Interview: Matías Piñeiro (You Burn Me)

“There’s a lot of beautiful films made on 16 mm”

Matías Piñeiro’s experimental, hour-long film You Burn Me, an interesting work based on texts by Cesare Pavese and Sappho about the relationship between two women, was included in this year’s Berlinale Encounters program. The film has a lot of text, with choppy editing in the style of Jonas Mekas, and the audience is left to its own devices when it comes to figuring out the film. Nataliia Serebriakova spoke with the director about the sources of his inspiration, the Bolex camera, and working in 16 mm.

NS: I like your style and the fact that this is an experimental form. My first question is about Cesare Pavese, can you please explain how he influenced you?

MP: Cesare Pavese is a writer from the first part of the 20th century. I learned about him through Antonioni’s Le amiche, the film that he adapted based on Pavese’s novel Among Women Only. When I was in film school I read that novel, and so I was aware of Pavese, but I didn’t delve very deep into his work. Then, through the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniel Huillier, his name came up again, specifically with his novel Dialogues with Leucò, and its dialogue and also its mise-en-scène got me curious. It was very intriguing for me; very hard, but interesting. So that was my excuse. You know, sometimes cinema gives you the excuse to get close to a writer. It’s somewhat like André Bazin used to say, that even if the adaptation is bad, at least people are more aware of the original writer, of somebody like Flaubert, you know? To me, that’s a good thing about films.

NS: How did his prose make you feel?

MP: I didn’t really know him before, but cinema pushed me to read the text. Initially that text was hard because it’s full of mythological figures. And it is very conceptual, very short, and with a very condensed meaning. It’s extremely condensed, and so it is not an easy text to get through. Yet at the same time I think that Pavese was aware of that; he wrote multiple prefaces, like prologues to the book itself and then to each chapter, to try and give context. It was a challenging read, but there is something in that challenge, in that resistance of the text, that I’m attracted to. So I made the effort, and then all of a sudden when I reached the sea foam story, the one that I adapted, it came very close. There was something about these two women. I think that is one of the few texts in which both women speak.

NS: How did you come up with the idea of ​​making a film based on Pavese’s prose?

MP: I’m used to this idea of dialogue. I used to work with Shakespeare adaptations, which is dialogue, and here you also have a novel that is in fact only a form of dialogue. There is this hybrid element that I enjoy, and there’s actually a shot in the film where the book itself is written. At the start, it was me who wrote, “With this book, with this chapter, I think I can make a short film“. I didn’t know how the film was to be edited. But it was not only about the editing, but also about how to shoot it. I was attracted to the text, but I had no idea how to shoot it. I couldn’t use the techniques that I usually use, like long shots and panning, and I knew that my usual style would not be a good fit.

I have been making films for a couple of years, and somehow I was ending this cycle of Shakespearean films that I was making. And so the challenge was to try something new, also with regards to mise-en-scène, something to experiment with, to find out who I am as a filmmaker. I just knew that with my theater experience and with this conversational style I could do it. The attraction to do something different was magnetic. So it was Pavese, someone that I was not at all familiar with but whose text was so close to me, who gave me an interesting place to start over again in the way I think about cinema.

NS: How did another literary image, Sappho, come into play?

MP: Through Pavese’s text, Sappho appeared as another interest. I shared my interest in his text with one of the actresses, and she asked me if I had read the poems of Sappho. She pointed me to the translation by Anne Carson. Once I got hold of that adaptation I got very interested in Sappho, and I figured that by merging these two interests I could maybe find a way to shoot the film.

NS: You use footnotes in the film, a very original thing to do.

MP: Through reading Pavese, and with the text being so tight and condensed, the experience of reading not just the text but also its footnotes became familiar to me, because the footnotes really open up the text. So when he speaks of Tindari, through the footnotes and the prefaces you learn that is actually talking about Helen of Troy. At that point the challenge became, how can cinema relate to these other pieces of information in a way that is dynamic, that is dialectic, and that opens up the film and understands that knowledge is beautiful and seductive and like a fresh fruit. So in a sense, this idea of a film that is more hybrid. The text itself is not dramatic, it is conceptual. It is a dialogue, like Plato, like Voltaire, like Diderot. You don’t get immersed in the psychology of the character, it is more a conceptual work. So between the conceptual, the idea of the footnotes, and then understanding this thing of going back to analog film through the Bolex camera that provides you only very short shots, the idea of fragmentation was embedded in both technology and form.

NS: Can you please tell me more about your work with the Bolex, and what was the concept behind the shoot?

MP: I was not in the ‘machine of cinema’, so to say, I was not forcing myself. It was just the limitation that the camera gave me and that I could use in order to have a fragmented experience of the materials that I was working with. But there was something about making the film that also had to do with not having full control, of not knowing everything.

This idea of knowledge as something that is sensitive, emotional, beautiful. It’s not something I tell and teach you; no, it is about sharing and mingling and about combining things together that at first you wouldn’t think would work together. For instance, the idea that the sea in the text very much recalls a place of death piqued my interest, because in art the ocean is often a symbol for fertility. So there’s a paradox there. Britomartis and Sappho are somehow in this exchange; they’re like opposites, and they are in dialogue with each other, trying to listen to each other and understand themselves a little better. I was reduced by that ambiguity. In that dialogue, both characters are not ambiguous, they’re in a conversation. They’re not fighting to convince each other, even though they ask. There’s always questions that are asked. And I was asking myself also, like, how should I shoot this? If I went by the traditional route of shot / reverse shot, you’d have a 30-minute film, but that would not be truthful to how hard Pavese’s text is. How can you make it bloom? By adding new information? How can you open it up without analyzing, without explaining it either, but by just adding more layers? How can we interpret these two women, these two concepts of love/desire and death, the ideas of suicide? It’s not the idea of fragmentation and of loss, but still this loss being a win.

There’s a gap. So that is why I felt that the film needed to be a very fragmented one, and one that I was not able to fully control. It needed to be something that I would have to think about it, edit it, then think about it more, and repeat that process many times over to get an idea how it might work better. I had hints and ideas, I had pathways into it, but then many times these pathways were abandoned, and it was a matter of compressing, repeatedly. And in a way the film gives a lot of information that is also compressed.

NS: Did you shoot on 16mm before?

MP: My first two features, The Stolen Man (El hombre robado), which is in black and white, and They all lie (Todos mienten) were shot on 16mm and Super 16. But I was not the cinematographer on those films, that was Fernando Lockett, a collaborator of mine for many years. But in this case, I chose to use the Bolex camera, which doesn’t use electricity, and it allowed for a more intimate sort of shooting. It was very intimate with Fernando as well, but here it was also the challenge of putting myself in somebdoy else’s shoes. There was this need for me to change something, to be a physical part of the shooting. I didn’t need to be next to the camera, I needed to be behind it. You know, when you are not the camera operator, you are next to the camera. And here I needed to put myself in that other position and learn how to actually use the camera. It felt a bit like making a documentary of how I learned to use the camera, with my mistakes, with my findings, and with being able to improvise a little bit more. The film turned out the way it did by being very present. So that’s why I had a challenging relationship with conventional writing. I consider myself the writer of the film, but in a different way. And which way is that? One that includes the shooting also.

NS: Do you think that analog shooting has become a fashionable thing to do now?

MP: For many years I didn’t want to shoot in analog because it was more expensive and because I thought that it had become a little bit of a fetish, you know, like a movement against digital. So I was not really interested in that, even though there’s great, beautiful films in 16mm being made. But I felt that I didn’t need to. Yet for this one, I needed to challenge myself and place myself in a different position also, and having to learn the camera made me go slowly. I had to be slower, because I needed to check everything, and measure, and measure again just in case, and keep an eye on the focus, and this and that. And since I had to do all of that myself, it slowed me down but also gave me more time to think, to be more conscious, to be more in the present.

NS: Your film and its style reminds me of the films of Frank Beauvais. Can you see that?

MP: Well, it’s an honor to be compared to him, because I like his films and he is a big cinephile. I think there is this idea of re-appropriating these things that we love, like rearranging and immersing ourselves and also sharing. I think that there is a love of sharing in his films, of combining and creating new meaning and being playful, and of being a little bit radical. Maybe not radical, but a little bit experimental. Yes, very experimental, but also a little bit funny.

NS: And the rhythm of editing reminds me of Jonas Mekas…

MP: The editor, Gerard Borràs, is another key part of the film. He is a young editor whose work I saw in other people’s films, like in a film that played recently in Rotterdam that’s called Historia de pastores. That film was made by another friend from Spain, Jaime Puertas Castillo. I saw that film and thought that it was very interestingly edited, so I thought working with Gerard would turn out well. There was this approach that had to do with combining images in regard to the actions that are happening in it. We wanted to make a film where not everything is an evocation. I want to see someone crossing the street. I want to see someone looking at an orange. Basic things, very minimal things that you capture. Gestures, even. I wanted a few gestures. I also admire Jonas Mekas’ films, but it was not something that I had specifically in mind. I come from a much more narrative side; I always call my films alternative narratives because they are not that conventional. But at the same time I’m interested in narrative. I don’t go as far as these other filmmakers like Mekas who are more radical, I think. I’m very interested in their radicality and they are very inspiring, but then again I feel that I’m always interested in connecting and this sort of more dramatic flirting with drama. Jonas Mekas is very much alive in all of his shots and all his diary ideas, and my film is a little bit of a diary. It’s a diary of how I learned to work with the camera. It gets more into the diary form, filmed from the heart, with no fiction elements. He is also very lyrical with these fragments of reality, he is always a filmmaker of fragmentation. So I can understand the connection, but I also see the huge difference between us.