Artemio Benki • Director of Solo
"I prefer a humanistic approach that comes out of honest curiosity"
by Vladan Petkovic
- CANNES 2019: We caught up with Paris-born, Prague-based filmmaker Artemio Benki to find out more about his feature-length directorial debut, Solo
Paris-born, Prague-based filmmaker Artemio Benki is best known as a producer with his Czech company Sirena Film. After taking part in the Cannes Film Festival’s competition in 2016 as a minority co-producer of Personal Shopper [+see also:
interview: Artemio Benki
interview: Olivier Assayas
film profile], he has now returned to the Croisette with his feature-length directorial debut, Solo [+see also:
interview: Artemio Benki
film profile], a documentary about brilliant Argentinian pianist Martín Perino and his struggle with mental illness, both inside and out of the famous and controversial El Borda psychiatric hospital in Buenos Aires.
Cineuropa: How did you find Martín, and why did you decide to make a film about him?
Artemio Benki: I visited El Borda for the first time in 2014. I remembered the place and the faces I saw there. I wanted to go back, as I felt that I had a story to tell there. Martín was sitting there, focused and passionate, tapping on a small table as if it were a piano. A childhood memory came back to me: my parents had tested my strength of will by promising to buy me a piano if I played on the table one hour a day for three months. I gave up after two months.
Even from a distance, it was clear that Martín was no ordinary patient, but rather an accomplished musician. Other patients were watching and listening to this curious “table-top-tapping” sonata in respectful silence. After a few minutes, Martín finished playing. Powerful emotions were evident in the eyes of his small audience, as if they had just listened to real music. I asked who he was. They said: “Martín, the maestro.”
A few days later, Martín was playing the piano in the hospital's cultural centre. Full of emotion, he performed a complicated piece by Mozart, his fingers dancing swiftly and easily across the keyboard. He did not seem to pay any attention to the other patients who were going about their activities. We started talking. Gradually, he opened his heart to me, telling me about his first composition, which, in a way, was the trigger for his illness. He also told me about the piece he was working on: "Enfermaria".
How did you work with Martín and the crew? What were the biggest challenges?
The main challenge for me was to establish trust and honesty with Martín. We simply took time and talked a lot before shooting, so we were already very close to each other when we started to film. Patience and the honesty of our emotions were key. Strangely, the challenges stemming from Martín or the other patients were not an issue. Sometimes, Martín didn’t want to shoot when a filming session had been planned, and we respected that. Somehow, the issues originated more from the “normal” world and “normal” people.
How do you see the relationship between a filmmaker and a protagonist?
In general, I like character-driven documentaries that convey the depth and complexity of the protagonists. That's why I believe in dramatic arcs based on and adapted to suit these people and their backgrounds. To me, coming up with a concept for a documentary before even meeting the protagonist reveals an artificial, “poseur-like” approach, which usually ends up being emotionless and overly scholarly. This dry, self-centred approach is trendy in documentaries right now, and is loved by many film theorists, but it is simply fake. I prefer a humanistic approach that comes out of honest curiosity.
What do you think about the oft-raised issue of the exploitation of vulnerable protagonists in documentary films?
Martín was never filmed by accident or behind his back. When he didn’t want to film, we simply didn’t. I was always trying to find the right distance between the camera and him in order to strike the ideal balance between emotions and decency so that we would be respectful of who Martín is. More broadly, the whole issue of the exploitation of characters in documentaries and journalism remains a dilemma, as you can never be sure you are not crossing a dangerous line. I think it's best not to make it a formula, but rather be flexible and adapt on a case-by-case basis.
You have announced that Martín is going on a concert tour to coincide with the release of the film.
The idea is to do an international concert tour with Martín, where he can play his own music and share his experience. It will start with the festivals that the film is going to next, and will then continue during the theatrical releases. The first country distributing Solo will be the Czech Republic in October or November 2019.
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