by Vanessa Bell
Photo by Robbie Zant
Zach Weintraub’s second film is testament to what can be accomplished on a shoe string, coupled with a little patience and a crystal clear objective. "The International Sign for Choking" showcased in the recent BAFICI in its official international competition category, an impressive accolade for a project which, by his own admission, was filmed with a minimal kickstarter project budget (mainly donations from friends), a Canon 5D Mark II and ‘a bunch of vintage pentax lenses’. And deservedly so, as the finished product belies its modest inception, a slick and engaging portrait of a young American adapting to Porteño life, its idiosyncrasies and all that this entails : clutching at expatriate straws in order to forge a semblance of an identity in otherwise confusing and isolating surroundings.
What motivated you to make this film and what was its premise?
My motivation was just to get back here, at first. That was the genesis. Most people I talked to that lived here in Argentina told me that they had studied on a short program and had really wanted to come back. I guess I wasn’t alone in that feeling. So I also studied here, I left, I made a different movie and then it was time to start thinking of making another one and I thought : why not come back to Argentina.
Is film your background?
Yeah, I was studying film in New York. I was really tired of film school in general. It was actually a leave of absence from my school to come here, like a generic study abroad program. I was here for 5 months, went back, finished school, made my first movie, but the idea occurred to me that I would try to make something here and about that time I was thinking about it, I got invited to come back and screen my first movie at this festival (BAFICI).
That being "Bummer Summer"?
Yeah. So I got brought back, which was super lucky. It had been two years since I’d been here and it was fading and not easy to write and then I came back ideas started pouring in. I guess I should mention that I had found myself a girlfriend here, from here, while I was studying.
To what degree is the film autobiographical?
It’s fully autobiographical up until the movie starts...if that makes any sense.
Would you say then that it’s ‘loosely based’ on personal experience perhaps? There are many incidents in the film which makes one wonder if they are drawn from real events. Is it more a question of basing them on something that actually happened then changing them slightly?
A lot of the stuff that happens in the movie recounts what happened while I was studying in my first trip here, not my second. The original idea for the film was that the character was going to come here to teach English, which is a little generic but also really common. But also I had never done that so I figured it would easier to just write the truth. So when I came here as a student, I had managed to get this job through a film professor, to make 3 short documentaries, and I actually totally blew it.
So the ‘writers block’ depicted in the film was essentially true?
Totally. The person I was dealing with stopped emailing me. She said I was obviously not going to comply with what they wanted so they were obviously not going to pay me. So contact just dissapeared. Forget the English idea, I’ll just go with that - I thought - it works, and it really happened.
There are many in-jokes, subtle nuances and peculiarities which I thought you illustrated very well about Argentines and also the interplay between Argentines and expats. Were these all personal observations or did you have to do a degree of research and canvassing of Porteños? Given the short period of time you say were here, those are the the kinds of observations that would perhaps take a couple of years to perceive, and I was quite impressed by that.
Whatever is in the movie is observation that I made over two visits, the second one being very brief, only ten days for this festival. I feel that because I am interested in being a film maker perhaps that’s something that I am always looking for or aware of. So even though I’d only been here for 5 months I was the most connected out of the whole crew, everybody else was here for the first time and didn’t know any Spanish. I still have a lot of trouble, I don’t know how much of it was anxiety regarding Spanish speaking actors but we would do a take and it would be terrible, and none of them are actors.
So they were all friends and ‘conocidos’ then?
Actually the woman who I was staying with in the movie was the woman I stayed here when I was studying here, she was my host mom. The girlfriend in the film was the only actress, and a filmmaker, Sophia Takal. I brought her with me, as well as Brad, who was producing and recording sound and I brought the guy who was shooting it. There were four of us.
There’s a sense of wanting to belong or a desire to fit in which runs throughout the whole film and from personal experience in the time you were here prior to making the film did you feel this real need to connect with the people and your surroundings? Did you identify with Porteños, their customs and their way of life? What did you find most difficult and what did you most embrace?
Wanting to fit in is HUGE. You get here and you feel like you’re in this little glass bubble. You’re in this city of millions. You see people everywhere who you think you’d probably be such good friends with but you can’t be. With regards to the Porteños, it’s something I still don’t think I really know. If it shows in the movie, I think it might have been luck, I don’t think I could ever put my finger on what it means to be from this city. I think everyone who comes here for a short period of time thinks that this is the place for them. A place where people stay up all night! Let’s do it! Let’s go out on a weekday. I was so excited I went out the first Friday and Saturday night I was here but I killed myself and now I’m sick. I’ve been battling a cold the whole festival so...maybe I don’t actually fit in here, maybe we’re not such kindred spirits. Maybe I’m not giving myself enough credit, but I feel I only see the superficial aspects of the Porteño personality. I don’t feel I got the psychological grasp on them, but you seem to think so, so...I guess I’m a bit skeptical of the idea that people from different parts of the world are so totally different.
Do you feel that feeling like a fish out of water inspires us to do things that perhaps we wouldn’t feel free to do in our natural environments? For all that the protagonist at times feel lonely, there is a sense of freedom that’s conveyed in his existence in BA and was this something that you consciously wanted to portray?
First of all I think he’s kind of a jerk and that might have to do with the fact that he’s here in BA and it doesn’t feel like real life and that allows him to act the way he does. I know that at the end he wasn’t pleased with his behaviour. The whole idea was that I wanted him to perceive Anna as more clingy than she actually is. It’s casual for her but he’s treating it as if she’s serious and therefore pushing her away. Another form of freedom or doing something you wouldn’t normally do is that in a foreign place, you’ll befriend anyone. I was staying with this kid who was super outgoing, and every night we went out. We would talk to weird locals or bums and these are the kind of people that in the US you would avoid eye contact with. Even now, I have a decent group of friends here and amongst that group there are sub groups that wouldn’t necessarily hang out together. I look at them and try to think of their US equivalent and I don’t know if I would even hang out with them there. It’s strange.
How has the film been received? Is it a film that can appeal to both Argentines as well as expats?
I was really nervous about the reception of this movie by Argentine people as when you think about it, the ideal viewer is an expat who lives her. In terms of a movie and a global audience though that’s really small. But I’ve been really surprised that after every screening there’s been somebody from elsewhere in the world who’s come up to me and said they totally got it. In addition, people are also asking me if I think this film could have taken place anywhere else in the world, because I think it could have.
Are you thinking of taking the film elsewhere?
Next week I’m going to Lisbon to their festival and then we have two in the US. This is the first place ever it’s shown, which is perfect, but I’ve yet to see how the rest of the world reacts. It always feels like a weird mistake to be in the competition category. How did this happen? I’ve been in competition sections before, it always feels like a cool designation but I never feel that I am actually in the running, but it highlights the movie so that people will come and see it.
I’m keeping it small. I’m writing something that will get shot at the end of August. It’s going to involve a female protagonist, which is new for me so I’m excited to see what happens. I’m going to work with my girlfriend, who is not an actress, neither does she want to be. We’ll see what it does for our relationship, it could be a disaster but I’ve also seen it work before. It will be about a couple, from her perspective, who live in a city, Seattle in this case. The boyfriend gets a job programming for a small art house cinema in a small town a couple of hours away. He’s chasing this and it’s really what he wants to do. So it’s basically up to her decide to either move with him to this small town where there’s nothing for her or just break up. The movie is about her struggle.