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Agua • Interview with Chen Verónica

How did the idea for Agua come about? What were the first images? Did they come from your memories of childhood?
Two images came to mind when I started: the line at the bottom of a swimming pool, and its double, the line marking the middle of the road. The first came to me after having to write a text explaining how to make a film. I was exhausted and at a loss  as to what to write and this image came to me. About when I spent long hours training in the swimming pool as a child going back and forth. Sometimes I  trained by myself, sometimes with a group, yet I was always alone in spirit.
The second image kindled my imagination more than my memories. I had begun writing a story of someone who returns to try to win back something he has lost. This is normally the way I work on a film. First I write the story, a purely fictional account, anything from three to fifteen pages long. After this is done I start the film treatment. Somewhere along the way the two first images had created two central characters and their point of convergence was water.

What does water evoke for you?
I love water. It gives me a pleasure that is purely physical. Even If I submerge myself in a bath at home, I feel transported away from everyday life. When I contemplate the ocean I can’t help but feel like I’m travelling great distances thinking of the sheer enormity of its surface, unable to resist the desire to plunge in whatever the temperature or weather. Especially the Atlantic Ocean, the coldness of its water and its waves have a regenerative effect on me, it charges me with energy.
Filmmakers, like many people, have to ‘‘contain’’ their desires into an everyday discipline and a routine. Because of this we lose a little of our physical ability to feel.  It’s my spirit that does the work, I don’t feel my body as I should. Spending hours writing, confronting the spirit and its darker sides in total isolation can often become a terrifying experience.
In Agua I think that I wanted to rediscover this physical pleasure and move away from the mental terror.  My character Chino reflects this. Goyo has already passed that point but will have to face his old demons again. Both of them have lost their ‘primal’ pleasure in what they do. This is what they are trying to find.

Your first feature film Vagón fumador was a film that was largely ‘‘nocturnal’’. In Agua it’s light that predominates. We could say that Agua is an illuminating film despite the opacity of its central characters. Would you agree with this?
In the night, the characters of Vagón fumador felt free, unwatched, living in impunity. Living not in time but space. In Vagón fumador, I purposefully kept everything in wide shots, not cutting anything out of the frame. When I finished the film, the night had lost its enchantment. From there on I saw a sadness in the streets that was previously unknown to me. You have to look at this in terms of the climate at the time. It followed the economic crisis in 2001 which altered the visual panorama of Argentina. With Agua I wanted to reverse this, to film everything in the day. But here the characters would be constrained by an element that isolates them – water. Where they don’t perceive the world outside themselves. I did not want to put their detachment in the spotlight but I did want to give them the possibility of moving on, connecting to the world outside,  literally allowing them to step into the light.

How did you conceive the visual universe of Agua which doesn’t seem to resemble anything which has gone before?
 I wanted a clean, precise image, as if cut with a scalpel. This is why I wanted to film in 35mm.
In the film there are three clear visual worlds: clear water, murky water and earth. In the clear water I wanted to show that it is here where the characters ‘‘see’’. Always filming them from a point of view within the water, within their ‘interior’ world, submerging with them. To do this I used underwater tracking shots.
In the river, the murky water, we see nothing. The water is brown. Here I chose to show that the characters are in a sense, blind. Instead of going into a studio to simulate their vision I filmed them from the outside, above the water.
On the earth (which for me represents everyday reality), I wanted a ‘‘clean’’ image with fixed shots to reflect the lack of mobility and the rigidity of the characters. Movement was reserved for the scenes in the water where the characters are fluid. There was also another constant theme in the film, the separation of the spirit and the body. To visualize this, I used wide shots. From these shots I inter-cut with fragmented bodies, close ups, almost a total absence of shots of the entire person. Behind these formal choices I suppose, hides a deep scepticism that a person is able to fully harmonise all the elements that make up a whole.

In Agua, the sound is also of primary importance and very innovative; it supplements the hypnotism of the images. How did you create it?
The importance of the sound and its treatment in the film were clear to me from the beginning. It’s difficult to show what is actually happening to someone who is submerged in water for hours repeating the same exercise over and over. I attempted to explain this through the sound. I tried to evoke to this idea of ‘‘interiority’’. There was no room for conventional music. Of course, the risk of using no music was to lose some of the emotional impact but I decided to go ahead. We can close our eyes if we don’t want to see but we can never totally block our ears. Sound infiltrates even if we decide not to listen to it, and sometimes when least expected, it reappears. In this way, hearing functions like the sense of smell.

In Agua, Goyo and Chino don’t integrate into what surrounds them. Why is this?
Goyo and Chino are outsiders. On the land they can’t manage to function, to connect, they are fish out of water so to speak. A swimming pool is from a graphic point of view a peaceful image. A blue rectangle of water, contained where there is always an edge on which to cling. But it’s also a trap. It alters, for those who practice swimming professionally, their relations with the outside world. Generally, I think that this is something that can happen to anyone obsessed by a single thing. We close ourselves off. We forget the alternative tangents and possible ways to do things. People start to act distant toward you. It’s the beginning of the solitary road.

In the beginning of the film, in the desert, Goyo seems to be leaving a sort of ‘‘void’’, returning to confront his past. Why? It resembles a decision from a hero character in classical myth.
Taking Goyo as a central figure the film is not unlike a Greek tragedy. The hero is blind to the fact that he repeats his mistakes. He sees neither the danger signals nor the alternative roads that he can take.  His destiny leads right up to death but because he saves someone before dying, he acquires this heroic dimension.

What relationship do Goyo and Chino have with the women ?
Maria, Luisa and Ana form a kind of triptych of different ‘‘states’’ of femininity. The three of them emerge at the same time and are superimposed. Maria was abandoned, but she pulled herself together and got on with her life. She created a new family and doesn’t want anything to destabilise this, not even the truth. Luisa is the breadwinner of the family. She conceives time in biological terms, unlike Chino for whom time is a predominant question. To express this more clearly, Chino wants to control time and Luisa adapts to it because imminent birth of her baby doesn’t depend on her. The resignation and compliance of Luisa is the cord which tethers Chino to the earth. Ana is the one who understands and forgives without judging. Rossellini declared that, ‘‘The true moral position is tenderness’’ and I believe that position helped to guide me to create the character of Ana. I believe that women have a different emotional way of thinking than men (who have a habit of separating thoughts from emotions).  Goyo and Chino are the two extremes of this masculine position, and it was natural that they didn’t connect to any one of the three women. Perhaps there is hope for them at the end but the film only asks the question.
It is complex. Chino doesn’t help Goyo because for Goyo, it’s already over. But before his ‘‘end’’ Chino makes it possible for Goyo to be a hero. Goyo sees in Chino a mirror of himself a few years earlier. First Goyo tries to prevent him from making the same mistake that he has made: to quit. Aiming to make him realise that it is not a matter of losing the race or leaving the profession but what is important to them both: the passion which animates them. Goyo realizes that he’s grown older. He wants to cheat this but finally he can’t. When he watches Chino swimming instead of him, he’s ashamed of himself. But his envy transforms into admiration. It’s like watching a bird fly, and because he can’t be like him, he wants to take him down and wear his feathers as a trophy. But he resists the temptation. Despite his faults, this is something Goyo can’t do. He simply abandons Chino in the river, like he has abandoned everyone. But after seeing Chino become so dexterous, so driven, Goyo thinks that when he leaves this time, it is the right thing to do. Chino is going to finish badly, not only discredited but lost, wounded and abandoned. Despite this, he picks himself up and grows up. So in a paradoxical way Goyo was right.
Perhaps I am interested in the type of people who fail and, stubbornly pick themselves up off the ground without much thought. Passion makes us persist despite all logic. We’re used to seeing “visible” heroes, mediaheros who we don’t question. What interested me was this hero who will not acknowledge to himself that he has failed even if nobody knows it. Those who fall then rise again in silence.

What ideas does the river evoke for you?
 I have to admit that the river provokes in me an instinctive mistrust. It seems to be without law and without civility, for me it is the incarnation of cruelty. The law of the jungle, survival of the fittest. Why doesn’t the ocean give me that feeling ? Maybe because the horizon is infinite which always evokes a promise. Perhaps also because the ocean is cyclical. It has its own laws. The tide rises and falls but we can understand its function. The river for me is the jungle, far from the idea of an ‘‘idyllic’’ Nature like Rousseau depicts. It’s like hell, the dark side.

Interview by Luciano Monteagudo