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by Christian Paxton
July 13th, 2012

Captured in breathtaking 16mm film, The Argentinean Lesson follows an eight-year-old traveling from Poland to Argentina who meets Marcia, a beautiful and brave young girl, 11 going on 30. Screening at Rooftop Films on Saturday, July 14 on the roof of the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Director Wojciech Staron discusses the film with us.

Rooftop Films: Watching the physical labor that the main character Marcia carries out can be quite shocking to modern audiences, as we see her and Janek handling saws, machetes, hammers, etc. Can you talk a little bit about your intent in showing their laborious tasks-was it to exhibit more the personal strength that this little girl had? Or was it perhaps aimed to give more of a socioeconomic commentary?

Wojciech Staron: It was what impressed me so much when I met Marcia. It shows her personality, character so why it was so important for me but of course in the background it makes social comment because she wasn’t the only child – worker in this area.

RF: From the opening scene, the role and participation of water, specifically rainwater, is established and then carried out throughout the film. In literature, art, film, etc., rain has often been associated as a metaphor for human vulnerability, cleansing/rebirth, purity, or a general eruption of emotions. Aesthetically, the rain adds an incredible richness and density to the film. Yet symbolically, did you have any particular purpose for focusing heavily on the rain?

WS: In this area rain is a part of life. People don’t work, children don’t go to school during the rain, and sometimes it is really strong. We were all a part of nature depending on rain and stormy wind also hot sun. I like to use a nature in my films. Being a part of our life it also can talk about our emotions, sensations and create an atmosphere, sometimes metaphors. I find nature also like a character in this film, it has its own moods. The nature also never lies so any camera likes it.

RF: The scene with Marcia and her father is a very poignant one. Prior to, it is easy for audiences to feel resentment towards this absent father. Yet, the confrontation shows us that the family’s situation is not necessarily black and white, as we see the father repeat the words, “It’s not easy Marica”, blame the economic climate, and then cry in Marcia’s arms. Now after this scene, where do you think audiences should place their blame? Can we hold any one cause responsible?

WS: For Marcia this trip was very important, she missed her father so much , she had no money, her sister (14 years old) left home, and brother Igor gave up school. It was important also to ask personally her father why he doesn’t live with a family. Father wanted to explain his absent but we know that is not enough for Marcia. He lives far away from home trying to earn money for the family, but maybe he escaped because he is not ready to support a hard everyday life with mentally ill wife and 6 children? Watching them in that scene we are sure that they love each other and it is very important for me to show clearly.

RF: There are not many indicators throughout the film as to what time period this takes place. Yet the subtle inclusion of the cell phones and a Macbook reveal the story as one occurring during the present day, tying modern audiences to the characters through our coexistence. Was this intentional?

WS: I was afraid to use laptop in the film, I felt that the universe of this film needs kind of purity from the “digital life” that we have in reach world all around. My choice was dramaturgy, but may be in the future the film will need it like a sign when it was done.

RF: The celebrations and cultural traditions (through the school, church, etc) display substantial feelings of joy among the people. Yet, we see families (like Marcia’s) struggle in poverty and experience profound sadness ie Marcia’s mother and her inferred depression, Igor and his anger. How involved/dependent are these people with their community? Or are they more insular and turn towards their own families?

WS: Argentinian families are very open but at the same time closed to each other. Marcia’s family is like many other South American families having a father that has many children in two different  villages with different women. Yet it does not mean they are separated from the local society. Their situation is typical but and maybe because of this nobody wants to help Marcia. Her situation is not an extraordinary one at this social landscape. Marcia has many people she knows but not many close friends.

RF: Frequently, close ups of the children, Marcia and Janek, focus our attention on their incredible innocence and curiosity for the world around them. Specifically through Janek’s expressive eyes, we are able to watch as a young boy drinks up his environment without any hesitation or guard. Marcia’s expression, however, often conveys her waning belief in the goodness of the world. How did you work with them to get these authentic, honest performances?

WS: I tried to be close to the action and always on time, I was listening watching and accompanying a long time Marcia and Janek. I tried to film only important and emotional situations which I really felt I wanted them to feel comfortable with me or just to forget about me. children trusted me because I was naturally  “playing” with my camera and they saw often some problems and my real emotions, so they treated me from the very beginning like a “man with his camera” (I was the only person crew, sometimes two: me with my camera and my wife Gosia with sound)  this film wasn’t possible to be done with “normal” crew. But my aim was to use fiction like cinematography in documentary environment: good frame composition, clear and smooth movements of the camera even handheld, good light (even without any artificial lamps) and filming on negative – it also give us a power of catching moments.

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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