By Paul Risker.
Argentine pianist Martha Argerich has always represented a swirling musical force – her performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.3 in particular having left me astounded and inclined to perceive her as a godlike force of artistic expression. I have heard whispers of the woman behind Argerich the artist – her marriage to conductor Charles Dutoit and of her children, but beyond this she has remained a mystery. Now the veneer of this mysterious whirlwind named “Lioness of the Piano” has been stripped away to show a collision of the professional and personal sides of her personality through her daughter Stéphanie’s story in the documentary Argerich: Bloody Daughter (2012). With Argerich having now lost her sense of mystery I find that I have a greater appreciation of the mysterious Argerich of yesteryear – when she was simply a swirling musical force. Yet perhaps like growing up we have to accept that life loses its sense of mystery that intrigued us so in our youth, in which everything was potentially a point of fascination. “Bloody Daughter” Stéphanie Argerich has encountered this mystery in the way that left her relationship with her father contrasting so powerfully with her relationship with her mother, and through which music has been a means of personal introduction and discovery.
In conversation with Film International, Stéphanie Argerich spoke of the reason for her lack of expectations, the way the process shaped itself more as an instinctive as opposed to a contemplative one, her reflection upon the challenges of discovering the story during the editing stage, and her surprise in how the film resulted less in a sense of apprehension or nerves than alternative preoccupations.
Looking back on the experience of making the documentary, how did the expectations compare to the realities?
I couldn’t say that I was expecting something specific on a conscious level. The process of making this film was definitely more about getting something out of my system; bringing the family ghosts out; bringing them to light. It is very difficult to be clearly aware of what one expects when one works on such an intimate project, and I’d say some expectations existed prior to the project while others were created in the process. You want the film to express so many things, but it can only be disappointing in some ways because there is always a gap between what you actually have, what you make out of the material and what you had in mind or wished to express. You sort of need to forget about that and let yourself be surprised by what you had and didn’t expect to have, which thank God, happens too.
One would comprehend the documentary as being contemplative, although it sounds that it was an instinctive process for you wherein you relied on your instincts.
Yes, I couldn’t say it was a very conceptual approach. I had all these tapes that I had filmed with my mother over different time periods, and I could see an evolution in the way I filmed, becoming technically better. But strangely, some frames taken with a ten year gap were very similar, and that was not something I planned… I think it is just the way that I look at her. I didn’t decide I wanted to fill the frame with her face, it just happened. I think it has to do with the relationship, of course, but also with something magnetic about my mother, which absorbs, fills the air and attracts the attention. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, but I knew when it didn’t work. I think it felt right when I managed to get to a certain degree of intimacy with the person I was filming.
Documentary filmmakers frequently encounter the daunting task of sifting through and condensing a mass of rushes. In talking to some documentary filmmakers I get the impression that they have an idea of what they want to say, while others don’t necessarily plan what they want to say but rather let the story find itself. How did you personally confront this challenge?
There were different kinds of material. There were all the tapes that I had filmed over a long period of time, approximately 10 years of things that I had filmed on my own that represented a huge amount of material, and it was very important to go through all the tapes by myself. Then there is the “official” material shot in a different format with a crew, a production, etc… This material was shot less naively than the dv tapes. I had written some kind of script with a voice over, imagining what I would get, and of course then what you get is completely different. But the “fil conducteur” was already there prior to the shooting, and I knew which thematics interested me and which I wanted to leave out. The work with the editor was really to try to get to the nerve of the material, to look for the emotion and how it could tell a story. We were in front of a mosaic of material, and our job was to try to connect it, to find resonances, tensions, contrasts… The dramatic point of the story is really the story of my sister Lyda, and I knew it was going to be an important part of the film, but it’s only during the editing that we realized to what extent. As you edit, you narrow things down and at some point the story has its own dynamic, which you try to feed the best you can. That’s also the moment I realized I missed some key material, and I actually shot the talk with my mother – the one in which we talk about Lyda’s story – in the middle of the editing.
It’s funny how sometimes you leave the most important for the last moment. I think it happens a lot in life too… You leave the important out until the very last minute!
Argerich: Bloody Daughter tells an intimate story. Did you encounter any nerves or a sense of apprehension about putting it out there for the world to see?
Yeah, sometimes I was thinking: oh my God, my mother’s fans are going to kill me [laughs]!
But it is funny because I didn’t think too much about what people were going to think or what it would feel like to have my intimate life go public. I think it is partly because it was a very intimate process from the beginning right through to the end. Once the film was finished and it was out there, I think I was more bothered by certain things in the film that I felt didn’t work as I had wished – the painful imperfections more than about what other people thought. But I was lucky as the reactions have been quite positive. One of the biggest pleasures was to see how total strangers could be deeply moved by my story; how they made it their story in a way and how they identified… That’s the beauty of it, really.
For your mother’s fans it offers an opportunity to see her in a more intimate way by merging the professional with the personal.
It was of course important for those who didn’t know her to understand who she is as a public figure; to show the contrasts; the different “facets.” A film simplifies a person, and there is no way to show everything about this person. So you chose, but you try to be as faithful as you can to your own perception. I had to recognize the character in the film, that it was still my mother and not a perfect stranger! Of course I exaggerate, but the power of film is strong and you really can recreate a character.
I tried to ensure the film always took my point of view and did not become a biography of the musician. I tried to be as honest as I could and find a balance.
And music inevitably plays an important part in revealing her story and creating an experience for the audience.
I think music tells the story as much as the other characters do sometimes.
There is a lot of Ravel because I thought it was music that really helped the film – it’s very fluid, not too concrete and I discovered with the editor that it worked really well. We really tried to use the emotion of the music and let it take us to some places we couldn’t get to with words and image. It does bring something significant to the film and it links things together. There are few sequences in which my mother talks about music, and one of them is in bed… I loved it because she talks about Beethoven and Schumann as if they were her lovers!
And I’d say that’s how we talk about music at home. Ludwig (Van Beethoven) and Robert (Schumann) are like family; I lived and grew up with them. There is a whole relationship to these composers, to how they accompanied us. My mother and my father have very different worlds, and it was very interesting for me because when I heard my father play I didn’t know him so well, and it really became a way to discover his world and understand who he was. I could say I also met him through his music. It was not the same with my mother because I lived and I grew up with her. She was always around and her music too, so I didn’t have the same shock I experienced with my father. My mother’s music fed me since my childhood, and it was as familiar as a favorite dish.
Following the experience, has it left you with a desire to direct future documentaries or further explore your creative horizons?
Yes. I love documentaries and before this film I had made a few portraits of musicians. I am now writing a fiction piece, and I have also gone back to my photography. I needed some time after this to recover, but absolutely, I would really like to make more documentaries. But for me it has to be something that you have a huge urge to do, and so it has to be something that takes me this way, and at the moment I have a few ideas like this, but nothing that has completely taken me yet.
Argerich: Bloody Daughter is available from New Wave Films and was previously screened by BERTHA DOCHOUSE, the UK’s first cinema dedicated solely to documentary films and events. For more information on upcoming DOCHOUSE screenings visit: www.dochouse.org.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.