel, straight away. I don't know if that is because of our similar cultures, from being in the Southern Hemisphere or something like that, but as soon as I arrived in Australia, the way that people smile and behave-it feels like home. It's a beautiful thing to begin with! Of course, I feel that every film festival is different. There's a lot of pressure being somewhere big like Berlinale, especially because we premiered there and we did not know how the film was going to be received. With the first reviews you never know, so there was a lot of pressure. I think after that I went to Istanbul, Korea, Romania, Seattle and I've enjoyed it so much! It's a huge part of the film, travelling with it and presenting it to different audiences- it is a privilege for me. In this case, Sydney is so far away that I am so happy to have the opportunity to bring the film here. I welcome it!

Chloe: That's wonderful to hear. I was going to ask if you saw any films at Sydney Film Festival…

Marcelo: Not yet, but I have seen many films from the program, because I've been travelling with the film for a while, and I was able to see some of those films along the way. I think that the program is really interesting- I mean, cinema is really vibrant and interesting nowadays and I feel that you can see a whole variety of films here. So I'm excited about seeing something probably this afternoon, tomorrow and the weekend!

For more information about our partnership with the Festival, visit the USYD Sydney Film Festival website. The University of Sydney was an Education Partner of the 2018 Sydney Film Festival.