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Argentine Filmmaker Lucrecia Martel on Cancel Culture, Colonialism, and Chocobar

Lucrecia Martel

Director Lucrecia Martel is famous for her subtle portrayals of class and race relations in Latin America. In Chocobar, she’s turning her lens on how 500 years of colonial history is connected to the contemporary murder of indigenous activist Javier Chocobar.

Lucrecia Martel's next production promises to be her most politically charged. (VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Miguel Savransky and Valentín Huarte

Lucrecia Martel is a rare kind of filmmaker: a universally acclaimed auteur who, when she’s not making her delicately surreal masterpieces, is speaking about politics and advocating for social struggles in her native Argentina.

Ever since the release of La Ciénaga in 2001, Martel has received almost every imaginable accolade from the international film community. Over the years, she has developed a unique visual style — once described by film critic J. Hoberman as “disconcertingly beautiful” — and explored the aural dimension of cinema to the point that some claim she’s reinvented the concept of the soundtrack.

Martel’s trademark, however, is her savage portrayal of the Latin American bourgeoisie and their (sometimes not so) subtle racism and class prejudices. From her piercing study of class psychology in 2008’s tremendous Headless Woman to the dazzling period piece Zama, set in colonial times but pulsating with modern-day relevance, Martel’s filmography is essential viewing for anyone looking to understand the visceral inequalities of modern Latin American and Argentine society.

Martel’s next production promises to be her most politically charged. The tentatively titled Chocobar is a documentary centered around the real-life murder of indigenous leader Javier Chocobar. While centering on the murder case, the film widens the lens to focus on the subject of landed property in Latin America: who has it, who has a legitimate claim to it, and who’s been dispossessed of it. Chocobar promises to be a fascinating exploration of indigenous struggles and land tenure that asks the question, what has changed in Latin American society over the last 500 years?

Although the film is still in the production stage, it has already garnered plenty of buzz and, judging by the universal praise of her “Salta Trilogy,” will be a major event when it is released. Meanwhile, Martel took a moment from her editing schedule to speak with Miguel Savransky and Valentín Huarte of Jacobin América Latina about the political issues that inform her upcoming film.


MS+VH

Tell us about the research that’s gone into making a documentary about Javier Chocobar. What was going through your mind when you first saw the footage of his murder?

LM

Chocobar is a member of the Chuschagasta indigenous community who was murdered amid a struggle over land rights — of which there are many in Argentina. When I first saw the images, the only thing I could think about was the injustice and impunity behind the commission of such a crime, which is to say, pretty much the same thing that anyone would think when they saw the footage.

But my research took me a step further toward exploring the background conditions that, in the first place, make that kind of crime possible, and then, secondly, allow it to go unpunished. Chocobar’s murder took place in 2009, and only recently, in 2018, was a trial held, after which the convicted parties were placed in pretrial detention while awaiting final sentencing. During that time, they made three appeals, and then, in 2020, they were freed because the appeals court still hadn’t made a ruling — as if during the last year of lockdown they didn’t have enough time on their hands. In 2021, Chocobar’s murderer died of COVID, and his accomplices, both former police officers, remain free.

The violence of the footage showing Chocobar’s murder only gets worse once you start to learn about the historical circumstances behind it: how the Argentine republic was originally organized and how the colonial framework of the nation was never fully abandoned. Argentina’s independence was achieved by simply shifting political and economic power from the Spanish crown to a creole bourgeoisie, and by declaring a republic in which Indians, blacks, and women were regarded as inferiors. Amid that process, communal indigenous land came under government control, creating the groundwork for the dispossession and racist framework of Argentina.

My view on racism is that it is a social invention of such sophistication that it makes Elon Musk’s Tesla and the latest iPhone look paltry by comparison. Racism is a system of discrimination practiced among people — otherwise equal in every way — so that it seems natural for one group of people to work for another. To do that — to claim to own the time of another human being and give them excessive work, all so that a small group can benefit — requires a complex system in which working people are somehow stigmatized as inferior.

That system was first imposed by force, then later by education and culture — because maintaining a system of inequality by force is incredibly taxing, education eventually proves more effective. In other words, the most troubling part of the Chocobar case is not the video or the sudden act of violence — it’s all the surrounding circumstances that remain unaltered despite the passage of time. Unfortunately, a chronic injustice is much harder to see than a sudden outburst of violence.

MS+VH

In making a film about indigenous struggles and history, did you ever feel there were ethical questions involved in “telling someone else’s story”?

LM

Everyone is completely within their right to offer their view on a given subject, so long as they also recognize their limitations, too. Instead, what we should really be concerned about is expanding access to narrative production, so that new sectors who have not necessarily had the opportunity to do so can start to tell their own stories.

Every inhabitant of this planet is allowed to think about the world around them, they just can’t assume a priori to understand the experience of another. In film, this only becomes a problem when the narrator and the protagonists are assumed to be the same. But leaving that issue to one side, anyone should be able to talk about any subject they please.

For example, I can’t wait for the day when they make a villera film about the Argentine middle class — villero is the term used in Argentina for those living in informal urban housing, where people build their own houses and tend to lack proper services. I want to know how they see us middle-class Argentines.

I’ve tried in my work to keep a distance from the subject of my films, especially when I don’t know what their daily experience is like. But I’ve always tried to include every last detail of what I could observe from that distance. I could very well be wrong in my observations, but that is for history to judge.

MS+VH

What’s been your approach to filming the story of Javier Chocobar?

LM

With Chocobar, what we’ve tried to do is focus on the smallest details around the strategies that make a crime like Javier Chocobar’s murder possible. These strategies have existed for 500 years. To give an example of what I mean by these strategies: When an indigenous community demands land access, it does so based on its use. There’s no land title to which they could appeal. The title is a document created by the hegemonic order and is given out only by the discretion of the dominant class. During the colonial period, soldiers, officers, and other colonial administrators made a claim for this land. So, from the beginning of the colonial era, there was someone demanding land and a power that could back that claim with a document.

But there’s never been any attempt to question colonial land titles in Latin America that were passed down after independence. So the indigenous demands for land are looked on with suspicion, while, strangely, those colonial-era titles are not. This is just one strategy among many.

MS+VH

You were already concerned with the issue of land access and ownership in Leguas, a short film that you wrote and directed in 2015. What was the idea for that film?

LM

I had already spent time with the community that Javier Chocobar belonged to, the Chuschas. The Inter-American Development Bank, through Gael García Bernal, was giving money to make short films about school dropouts in Latin America — a very significant problem in the region and in Argentina — and I accepted.

Leguas shows very graphically how the school is maintained separate from the unfolding territorial conflicts. Worse still, it shows how the school relates differently to the richer neighbors, which can be more generous in giving needed school supplies. The film portrays all this and just how much the kids of the community need the school to learn and a have a chance at having some future.

Still from Leguas (2015)

When Chocobar was murdered, his children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren were all going to the school where the murderer’s brother worked as a schoolteacher. The school itself was situated on a piece of land donated by the family of Chocobar’s murderer. At the school there was never an official recognition of the crime, probably because many of the children attending were members of the indigenous community.

School is a place where kids are meant to feel a sense of belonging. But the school textbooks that are used in Argentina teach that the Indian is a thing of the past — they teach that to indigenous kids! There’s always a pre-Colombian chapter, and then we’re taught that the Indians were wiped out in military expeditions in the nineteenth century, when the territorial limits of the Argentine republic were being settled.

MS+VH

One of your more interesting recent public interventions was in defense of an indigenous community that had come into conflict with conservationist efforts.

LM

Unfortunately, there is a particular type of environmentalist discourse that has become completely functional to the reigning economic model. For example, in the area where we are filming Chocobar, there are all kinds of private tourist initiatives called “private reserves.” These groups go to environmental organizations asking for certificates and economic backing; they present all types of analyses of the flora and fauna, and they make a special point of showing that the inhabitants of that area have a negative impact on the habitat.

Who are the people living there? They are the indigenous population spread out across the hillside. Do they have land titles? No, but they could easily make a claim for land rights. Faced with the danger that they might do so, the environmental discourse is being used for purportedly progressive ends to discredit the local indigenous population.

At the same time, these private reserves also distribute pamphlets where they promise the tourist that they can meet authentic peasants and cooks from the region — but those are the indigenous people that are supposedly a risk to the ecosystem. The point is not to deny that the ecosystem is under threat — it’s that the environmental impact that these populations represent is probably negligible, and, moreover, we can’t heal the planet by making the very people who were dispossessed pay the price all over again for their own dispossession.

MS+VH

Being from Argentina, where the feminist movement is very strong, what is your relation to feminism?

LM

Firstly, one doesn’t have to be feminist to agree with feminism. This happens to be my case — one can fight the fight from different places in society, wherever you have a perspective to analyze power and advocate for the downtrodden.

One doesn’t have to be feminist, but it is essential to include feminist thought — which is itself very diverse — into our struggles. There are feminist movements and thinkers that have blazed important trails and left concrete examples of political praxis.

I don’t belong to the feminist movement because I don’t come from that background. I even make mistakes now and again when it comes to using the language that the feminist movement has promoted. But I don’t doubt for a second that they’ve lighted my path. In the same way that you don’t need to be a Marxist to grasp the importance of the idea of surplus value, the same is true for the feminist movement. I simply lend my support to the causes that I think are just, and feminism is one of them.

MS+VH

Speaking of feminism and controversies, you’ve recently found yourself in the center of debates around “cancellation” in the film world. How has your thinking evolved where “cancel culture” is concerned?

LM

I find cancel culture, and especially its more “punitive” approaches, to be just horrible. At the same time, the silence that still protects abusers is equally horrible. There has to be a better way to deal with these issues than cancellation, but it also seems unfair to ask for some moderation after so many centuries of oppression.

When I served as jury president of the Venice Film Festival, I announced that I was not going to attend the gala reception of Roman Polanski’s movie. That was our minimum level of solidarity with the victims — we should remember there’s more than one accusation against Polanski. Again, I don’t consider that cancellation, just a minimum degree of solidarity with the victims. At the time, I didn’t know that Polanski could not travel to Venice because he would be detained by Interpol for crimes committed in the United States.

Still, I wanted to see his film. I’m not in favor of censoring films, or any other form of human expression or thought, for that matter. It was actually interesting to see how in J’accuse, Polanski tries to give himself a reprieve by identifying himself with Dreyfus, a man unfairly accused of a crime he did not commit. That’s not the case with Polanski. I think it was important for everyone to see a man who had every single opportunity to reflect on his actions and chose not to.