“Sound was such an amazing resource to portray the invisible horror”: Manuela Martelli on 1976

1976. Image © All rights reserved

Actress-turned director Manuela Martelli‘s debut feature 1976 offers a picture of Chile during the dictatorship. What seems like an invisible terror at the start of the film, the director plunges further to uncover the dreadful times that people experienced during the seventies. The film is dominated by Carmen’s bourgeois life, a superb performance by Aline Küppenheim (The Good Life), and its orchestrated sound design that echoes psychological turmoil and humility.

Screened as part of the First Feature Competition at the 66th BFI London Film Festival, Martelli’s debut is a remarkable addition to Chile’s groundbreaking film movement of the recent years – one that sees directors including Pablo Larraín, Dominga Sotomayor Castillo, Sebastián Lelio and documentary pioneer Patricio Guzmán whose works focus on the psychological trauma that was inflicted by Pinochet‘s dictatorship. Moving away from telling the story of a coup event, with 1976 Martelli directs from a domestic space and through the eyes of a wife, mother and grandmother who lives a bourgeoisie life and spends time in her summer house near the beach.

The richness of Martelli’s film relies on the uniqueness of a story that’s not been seen before. Soledad Rodríguez’s fine cinematography of pastel colours and layers soil blush palette add to the film‘s coarse texture. With brief glances of home video footage of a summer long lost, Martelli’s film culminates into a flash of remembrance emerging from the ashes of a nation’s erased memory.

We met with Manuela Martelli during the BFI London Film Festival to tell us more about her film.

Manuela Martelli

What was it like to direct your first film?

It was a great experience. I always wanted to direct a film since I was a teenager. But I went into acting for several years and I was writing this project for a while. Development and pre-production started eight years ago, with the pandemic in between. So, when I finally was able to shoot, there was just so much pleasure. Even when we were shooting in the middle of the pandemic, it was exciting.

How did you develop Carmen’s persona?

The idea came from my grandmother’s story. This was my mom’s mother who I never met, and I was always curious about her. She went into art school after she became a mother and a housewife. She wanted to change her life after doing all that a woman had to do or supposed to be doing during the 50s and 60s, and suddenly she decided to do something different. But at the age of 40-something there weren’t many possibilities for her, so she left school and didn’t pursuit her interest in becoming an artist.

Then at a certain point in writing, I realised that I had to free myself from the real story of my grandmother’s because it was trapping me. It was inspiring to me, but at the same time it was not giving me the freedom that I needed. So, then I said, I need to depart from this and make a fictional character of a woman who was able to see outside and has the chance to do something that a woman from a bourgeoisie class in the 70s, wasn’t supposed to do. And then the idea of her entering a clandestine world came in.

Would you say that politics is central to your film?

This is why I really want to direct films but I always felt that I needed to go through life and live before having something to say. But when I started writing 1976, I realised that there was no chance that I would do anything without it being political. You have a plain paper and as soon as you write a word on it, it‘s already political.

Did the October 2019 uprising and the women’s movement in Chile have an impact to your story?

I was there since the beginning, and I lived all this closely. In the last few years many things have happened and shaped a new history for Chile. Every time something new happened, I would think of the film and I would wonder, does the film make sense now? Because when I started writing, the feminist movement didn’t have the force that it has now.

After the referendum, many things became clear to me. The main question that I had about the film was how can you live thinking that your privilege is more important than democracy? And I think that this was clear with the referendum, how a group of people with power want things to stay as they are. And they would rather have a constitution written during the dictatorship, like a non-democratic constitution to keep their privilege.

1976. Image © All rights reserved

Can you explain further?

All this process, from the outburst until now, canalized in the writing of a new constitution after a plebiscite where 80% of democratically elected people decided that they wanted a new constitution that’s written with the main human rights guaranteed. But I’m now frustrated because a year and a half later there was a referendum that didn’t approve this constitution! And you wonder, why did this phenomenon happen. Like Brexit, for example. These phenomena that are so hard to understand.

For example, water in Chile is private property, it doesn’t belong to the people. There is a place in Chile where there’s no water left, it’s totally dry. And this place, this town, voted against the constitution guaranteeing that water goes to public hands. These kinds of paradoxes are the things that are so hard to understand. But I hope that we will start again the process of writing a new constitution.

The film is praised for its sound design. Tell me about the process behind it.

I always thought that this film should have music and I felt that sound in general is so important. The film is about a year when things were invisible, but things were happening, and people didn’t want to look at these. At least this is what happened with a lot of people that were silent witnesses. For me, a way to reflect this atmosphere of fear and horror is through sound because it was like invisible material. Sound is the invisible corpse of film, but it’s there. You feel it, but you don’t see it. And I think that this was such an amazing resource to portray the invisible horror that was happening. So, I always imagined that all this out of frame, all this off-space, would be reflected through sound, from dogs barking to the sound of the ocean.


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