TIFF 2021 Women Directors: Meet Agustina San Martín – “To Kill The Beast”
Agustina San Martín is an Argentinian filmmaker, screenwriter, and colorist who has also worked as a screenwriting professor at her alma mater, the University of Buenos Aires. Her short films include “The Cry of the Oxen,” “Swedish Cousin,” and “Monster God.” The latter won the Jury Prize in the Short Film Competition at Cannes Film Festival. “To Kill The Beast” is her first feature film.
“To Kill The Beast” will premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival on September 14. The fest is taking place September 9-18.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
ASM: For me, “To Kill The Beast” is like an exorcism as the teenage main character grows from child to woman. I always imagined the film as a little glimpse of this moment: a coming of age where the opposite of fear is sexuality and sensuality, and atime where the meaning of womanhood is about being brave, strong, and confronting your fears.
From a teenage perspective, things build and crumble constantly. This film is a piece of that transformation.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
ASM: Mostly to tell the story of a teenage girl finding the strength to confront darkness with her own desire. The idea of female desire — and furthermore, queer desire — being a weapon that strengthens someone was key for me. People often talk about how “hard” it can be to be gay, lesbian, queer, and so on, but it is not talked enough about how empowering it is, how much it lets someone shine, and how, when you reconcile with your own desires, you can be the strongest version of yourself.
Walking along one’s identity and embracing desire is the perfect spell against one’s darkness.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
ASM: I just hope they can feel the film’s spell. Ideally, a queer teen will take something from it. Or someone may feel this tale resonates inside them. There is not much more I would wish the audience to take from it.
This is a film that doesn’t try to give answers or explain the world, but rather just show a side of it — a side filled with questions.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
ASM: The biggest challenge for me was that it was my first feature. Until now, I’ve only done short films, so this was the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced. At some points, I had to fight against the typical impostor syndrome that tells you that you are not good enough and you don’t deserve being where you are. Luckily, I had my good voices too, and I fought for this. For nine years, since I was 21, I knocked on every door, tried to find producers or somebody to trust in me as a director and trust the movie. I’ve had people laughing at me for my age, and male producers asking me, “What can you possibly say that I don’t already know?”
So, in that sense, whenever I felt this self-sabotage, I would also try to remember how strong I have been for these long nine years that brought me here and how I deserved to be the director of a feature just like anybody else. Because that’s what cinema is. It is for anyone to take. It’s a tale, a quest. All voices are welcome and nobody deserves to do a film more than others. If you’ve got something to say, go on and say it.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
ASM: I understood that there were bigger chances to get my film funded if the script did some residencies first, so that’s what I aimed to do. After a little roaming around, I found a producer and we settled. We asked for the INCAA fund from Argentina. Then we did a co-production with Chile and Brazil. Among them, the film was funded.
It was done the institutional kind of way, yet in Latin America, the price for that is time. As I said before, it took nine years. The money is there, the [difficult] thing is the bureaucracy and, as always, the patience.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
ASM: It felt natural for me. I’ve always been passionate about books and literature, plays, movies, and music. For me, it was an organic conclusion that embodied every little thing that made me feel something. When I was a child, I got obsessed with “Jurassic Park,” for example. It made me believe fantastic things could happen in ordinary life.
Whenever I would go to the cinema, I felt almost as if I was vibrating, like electricity that was turned on. Why did this happen? What if this character did this, or that? For me, to be a filmmaker was to play god and invent a new universe. It was the most magical thing in the world.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
ASM: Best advice: “Think about who you want to impress and then make them hate you.” That really resonated with me, [especially] because sometimes I do want to make people like me. So, to feel somebody will hate your work can really hurt. Yet, you can only do your best. If they hate it, they hate it. Stop looking for approval on everything. If they are as good as you believe they are, they will see beyond it.
Worst advice: “Good film directors don’t….” Stop right there. “Good film directors” nothing. This is not science — it’s filmmaking. Whatever does not work for someone can be a great solution for someone else. There is no absolutism in filmmaking. Some directors plan a lot, others are more spontaneous. Some want storyboards and pictures, others rely on words.
There is no specific way to go for it. The best way is your own way.
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
ASM: Have the confidence white men usually have. You are important. We want to hear from you.
And also: please confront everyone you wish to confront. If you do it with respect, you can get away with it. They will often try to tell you how you are wrong. In my case, I won a prize in Cannes and was still talked to like “an amateur.” That would never happen to a man. Do your own thing and know your value.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
ASM: “Lazzaro Felice” (“Happy as Lazzaro”), directed by Alice Rohrwacher.
She has a brilliant, lucid mind and sensibility. I adore her for that. I would also like to mention Lucrecia Martel, Andrea Arnold, and Céline Sciamma, among others.
W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?
ASM: I have been working as a remote scriptwriter, so it has worked wonders for this new life. I also wrote a novel. It really helped me to separate myself a bit from the filmmaking part and reconnect with the silence, the writing, the stories.
This pandemic also made me realize what kind of films I want to do in the future. I love niche films, but I also want to have a broader audience and aim for maybe more narrative films. This was my favorite type of film to consume during the lockdown. Mainstream cinema saved my mental health during the pandemic, and all those things I previously thought were unnecessary escapism [offered] a new perspective for me. Sometimes, the darkness we’ve already got is enough. I’m still going to make dark films, of course. I love them, yet I would like to try a different approach in filmmaking now as well.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color on screen and behind the scenes and reinforcingand creating negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make it more inclusive?
ASM: I believe what would help is for people to stop thinking they need to have a justification to include a character of color instead of a white actor. You don’t. Just like with queer characters, you don’t need to justify their existence in the film. It does not make any kind of sense. Just commit to the world you believe in — don’t leave it up to words.
Representation is important. It’s also the bare minimum, the tip of the iceberg. Behind it, deeper things need urgent action, yet I do see how non-representation can be really damaging and extremely toxic. I would say making films costs a stupid amount of money: take it as a responsibility.