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Celina Murga: A Filmmaker with Her Own Voice

Celina Murga, one of Argentina’s most outstanding new wave directors, has touched film audiences and critics at home and abroad. We interviewed her during the Panama International Film Festival to find out more about her career.

By: Roberto Quintero
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez

A quick reading of Celina Murga’s biography, highlighting the success of all four of her films (three fiction and one documentary), leads one to believe the director has led a charmed life. But watching her films you discover that her reputation as one of the most important stars of Argentina’s new-wave cinema, a movement that began some fifteen years ago, is anything but fortuitous. And when you have the opportunity to talk with her and discover her story, given the difficulties still inherent in filmmaking in Latin America, you realize very quickly that voices like hers were destined to emerge in Latin American cinema.

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to sit down with her find out more. Taking advantage of her presence at this year’s Panama International Film Festival, we interviewed the filmmaker, a native of Argentina’s Entre Rios province who was born into a family of doctors. She was at the festival with her latest film, La tercera orilla, a co-production of the Netherlands, Germany, and Argentina that premiered last year at the Berlin Film Festival and has had a successful run at festivals in Cartagena, London, San Sebastian, and Rio de Janeiro, among others. The film’s greatest success, however, came before shooting even began, when American director Martin Scorsese expressed an interest in becoming the executive producer. The mind behind cinematic jewels such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull —to name only two of his nearly sixty films¬— maintained a master-disciple relationship with Celina Murga for over a year, laying the foundation for the project. How did this come about? This and other details in this exclusive interview for Panorama of the Americas. 

Where did your desire to make films come from?

What I remember most is how in my fourth or fifth year of secondary school, a friend of mine and I decided we wanted to make movies. But from a very unconscious place, based on an enjoyment of movies. This was before the 90s and the boom in film schools, which later received support from the creation of the Film Law. Almost everyone in my family is a doctor.

My grandfather was a cardiologist, but also an amateur photographer. And he took amazing pictures. He was an artist who devoted himself to medicine. And that was a part of my life. He had a darkroom at home and developed his own photos. And I see this as the germ of something. Of course, I was very fortunate that when I said: “I want to study film,” my family supported me. I moved to Buenos Aires to study just as the first film schools started to appear, but that first year I didn’t have the courage to go straight into film. I studied social communication instead, just to get started. But after a year and a half, it still didn’t feel right.

What made you hesitate?

It wasn’t very common at the time to study film. You studied advertising, or journalism; more established careers, let’s say. And there wasn’t anyone in Entre Rios who had made films. But a year and a half into my studies I visited the Universidad del Cine and as soon as I walked in I thought: “This is where I want to be.” So I started there and little by little I found my way.

More than found your way, I’d say. From your very first film, you’ve taken part in the best festivals and garnered lots of attention.

“I’m an impulsive and determined person. At the beginning, especially while shooting Ana y los otros, we made very intuitive decisions; I think if we’d taken the time to think them through we would never have made them.” From the moment you decided to make a feature film there was a certain amount of risk involved, which I didn’t think much about at that time. But there was also a feeling of being part of something new. Thanks to the universities and the new law, there was a supportive context and we all had this creative drive. It was very unconscious though, because there were no festivals waiting for our films; it was more from the inside out. I now realize how beneficial that drive really was.

What was your first experience as director like?

I made my first movie without any support from the INCAA [National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts] because although the law existed, there still was no system of subsidies in place. I made the film with support from the university, a friend’s camera, and a crew of colleagues from the university who all had this desire to continue learning together, to do things. The university was always very supportive and lent us what we needed to make things happen. The little money we used –which came from my mom– was to buy the film stock. The province covered our lodging and the municipality fed us. And that’s how we did it. The film did very well: it screened at the BAFICI (Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival), at the Venice Film Festival, and in Toronto… It started to make a real impact as a first film and I found myself in a situation where the festivals came to me, but not really in the way that students nowadays are already thinking about festivals. It was a time when everything was just taking off. And like you said, the film wound up having a great run and things took off from the very first film.

Thanks to the Rolex scholarship, you worked with director Martin Scorsese for a year. How did that come about?

In 2008, I was finishing editing my second film, Una semana solos, when I received a letter from the Rolex Foundation saying I’d been shortlisted for the scholarship. You can’t apply for this scholarship; you have to be recommended by a committee of people from around the world, which is extraordinary in itself! Someone had seen Ana y los otros and liked it a lot, and recommended me. Three of us were shortlisted: a young man from Vietnam, a young Lebanese woman, and me. We traveled to meet Scorsese just as he was about to shoot Shutter Island in Boston. Each of us spent an hour alone with him. After chatting with him, he watched our films. I was still editing Una semana solos at the time, but he watched the cut we had put together for the Venice Film Festival. A few weeks later he called me on the phone. I’ll never forget that moment! I was walking down the street and he called to tell me that he’d chosen me as his disciple.

How did you feel?

I felt great, of course! He’s someone I admire a lot. Although our work isn’t similar, as far as form goes, he was very important during my formative years. It meant the chance to work with him for a year, a year or so, because even after the scholarship ended, he remained very much aware of my presence.

What was the dynamic? Did he give you classes?

No, no. The scholarship is very wise in that sense, because you’re not expected to deliver any specific product or thesis. They’re confident that the relationship between the master and disciple will transcend time and leave a positive mark on both parties. Naturally, there is the idea of a generational relay in mind, in the artistic sense. You’re given a budget and you have to manage it. The legal agreement is for a year, but you manage your time and money any way you see fit. It was up to us to come up with an agreement regarding the kind of relationship we wanted and how often to meet. He was filming Shutter Island and told me I could visit whenever I wanted and stay as long as I liked. At the time, I was writing the script for La tercera orilla so I’d send him material and during gaps in his shooting we’d talk about the treatment, the characters, the story. And when he finished filming, he invited me to New York to watch some of the editing and sound mixing.

So how did Scorsese become interested in becoming the executive producer of La tercera orilla?

As I was finishing the script, just as the scholarship came to an end, he became interested in remaining part of the process and told me he wanted to be the film’s executive producer. Basically, it meant that he’d put me in contact with people: he gave me this amazing letter talking about me, and the project, and it opened a lot of doors. This helped us secure co-producers for the film. I don’t think it would have been impossible without him, but it helped. When we were close to a final cut, we traveled to New York and watched it in his screening room. It was very exciting for me. He gave me lots of feedback, always careful to avoid imposing his own vision, trying to help me find my own voice and the right form for the film. And he was in Berlin when I presented it there; he’s supported it in a number of ways.

It must be amazing to have the backing of someone like Scorsese.

He’s someone who already has a place in the film industry but hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be just starting out. He’s aware of this and helps you from this perspective. The last time I saw him he said: “See you in New York,” which makes me laugh because to him it’s like you just hop on the subway and come up to New York.

Finally, given your start at the time when Argentina’s so-called “new-wave cinema” had only just begun, how do you see Argentina’s current cinema? How does it feel to be part of a film movement that is gaining ground?

I see the road traveled. I see that road stretching back and forward too. Argentina’s “new cinema” emerged in the late 90s and today we see the path it has taken; what people assumed was just a fad is still alive, still mutating. I think the foundation for this is state support, the Film Law —which is good— and a variety of actors and directors who are still studying and finding different ways of producing films.

In Argentina, you have Relatos salvajes, nominated for an Oscar, as well as movies made on weekends by friends. Production models are very diverse and this is reflected in a real variety, which I think needs to be defended and maintained. Things get complicated when it comes to distribution, like all over Latin America, but that’s going on all over the world, so it’s just one of our challenges. I also think there’s been a shift, at least one I see in Argentina, and it has to do with not looking to Europe so much, and starting to look more to the rest of Latin America. It’s an awakening. There’s awareness and a need to create links between us that strengthen local cinemas, and networks where we can get together and see what kind of films we’re all making.