Interview: Laura Citarella & Verónica Llinás
The story in Dog Lady is straightforward: on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, a woman lives with 10 dogs in relative isolation. We watch her survive through the seasons without money, scavenging off what others throw out and what nature provides her. Veteran actress Verónica Llinás and director Laura Citarella together create a remarkable documentary-style narrative, which dispenses with verbal communication and lets time in all its bluntness pass by gracefully on screen.
That simplicity is the product of nearly three years of shooting with an all-female crew of five and almost no budget. Citarella is part of El Pampero Cine, a self-governing collective and production company in Argentina; her debut feature was 2011’s Ostende, an atmospheric thriller set at a resort, and on Dog Lady, she and Llinás co-direct. Along with her comrades at El Pampero, Citarella tries to rethink independent filmmaking and the way it is produced.
In Dog Lady, with El Pampero DP Soledad Rodriguez, Llinás and Citarella photograph a landscape caught between nature and city life. Llinás, who is most famous for her work in the theater, began her career producing low-budget shows with minimal means. Llinás returns to those roots in Dog Lady, shooting the film not just with her own dogs but also in her very own backyard on the outer edges of Buenos Aires. Barely speaking a word over the course of the film, her unnamed protagonist is portrayed almost as an equal to her dogs: she doesn’t talk to them, doesn’t command them, she simply survives with them.
Dog Lady (aka La mujer de los perros) screens April 18, 19, and 21 in its home country as part of BAFICI, a few months after its world premiere in Rotterdam. FILM COMMENT spoke with Citarella and Llinás in March just after the film’s U.S. premiere in New Directors / New Films.
Laura Citarella & Verónica Llinás
I would like to begin by talking about your collaboration process and how this project came about.
Verónica Llinás: The project originated while talking with my brother, Mariano Llinás, who is Laura’s friend and colleague. Together they have a production company called El Pampero Cine along with Alejo Moguillansky and Agustín Mendallaharzu. I wanted to do something more personal, something that represents me more. I had this character in mind who lives with her dogs and survives from what other people throw out. She does not handle money and that’s where the idea was born. So I pitched the idea of this character to Mariano mostly because it was in my reach. I wasn’t ready to go through the process of raising a budget. I know El Pampero well, how they manage to make excellent films with a low budget, so I thought of them. I didn’t want to ask INCAA [Argentine National Film Board] for money.
Also what surrounded me was very beautiful and very interesting: the idea of a character that could be immersed in that world and live from what people throw out and the water she could find in the fountain. I live near that fountain and in fact, there are people who live off the water they collect from it.
Laura Citarella: At El Pampero Cine we’ve been making films for 10 years, and we work a bit in reverse of how filmmaking usually operates. Usually, one person writes a script, raises a budget, casts, finds locations, makes contracts with those locations… You create a whole structure and a system based on a screenplay someone wrote. Here, it’s a bit different: Verónica actually lives with these dogs near the location where we shot, and we had all these things at hand that stimulated our imagination. It’s not that we settled for what we had—we transformed it and re-thought it and asked ourselves what to do with this. We built this fiction based on what we had and this is precisely the way that El Pampero works. It’s a production company and a collective that sustains itself completely independently, without government funding and without institutional support. I think this was key for producing the film that Veronica was imagining.
VL: When I started out as an actress in theater I formed a group called Gambas al Ajillo that had a similar production method to El Pampero: what we had was what inspired us to create our performances. We would go to the Cottolengo, which was a place where you could buy very cheap things, and we would buy outfits and things and from that we’d create a spectacle. Subsequently, I began working more professionally in film and television and slowly distanced myself from that stage of my life.
LC: [laughing] We summoned her back to the independent world.
VL: It was a return on my part. This world where everything is already made, where they pay me to work, where I sit comfortably in a chair while others get the wardrobe, apply makeup and get me everything… That was, at a certain point, not satisfying me creatively. This film was a return to that independent and creative spirit.
How did Laura end up co-directing with you and not Mariano? [Mariano Llinás is the director of Extraordinary Stories, among other films.]
VL: At first, since he’s my brother, I wanted him to direct it but he said no. He told me I had to do it: “We’ll end up killing each other if I do it.” I told him I couldn’t do it alone, so he said: “You must do it with Laura. She’s the one for this project.” At first I said no, but as soon as I got to know Laura a little bit, we began working, she began getting into the material and absorbed it, I realized then that Mariano was right. Laura was the one for this project. Laura gave the film a cinematic language, and we were able to work very well together, something that perhaps would’ve been impossible with my brother.
He is credited as a producer.
VL: He was like the godfather of the film.
LC: He got the ball rolling. In fact, he thought about how to do it from a production point of view. Later on, it wasn’t made the way he thought of. Since the film is divided by seasons, he suggested shooting a season per week, but we ended up shooting for three years. All of the ideas we initially had kept falling apart; the film demanded other ways.
VL: I think our feeling was that, at a certain point, the film began to have a life of its own, as if it was already there and all we had to do was unveil it.
LC: There were initial script ideas and character ideas but in order to translate that in a cinematic process was not so easy. We had seen films about similar characters, but to stay away from that and make the character unique was hard work. Even in the first few days of shooting, I didn’t know where it was going, I was like “well, let’s give this a try”. We threw away three days of shooting because everything we tried was either too forced or too realistic. We couldn’t find the balance in which this character existed and we did not find that balance in ten days, we found it almost after a year— but we weren’t that worried.
VL: We shot a monstrous amount of material.
LC: We have like 75 days of material, not even counting some half-days. Also, we were working with the unexpected: not just the fact that we were working with dogs, who do whatever the hell they want, but we were working in a very complex space. There were a lot of things that were beyond our control and that added to the complexity.
VL: Things happened like the tornado in the film when the character is collecting wood, that tornado really happened and tore most of the trees in the area. So the film, in its structure and genesis, had the ability to incorporate reality in that way.
Where did you shoot?
VL: In La Reja, 50 kilometers from Buenos Aires. It’s in the city limits where there are some weekend houses, large fields, poor houses, some thieves… It’s a big mix of things.
LC: It’s like the far west. There are farmers who have their cows and sheep, there is a rejection of city life, there’s undocumented people living there, a big Paraguayan community… There’s a mix of animals and people who come from all over.
VL: There are cowboys who graze their cattle on motorbikes. It’s all very strange.
In the film, we get a sense that we are not completely severed from urban civilization.
LC: We did not try to find explanation in why this woman is living separated from the city. We tried not have a psychological logic about her position on society nor any kind of backstory. She does, however, relate with urban life: she goes to the doctor, she has a friend in the city… She has a little relationship with society but with a certain distance and precaution.
It’s very interesting how people look when they don’t speak. The relationship between her and the world that surrounds her seems different when you don’t show her speaking. Could you talk about that choice?
VL: The idea of not talking was something that we decided while shooting. We had shot some scenes where the character speaks but realized immediately that it didn’t work. For me, I don’t know if Laura agrees with this or not, this film, in a way, celebrates the mystery in people. There’s a part of every human being that we cannot access and that is what makes people distinct. One sees a person walking on the streets without shoes or dressed in a certain way and immediately thinks they know something about this person. One of the things this film showed me is that people and their lives and motivations are more particular that one can imagine. The film pays tribute to that: the part of every human being that cannot be penetrated. The problem with language was that it gave away too much information.
LC: There is something beautiful about the quietness in the film that helps create a contrast with the fast and noisy world—without generating an opinion or a critique. She’s not mute—she can speak, and in fact, there’s a scene where you hear her speak to a farmer, very subdued, only a suggestion of voice.
The film manages not to fall into the narrative trap of too much exposition or contextualizing. Things just happen naturally on screen.</strong>
LC: The film does not demand context. The film works with the present, the presence of the character, the daily life of this character and that ingenuity she has. We were working with the inner questions and answers of the character, not so much the bigger conflict of the character. The conflict one day is that she has no food. In that sense, the film resists a classic dramatic structure.
How did you prepare for such a character?
VL: The only preparation I did, and I think this was fundamental for the character, was that I began taking long walks with my dogs, almost every day. It was also important because the dogs needed to get used to being together with me. I would formulate a character structure based on what I would find in these walks. I found many of the things we used in the film lying around in the garbage. There wasn’t any preparation in terms of acting. I felt like I wasn’t acting, I was thinking more with Laura as a filmmaker than as an actress. Of course, sometimes I would do some horrible takes where Laura had to tell me: “You are miming again!” I was a mime in one period of my life.
LC: She used to mime, she did a lot of theater and television, more comedies. And when we began, it was difficult to approach her and direct her because she has such a big career in Argentina. We worked to find this character together and found that neutrality was the key to this character, this idea of “not doing.” Sometimes that “not saying,” “not doing,” and that neutrality that works so well with Keaton or Chaplin and Tati, could be funny. The not-doing, in a certain context, has a degree of humor. In the first days of shooting, the character was much more expressive, and that did not work.
The film has a strong connection with nature, not just nature but the world as a whole. Nature is so powerful in the film that if we added anything else, if we had certain camera movements or any artificial sounds, it would not have worked. We had to reach a very precise level of control.
VL: And to me, that was an incredible exercise. I wasn’t used to that neutrality.
LC: There’s footage of me telling Verónica: “Don’t do anything.” And she’d say: “But I’m not doing anything!”
VL: I had to tame the acting beast I had inside. Once I’d found that neutrality, everything began to flow differently.
LC: It was a matter of going there and shooting, like a band that doesn’t need rehearsal. It was so clear.
Tell me a bit about your crew. You said there were just five of you?
LC: It was our DP Soledad Rodriguez, who had been with us at Pampero for a long time; an art director named Laura Caligiuri who left at some point and was substituted by her sister Flora Caligiuri; and our costume designer, Carolina Sosa Loyola. We were five in total, but with time, that basic crew grew even smaller to the point where sometimes it was just Verónica and I.
What about sound?
LC: That was a strange decision. I had previously made a movie called Ostende where we recorded the sound with the camera microphone except for the dialogue scenes. Ostende has many issues with sound so, coming into this project, we thought: “Well, how do we make this dynamic?” We needed something cheap and agile. If we would’ve had an Alexa or a Red, we would’ve not been able to do it the way we did because we would’ve needed a larger crew, focus pullers, grips, etc. We needed that agility for the method we used. A sound recordist would not have been practical for the location. We decided to do the same with Dog Lady: use the camera except for the scenes with dialogue. Later, we had sound people recording ambient sound and completing things we were missing, but basically the film was shot with camera sound, ambience, Foley and other recordings that we kept doing in a more artisanal way.
I’m surprised, because when I saw the film, one of the things that caught my attention the most was sound, especially the sound of nature.
VL: We had a good sound mixer who processed the sound of the camera.
LC: The sound of nature was an aesthetic decision. Production sound could be a bit tricky because in general, when one records production sound, depending on where the camera is—let’s say it’s a master shot and you have your main character in the back and you’ve got a mic on him to record his footsteps or some other sound that goes on back there… It’s not going to be democratic. Production sound is not democratic. Our idea was to emulate camera sound, make the sound more equal and democratic where the footsteps are heard in the same level as any other sound.
VL: Not privileging one sound over another, just like it happens in nature.
LC: There’s something absurd for me about production sound, and it happened to me in Ostende. There are certain cinematic conventions that are very strange: all of a sudden, you hear the footsteps of someone who is walking 300 meters away and that is because of filmmaking customs. However it’s also strange not to hear those footsteps because we are so used to those conventions.
Another thing I enjoyed very much in the film was the music. Could you talk a bit about the collaboration with your composer Juana Molina?
VL: Juana is a musician and this is her first film. El Pampero had always worked with a very talented musician called Gabriel Chwojnik—
LC: —but he was a man so he was out. [Laughs]
VL: Juana had a strong desire to do it. I showed the film to Juana and she loved it and began to share her ideas about how the music should be, that it had to be a non-disruptive soundtrack, that should emerge from the ambient sound instead of being a detached piece of music.
LC: She is also very well known in Argentina and in other countries. Juana has something I thought was perfect for the film. The way she structures her songs, based on repetition, has a sort of mantra-like attribute and that served the film well. Juana was great because she is a sensible person who listens and sees and above all—she thought of how the soundtrack can serve the film, and I am so grateful for that because there are so many musicians who only think of showing off.
VL: In fact, the first suggestion that Juana made was that the film should have no music.
Was the idea of having an all-female crew planned or did it just happen that way?
LC: It happened very naturally. It was strange how all the men were naturally left out of the film.
Starting with Mariano Llinás.
VL: Starting with Mariano. There was something about the female sensibility in this film that fit perfectly. It was a sensibility that harmonized. There were some men who helped of course, but they joined that energy.
LC: The film required a certain patience, a receptive and observing capacity that I think is more inherent in women. We did not have a militant feminist position on this, but we did understand there was something in the energy that fit better among women. The film would have been something else if it was co-directed by a man or shot by a man.
VL: And that was something that Mariano understood from the beginning. He perceived that, he knew the film required a female energy.
Do you have a manifesto at El Pampero?
LC: We have one, yes. It’s perhaps a bit violent. Mariano wrote it.
VL: He is a bomb-thrower.
He founded El Pampero?
LC: Mariano made a film called Balnearios in 2001 and from there, he and a group of people decided to create El Pampero. I began as an apprentice and worked on some films and officially became part of the collective when we finished Mariano’s second feature Extraordinary Stories. Our manifestos are also our films that serve a way of making films not just production-wise but with aesthetic systems, staying away from the “misery films” about poverty in South America.
VL: In festivals, especially in Europe, they love seeing poverty in South America.
LC: The tradition of films at El Pampero is very much linked to literature, for example. We have all different ages and different capacities, but in general the group works by making films. Of course, we want our films to earn money, but we never demand that the motor of their existence is based on selling them. We live off of our other audiovisual projects.
Could we talk about the health of independent cinema in Argentina?
LC: It’s very ill. It’s a complex question because I am part of it. I’ve been making independent films for a long time, and it’s hard for me to see a clear perspective. However, what I will say is that independent cinema in Argentina is going through, if we talk in terms of health, a severe illness. When one makes independent cinema, one does it to do films like we did. What’s happening now in Argentina is that independent cinema is being acquired by the industry which turns films that are free, new, and young into formatted films, catering to a money-motivated industry that follows formalities that affect your casting choices, the screenplay structure, etc. Independent cinema is also being acquired by something that for me is worse than the industry: screenplay clinics, where a tutor guides you, restructures your film and influences you. Instead of talking with filmmakers about their films, they talk about what is expected in certain festivals. So, these filmmakers who had a certain potential become academic and focused more on what is expected from them in film festivals.
This is something we at El Pampero try to resist. We had an experience with Dog Lady at the Venice Biennale College, part of the Venice Biennale, where you go for 10 days learning from a bunch of so-called “experts.” The people who tutored us on the film, a film that has no classical storytelling structure, had never seen Argentinean films. It’s a bit difficult to read a written treatment of Dog Lady when you haven’t seen Argentinean films—films of Alonso, Rejtman, or Trapero. It’s difficult to understand what we were trying to say. This is a particular film with a very particular character, with a certain universe, and for someone who has a more classical background to come and say “Your script needs rehabilitation” is something terrible. But that’s what’s happening.
That’s why I think El Pampero is perhaps a more radical manifestation of independent cinema because we are truly independent, we don’t answer to anyone: not INCAA, not anyone from the bureaucracy of the Argentinean government, not anyone who tells us how to write our scripts… It’s just us getting together and making films.