Marea de Tierra

An Interview with Filmmakers Manuela Martelli and Amirah Tajdin

In early September 2017, Cache Cache’s Program Director, Andrea, got a chance to interview Manuela Martelli and Amirah Tajdin, directors of the film Marea De Tierra, which headlined an intimate Malibu dinner-and-a-movie. The short was nominated for the 2016 Sundance Short Grand Jury Prize and the Golden Firebird Award at the 2016 Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Amirah Tajdin, 30, is a Kenyan artist and filmmaker. She graduated from Rhodes University with a Bachelor of Fine Art (Photography) in South Africa and Goucher College Maryland (USA), was born and brought up in Nairobi and spent her teenage years in Dubai. She currently splits her time between Africa and the Middle East balancing freelance commercial directing work both locally and internationally. She is developing her first feature film, Hawa Hawaii set in the Swahili community of Mombasa, Kenya and is a Sundance Institute Fellow after participating at the Screenwriters Lab in June 2017 in Utah.

Manuela Martelli is a Chilean film and television actress best known for her roles in the films B-Happy and Machuca.

Andrea: The first time I saw Marea De Tierra was at NYFF in 2016. The moderator was very interested in the visual style of the shorts selection. The option to shoot in square aspect ratio certainly gives it a homey and intimate feel. Can you talk a generally about the inspirations behind the short?

Amirah: Manuela and I had not met each other when we made this film. We were matched up in a residency. And the residency is part of the Cannes Director’s Fortnight Program. It’s called the Factory. So every year, four international directors are paired up with four local directors in where ever the program is taking place that year. And it was happening in Chile. The producer who runs it decides who is matched up with who, based on our personalities, which she doesn’t actually really know when she meets us. And then she just says, “okay, I feel this synergy between you two.” Which doesn’t always work out. But with Manuela and I were one of the success stories.

So we made all the creative and visual decisions on skype. We were sending each other photos ––references, paintings. All kinds of things to see where we wanted to take it. But the biggest decision was that we both wanted to work with nature, but she didn’t want it to look like postcards, or like National Geographic.

Andrea: My mind immediately gravitated towards the mythology around the Japanese female free divers.. essentially real-life mermaids. What was the thought process between dialoguing different women with the sea, particularly with the practice of collecting seaweed?

Manuela: Amirah told me she wanted to do something about mermaids, so we started thinking, and this was supposed to be shot in Chile. Amirah hadn’t been here before. We thought, okay, how can we set mermaids in Chile? How can we put that idea into something more concrete? Without having someone dressing a table, or something like that. We started researching, she showed me some beautiful photos of the Ama divers. I said, wow that’s amazing. So beautiful. So I thought, what’s the starting point? This is about women, women in nature, women close to the ocean, women collecting stuff from the ocean. It was very a primitive thing… but in the sense that it’s been done for so many years.

So those images reminded me of the indigenous group in Chile, in the very south of Chile. They used to live there, but most of them were killed. It reminded me of that because the women in that indigenous group were the ones that would go and hunt and fish and collect seafood. I had seen images of that, and when she should me those pictures, I immediately said––oh look at this. And then I said, okay––there is an island in Chile where I’ve seen women collecting things, and it’s very close to where this indigenous group lived. So then, I went there and started talking to people. A friend of mine told me that she had talked to a woman there, and so I went there and looked for her. And this became one of the protagonists in the film. And her story, in a way, was the inspiration for the film, too. So the story that she tells is a real story.

Amirah: A big part of the inspiration was indeed from the Japanese Ama divers. When I talked to Manuela and we had been giving full creative freedom to make a film about anything, because we came out of a residency and she asked me what I was into at the moment, I said mermaids. And she okay, well I’m into water. And we were both exploring those two subjects independently. I sent her these pictures of the Japanese Ama divers. She said, “oh my god, we have the same community in the south of Chile.” And then there’s the whole mythology of Pincoya, who is the mermaid, and she lives in Chiloé. And then these women actually do collect seaweed. And that’s the seaweed that gets sold around the world in Japanese and Chinese restaurants. That was their harvesting season. So it worked out that it was just tons and tons of seaweed. That’s their job. They collect seaweed. They are the indigenous Chiloté. They would dive for scallops and abalone and all kinds of food. They were the hunter-gatherers for the villages.

Andrea: Is there any reason why this is a female tradition?

Amirah: I guess it’s the same as Ama divers. They were smaller and could go deeper into the ocean. I never asked. But it’s always been that way. They weren’t actors.

Andrea: You both seem quite active in your careers. What’s next?

Amirah: We’re not collaborating, sadly. I’m working on my feature. I just came back from Sundance. I’m wrapping up a draft. It’s called How Hawaii. It’s about a Muslim drag queen who has a complicated relationship with his mother for obvious reasons, and he goes back home to be with her because she’s dying. And he’s going to get validation that he’s never been able to get. And he finds a mother who is very guarded and closed off, but in addition has become Islamically radicalized. It’s set in my Swahili community and he decides the only way he can get through to her is through love songs because that the only what he knows best. So throughout the film he communicates with her through Swahili orchestral music.

Manuela: I’m writing a feature film, and a TV series. That’s what’s next. Also a play as an actress. The name of the series is Alma, which is the story of an astronomer who is also a mother. She’s called to go to an observatory in the north of Chile, called Alma too. She goes there to monitor a solar storm. She travels with her family, and her kids. So it’s about that.

Andrea: It seems like cosmic and universal themes come up a lot in the work that you do.

Manuela: Well I’m very attracted to stars and astronomic things. For me it’s very interesting in how this crosses with the Northern culture in Chile, another indigenous group, which is different from the south. They are very connected to astronomy. So it’s interesting to put the idea of science in the crosshairs of indigenous thinking. And then the film is about a woman in the ‘70s in Chile, who is a middle-aged, bourgeois woman. Suddenly, the priest from the church she used to go to asks her to take care of a man who is a revolutionary. So she has to take care of him. And he starts asking her to do some missions in order to connect back to his party. So she starts to have this secret new life. The performance is also in that scene. It talks about that, using archival material from my family.

Andrea: So this was set in Allende’s Chile? That’s the backdrop?

Manuela: Yes.

Andrea: My last question might come from a very US-centric place, a country which is revisiting its identity crisis very visibly right now. What would you say to young women, particularly women of color, trying to make a living off filmmaking, especially internationally?

Amirah: It is a huge part of my life. If I had to tell anyone advice, I would say stick with it. Because I still haven’t figured out how to do it. I also do commercials for a living, so I still have to deal with a lot. In the creative, more independent work there is a bit more freedom, but just today I was reading an article and they were talking about South African film directors at the Toronto film festival, and they listed all the male directors and only female director there, they only put her surname. All the other male directors had full names. That’s messed up. The patriarchy has to be fought. Obviously it’s different than from the past, but it’s still difficult to deal with.

Manuela: Totally. Issues of race and gender are super important to me, too. In Chile, we still don’t have legal access to abortion. We are super behind. I think it’s crazy that there are so few filmmakers. My advice would be to realize we are fighters. To not give up, and fight for your ideas. Don’t let yourself be oppressed by the strong machismo in this medium. It’s also a theme of the films I make. Sometimes it develops into the theme, that’s how representation is important.