ARGENTINE CINEMA: LOS SANTOS SUCIOS / THE DIRTY SAINTS (2009)--Q&A With Luis Ortega

dirty saints_poster.jpgSpeaking with Diana Sanchez at the start of this year's Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), she advised that one of her criteria for choosing Latino films for TIFF is to determine the films that most characterize the cinematic landscape of any given country's national cinema for the current calendar year. From Argentina she brought two widely divergent examples: a polished big budget police procedural love story El Secreto de Sus Ojos / Secret of the Eyes (Argentina's submission to the Academy Awards®) and a raw, independent film Los Santos Sucios / The Dirty Saints, indicative of the evolving vision of one of Argentina's young auteurs, Luis Ortega, of whom she's written: "With only two feature films under his belt, Luis Ortega is already considered one of Argentina's more impressive and original directorial voices. His first feature, Black Box, stood apart from the social critiques that characterized the films of his Argentine contemporaries."

Luis Ortega was born in Buenos Aires and attended film school at the Universidad del Cine. At the age of 19, he wrote the screenplay for his feature directorial debut, Caja Negra / Black Box (2002), which received several festival accolades: including the SIGNIS Award and Special Jury Prize at the Mar de Plata Film Festival; the Don Quixote Award along with two others at the Fribourg International Film Festival; and was nominated for the Argentine Film Critics Association's Silver Condor for Best First Film. His second feature, Monobloc (2005) won the Horizons Award at the San Sebastián Film Festival and a Special Mention at the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema. His latest film Los Santos Sucios / The Dirty Saints (2009) boasted its World Premiere in the Vanguard Program at this year's TIFF.

I admired Ortega's wild and seemingly wounded persona as he addressed his audience, nervously combing an unruly mane with his hand while baring his soul to scrutiny; never a comfortable proposition. Equally, I was pleased when he and Rodrigo Vélez--the lead actor in Colombia's El vuelco del cangrejo / Crab Trap (2009)--embraced like brothers after the screening, proud of each others' accomplishments. Their mutual encouragement was palpable and fundamentally sweet to observe. 

On Who Are the Dirty Saints?
 

This movie started out with these people I knew--these friends of mine--who were living on the street. I met them 10 years ago and I started writing the story for them. Eventually, when we began filming the movie last year, they all started passing away. The movie was supposed to be with non-actors but they just didn't make it. The final thing that happened was that the last one who was alive flipped out. He lived on the street and drank a lot and the week before shooting he went completely crazy. Thus, I had to act in the film myself and that wasn't part of the plan. None of the real people who the story was based on are alive anymore, except the one who went crazy. Now there are professional actors in the film, like Rey (Alejandro Urdapilleta), Monito (Martina Juncadella) and the kid, though he's more of a circus-kind of actor. The other guys are not actors at all.

Los Santos Sucios is inspired by the lives of these street people who were able to transcend the daily difficulties of life with a great sense of humor. I had my home and all the standard things and yet I couldn't enjoy life as much as them. That's why that place where they get to in the end, that's where they would really get: standing in a corner, maybe not even going to the bathroom, with their pants all dirty in a terrible terrible state; but, they would smile, more than normal people. I had to put that out there. So I imagined this place where there's nothing, which is definitely better than something when everything is already rotten and experience runs out. There's nothing left to do. You don't know where to run. It's a spiritual exile. It's like getting out of this world without having to die.

On What the Character of Monito Represents
 

Monito is love or the idea of love. As a word, love is trouble. We all know that. Love wouldn't have made the trip [across the Fijman River] possible. I did film her traveling with them and included her in the sequence where they are each facing the wind; but, the idea was always that she would stay behind. [Sanchez describes Monito as "a creature desperate for love and affection, not yet ready to leave humanity behind for an unknown future."]

Though I'm against reproduction, I don't expect audiences to think that way; but, by her staying behind, some new race could start over, some new people. She stays behind and finds the map and a book. The idea was to leave something pure, to leave a little bit of hope behind, even though this movie is not about hope; it's just about will--they just have to cross the river--they don't want to live and they don't want to die. They just want out.

On the Liebig Corned Beef Advertisement
 
That looks like a smart joke; but, that really exists. That's like a little monument in this little town where we shot this film. There's this big factory there where they used to make that corned beef. I got to that town and I saw that sign and it was like a Warhol thing. It was too pop for what should be in the film; but, I couldn't avoid it. It was there. I had to do it. It's still there.
On the Symbolic Significance of the Door Handle
 

Everything comes out of something that you're living and going through. I used to live in a house that had no light, no water. It was just a house. I used to live there with a guy that didn't speak. We didn't have a door with a key, we just had the doorknob. When we left the house, we would leave with the doorknob. That's how I started thinking about it. But then it's supposed to be the door or the key to somewhere; but--since they're going nowhere--it's okay that it gets dropped along the way. They don't need it. Los Santos Sucios is like Waiting for Godot, only more like Going Towards Godot. Even if we don't know who Godot is, where he is, if he is, if he's God, whatever. Eventually, the idea is that you don't need anything at all to reach that place. I'm not Zen-like. I'm just a really anxious person. I can't stand watching this movie; it's too slow. But it's still the movie that I wanted to do. 

On Using Sound Design to Represent Interior States
 
Film tries to copy reality; but, that's not how life sounds when you're alone. When you're alone, you hear all sorts of creepy things. If some of you are a little paranoid, maybe you know what I'm talking about. That sensibility where you're on the edge all the time because reality is so hallucinatory. The sky: I get up every day and I just can't get used to it. I get up and I go, "Whoa, shit." I have to assimilate what things are every day. That's why I wanted this world to look as strange as I see it. Not as we've all agreed it is so that we understand left is left and right is right. That's just an agreement not to bump into each other. But there are different laws of nature and it's really much more crazy than what civilization is holding down.
On Tarkovsky As Influence and Inspiration
 

For those who know Andrei Tarkovsky, he's like Jesus for me. I was influenced by his idea of putting your soul in the scenery. This was a low budget film. Thank God we had these smoke machines and all we needed was the wind to blow the smoke the right way. And it happened. Sometimes it doesn't happen. I'm influenced by the idea that the space and light have to tell you how you're feeling, not just the actors. Tarkovsky is the main influence on this movie. [Diana Sanchez referenced the same in her program capsule wherein she wrote: "Ortega's approach is anarchic and unexpected. Incorporating influences from Tarkovsky's Stalker, the film likewise transcends science fiction, working as a commentary on humankind's deepest anxieties and questions about our very existence. Ultimately, though, The Dirty Saints is a film about spiritual and physical exodus. Our five travelers decide to cross to the other side of the river, preferring to discover the unknown rather than wait on Earth, in a Godot-like stasis, for nothing to happen and no one to arrive."]

At first I wanted to do a remake of Stalker. But I didn't have the talent or the money or the time, even though that was what I wanted to talk about. No one watches Tarkovsky's movies anymore. They just go onto YouTube to watch the scene where the guy puts himself on fire. But when you see that scene in Tarkovsky's movie, by the time the character gets to that point, it's just a big trip. I'm talking about nostalgia. The difference is that Tarkovsky was a person with a lot of faith and I'm not. I share the feelings with him but I just don't have the hope. I'm pretty much hopeless; but, I'm full of joy. When we were walking in that final scene over the desert, we were really hot, and we were joking, "What do you think's on the other side? A shopping mall? A golf course?" The movie's a little romantic in topic--and that's how I loved it to be--but, unfortunately, we can't travel together. It's a lonely journey. This is as close as we can get. We have someone to love, to make love to, and that's the end of the solitude for a while. Eventually, the trip is so lonely that it's better to start enjoying it somehow. That's what this film is about.

These people are completely exhausted. But at the end those birds appear like a little celebration. That wasn't planned. We just walked into the bird zone. Most times films just end how they're supposed to end. I was bitching at the birds because I didn't want anything to appear in the final frame. I was bitching at them, thinking I would have to go and digitally erase them. But so many flew in that I finally just had to give in to it. That's the third element that we don't control. That's the wonderful thing about making films. That's why I wanted to leave everything. Like just walking down the street and accepting everything.

On Whether Film Is An Alienating Medium
 

Film is like a virus. If a virus kills you, it's tragic; but, if you kill the virus, it's tragic for the virus. It could be alienating. It's hard for me to talk about that. I can talk about it now because you've seen the movie and something is broken. Alienation is just a way of protection. Society is alienating because--if it weren't--there would be more people that would be free and celebrating a different sky every day. But it's Monday and we each have to go to work.

I'd rather have a poetic alienation than a civilized one, which is like a militarized scene, a box for the soul with not much chance for surprise. So even if it's scary, I'd rather just see everything, forget what the name is, just see it, and let that happen to me. You could go crazy. That's why my friends didn't make it into the film. They eventually went crazy. That's a consequence of repression. When we actually find freedom, it creates a kind of madness. Maybe poetry is the end of alienation, even if it's the beginning of silence. Maybe the beginning of silence is the way to stop feeling lonely. Maybe it's the opposite. I wanted to create a unique, alienating world and share the voyage. This is all I can do for people. I love people. And I try to do it the best I can. It's my tribute to humanity. Even if it seems tragic for me, really it's just a celebration. We don't have to have a reason.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

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