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“With a Documentary, It’s More Difficult to Find Humor”: Martín Rejtman on Riders

A bicycle messenger wearing a mask sets out on his trip at night.Riders

A decade ago, I interviewed Argentinian filmmaker Martín Rejtman for an hour, walking through the general scope of his career before discussing his then-most-recent feature, Two Shots Fired, which may help flesh out the parts of this interview relating to his first feature, Rapado. Rejtman’s new film, Riders, is only his second documentary. As I wrote in my dispatch on Visions du Réel 2024, where the film premiered, Riders

kicks off in May 2020, with extended global lockdown fatigue ramping up; after an opening rally of delivery drivers protesting their horrible conditions (“It is inadmissable to normalize the bodies of our comrades lying in the streets”), Rejtman (who I also interviewed about the film) presents a series of locked-off nighttime shots of migrant Venezuelan deliverymen queuing to pick up their orders and handing them over, the distance from restaurant to diner bridged by elegant parallel tracking shots of bicyclists in action. […] Riders‘s consistently gorgeous, rigorously worked-over images lean even further into aggressive formalism during a second half taking place in Caracas, 2022, first via a eight-minute montage of alternately left and right tracking shots exploring the Argentinian city, a roving gaze trained up at buildings and away from people. That’s immediately followed by an unbroken five-minute shot of teenage Venezuelan karate students performing solo kata routines with hilariously rigid faces and strained intensity. […] After branching further away from Caracas to one bicyclist’s hometown of Colonia Tovar, the coda brings the film back to Buenos Aires, following different riders backed by an audio chorus of voices discussing future plans, these dispatches from exiles back to their loving parents an inverse of News From Home.

Following the film’s premiere, Rejtman returned to Madrid for a retrospective of his work; he hopped on Zoom to discuss his new film from there.

Filmmaker: The Variety article announcing this said your original plan was to follow one driver, then eventually you would go back and see his family in Venezuela. Obviously the film became a lot more polyphonic. 

Rejtman: We were looking for a protagonist. There is this shot of Alejandro, the sort-of protagonist, who was on his bike in front of this shopping mall where all the riders are. We did this long shot without knowing him, and thought after that maybe he could be our protagonist. We went to speak to him and asked if he was willing to be followed, then to record one of his deliveries. We realized he was a photogenic character. So, there was no casting process: We just ran into this guy during shooting, then all the other guys are his friends who were doing deliveries. Some were not, but most were.

Filmmaker: When you started, did you know that you were interested in focusing on drivers specifically from Venezuela, or were you just interested in the drivers themselves?

Rejtman: I knew that most of them were from Venezuela. You know, Argentina is not a very open society. There are not so many communities from other countries, immigration is very limited and I’m always interested in these kind of groups—the other documentary I made [Copacabana] is about the Bolivian community in Argentina. So, I’m interested in a world within a world and knew that I was going to follow mostly Venezuelan guys. Now it’s different—there are many Argentinians doing this job and the Venezuelans are very dynamic. They change jobs, do different things and move on, and many of those jobs doing deliveries were taken by Argentinians.

I wanted to make a film about delivery guys before the pandemic, then the pandemic came and it was pretty obvious that these were the protagonists of the scene in a way. They were the only ones outside in the streets, delivering things from one place to the other. It was also a way of doing something during the pandemic, of course, which was good to have. And we got permissions from the government, because we asked the TV station to give us certificates that we were journalists. We were three shooting the film in the very beginning in May 2020. Then, as we were getting more permissions, we added more people to the crew. In the end, we were at eight or something like that. At one point, I realized that I wanted to go to Venezuela. It wasn’t obvious for me in the beginning. Then we got some money from San Sebastian [the festival’s Foro de Coproducción Europa-América Latina] and put together two or three weeks of shooting in Caracas and Colonia Tovar.

Filmmaker: When I was watching it, I thought a little bit about Rapado, where the protagonist is often walking the streets at night and you follow in tracking shots. There’s an obvious kinetic appeal to following drivers along. Was that something you were thinking about? And how did you film them when they were bicycling? I assume traffic was not a problem. 

Rejtman: Yeah, we were usually in a vehicle that had a side door. We call them utilitarios. I don’t know what it’s called in English [they turn out to mostly commonly be called side-by-sides or UTVs]. There is a side door you can open, then you put the camera there and are at the same height as the guys on their bicycles. It wasn’t complicated. Later on, traffic was becoming more complicated. But in the beginning, of course, there was no traffic at all. And of course I was thinking about Rapado when shooting, because it’s guys on a bicycle or motorcycle. So, it has a lot to do with that aesthetically, at least in terms of movement.

Filmmaker: Did you have trouble getting access to the restaurant spaces or dealing with, like, McDonald’s corporate or whoever?

Rejtman: [The restaurants are all at] one of the biggest shopping malls in Buenos Aires, where BAFICI, our film festival, took place a long time ago in the beginning, for I think at least 10 years. They wouldn’t give us permission to shoot inside in the beginning. I knew the wife of the owner of the place actually from when I was a teenager. She helped, but not because I was an acquaintance, and after a month we got permission to shoot inside. We didn’t ask permission from McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken. The shopping mall told us that it was OK, so we thought that we were OK with that. 

Filmmaker: What was your relationship like with the security people working out front [who test the drivers’ temperatures and regulate their access to the interior]? Did they care?

Rejtman: With documentaries I’ve found that nobody cares—you go and ask, then it’s either “yes” or “no.” And when it’s “yes,” they forget. I don’t engage in long conversations or persuasions or anything, I just put the camera somewhere and ask them. What impressed me a lot was all those stairs outside the shopping mall where the guys were climbing with the bicycles. For me it was like the pyramids. These people are working like slaves somehow, and I thought that the image shows that in a way. 

Filmmaker: So you would just follow along with them when they made the delivery? 

Rejtman: Yeah. Sometimes we disguised the camera with a long coat and put a cap on it, because we didn’t want people to look into the camera, but it was very simple, nothing complicated.

Filmmaker: Okay, so the first part was shot in May 2020, then you took a break and came back in 2022?

Rejtman: We never stopped shooting. We shot all the way from May 2020. We took a break, like four months, before going to Venezuela. We had many, many periods of editing, looking for the movie when we didn’t have a structure, storyline or anything. We were trying to find one for a long time. When we went to Venezuela, everything changed when we came back with the material.

Filmmaker: There are parallels between the first and second section, like the tae kwon do section in the first part and the kata demonstration in the second. The parallelism is perceptible but not entirely clear in terms of the thematic import of it. On one level, it’s just funny. It seems like you’re showing what’s happening in their hometown in their absence, basically, and how things are happening that mirror their lives in Argentina. How did you go about discovering those parallels?

Rejtman: It was mostly taking cues from things that happened in Buenos Aires and trying to find parallels in Caracas. And for me, it’s completely different. In Buenos Aires, everything is nighttime, Caracas is mostly daytime. The pandemic was very present when we were shooting in Buenos Aires, and in Caracas it was already receding. Also, I know Buenos Aires very well; Caracas is a city that I’ve been to before, but for me it was like a surprise—the architecture, the light, the landscape, everything was like new to me. So, I think it shows that there is a sense of discovery in that part of film. I think I was happier shooting in Venezuela than in Argentina, because the pandemic was gone a little bit, because I was somewhere else, discovering a new place. I always like pointing the camera at places I don’t know. And I like the architecture a lot. I like the differences—I get bored when I shoot the same thing over and over. Then, at the end of the film, we decided to put in this sequence going back to Buenos Aires, with riders in these long shots and this audio of relatives, some from different people in Venezuela that are not related to the guys we see in the shots. 

Filmmaker: Yeah, there is a sense as the film goes along that it keeps expanding in terms of people. Traditionally in your narrative films, you like to start with one person, then go the next, then go to the third, but here you’re switching quickly between people a lot. Was it difficult for you to figure out the organizational structure of how to go from one person to another because you didn’t have that linear affinity?

Rejtman: Not really. The film is mostly in chronological order. At one point, since I didn’t know how to structure the film, I decided to structure it day by day according to the shooting. So, in the editing I had the dates [onscreen]: “Monday, May 22nd, 2020.” Afterwards we took off those dates but mostly the structure remained very similar to the chronological order, except for the ending. That’s something we shot before going to Venezuela, but we put it in the ending because I thought that was somehow bringing everything together.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about the section in the university?

Retjman: When went we went to [Venezuela], I didn’t know what I was going to shoot, only [that I needed to] go to this family in Colonia Tovar to shoot them. In Caracas, I really didn’t know what to do, because I didn’t have time or money to go before and do some scouting. So, my idea in the beginning was to shoot young people, because they were the ones who probably would leave the country at some point, and [that they would be] the equivalent of the young people that I was showing in Argentina, the Venezuelans that were already gone. That’s why I went to the university, because I wanted to show young people there. I was really fascinated by its architecture. I think it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. I like shooting those buildings and the people. For example, there’s a choir at one point, and that happened because we heard some people singing and just tried to find them. We knocked on the door, went in, put some microphones and shot. Everything was very quick. And all those traveling shots of buildings, those I really liked also because of the architecture—you are always looking down when you are walking on the streets and here I’m looking up to see things that you usually don’t see. We shot those shots when we didn’t know what to shoot, because we had a crew and some time during the day, eight or ten hours. When we were out of subjects or something failed and we were supposed to shoot something that didn’t happen, we just put the camera in the window and shot those shots. In the end, when I saw them, I really liked them. I liked that they stretched for so long that they become a little bit hypnotic. At least that was my idea.

Filmmaker: Do you want to talk about the length of the kata sequence? How long were you there for and what part of it did you end up excerpting and how long did you think would be too long versus exactly right? I think it’s about five minutes.

Rejtman: It’s very long. I didn’t know where to cut because I was fascinated with whatever they were doing. I mean, I’m not responding to anybody with this movie. I do whatever I want. So if I want to make it long, I make it long. And I really liked it. I thought that guy screaming was a good moment to cut. We shot more of that training, but I didn’t use that.

Filmmaker: How long were you there? 

Rejtman: I would say an hour and a half.

Filmmaker: And you just let it roll, one continuous static shot?

Rejtman: No, because that’s not everything that happened in the class. That was the end of the class. There were other parts of the class, running around the room and doing different things. And at one point, they started doing this and I had the camera in a good position. So we didn’t move it and we kept shooting.

Filmmaker: You shoot single camera?

Rejtman: Yeah.

Filmmaker: Would you have considered shooting multiple cameras? Or do you find that to be distracting?

Rejtman: It’s not because it’s distracting. There wasn’t a situation where I needed that. If there is a situation that requires multiple cameras, I would do it, no problem. I did it in Rapado, when the guy gets a haircut, because we couldn’t get it wrong. We needed to have that in the movie and it was a real thing that was happening, and that was 35[mm]. So, [in case] something happened with the film or the camera, or anything, we did it with two cameras. But usually I only use one.

Filmamker: Do you set the frame yourself?

Retjman: I more or less say which position we should shoot from, the DOP sets the frame there, then I check and usually correct what he’s done. On this film, in the beginning we wanted to shoot most of the film with a 50 millimeter lens most of the film, then we didn’t.

Filmmaker: What changed?

Rejtman: Reality changed. For example, my first idea was to do some traveling shots in the supermarkets, because there were long lines of people waiting to go in. So, we started doing these traveling shots following the idea of Chantal Akerman and the film D’Est, where you have, for me, the most amazing traveling shots in film history. We tried to get that same kind of rhythm to show all these people, because it was a similar situation, but it didn’t work out. We didn’t use them in the film in the end. There’s always a starting point that you need to start a movie, but then you can forget about that. For this, the 50mm and traveling shots were those things. 

Filmmaker: Speaking of Akerman, were the echoes of News From Home deliberate or just something I’m imposing? 

Rejtman: No, I wasn’t thinking about that, but it’s one of my favorite movies, because it’s a great film and also because I moved to New York in 1981, and News From Home was made some years before that. When I saw it, it had a lot to do with my experience in New York, when New York was a city that was more naïve than what it is now, with possibilities of becoming something that in the end it didn’t become, because it became a corporate open shopping mall. It’s an autobiographical movie by Chantal Akerman, but I feel that it’s also my own autobiography in a way, with a little delay. They’re having a retrospective of my movies here in Madrid at the Filmoteca Española, and they asked me to program some movies, and I programmed News From Home and another film by Nanni Moretti, [1976’s] Io sono un autarchico [I am Self Sufficient]. But they had retrospectives of the two filmmakers very recently, they didn’t program them. I lived in Rome for one year, but Nanni Moretti made his movie four or five years before—it shows the Rome more or less I knew, but with a little delay. They both work in a similar way.

Filmmaker: How would you describe the emotional tone of this film? 

Retjman: I thought there wasn’t much humor in the movie. But I guess with a documentary, it’s more difficult to find humor. I don’t know. For the end, for the first time in a long time since Rapado, I used some extra-diagetic music. I never do that. I used this song by Mort Gerson [“This is My Beloved”]. It appeared in my Spotify playlist one day and I listened to it and said, “Okay, this can work.” It was in the edit from the very beginning. When we started editing after one month of shooting, putting some scenes together, I started playing the song to see how it worked. I knew I was going to use it at the end. For me, it gives extra emotion. I don’t know if it works or not, but for me, the end becomes really moving, not only because of the music but because of this idea of these people walking in some direction, but you don’t know where they go. They are not going to do a delivery, because it’s too far away. They don’t have a vehicle, and they’re going to walk and walk. We listen to this audio. The last audio is referring to migration. It’s a little bit sad for me. 

Filmmaker: Can you discuss the difference between the English title and the Spanish language title [El repartidor está en camino]? I don’t know if that was your decision.

Rejtman: I thought at one moment to call it Riders in English, but it’s a little snobbish to do it that, because most of the characters are from Spanish-speaking countries. In Argentina, some people call them “riders” but having an English title was a little… I don’t know. Then I decided to change it for the Spanish title, but the English title wasn’t my decision. Maybe it was in some applications or…I don’t know. I just let it go. For example, the Spanish title for Two Shots Fired is Dos Rapados. In English, it was going to be Two Shots, but when we submitted the film to Toronto, they came back calling the film Two Shots Fired by mistake, and I thought it was a better English title. These things are kind of by chance. When I saw that they called it Riders, I said, “Okay, it’s a festival calling it Riders.” I don’t mind. It’s fine. But for me, the title is the Spanish one, although I think I prefer the English one.

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