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The kids are alright

An interview with Celina Murga, whose documentary feature ESCUELA NORMAL is presented at a special screening at the Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente.

Celina Murga had always wanted to shoot a documentary. The tangible spirit of the observational documentary hung around her previous films – ANA Y LOS OTROS (2003) and UNA SEMANA SOLOS (2008) – already announcing the director’s flirtation with non-fiction. In ESCUELA NORMAL, to be presented today at a special screening, Murga fulfills her desire to shoot those moments where reality reveals itself free from any manipulation and artifice, as she describes.

Celina spent a year observing the Escuela Normal Superior José María Torres’ daily schedule in the city of Paraná, the same school she attended. She felt intrigued: what would it be like to return to those huge corridors twenty years later, and to see them from a different perspective? “The country has changed a lot, and for a long time I had begun to feel interested in experiencing the changes that could have taken place in that institution”, the entrerriana says.

Besides from the emotional bond that motivated her, Celina explains that there is something very strong in the history of that place, founded in 1871. This was the first normal school, which was created by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, and whose aim was to train teachers who would in the future teach in other parts of the country. In a nation marked by immigration, Sarmiento believed in the need to standarize education so as to form an Argentinean citizen.

The filmmaker was developing the script for her third feature film, LA TERCERA ORILLA, when the INCAA (National Film Institute) announced it was looking for documentary film projects representing each province on the occasion of the celebration of Argentina’s 200 years of independence. This announcement revived her wishes of spending some time in that school. Murga transformed 140 hours of material into two films: a 48 minute version to be shown in TV as part of of the series EL CAMINO DE LOS HÉROES, and the version screened an the Berlin and Cartagena Film Festivals – and the one we’ll be seeing today.

In your previous works, all fiction films, there is a strong proximity with the aesthetics of the observational documentary. ESCUELA NORMAL, your first documentary, is structured as if it were a fiction film. This dynamics in your work is very interesting. What could you say changed during your creative process while making a documentary?

On the one hand, I’ve always fantasized about shooting a documentary. On the other, there is also a narrative search in my fiction films that has to do with documenting, with the idea of recording situations free from their dramatic factor, which is, on the contrary, what defines fiction in its classic approach. The act of observation: be it characters or situations. I wanted to explore another form of production, that held me less tied up to a script and to situations determined within the production. At the beginning, it felt strange not to control 100% of what was happening in front of the camera. I think that control, in documentaries, is taken when editing and when deciding what to shoot. A fiction film director is used to the idea that what happens in front of the camera is what he/she expects to see. Many times, when shooting fiction, I wait for those moments that have not been planned to appear. There is something in that dyanmics that really attracts me: when reality reveals itself free from any manipulation and artifice. When shooting the documentary, that happened all the time! I really enjoyed just observing what happened; when directing fiction films what happens is much more related to my intervention.

How did you choose the characters and the situations potrayed by ESCUELA NORMAL?

This is very big school, starting from kindergarten up to high school; it has almost 1600 students. I knew I wanted to focus on the kids in the last two years. The aim was to talk about the passage from being a high-school student to being in the outside world. We did some sort of audition, preselecting some kids we wanted to follow inside each classroom. In the process, some of them began to grow and others to fade, dissolving into the group. When the shooting began, we had put together an organization chart: today we go to this class, tomorrow to this other. We weren’t able to follow it because nowadays the school is much more unpredictable than when I used to attend it, which was a big surprise to me. All of a sudden there were no classes, the teacher was not going to come, or the kids went out to have hot cocoa, or the school was running elections. There are millions of situations that take place outside the classroom itself and that make the school much more dynamic. On the other hand, I couldn’t leave out the character of Machaca, the chief of hall monitors. I found her fascinating because of the way she dealed with that sort of chaos. The contest organized by INCAA that led to the realization of the project was called “El camino de los héroes” (The way of the heros). Machaca to me is a real heroine.

How did the elections end up gaining importance in the film?

We found out about the elections when we started shooting the film. We started following both slates and, all of a sudden, we had lots of situations that took on the narration, which were very interesting and revealing. When I chose to emphasize this, what really interested me was to show active young people, committed to their surroundings and eager to do and propose things. Those where the kids we chose to portray, trying to escape from that idea widely spread in the last years – as least as far as Argentina is concerned – of an apathetic youth.

In last year’s BAFICI, EL ESTUDIANTE, a film by Santiago Mitre, caused quite a sensation. Do you think there is a connection between the two films?

ESCUELA NORMAL was shot before I saw EL ESTUDIANTE. I thought it was funny because the young people in Mitre’s film could have been the kids from ESCUELA NORMAL a few years later! What I like most about ESCUELA NORMAL is to see the kids rehearse or give their first steps as citizens, to choose, to occupy roles, to be able to do things… There’s this cliché of the teenager who is always complaining. I find it attractive to see them get out of that complaint zone and see what they would do in this or that situation, to see them propose a change. These questions came up all the time among the kids and they were present in their actions. In that sense, of course there is a relationship between both films: the idea of being able to do something through politics and everyday actions.

Lots of films set their eyes on the school environment. Was there any film in particular which participated in the development of ESCUELA NORMAL?

SER Y TENER (Nicholas Philibert, 2002) is a beautiful French documentary that was a lot in my mind. However, Philibert’s film has a structure that is more related to the idea of the passing of the year, a perception focused more on the school year. Another film I was passionate about was HIGH SCHOOL (1968) by Frederick Wiseman, a documentary filmmaker I love. Like in many other of his films, it is amazing how in HIGH SCHOOL he achieves an insistent look and a sharp observation of how institutions work. I was sure I wanted to work on the institution, on what education is like in school nowadays. But I did not want to turn my documentary into a sociological analysis because I’m a fiction film director. And I’m interested in characters, in finding the human side. It was very clear from the beginning that the structure had to achieve that balance between observation and analysis, but through very clear and defined characters by which one could enter the film and feel empathy. For example, this was fundamental when we had to decide whether we were going to include the scenes that took place outside the school. And I decided to shoot outside because the film was not only about a school but about those characters. So I thought it would be interesting to be able to see them in other environments as well.

Speaking of your characters, in your films there is a very strong interest in young people and children.

The idea of young people or children has to do with taking a position, a distance from which to see the adult world. I think that in all my films, even though there are children in the leading roles or the point of view in the story is that of a young person, the films are always dealing with the social dynamics presented by us adults. It is an indirect way of approaching the social world of adults. I think young people and children make an interesting point of view as regards reality.

There is a big distance when comparing the kids’ behavior in ESCUELA NORMAL (which surprised you with their great interest in participating) with the characters’ behavior in UNA SEMANA SOLOS, but the politicial aspect is never absent.

By observing the kids in UNA SEMANA SOLOS, I was examining a microcosmos that is the result of a social and political environment. This kids’ situation has to do with an adult context of discussions and politics. It is a social analysis through the observation of everyday situations. By following the kids in UNA SEMANA SOLOS we can think of today’s society and what are its foundations, and that’s were the political aspect appears. Besides, perhaps because they are very young, they are are even more pressured by their circumstances. The confinement of a gated community is in that sense very graphic; they are in a limiting situation and they are not very active. When they do act out, they do it as a way of reacting to something that’s opressing them. In ESCUELA NORMAL, instead, what I took from reality was precisely that children have a voice, a possibility of acting as regards the outside world.

Your third film, LA TERCERA ORILLA, which you began developing before ESCUELA NORMAL, is on its way.

LA TERCERA ORILLA takes place in Concepción del Uruguay, also in Entre Ríos, in the border with Uruguay. It is the story of a 16-year-old teenager and his relationship with this father, a well-known doctor in the city. Their relationship is very particular since the kid is not part of the doctor’s official family circle. This has to do with the idea of identity and the film narrates the moment or the process the character has to go through to decide what to do in the context he lives in, with that social and paternal mandate. We are currently doing auditions and we’ll be shooting at the end of the year. I began working on that script in 2009, and even when shooting ESCUELA NORMAL, I never fully interrupted the development of LA TERCERA ORILLA. It takes a lot of time to make a film with a bigger financial structure. Shooting the documentary was a great opportunity so as not to spend so much time without shooting. And at the same time to be able to shoot a film with much more freedom. I don’t like spending much time without shooting, though I am not the kind of person who needs to be on location all the time. Processes enrich me, especially when there is that dialogue between the written text that is fed on what I find in reality.

(Published in April 15, 2012 in Talent Press, a platform for young film critics and journalists from around the world to acquaint themselves with current trends in world cinema – Edition Buenos Aires 2012. Translated by Clara Picasso. To see the text in Spanish, click here)

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