Marcelo Martinessi on The Heiresses

A multiple prize-winner at this year's Berlinale, The Heiresses is a moving twist on the LGBTQIA+ coming of age genre, in that it's about an older gay woman embracing new things. We speak to Paraguayan director Marcelo Martinessi about making the film

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 01 Aug 2018

Most of the time when The Skinny interviews filmmakers in person, particularly in the context of a film festival, it’s in a swanky conference room or reserved table in a posh hotel's private bar. When speaking to Paraguayan writer-director Marcelo Martinessi at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, our interview is confirmed so last-minute that it ends up taking place at a spare table by the concessions stand in the lobby of the Odeon on Lothian Road, mere minutes after he’s introduced the film’s UK premiere. Considering we have to move some spilt popcorn off the seats, we wouldn’t have blamed Martinessi for being less than thrilled to speak about his work in such surroundings. But the filmmaker proves enthusiastic and engaged, even though his trousers probably now bear traces of butter.

He tells us he’s been interviewed in far worse setups, which is a surprise considering The Heiresses – his debut feature – premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, where it picked up multiple prizes, including Best Actress for lead Ana Brun. “It feels wonderful for the visibility the film gets,” he says of the film’s Berlinale haul. “I’m from a country where we have no such thing as a New Paraguayan Cinema because there hasn’t really been a time when a whole generation was able to produce cinema in Paraguay. So we feel like we’re in the early stages of Paraguayan cinema. Of course, any visibility to what we do is very important at the moment because we’re fighting for a cinema law, for a cinema institute, for regular funding in Paraguay. So in that sense, it was very important. And for me as a filmmaker, to have my work seen and appreciated by people is important, mainly because it was so difficult to make. When the film connects, it’s always great.”

The eponymous heiresses in the film are Chela (Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun), two older women in Paraguay’s capital, Asunción, who have been living together for over 30 years. Their financial situation has recently worsened and so they begin selling off inherited possessions, but their debts lead to Chiquita being imprisoned on charges of fraud. As such, Chela is forced to make a new life for herself, finally breaking out of her shell and engaging with the world, while waiting for Chiquita’s sentence to end. She stumbles into a new life of providing a local taxi service to a group of elderly wealthy women, while also forming a new connection with the much younger Angy (Ana Ivanova).

The Heiresses is not a straightforward story,” Martinessi says of getting the film made. “We had to find a way of talking about a country where the oppression is underneath the skin of the society. Even though we had a dictator [Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda] that left in 1989, the way the film deals with our history and with who we are as a country... for me, besides telling the intimate story of two women, the film has a lot to do with the place I come from. And it’s difficult to work around the history of a country that doesn’t have cinema. When you grow up in Brazil or Argentina, you have seen yourself, or your society and the way you speak your language since you were a child on the big screen. We haven’t. We have seen mainly American commercial cinema all our lives, so it was a big challenge.”

As well as being a rare Paraguayan film to break out internationally, The Heiresses is uncommon for being a film written and directed by a man that’s led entirely by women; there’s rarely a man onscreen at all, apart from the partner of a supporting player. “When sat down in front of white paper, I always heard this voice as women," Martinessi tells us. "I grew up in a very female-driven society; a female-ruled society, let’s say. Even though Paraguay is a very macho country, the ones that are working the internal fibre of society are women. The ones that reproduce, the ones that inherit, and the ones that transmit values and everything from one generation to the next are women. This is the only way, this is the only mechanic I can use to talk about my country. I grew up with a mother, grandmother, sisters, aunties, great aunties – a lot of women around me. And I also admire a lot of women’s cinema, such as Fassbinder films, Todd Haynes, many directors that work with actresses. I was happy to find a great cast, so I think it just came very organically.”

Regarding the age range of his characters, Martinessi describes them as “the lost generation. My dad was ten years old when the dictator came to power in Paraguay; I was 16 when the dictator left. So you have this whole generation – that is the generation before mine – who are these people who grew up, got educated, went to university and had to work under a very, very awful dictatorship. They either had to adapt or they had to leave. So I think these women, in a way, are inside this prison, and for me, there are many metaphorical levels you probably don’t need to get if you don’t know the history of Paraguay, but I think they are felt onscreen because these people are trapped by a system that doesn’t really allow them to be who they are."

Speaking of not being allowed to be who they really are, The Heiresses also serves as a portrait of a long-term lesbian couple living in secrecy about their exact relationship, in a country where that’s still a political hot potato. “I wanted to treat it in the way people in Paraguay would mention it,” the filmmaker says of this element. “Not mentioned, not very explicit. And I don’t like cinema where everything is very explicit, where if you have a lesbian character you have to have a scene of her kissing another woman so you understand she’s a lesbian. I think life is not like that. I think in cinema sometimes when a man and woman are together in a car, you assume they’re a couple, and more when they’re in bed. I don’t know why when there are two women together, we still don’t assume them being a couple is a possibility. I think cinema needs to be a bit more open to everything. We don’t have to give out so much information in the script. I think life is not like that.”

Although Paraguayan media has apparently been very supportive, we’re told that the film was to receive an award of recognition from the Senate of Paraguay, but half the room left during the prize-giving. “We’re talking about a very conservative country where, before watching the film, they just heard there were lesbian characters and it was a big issue. And one of the senators yelled at Ana Brun, saying ‘I don’t understand why we’re giving this award to you, lesbian’. It’s a very, very basic interpretation of cinema, art, life, everything. And, of course, we are not going to stick to that for any reason. We are enjoying what we’re doing, we think art has to look at the future and that’s what we’re doing with the film. It was just very depressing for us how behind the politicians of our country can be, even compared to their own society.”

The Heiresses is released 11 Aug by Thunderbird Releasing