Interview with Filmmaker, Melisa Liebenthal
This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Argentinian director, Melisa Liebenthal. Creator of projects that have taken the film festival circuit by storm such as Aquí Y Allá (Here and There), Las Lindas (The Pretty Ones) and the upcoming El Rostro de La Medusa (The Face of the Jellyfish). Together we discussed film school, being an arthouse director, and her unconventional favorite swear word.
Rua: "Okay, so let's just jump right in. I did an interview a few months ago with filmmaker , Kurt Kuenne who made a documentary similar to your film, Las Lindas that centered around something that was very niche and personal to him. I guess what I'm wondering is, did you ever think about the risks of releasing a film that was so personal it wouldn't find an audience outside your circle?"
Liebenthal: "No, I don't think I thought that much about that while making it. Like I didn't think about the end goal while I was going it I was just following my intuition and seeing where the materials would lead me and trying to articulate everything so it would make sense. I don't remember too much to be honest, but it wasn't a big worry I had at the time. Las Lindas was a project that started in film school in my last year in sort of like a workshop class where half of the year we were allowed to just explore whatever we wanted to,we could develop whatever project we wanted it was very free so that's where I started Las Lindas, and a lot of my teachers from that class were very enthusiastic about it so they pushed me a lot to continue working on it and then I continued in another workshop. There was just a lot of positivity surrounding it, and that kept me going a lot. When it came out I didn't expect it to have so much recognition, it was really unexpected. I haven't watched the full thing for a while but when I watch bits and pieces, I realize just how direct and raw it is. It's probably weird to talk about my own film like that I think I was just saying things with no filter, and that's probably why people feel so connected to it and compelled because it's just basically unfiltered thoughts."
Rua: "Were documentaries something you were always interested in or did you find yourself more drawn to making narrative films?"
Liebenthal: "I don't know, for me it's always been hard to think about these different types of films. I recently just finished my second feature where I tried to make it more narrative, by 'narrative' I'm assuming we mean fiction because for me documentary is also narrative. I guess the main difference is that you have this sort of third person view following a character. But like, what are we talking about when we say 'narrative?' I find it complicated for me to make those distinctions but I'm understanding it more and more as I make films and I think the main difference is just point of view. Like, is it an external narrator who knows everything or is the point of view in one character. But I guess between these two extremes you have such a spectrum of possibilities of where the point of view is and how much is the external narrator and how much is the character so for me it's not so much all documentary or all narrative it's about the story I want to tell and just finding the right way to tell it. It's a lot about intuition and what I have close to me, it's not so much about thinking 'I want to make a documentary, what kind of documentary do I want to make?' No, i's about telling a story and finding out how to approach it. What do I have around me? How do I want to shoot that? How do I want to finance it? All of those factors determine a lot."
Rua: "What made you want to get into film in the first place?"
Liebenthal: "I'm not really sure, I just liked it. As you see in Las Lindas when I was a child I started playing with this VHS camera that my father had and I would make these videos with my friend where we did really experimental, weird things with Beatles music and creating these little surreal scenes that didn't make any sense. There was something there that was really fun for me. I jumped into a film school and then a career and I just liked it, but I'm not a cinephile I've never been someone who watches like one movie a day or knows everything about directors. But I just liked the art I liked the visuals, observing, analyzing things, expressing myself in different ways.
Rua: "Could you tell me a little bit more about film school because there is a lot of debate as to whether it is necessary to being a successful filmmaker?"
Liebenthal: "Yeah I think it is, I feel like the ones who say it isn't are filmmakers from like the 70's. But I think in the landscape today you need it because you need so much information, context, etc. For me, the film school I went to in Buenos Aires gave me so much more than technical knowledge or any specific skill, what I experienced a lot there was open-mindedness, philosophy, aesthetic studies, things that really cracked my mind, And I think that's very important because when you make a film you have to be a bit...on the forefront of things, and be able to process the world in a fresh, new way, you don't want to reproduce old ideas or be producing this conservative, stagnant point of view on the world. So I think art schools or art education is important in that sense because it really makes you think more freely and that allows you to make relevant films."
Rua: "Ok so, I've heard your most recent film is in post-production right now."
Rua: "Could you tell us a little bit about that for anyone who's excited to see it?"
Liebenthal: "Yeah, the film is called The Face of a Jellyfish and it's a fiction essay where I worked in a bigger scheme of structure so there is a fiction aspect it's a story of a girl in her 30's who is facing changes one day after the other, but this is really an excuse for the film to dive into this sort of exploration around the meaning of the face and what is identity and how do we connect with each other and I think basically the question behind the film is like...can we be nobody or can we be somebody beyond our face? Because her face changes and she wonders 'am I the same as before? Am I someone new? Am I nobody because no one knows this face?' So those are the things the film plays with like, having no identity, being no one, being someone, why is the notion of identity so important to us and how can we sort of free ourselves from it."
Rua: "What are some of your favorite movies?"
Liebenthal: "Well, that's difficult because it changes all the time. I like a lot of Céline Sciamma, a French director, I watched Tomboy recently and I really liked it. A movie that really stuck with my since I was younger was a film called 24 Hour Party People by Michael Winterbottom about the Manchester punk scene from the 70's to the 90's and the first raves. I thought it was just so funny, it has a lot of humor, I love humor in movies."
Rua: "What are your thoughts on a project you made while in university now being taught in American film schools?"
Liebenthal: "I think it's amazing, I love it. I wish it could be seen even more! It's so cool! I remember I started the film when I was 23 and I had just turned 25 when it premiered at Rotterdam Film Festival, I was very young I didn't know anything about the industry or what making a film meant and I think that lack of consciousness makes the film strong in a way."
Rua: "Tell me what the film festival circuit is like, was it especially daunting as a first time filmmaker? How was that experience?"
Liebenthal: "Well, I was just very lucky with this film because it was picked and ended up winning a pretty big award, it was easy. Now with my second film it is a lot more daunting because you feel there is more at stake and I know how it all works, the circuit, and everything and it feels more daunting now than the first time where I had no expectations. Now I want my career to grow so you end up putting a lot more into it. It depends how conscious you are, how much you know about the environment, your age, how long you've been working, etc. I suppose the unconsciousness I had during my first film was a bit of a blessing."
Rua: "There's this sort of debate as to the importance of accolades in the film world, in the grand scheme of things do you think awards matter? What's your stance on it?"
Liebenthal: "I mean I work in arthouse, it's a much different scale than those movies that go to the Oscars. For me it's not such a big industry type of thing. As a filmmaker it's nice to be recognized with awards because it also helps you continue working, when you win an award it gives you much more visibility and you'll be able to make another film. What exactly do you mean by debate?"
Rua: "There's just been a lot of discussion over the years as to what they say about someone like for example, Stanley Kubrick never won the Oscar for Best Director, but does that make him any less of an amazing filmmaker? Like is winning an award like that the only way to be considered a good filmmaker?"
Liebenthal: "No, no way! A lot of times I feel like the Oscars aren't even that interesting. Everything's like, very political and weird. It's the same in the festival world. Like I said it's helpful because in the moment awards tend to boost you up but of course, if you're a filmmaker and you don't win awards. you'll still continue making your films and maybe with time you'll be recognized. I don't think Kubrick had a lot of trouble financing and making his movies even though he didn't have an Oscar. Awards are just nice for the ego."
Rua: "As someone who's about to begin my film school education, I'm curious if you've experienced any obstacles being a female filmmaker?"
Liebenthal: "I was pretty lucky to come from a privileged circle and film schools are usually very progressive and open-minded environments and since I tend to work more in arthouse films instead of heavy industry projects. I think the area I work in is a much more gentle and soft environment probably because there's less money involved. There's of course that correlation between money and power, I think in much more personal, smaller films it's just easier."
Rua: "There was a scene in your documentary that really stuck with me where you talked about a woman's pressure to smile and I was wondering if you could just tell me a little more about it."
Liebenthal: "That was probably one of the first sequences I created for the film. Y'know the film has scenes that are interviews and ones that just have photos and a voiceover, and it actually started because I was going through old photo albums and at some point I noticed that around age 10 or 11 I developed this like really really unhappy face, and my parents thought "what happened here" because as a child I constantly had a smile, puberty happened. I was really, really uncomfortable constantly with my body and myself like I wasn't enjoying it, so that's when it started. That's very much the seed of the film almost because it talks about the weight of puberty for women and your body being sexualized and this constant pressure to be a desirable object, but how are we supposed to feel desirable when we're always told that not everybody is desirable. At least for my generation and in Argentina there are these specific ideas for being an attractive woman and smiling of course is a big part of that. I guess in the movie I was just trying to talk about how it becomes like a weight, a rule, like you feel you're doing something wrong if you don't do it like you don't really own your way of being because you're constantly trying to see yourself from the outside. I don't know if that makes sense..."
Rua: "No, no it makes perfect sense. I'd love to know, I come from a film scene in America where a lot of importance is placed on how may films you've seen and the kind of media you consume. But I've noticed that there is a staggering lack of representation when it comes to Latin-American and Hispanic films, are there any you could recommend our viewers?"
Liebenthal: "Oh sure, I mean there's just so much but anything by Lucrecia Martel, La Virgen de Agosto by Jonás Trueba, Las Ranas, Familia, and La Noche by Edgardo Castro. Mi Amiga Del Parque by Ana Katz, 9 Reinas by Fabián Bielinsky, Martín Rejtman's Dos disparos and Los guantes Mágicos. Los Rubios by Albertina Carri. And a really good female filmmaker from Argentina is Anahi Bernari who made Por Tu Culpa and Alanis."
Rua: "I'll try not to take up too much of your time but thank you so so much for agreeing to an interview for Cinemasters. The last question I try to ask all my guests is of course, what is your favorite swear word?"
Liebenthal: "Swear word!? Does it have to be in Spanish?"
Rua: "It can be whatever you want."
Liebenthal: "Something I use a lot is 'la concha de la lora' which means literally 'the parrot's cunt.'"
Liebenthal: "Yea, it's common in Argentina but that's what it means, 'the parrot's cunt.'"
Rua: That's... awesome. Thank you so much for appearing on our site!
Melisa Liebenthal's films such as Las Lindas, Costanza, Aquí Y Allá are available to stream on services like Mubi and Canopy. I'd once again like to thank her so much for giving her time to Cinemasters! Make sure to keep an eye out for El Rostro de La Medusa!