Taking His Shots

Taking His Shots

Argentine-Jewish director Martin Rejtman on comedy, the New Argentine Cinema and fiction writing.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

It was a situation out of one of his films.

Martín Rejtman sat down to answer questions for an e-mail interview while he waited for his plane from Hong Kong to New York in the departure lounge Sunday. Then his computer seized up. Eventually he found himself working on a communal machine in the departure lounge, typing hurriedly as the time for boarding approached.

The writer-director of a half-dozen Argentine films, Rejtman is the subject of a retrospective that runs May 13-19, concurrently with the theatrical debut of his latest film, “Two Shots Fired.” He is also a highly regarded short-story author.

Both his films and his fiction are marked by their dry, taciturn deadpan humor and attention to the minutiae of daily life, and driven by rhythms of repetition and echoes of absurdity. Although his characters never get very far from his native Buenos Aires, if they did you would expect them to experience computer meltdowns in the Hong Kong airport.

Asked if fans of his films expect him to be as humorous as his films, he seems a bit baffled by the question itself.

“I guess my films are funny and not,” he wrote. “They are not just comic, they alternate between funny situations and situations that are less funny.”

Sometimes it isn’t so easy to figure out which is which. Take “Two Shots Fired,” for example. The film begins with the sort of event that usually is a harbinger of a family melodrama. Mariano (Rafael Federman), a 16-year-old, comes home from a night of clubbing, goes for a swim, mows the lawn, then finds a pistol hidden in the garage and for no reason shoots himself twice. He apparently hasn’t even wounded himself seriously, although there is a running joke about the inability of his doctors to find one of the bullets in his body, which causes serious intonation problems when he plays recorder in his early-music group.

This sort of obliquely humorous response to potential tragedy strikes some viewers as very Jewish. Rejtman acknowledges a connection, but he seems uncertain as to how his Jewishness comes out in his art.

“Although I believe Jewishness is there somehow, I can’t help it,” he wrote. “[Just] as I can’t help being Argentinian. At a recent screening of ‘Two Shots Fired’ a professor of Minneapolis University [sic] after the Q & A and asked me if I was Jewish. She believed I was after watching the film, although there’s nothing in the subject matter that would directly suggest it.”

The process may have been osmotic. His family wasn’t particularly observant, although he noted that “we had dinners to celebrate the holidays, etc., and my [paternal] grandmother was a very good cook.”

He added, “The funny thing is, in high school most of my classmates and friends were Jewish, although it was not a Jewish school.”

Perhaps the same is true of the pervasive presence of Jewish filmmakers in the New Argentine Cinema, although again Rejtman demurred.

“Honestly, I never thought of this before, asking the question if a fellow filmmaker is Jewish or not,” he replied. “But you are right, in Argentina there are many Jewish filmmakers, indeed.”

The 54-year-old Rejtman is frequently mentioned as both a founder and influential member of that loose configuration of younger Argentine directors. He embraces the label, more for the change in the country’s filmmaking practice than for any cachet associated with it.

“From the mid-’90s things have really changed in Argentina in terms of filmmaking,” he wrote. “Things got much more vital and better. I feel that I have filmmakers with whom I can share a conversation about film now. It was not the case when I started making movies.”

In fact, the limitations of Argentina’s filmmaking world at the time led Rejtman to leave and go to film school at NYU. It was, he said, “an incredibly valuable” experience.

“NYU taught me how to look at what is nearby when looking for a subject for a film,” he wrote. And when he returned to Buenos Aires, “I had a different perspective, I could look at things that were familiar from a certain distance.”

Rejtman’s output of films is small but potent. In part that is the result, he said, of his slowness as a writer.

“I guess I’m slow writing scripts,” he admitted. “I don’t start with a storyline, I start with characters and situations and find the storyline on the way. This takes longer, but I’m fine with that.”

One suspects that he feels a greater degree of freedom writing short stories.

“When I write literature, I know that it all ends there [on the page], so it’s more fluid,” he explained. “When I write a script I have to consider that I will have to shoot that later; it has to be feasible in terms of locations, actors, etc. And the structure has more weight in a film than in a short story for me.”

He has no intentions of abandoning either form though. Asked what his next project is, he replied, “Still writing and looking for the storyline. …”

“Sounds Like Music: The Films of Martín Rejtman” will run from May 13-19 at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center of the Film Society of Lincoln Center (144 W. 65th St.). Included in the series is a one-week run of Rejtman’s most recent film, “Two Shots Fired,” presented by the Film Society and Cinema Tropical. For information, go to www.filmlinc.com.

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