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A Film To Read: Matiás Piñeiro, Tomas Paula Marques and Gabi Saidón on You Burn Me

You Burn Me

New York-based Argentinian director Matiás Piñeiro’s work is without a doubt, a celebration of intertextuality. After continuously exploring the female roles in Shakespeare’s comedies from 2011’s Rosalinda up until 2020’s Isabella, he was drawn to a text which seemed impenetrable, admitting he had no clue how to film a poetic dialogue.

In order to collect the shots for the adaptation-film-collage that would become You Burn Me, the filmmaker traveled between New York and San Sebastian (where he teaches at the EQZE film school, Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola), which gave him the possibility to “develop the material, watch it and think through themes in search of new ones” before he went back to Buenos Aires to shoot in the main actress’s garden. An intimate setting was crucial for approaching such a decisively non-dramatic text as Cesare Pavese’s “Sea Foam” (a fictional dialogue between the poet Sappho and the nymph Britomartis, who proverbially share the sea as their final resting place), where two voices create worlds out of their articulated feelings, rather than imagistic storytelling. During the Berlinale, I sat down with Piñeiro, cinematographer Tomas Paula Marques and actress and musician Gabi Saidón to talk through the ways in which the film, premiering in the festival’s Encounters section, transcends language. (The film next plays at the Jeonju International Film Festival and will be released in the US by Cinema Guild.) However conceptually rich, the conversation could not be complete without a very important material element—the film’s non-linear timeline—which was hand drawn across 30 meters of tracing paper and then sketched out on a napkin for the purpose of our interview.

When Piñeiro talks about the process of making You Burn Me, he describes it in fluid, collaborative and handmade terms, since “when you don’t have a structure that needs to stop life in order to focus intensely on a project, you just merge it with life.”

Filmmaker: But doesn’t that make it way too unpredictable as a process?

Piñeiro: The movie has a different relationship with writing. What I was interested in was a text to give me words, characters and a context, but from there, I tried to abstract the images, sometimes very literally so. When the text would mention “sea,” we would shoot the sea. Maybe we didn’t know exactly how to do it, but we were trying different possibilities when doing that literal thing, before I could then think, “Ah, maybe we could shoot this in another way.” Or I’d come up with another shot that follows from the previous one, which would somehow end up being more accurate to what the text is saying.

Filmmaker: Is this why you wanted to explore the relationship between cinema and footnotes? They are decisively literary, not cinematic, devices.

Piñeiro: Yes, I wanted to make detours in the film the way a footnote gives historical context to a novel and makes it already a hybrid, essayistic text. Also, Pavese’s text is more conceptual than dramatic, which gives it a different texture. I don’t know how it was for you, Tomas Paula, working with texts that were building something but without a back story and other context…

Marques: When you showed us the first time that text, we were like “Wow!” We didn’t know where you were going with that.

Piñeiro: Well, the same thing happened to me. When I read the text, I didn’t know how to shoot it, and there was something about that not-knowing that magnetically attracted me.

Filmmaker: So how did the images come to you, Tomas Paula? Did you seek them out?

Marques: No, we didn’t. Matiás already had some ideas for the shots he wanted and did a lot of shooting himself. What set the tone of how to construct things was the idea of the images as a kind of a memory game–

Piñeiro: Yes, the mnemotechnic game. It was funny because we started from random images, but not that random: there were some rules related to the text. Even when there was just a shot of a glass, it invited a desire to give it some narrative meaning even completely out of context. We recognized an intention or possibilities to narrate that transcended the game.

Marques: Often, it would come from the images and their textures. For example, there is a lemon pie that kind of resembles the seafoam. There are also these relations between images and ideas that are sometimes metaphorical and sometimes very direct.

Piñeiro: Then, our editor [Gerard Borràs] connected the lemon pie and its merengue, [which] was weirdly spiky, to a moment in the text where someone says “scorpion.” So you can see how a shot starts off as random, but it has strong power and multiple possibilities. It is the seafoam, but it’s also the possibility of the scorpion.

Filmmaker: I’m researching cinematic metaphors and how film can do that without relying entirely on language structures. At first glance, a metaphor is always a random connection between two ideas, but when they stick together, they become one. I thought that’s also something that happens with the images in your film. You can’t conceive of them separately anymore.

Piñeiro: For me, metaphor in cinema poses a big problem, because I see it more as a metonymy. But it’s true that [in the film] we’re associating and metaphor has to do with association and repetition.

Marques: Repetition changes the metaphor and makes you reconsider the meaning, because the link can change for you if you see the image and think again. It reveals the possibilities of what else it could be.

Saigon: Yes, through repetition, you as a viewer can gain a new way to see the images and the links between them.

Piñeiro: You can bring a new value to that image now. I usually find metaphors very flat, a way to close meaning. Here we’re trying to open it all the time. The footnotes are opening the text, which is very dense and impermeable; to turn this impossibility, to penetrate it into a possibility, to open it up, to make it bloom, to crack it. I think I had a conservative understanding of metaphor which the movie was trying to work through.

Filmmaker: So how did you manage to use fragmentation creatively and still keep the openness within the film?

Piñeiro: Somehow it came from not knowing how to turn this particular text into a movie. I knew that I couldn’t shoot it, as I shot the other movies where I used to do, like, a two-and-a-half minute take with you [Gabi] going in circles around a more conventional mise en scene and arrangement. I felt that these texts could not relate to that kind of set-up;maybe it had to do something with the hybridity of the project. It’s only now that I can think a little bit more about that, that the limitation of time, shooting 25 second shots—we were using a Bolex camera—actually forced me to rethink how I could direct you [Gabi] differently. Also, what was asked from you and Maria [Villar] was very fragmented.

Marques: Maybe there was a lot of fragmentation in the process of capturing it all with the Bolex, but there was continuity elsewhere.

Piñeiro: In the conversations we were having, there was not a big difference between talking about the movie and shooting the movie. How we were exchanging ideas around the text and so on was parallel and intertwined with the actual shooting, because sometimes it was not fully clear what we were doing. So you [Gabi] had to connect with that on the spot.

Saigon: The way I saw it, there was continuity, but it was more like a continuous present state, or a lasting present tense we were all sharing.

Piñeiro: In that sense, I think that it was not that innocent a decision to shoot at Gabi’s house, in her garden. It’s a very special place that’s also like a theater that is also the place where we were rehearsing music — it has that fluidity between roles. And also the fragments, of course, come from Sappho.

Filmmaker: And you have to reimagine what was around them, but also not too much, because you don’t want to be imposing a bigger narrative. So the fragment always evokes something that’s lost.

Piñeiro: The challenge was how to shoot in fragments without somehow faking it.

Marques: You have two ways of doing it: to to shoot 30 seconds—because the film has 30 seconds for each shot—and then cut to in a very classical way between other characters so you keep the scene’s continuity, or you think of which objects or gestures can complete an idea or abstract something. So, if you have a text which is already fragmented, you can use that. In a way, you’re speaking the same language of the ruins you found in Sappho’s text.

Piñeiro: The thing that I needed to create progress without faking it was liberating the images from the grammar of more conventional cinema. With my previous films, I still had it in a way and embraced it, because I needed at some points to create a certain continuity. But here, evoking and creating the fragmentation pushed me to think differently. In this process, there were a lot of things that at first I felt were useless until they became very important. In this way there’s this attempt to go beyond our aesthetic categories “good” or “bad” and to understand that these are concepts that can be renewed in each present moment.

Filmmaker: Speaking of the tense and coexistence of these shots, this may be a weird question, but if I’m trying to visualize the film on an editing timeline, it doesn’t seem fitting. As you’re all talking, I imagine a kind of board with a lot of shots that can be rearranged and work both horizontally and vertically. Am I onto something here?

Pineiro: Oh, fasten your seatbelt! (they all laugh) As I’m not that good with technology, the idea of building it all through software was not appealing. I needed to touch, to see better, not to mention that the computer screen is too small. In order to deal with the randomness of the shots, I had to come up with a material axis to give me the security to start working instead of being lost within the text. So, I thought I’d read the text and associate bits of it with some of the images that we already had, but without knowing how it would all look. I considered writing it down, but if I write in a book or notebook it would inflict its own editing pattern. When I realized that I just needed continuity, I bought a big roll of tracing paper and wrote the whole text on it.

Filmmaker: I imagine you structured everything else around the text on different levels so that they would intersect?

Piñeiro: Yes, over 30 meters of it! Imagine that this is the roll [takes a napkin]: so I wrote the Sappho lines here in red, and then in blue, the Britomartis lines, here [draws on napkin]. I had some of the images, like that of the sea, and I thought, “Okay, let’s put this here, let’s not be shy. Let’s be obvious in the beginning.” I didn’t know where to start from…

Filmmaker: How did this build up, associatively?

Piñeiro: I knew I wanted to have both a voiceover of the text and some moments where image and words would sync, but differently. So I would have a shot where Gabi would say “Do you know Calypso?” and that would be a straightforward choice to pair with the actual line from the text, but then I would leave room underneath [points] for variants. There, I would add a moment where they will talk about Calypso that is not the text of Pavese—in this case, it would be Milan Kundera—and integrate it into the center.

Filmmaker: What were the building blocks of that DIY non-linear timeline?

Piñeiro: So the timeline was here [points to the line], and I had a screenshot of every shot, printed. Then, I would start again on a new roll and make it more complex, noticing where there was not enough sea, for example. If I were to put everything on a timeline on my computer, I wouldn’t have been able to see all of it. I needed to spread it out on the floor and look at it; all I can see is up to five meters at a time, but it was enough to note how a sequence flows. Sometimes I’d notice that I’ve abandoned the bodies and that there was too much of the landscape: therefore, I needed more bodies there.

Filmmaker: How did you deal with this scope beyond the level of separate sequences then?

Piñeiro: There was a moment I did three of those rolls. The first one was like 15 meters and the last one was around 35 meters, I think. At one point, though, it became impossible to manage , so I abandoned it and switched to notepads that then allowed me to create more sequences in a pattern of editing. This (the roll) was one big sequence and that helped me to discriminate smaller sequences within, and only then I could work inside of them in that handmade process. At first I would have never thought that I was going to make a movie about poetry, but with poetry instead… It’s not a movie about reading, it’s a movie to read.

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