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LOCARNO 2021 Cineasti del Presente

Marí Alessandrini • Director of Zahorí

“The steppe is right on our doorstep but it’s as if it creates some sort of abyss”

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- The Argentine director and HEAD graduate speaks to us about her first feature film, which was shot in the Argentine desert and revolves around an extraordinary child

Marí Alessandrini • Director of Zahorí

Zahorí [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Marí Alessandrini
film profile
]
has arrived in the Locarno Film Festival’s Cineasti del Presente competition after winning The Films After Tomorrow production prize last year. Its director Marí Alessandrini chatted to us about her protagonist, the very young Lara Viaena Tortosa, and the importance of embracing our “animal” side.

Cineuropa: Where did the idea for your first film come from, and your desire to speak about the lives of those living on the fringes of the city frenzy?
Marí Alessandrini:
That’s actually where I come from. The town where I was born is called Bariloche, it’s right on the border between the steppe and the mountains. There’s a huge difference between the two; in a very short space of time, you can find yourself in the desert. When I was a child, the steppe was always a bit on the fringes, we didn’t know much about it because there weren’t many roads to access it, it’s all a bit abandoned by the State. I went there for the first time for a puppet theatre play with the school company I was a part of. We were going to perform the play in a boarding school and given that, at the time, I was already into photography, it was in that school that I took my first black and white portraits of the children. I’ve never forgotten that experience. That isolated school in the middle of the desert and those people who lived in a parallel reality, thirty kilometres from my house, really impressed me! The steppe is right on our doorstep but it’s as if it creates some sort of abyss. At the same time, you felt like you were “outside of time”, what with the church, the German and Italian communities, sometimes couples made up of Mapuche people and Italians. It all dated back to the time of colonisation, people who settled in the middle of nowhere to make a life for themselves there. I found all of that so cinematic and inspiring, and old as well as modern.

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How is the indigenous culture perceived in Argentina?
Unfortunately, it’s quite a tragic story. The colonialist point of view on native peoples has started to change now. They’ve started teaching indigenous languages in several schools, but that’s quite a rare thing. I think this change began eight years ago. Now, there are struggles, demonstrations, we’ve seen some pretty violent episodes linked to indigenous peoples trying to claw back their lands. The conquest of the desert, as we call it in Argentina, was undertaken with the idea of clearing the lands of indigenous peoples and inviting Europeans to come and live there, getting rid of Argentina’s native people in the process. All of that still goes on today. History is repeating itself, and not only in Argentina. That’s why Mora has a strained relationship with the school children. Given that she’s white, they think she’s nothing like the gauchos she admires.

Where did you find your Mora and how did you go about working with such a young actress?
It’s not easy working with children. It’s true that I held a lot of auditions, I think I saw somewhere in the region of sixty girls before making my decision, only girls from northern Patagonia. I was mostly looking for someone who felt a deep love for nature and who was also a bit independent, which are rare traits in a child. Lara Viaena Tortosa, who plays Mora, had all of that: we’d leave her alone and come back to find her up a tree, playing with a little insect. That’s just the type of girl Mora is. Lara also had the feminine and masculine side that I was looking for. In terms of the screenplay, we worked hard beforehand, with Himeko and Nazareno too. They’re all non-actors. We spent a month rehearsing scenes together so as to bring out the brother-sister relationship. When it came to shooting the film, they were confident of what they were going to do, and they weren’t afraid of going wrong. It really helped to create a family bond.

Mora defies the social limitations imposed upon her in order to adhere to a certain animality. Could we say that Zahorí is a tribute to diversity in general and to gender diversity more specifically?
That’s exactly what I was aiming for. It goes much further than gender, it’s also about our relationship with animals. It goes beyond human categories; it’s about feeling connected with living beings and nature as a whole.

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(Translated from French)

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