“Argentina has the talent to make good movies”: Diego Lerman, director of El suplente

Lucio (Juan Minujín) is a writer who has lost a literary contest and agrees to teach literature class as a substitute teacher in a high school located on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. In his new job he will have to make a great effort to earn the trust of his students, But her attempt to bond with the boys suffers a special reaction when the gendarmerie enter the school for a drug raid. One of the students is arrested and another must hide to avoid revenge from the local boss, ‘el Perro’ Olmos.

Argentine director Diego Lerman presented Alternate at the Cineteca Nacional as part of the premiere that the film will have in Mexican theaters starting on January 26. In Spoiler we had the opportunity to talk with him about his new project, which came to Netflix in Argentina.

Interview with Diego Lerman, director of El suplente

We see that there is drug dealing in the area where the school is located and that it extends to the school classrooms. We are talking about a territory conquered by organized crime. But we don’t see deaths, we don’t see explicit violence that surely exists. Why did you decide not to show or avoid that?

For me it was stronger if that (organized crime) was out of the picture. Despite showing the intrusion of the gendarmerie in the school and later the drug trafficker in a bathroom, I wanted that presence to remain in the background and focus on the context of the teacher with his students and his family. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important. I simply wanted crime to be part of the landscape and not focus its relevance on this story that attends to another aspect that is the teacher.

A teacher who in his unconscious, or conscious, lives in denial of accepting that his daughter is 12 years old. He insists on seeing her at 11. Isn’t that rejection of her daughter’s adolescence contradictory in the search for acceptance by her adolescent students?

The daughter of the character is my daughter in real life. Those of us who are parents begin to see them grow and we notice that age in which there is a transition from being dependent to being autonomous with other ideas, with other visions of the world. Going from childhood to adolescence is a difficult hinge to accept, but one that as parents we have to accompany. In the case of Lucio, the teacher, he has to accept that her daughter is no longer a girl and that he wants a different school from the one he wants for her. He goes through that, that as a father he does not accept that transition.

There is a scene in which we see the daughter showing Lucio the correct position of a painting that she interprets in a concrete way when he gave it an abstract meaning. Is it a way of telling us that we have forgotten to listen to the new generations?

That scene was improvised. The painting was painted by my daughter and I played with her on the set to guess what it was. This game led me to pose it as an exercise on stage to see how Lucio reacted to the fact that the girl was capable of seeing the world in a different way and much more understandable than how he sees it. I decided to record it. It was during the editing that I was inclined to add it to the final edition because it gave more meaning to the teacher’s relationship with the youth universe in the classroom.

Through the texts that the students write, the teacher and the viewer find out that some suffer domestic violence or suffer unpleasant situations in their homes. Why did you make the decision not to show those problems for the construction of the relationship between Lucio and his students?

One of the difficulties this project had was knowing what to show and what not. It was evaluated during the investigation, in the different revisions of the script. For me, the important thing was to attend to the axis of the value of education, to exalt the figure of a teacher like Lucio teaching classes in those social margins and the school relationship. Part of the film’s job was to understand a universe, comprehend it, and choose what should be shown. With that defined premise we determined what should not be shown.

One way to resolve the presence of a drug trafficker like ‘el Perro’ Olmos was through the appearance of stray dogs. A symbolic language. Did you think so from the beginning or did those dogs appear on the recording?

Something that I like when filming is to integrate the elements of the environment where I am filming. Those dogs were there and I wanted to integrate them as part of that place. I saw the dogs playing and quickly put together a plan with the cinematographer to incorporate them. They were there. They suited the movie.

Where is Argentine cinema standing today? At what point is it? Towards the outside, it is perceived that it is going through a good stage in productions and proposals.

Argentine cinema is very vital. There are many people who make movies. There are several of us who have been doing it for more than 20 years. Some of us are part of a generation that began making movies in the 21st century, from the year 2000. There are new generations that bring fresh ideas. On the other hand, it is an industry that is in crisis all the time. The way to finance is complicated, difficult. In contrast, Argentina has the talent and diversity to make good movies, but the country’s economic situation is not so good. What is left over are artistic looks, acting talents, technical talents. What we lack are resources. That is why we continue to make films with the means available to us or through co-productions. Funding is urgently needed to support the energy and creativity of our cinematography in a stable way.

“Argentina has the talent to make good movies”: Diego Lerman, director of El suplente