Who: Natalia Smirnoff is a Buenos Aires-based filmmaker whose feature film directorial debut, Puzzle opened May 27th at the IFC Center in New York City. The film follows forty-something homemaker, Maria del Carmen — an under-appreciated wife and mother living in the suburbs of Argentina’s capital city, who discovers she has a gift for assembling puzzles. Maria begins secretly training for a puzzle tournament with a wealthy bachelor, Roberto, who lives in the exclusive neighborhood of La Recoleta. This means Maria must commute by train through Estación Constitución in the bustling heart of Buenos Aires. Smiroff’s debut as a director comes after years of working variously as a casting director and first assistant director on projects for Argentine filmmakers like Lucrecia Martel, Jorge Gaggero, Pablo Trapero, Marco Bechis and others whose collected works have been called the “Argentinian New Wave.”
What was your approach in Puzzle to portraying the various neighborhoods of Buenos Aires?
For me, it was really important to show a difference between Maria’s neighborhood that is a suburb — it’s one hour traveling from Buenos Aires — and when you arrive by train, you arrive to a station called Constitución that is right next to the highway. It’s a lot of noise, a lot of cars. It’s just crazy. I wanted to show a really big difference between when you arrive in the city for the low class or middle class that take the train, that is Constitución, and Roberto’s neighborhood that is Recoleta. It is more high class for tourists and more French in some ways. We have a mix of architecture in Buenos Aires. We have a lot of French influence in neighborhoods like Recoleta, even San Telmo, but we have a mix of Italian and Spanish in others, and no kind of style in other places. And Constitución is really strange in some ways. So, this is what I planned: to show a real difference in Buenos Aires between the train station and the start of the city, Maria’s neighborhood, and Roberto’s neighborhood.
How does the final shot of Maria alone against a landscape relate to the changes in her marriage?
I think it’s really incredible to watch people be together. And a family is a really mysterious thing in some ways. I don’t know if it’s good or if it’s bad. I think it’s a miracle in some ways that two persons could be together after 30 or 40 years of marriage. There’s a lot of layers in a marriage. I really love to explore the layers, if it’s possible, in a relationship. It’s so, so, so many. And it’s so difficult to love. And it’s difficult to be with someone and be honest. I really admire it in some way.
I think Maria arrives to a small new freedom. It’s not a big freedom. It’s her own small freedom that is to travel, to go alone to this landscape, and for her it’s really important. The whole film is small shots, and only at the end is there a big shot with the credits. I wanted to change the landscape for the first time in the film, in some way, at the moment she arrived to a new freedom. I tried make the film from her own point of view, and I think she’s not viewed in a long shot. She’s in details. She’s not with the whole picture in some way. I think women are more in details. We see everything in another kind of view. I think we pay attention to different points at the same time, and this is what I’m trying to do with those kinds of shots. In some moments they are talking in a conversation, and we see another thing, because Maria is thinking another thing in that moment that is there too.
How has the Argentinian New Wave changed the way Buenos Aires in portrayed on screen?
We have something that’s not always so nice for us. That is we say that European people want to see our poverty in some way, and I think this is not real. It’s more commercial. We are a mix. We have a lot of problems, and we live with crises. But Buenos Aires is a very cosmopolitan city, and to show only the poorness of us is not so fair. I think that what they call “The New Wave” shows a lot of the same things. I remember a conversation with Pablo Trapero, that he told me that all the European producers want him to make something about the villas — the part of the city where the really, really poor people live without homes, the slums. It’s not that we’re scared in some way. You know, it’s really a part of the city that exists, but a small part if we think of all of Buenos Aires. And I work with Lucrecia and with Pablo, and I know Alejandro [Agresti], and they’re really, really different. It’s really difficult for me to see one movement or “wave” of them. They’re so, so different. So I know that from outside it could be easier to think about a way of people, but from the inside it’s not so easy. I think that Lucrecia is really, really completely different than Trapero, for example.
Are vegetarians like Maria’s son considered strange in a country famous for it’s beef industry?
It’s strange, the vegetarian thing. There’s a lot of people here that are vegetarians There’s like a middle class movement, and there’s a lot of young people more than older. But for me, it’s something about fashion that they are really strange. For example, one year they say that soy burgers are the best in the world. Two years after that they say, no, they are not so good. Three years more, there’s a lot of things that it’s good. Then after that, it’s terrible. You know, there is something about the old ways and the new ways, and the new ways are always related to fashion — something that will change. For me, it’s really interesting to see. For example, Maria Del Carmen takes care of three people, and they grew up perfectly with meat. To say now, “No, meat is really bad,” it’s just strange. Why, if they are really healthy and well? There are a lot of people that eat a lot of meat until 90, 100 years old, so why is it so bad now? My father used to eat meat once or twice a week, because he had high blood pressure and cholesterol, so it was not so common in my house. But I really love to eat meat. I love the barbecues. You know, it’s really typical here. A lot of people used to make a barbecue every Sunday. I’ll be in the Tigre, the delta, this Sunday eating a spectacular barbecue. Quality meat is not so expensive here. It’s really normal and really good.
How did your early career as a TV journalist inform your later career in cinema?
I’m not used to watching TV all of the time, so it was good to be part of a journalist TV magazine, to see a lot of the programming in the world. I traveled, for example, a lot to the U.S. to L.A. screenings, and cable conventions and programming conventions, so I could see a lot of the industry very young. I was 22 or 23 when I started to travel, and I used to go to Cannes, but as a journalist. But I never worked in the TV industry, worked in programs. I just met people. When I left the magazine, I started to work in cinema as a first and second assistant director, and casting director too. It’s common here that the director team makes the casting decisions. I know that it’s not common in the USA. I used to study as a system engineer at the same time I was working as a journalist, and being a journalist I discovered that really I don’t want to be a system engineer. I didn’t want to be in front of a computer all of the time making systems. Now I’m in front of a computer a lot of the time too, writing. But I had kind of a silly car crash with a motorcycle. It crashed into my side. I think for a moment that the man that was driving the motorcycle was tired. So, it was a really hard moment — I was 21 — not dangerous for me, but I felt in that moment the fragility of life, that everything could end in one second and at any moment. So, I decided to quit my studies. I was dating a boyfriend who was in a cinema club, and so we saw a lot of films, and I loved it. I walked on the Universidad Del Cine and said, “Well, I want to start to study cinema.” And four years after that, I started to work after finishing my studies of cinema. But it was not so easy. I spent two months calling every day to 10 or 15 people saying, “Now I want to work in cinema. Could you give me an opportunity?” And after two months they gave me one. My first job was with Marco Bechis on Garage Olimpo. It’s about the ’70′s military dictatorship here, in a concentration camp here. It’s a love story between a guard and a prisoner. So, this was my first film, and my second one was The Swamp from Lucrecia Martel.
Which foreign directors do you feel have portrayed Buenos Aires the best?
I think there are many, but I remember especially Happy Together from Wong Kar-wai. It’s really interesting the way he portrayed Buenos Aires. It was amazing. For example, there was a scene in that film in Constitución, in the same Central Station as Maria del Carmen walks in. I thought Tetro from [Francis Ford] Coppola had some beautiful things too. I think Buenos Aires is really cinematographic in some ways. In Happy Together, the part in the tango place that is named Bar Sur, and another place in La Boca in a halfway house, and in the bathroom of Constitución was amazing and really strange — and I think it was in black and white. I took a lot of photos from that film to use as reference for my film.
Was it a challenge to get Puzzle into Argentine movie theaters?
Here it’s really difficult now for our market. We have like 150 films per year, but only 20 films have more than 10,000 viewers. It’s a really, really difficult problem. I think that only 5 films per year have more than 100,000 viewers. So this is really, really difficult, because we have money to make the films, but we don’t have money to promote them. And our producers don’t want to invest because it’s really difficult to receive more money. So we could promote them and not lose money, but we have a really small release here. Puzzle was sold in Mexico and Colombia — but not Chile, because Chile is really difficult. You know, this film was a success in sales, and it’s only sold in three countries — with Uruguay — in all Latin America. So there is a really, really big problem in Latin America around distribution. It’s really difficult to see a Mexican film here in Buenos Aires, and a Colombian film too. I think maybe one a year, but not more than one a year. So, it’s really low. I think it’s not easy to get viewers. It’s really, really difficult. So if you have to pay for the copies to release in theaters, it’s all the money you could earn. That’s on one side. For the other side, with the mainstream studios here, most of our cinemas now are chains like Hoyts, so they have all the power to decide, and they don’t want the Argentinian films or Latin American films either. So if you want to have a good cinema to release in, you can’t. Maybe one, but you couldn’t arrive to the viewers of this kind of cinema. We don’t have art cinemas here. We have all the same, so it’s difficult.
Given those challenges, will you shoot your next film in Buenos Aires as well?
I think it’s easier for me to shoot in Buenos Aires because I always lived in Buenos Aires. You know, I’m from here. So my next film, The Locksmith, I will shoot in my neighborhood of San Telmo. It’s really a city film. It’s the story of a locksmith who’s girlfriend might be pregnant from him. He’s not sure if it’s from him, but he starts to have a kind of visions about the clients when he’s opening these doors, because he’s an anarchist and he has strong ideas. And the visions come to break everything in him, so he starts to change the way he relates with people, and he meets a Peruvian maid. She goes to his house, because her boyfriend hit her, and they change the way they live because of the confluence and clash of the two worlds. They come from very different social classes and from very different kinds of family structures.