Lola Arias

The day following the elections of Argentina’s new president Sergio Millei, Noelia – a trans woman and one of the protagonists in the docu-fictional musical REAS – was attacked on the streets of Buenos Aires. The director  of the film, Lola Arias, qualifies the present situation in her country as a horror but doesn’t lose hope for change. Arias has a history in exploring idiosyncrasies of different communities through re-enactments of their past experiences; they show how certain life-stories evolve in time by being interpreted in a playful way – change is what drives her work. Mainly known for her theater pieces,  REAS is her second feature film after Theater of War (2018). It portrays women (cis and queer) and trans women and men performing their past jail experience. A mellow yet empowering film. I had the chance to interview Lola Arias about it during the Berlinale, where the film premiered. We discussed amongst others creativity emanating from communities, the specificities of film as a medium and its force as a political tool.  

Cinema is a merging of different mediums. Given that you’re a multidisciplinary artist and that this is your second feature film, would you say that the process proper to movie-making allows you to come closer to the “ideas” you want to express through your work? 

I think what film allows me – in difference to theater for example – is to work in certain spaces. I wouldn’t have been able to have Reas performed as a theater piece in a real prison. So I’d say the cinematographic discipline is mostly different in terms of occupying real spaces and even changing the energy and dynamics in them. 

Then there’s the time aspect. When you shoot a film, you’re fixing a moment in time. You know that this will stay forever, in contrast with theater where it’s about the here and now. I can document things in cinema which would be lost in theater. This is also something I’m interested in: how to document situations that have happened and will never happen again.

Reas is a “hybrid” piece; what possibilities would you say this intertwinement of genres offers to the characters?

Something very authentic comes out of the clash between documentary and musical: the characters tell their real stories but they perform them in a more poetic way through singing and dancing. We see them shining and not just as victims of their circumstances. That was very important for me. Not to re-stigmatize these people that have been stigmatized but to give them hope and learn from them. 

Are the songs and choreographies in the film inspired by what you witnessed inside the prisons? 

Yes. Ulises Conti and I didn’t want to impose our own music tastes. We tried to be inspired by theirs and adapt from there on to compose songs they could really feel comfortable with and represented by. In terms of the choreographies, they’re influenced by the way bodies move inside the prisons. Inmates are constantly looked at and there are certain movements they have to always repeat. That’s why there is for example a choreography that is based on when they all have to come in a line to be counted. But we transformed these rituals they were forced to perform into something more….fantastic! Still, it helped that our choreographer, Andrea Servera, already had experience working inside prisons where she gave different workshops including to trans people.

On the gender aspect, there seemed to be two groups. The prisoners were a mixed cast of cis, queer and trans women as well as trans men whereas on the side of the prison guards, they seemed to be more conservative in this regard. 

Yes. I wanted there to be a sense of mutual help within the community. But I also wanted to show how the system in itself has a lot of problems recognizing certain identities. Especially trans men undergo this mistreatment. That’s why at some point Nacho recounts his experience of not getting his testo in the Ezeiza prison when trans women could get their treatments. There is a real tension in this regard and we tried to make that visible. Still the whole process is to be seen as an empowering process. The possibility to re-enact and perform your own story gives you the tools to control the situation and to be able to tell what you actually want to tell or to show what you want to show. By performing their experience they change their perspective on it. But I definitely like that the film is putting women and trans people in the light. In general the musicals are very driven by hetero-romances. Even when they are fighting it seems like they’re fighting to have sex one with another. In Reas the characters are not the object that men are fighting for; they’re not a side story; they’re the protagonists of the story – not just the object to conquer.

Your starting point seems to always be a community and finding ways to have individuals within these communities express themselves. Can you tell more about this process?

My work is based on research, so even my theater-performances can be seen as “documentary-theater”. It’s based on interviews and long-lasting investigations. During this research I look for the protagonists and they might be from very different communities. I try to create groups where people can work together for a long time, where these processes are empowering processes so that performers can get something out of it – not just me as an artist getting something out of them. They should be able to learn something, change something in their life. They’re very demanding projects to work on, sometimes very challenging. But they’re also very rewarding. All these communities that have been created through these different works I did over the years are still existing; even if the piece is not shown anymore or the film is over, the groups stay together and I think this is the most interesting part of the work I do.

The main character in the film – Yoceli Arias – has the same surname as you. If that’s not too much of a personal question can I ask if you’re related?

*Laughs*. Everybody asks me that question. We always joke about being distant cousins but no, we’re not related. The way I met her was quite special though. She was one of the first people I encountered when I did the workshop in the prison. She was very young – 22 years old – and completely lost in the prison as she had just arrived there. She was very shy and fragile but also kind of mysterious as a character. It was not someone one might necessarily think of as a protagonist in a film and it was a big move to decide on that. But even though it’s a choral film with many characters, I think it’s through her that you can actually hear all the other stories. She likes to listen, she’s very empathetic. That’s what I liked about her and that’s why I “chose” her – not because of her having my last name. But I think there’s also some sort of identification we can have with her:  we don’t know how exactly she ended up there. I don’t know and I don’t care if she’s guilty, if she knew she had drugs in her bag or not. It could happen to anyone who is in a precarious situation. Anyone could end up committing a crime. I think it’s interesting that the audience can identify with the character and not just think “this could never happen to me”. 

How does it feel to have finished this project after 5 years?

The 18th of February of 2019 was the first day I entered the prison to do a workshop and now on the 18th of February 2024 – exactly 5 years later – the film comes out. So there is a sense of time that is closing in a circle and that’s quite magical, but it was also a very challenging time. When I started the project in 2019, I was thinking about shooting the film in the prison while people were actually serving their sentence. Then the pandemic came and everything closed; we couldn’t enter the prison anymore, there were no more workshops, even family-visits were prohibited. That’s how we came up with the idea of doing the film outside of the actual prison – once the people had been released. So the whole idea of the film changed over the years. I’m very happy it’s actually happening. Because there were many moments where I thought this wouldn’t happen. 

But I also don’t consider the project to actually be over. There will be a sequel to this. In March I’m going to Argentina to start a rehearsal in a theater play that I will do with the same crew. Making theater will also give them other possibilities. We already have a lot of commitments. It will procure them some stability and a job for at least one more year and a half. That makes me really happy: to continue supporting them in any possible way. Furthermore, it’s exciting to think that through this process they will also be able to see how their stories affect the spectators. In fact they couldn’t even come here to attend the premiere and see the film. The government in Argentina is not supporting us in any way. We don’t have money to pay for 14 trips from Argentina to here. Our new president is a fascist who wants to kill all our cultural institutions. So in a way the play will be a chance for them to see how their stories are received by an international audience. Because they’ll have to be there to perform on stage. 

With all this political turmoil, do you think cinema can have an actual impact?

I hope so. We need other narratives. In the middle of this disaster – with everything seemingly collapsing – we need narratives of hope to encourage people to keep on doing things, to keep on connecting with communities, to be empathic, to give love to others. In this sense I think film helps to create a hopeful narrative in a world that is falling apart. We need it. We can’t always keep on seeing the dark side of things. 

I felt like every character had a specific skill and knowledge they could and were willing to teach to each other: voguing, boxing, knowledge of laws etc. Was this something you thought about when making the casting? 

What you’re saying about them being able to teach is very important. Because it’s not the institution that is giving them tools for their future lives; the knowledge comes from them. They learn from each other and help each other. And I think that as an audience we also learn a lot from them. I also learned from them.

Did you also learn how to vogue?

Of course. It’s a scene I didn’t know about – the voguing scene. I learned it through Noelia and went to different kiki-balls. It’s amazing. A world actually opened up to me through them.