Director Anahí Berneri on Questioning Argentina’s Hypocritical Prostitution Laws in Her Film ‘Alanis’

'Alanis' still courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Anahí Berneri’s fifth feature film Alanis is an exercise in well-coordinated simplicity. It’s perfectly composed shots turn everyday life into a realist painting. Berneri focuses her lens on a young prostitute in Buenos Aires who struggles to make ends meet in the face of a police force that declares her profession legal, but closes down the brothel where she works. Here the female body, mostly treated as a sex object when there’s a man behind the camera, becomes ordinary. Alanis sells herself to men, but most of the nudity we see is cotidian as she takes a shower, gets dressed in the morning, or breastfeeds her son Dante.

Sofía Gala Castaglione’s performance alongside her real-life son often feels like a documentary. She imbues Alanis with spunk and determination while allowing for moments of heartbreaking vulnerability. After two police officers conduct a sting, posing as potential clients, she is kicked out of the apartment she lives and works out of. Her friend and roommate Gisela (Dana Basso) is taken to jail for running a brothel out of her home which leaves Alanis out on the street without money, clothes, or diapers. She turns to her aunt for a place to stay and looks for a less volatile line of work, but desperation and the promise of quick cash draws her back to sex work.

We caught up with Anahí Berneri during the Toronto Film Festival to chat about Alanis. She discussed the movie’s unique visual style, avoiding the male gaze, and dealing with sexism in the industry. Here are some highlights from what she had to say.

On How Her Family Reacted to Her Decision to Become a Director

Despite coming from a family where my father was an avid filmmaker, making his own shorts, and an uncle who was a photographer, when I announced at home when I was little that I wanted to direct, they all thought it was crazy. The response was: women don’t direct films. I’ve always loved to ignore such rules but something happened in me because I didn’t actually go to school for direction. I studied film production instead. Then I worked on documentaries and only arrived at directing after years of doing some editing work. I also did some acting for a few years, and it all helped me arrive at where I am right now.

On Her Filmmaking Role Models

In Argentina, one of the most important female directors that remains quite influential was María Luisa Bemberg. She was a pioneer in female-helmed cinema. And her works were about gender. She talked about the patriarchy in all her work. That had a big influence on me, on seeing that a woman could direct a film. Her most famous film is Camila. Thanks to her and the many women that came in her wake—and she helped usher that herself—we can now say that Argentina is, among Latin American countries, the one which boasts the largest number of female filmmakers. That’s thanks to the film schools that have really championed women and pushed them to showcase their work for their colleagues. Because those schools are where you’re making the connections that then help you once you start working in the industry itself.

On Facing Sexism in the Film Industry

It could be. I do feel like and I can see that there are a lot more of us, more female filmmakers, just numbers-wise, than in other Latin American countries. But, of course, there’s still machismo in Argentina. It’d be a lie to say otherwise. And the budgets, for example, that are allocated for female-helmed films are usually lower. I’ve had to face that firsthand—especially with crew members that are from an older generation—those insults that all of us are all too used to hearing. Like, “She’s crazy, or hysterical.” Women, whenever they’re in a position of power, are called out like this all the time. But we’ve been able to break ground. I feel very proud of that. I think, for example, one of the most well-known Argentine filmmakers is Lucrecia Martel—and she’s a woman. And I think that speaks very highly of what we’re doing down there.

On Dealing With Actors Who Are Uncomfortable Being Directed by a Woman

Honestly, I have felt that. But truly I think it’s a generational thing. I’ve felt it with actors and with crew members who are older. Never with people my age. That hasn’t happened. In my first film, Un año sin amor, they were all men. There was only one woman in the entire shoot. And I do remember that, even in a film about sadomasochism and HIV! But even in thinking about things like setting up budgets, scouting locations, or getting certain shooting permits, I recall times when I’m still asked, “Oh, okay, so where’s the director?” That happens a lot. My way of facing these sorts of microaggressions, this type of discrimination, is just ignore it. Just keep going and focus on my work, show off my talent, and that’s all I do.

On Whether She Considered Sexism an Obstacle When Choosing This Career

At the start, I didn’t think much about these things. Since my family had a close relationship with cinema and with the still image—in general with these means of communications. My house was always filled with cameras and they really encouraged that I take up one. But by the time I said I wanted to do it professionally, the first thing they told me was it was a crazy idea. They actually told me, “Films always have—haven’t you noticed?—men as their protagonists! They’re the heroes. Men who take action. How are you going be a director?” I remember that moment so vividly. We were at a park and my father was trying to convince me out of becoming a film director. He died before I shot my first film and was able to sit him down and show him that indeed it could be done. Parents, I know, often are driven by fear. But I know this is still very much how people think about cinema. And in other countries it’s even worse. Like, watching a Colombian film—how amazing to see a Colombian film directed by women. Because up until a few years ago, with such a booming industry, they still had no female filmmakers working.

On Her Leading Lady

Well, Sofía Gala is a professional actor. I do think this was a very different kind of role that pushed her to work with her son. For me it was very important—and it was my dream when I thought up this film—that we’d have a mother who’d be breastfeeding her baby. That you’d see the body in this twinned way: both as an erotic object as well as a nurturing one. The way we construct and view gender is something that’s very present in my films. And I wanted to see that on her body as she cares for her baby. For me it was wonderful to see how she responded to the film’s themes. Actually, she’s quite militant (more so than I am, for sure) about wanting to legalize sex work, and about guaranteeing the safety of these women, so they can have legal labor protections, just as anyone else in the workforce. I don’t know if that’s actually solution but I do see the big way in which sex workers are left unprotected and the way they’re persecuted. I also see that in many of these cases, these are women who have few other options and who choose this as a way to keep themselves and their families afloat. Also, this was a project that required a lot of research: I reached out to different organizations, women, social workers. Everyone talked to us about their fears, especially about having their kids taken away from them—about the way the state persecutes and prosecutes them. I do think sex work is the kind of topic that splits people’s opinions—even among feminists.

‘Alanis’ still courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
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On the Film’s Unique Visual Style

We tried to work with as few cuts and shots as possible. And in terms of its design, it’s a film that was made with urgency. It started as a short film and then we decided to shoot it as a feature film. Since we wanted Sofia and her baby, we had to do it quickly because the baby was growing and wouldn’t be breastfeeding soon. The relationship, between the baby and the mother, that we were wanting to track wasn’t going to be there if we waited too long. We had to go and find funding very fast. We had to write quickly. We ended up shooting it in just 3 weeks. So to think about it in terms of production design, I wanted to work with as few shots as possible and really composing them around Sofia’s body, always framing it up to her chest, mimicking the child’s point of view. We didn’t worry about chopping off heads in the frame. We wanted to break away from the tyranny of the foreground, and really focus on the body—whatever part of the body we were capturing, because it’s always expressing itself, in a way. That was very interesting to us. For me it was a challenge and a journey. I feel like it gives the film a specific kind of look, and offered a chance for the performances to be quite loose. It was very freeing. Even as the actors all had to keep track of where they had to stand—we had markings everywhere on the floor and on the walls—to get the frame just right. These were very long takes but that gave a rhythm to the film’s visuals.

On Moving Beyond the Male Gaze

I think that the way in which we shot her body was not for the camera. There’s a lot of talk of nude and naked bodies. On that slight difference. In Alanis, the nakedness is not for the camera. There’s something very organic in her nudity, where a lot of the time it wasn’t even designed to be shown. Like, I’d find it; we’d be shooting and the baby would ask for milk and she’d just take it out and feed him on camera. Or I’d say, “And here just change out of your clothes.” And I was thinking she had a bra on but she didn’t and we’d capture that. It was very natural that kind of exposure. I’m not a big fan of using makeup for those scenes. I liked seeing her bruises. I’d tell her this and she didn’t mind showing them off. I’d tell her that I wasn’t going to retouch her body in post-production. Because, you know, actresses in Argentina sometimes expect you to airbrush them to show off that kind of impossible vision of beauty which are obviously a fantasy. What was interesting to me was this real body. I think she’s able to exude this kind of sexual energy that goes beyond her own imperfections (you know, of her cellulite, or her bruises).

The movie opens with a nude scene in the bathroom. She’s taking a bath. And it’s a very intimate moment, very much like Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. Chantal was a female filmmaker who truly moved me and really taught me how to show sexuality on screen—as something truly ordinary. Not as a perversion. Because cinema often does that; it shows sex as a perversion.

On the Hardest Scene to Shoot

The moment when they’re trying to take away her child. I mean, you can hear the real cries of a real baby there. It’s hard to draw a line there between what’s real and what’s fiction. I mean, of course, there was no fear that it was actually going to happen (that would truly have been traumatic) but her screams are as real as they get. We did it only on one shot. We rehearsed it before, to work the blocking with the adult actors and then we did it with the baby. We knew it was the kind of scene we couldn’t do many times. And that what we’d see is the real boy getting anxious on camera about what’s going on. And that she’d calm him by breastfeeding him.

On Choosing to Self-Finance the Film

At the start this was financed by this institution who had funded the short film. We asked them if they were willing to let us keep the rights for the film, which they did, and then we couldn’t do the usual development route that you’d do for a film. So we just decided that we’d shoot with our own resources, self-financed, really. So that’s why it was a short shoot. Now with with the finished film, Fox decided to take it on. It’s always easier to get backing with a completed film. With my other films, I did that more traditional route: going to different film markets and applying for funds—you spend one or two years looking for funding. That’s why this film is so unique, because it felt truly urgent, politically. I’m very grateful that it’s been able to transcend Argentina’s borders and that it’ll be seen in other countries. This was a film that we felt had to be done. When a theme opens your eyes this way, you just say, “Okay, if I don’t do this, I don’t know who else will. So let’s do it!”

On Addressing Sex Work Seriously

What I most want to do is get audiences to ask questions; to generate a kind of reflection on the part of those who see the film. This is an issue that exists and one where we may not notice the moral hypocrisy on which it rests. I think for us women it takes a lot to think about sex work. Because we can never stop thinking of ourselves as prostitutes—of thinking of ourselves in that kind of situation. It strikes me as a problem that deserves a larger debate in Argentina. The last couple of years there have been laws passed when it comes to same-sex marriage, we now have gay marriage. We have passed laws about gender equality. But we haven’t yet fully addressed issues like abortion and sex work. So look where it is we’re leaving women. It speaks to what we think of them. The only laws that address sex workers define them as victims—with no room for them to have agency over their own bodies. And some of it is due to religion and that moral hypocrisy which runs through discussions of it. But we also need to fight back against this idea that sex work is something that needs to be overcome by getting them off the streets. We need to educate ourselves and be able to show our children healthy images of female sexuality. I had a lot of problems just putting the poster up in several theater chains, just because it depicts a nude sex worker breastfeeding. There’s no problem showing a woman as a sexual object, showing off her body—but here, to show a “puta madre” is hard.

This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by Manuel Betancourt for Remezcla.