Agustín Adba is an Argentinian screenwriter, director and film producer. Portraying a young woman liberated from the conventions of polite society, his debut feature film Penélope premiered at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Adba discusses diffuse desire versus gender binarism, wandering women, the superficiality of the art world and his next projects.
FILMATIQUE: Penélope revolves around the titular character, a young woman living in Buenos Aires who splits her time between architecture school and the city's bohemian art world. How did you conceive of this story, and how did it evolve over time?
AGUSTÍN ADBA: The conception of this story has to do with my nighttime experiences over the last four years. I tried to generate a fantastic world revolving around the perspective of a woman who wants to continue behaving like a teenager. Penélope seems not to care about anything. Maybe that disinterest is just a mechanism to belong or to be heard.
As time went by the film started having new nuances, and therefore I took the time for re-shoots. I needed more trivial everyday moments in the character's life, daily chores. Penélope escapes obligations such as study or work. I don't know for how long, but she is reluctant to acknowledge the fact that she will have to become a grown woman with responsibilities.
I'm interested in showing a character who takes her own path, who does not await compliments or approval from her peers. Penélope throws herself into the void and is carried away by her instincts without weighing the consequences.
FLMTQ: Subverting gender stereotypes, Penélope is a character defined by freedom of sexual desire, casually flirting and forming relationships with men and women alike. What motivated you to focus on such an unconventional female character, and how does Penélope compare with other female protagonists in Argentine cinema?
AA: We live in a time where day by day we lose our binary formation. I think that's what happens to Penélope. She has no preferences for men or women because she seeks to form a bond with a human being. In a certain way she has a progressive look on relationships. I think that that is what's happening nowadays, people who continue to have a traditional or "closed" morality do so for fear of leaving a space of comfort. It is on the threshold of those limits where Penelope knows to handle herself better.
I like to compare it with the character from Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, where we see a wandering woman disturbed by a crash and conflicted in her personal relations. In Penélope's case we see a woman who also wanders by her instincts and desires without thinking much. The only way to endure the anguish of her thoughtfulness is through misaligned moral action.
FLMTQ: The more time Penélope spends orbiting the city's artistic circles, the more vapid and superficial they reveal themselves to be. In this way the film can be read as meta-critical, communicating a certain truth about the state of affairs in Buenos Aires' cultural scene. What statement, if any, did you seek to make with the film?
AA: Penélope is an outsider in the city's artistic circles. She does not belong there but wanders there because of a need to belong. I think that this type of character will always be transformed in some way into something superficial, because they have a different perspective from that of the artist. The same scene would never allow her to completely belong because she is not an artist.
In turn, Penélope never tries to please others or say something brilliant. Being herself she only has a sexual libido in relation to these artistic spaces. On the other hand, I think it could be said that this artistic scene itself is superficial. I think we move in a critical and banal environment where after naming ourselves artists, that same word vanishes leaving only the shell. Today we have little place for creation.
My statement was to show the banality of the art world and how an unpolished diamond is hidden inside it. Art is dominated by aristocrats who film and build the scene. As a punk, Penélope spits on that scene and from an outside point of view it becomes banal, empty and snobbish.
FLMTQ: Cumelen Sanz delivers a multi-faceted performance, anchoring the film in the lived experience of her character. Can you briefly discuss the process of casting Sanz in the lead role and working with her to bring this character to life?
AA: I worked with actress Ines Efron during the casting process. She selected eight girls and together we held trials which consisted of a dancing improvisation. We were looking for a kind of spark and mischief, someone who wasn't acting as much as showing us something from her own personality. Cumelen was Penélope, she had her inside. She didn't have to compose the character, just bring it to life with her own memories. I saw it in the spark in her eyes while casting. Beyond that she was highly committed to the film, feeling and proposing variants within the emotional framework that we had agreed together. We were so in sync that during the last days of shooting, Cumelen acted as an inside director, helping other actors reach the crescendos within the scene.
Nights out, movies that we watched and analyzed together and long conversations contributed to most of our work. And I want to stress the point that Cumelen did not just act, she felt the role and we both realized which was the way for her to be comfortable and for the character to shine.
FLMTQ: Are you working on any new projects, and if so, can you tell us a bit about them?
AA: I just released a short film called La Tormenta at the BAFICI festival and am editing a new short film, El Cajón Blanco, which is based on a book by the Uruguayan painter Carlos Paez Vilaro and I hope will be ready by October.
I'm also writing two feature films, one called the Poseida and the other La Difunta. Along with Penélope they will comprise a trilogy about women.
On the other hand, I am filming re-takes and editing my documentary project San Expedito which portrays the Roman Saint traveling the north-east region of Argentina looking for the first sanctuary and the faithful's gaze.