Lucrecia Martel is one of our great contemporary filmmakers, so much so that even a modestly scaled, short work like Terminal Norte demands some attention. It is, like many recent festival films, a product of the early stages of Covid shutdowns; here, Martel chronicles singer Julieta Laso (who happens to also be Martel’s partner) as she travels to Salta, in Northern Argentina, to rehearse a concert. As the film’s opening narration informs us, she “sought refuge in the north,” where, due to lockdowns “it was hard to know the time.” But the concert is soon canceled, leaving Martel to film Laso and the various artists once scheduled to perform instead lounging around campfires and traipsing through forests. It’s a fascinating group of women; there are several “copleras,” traditional singers, along with classically trained pianist Noelia Sinkunas, trap rapper BYami, a feminist noise duo called Las Whiskey, and a trans woman named Lorena Carpanchay, amongst others (there are also several men around, including renowned guitarist Bubu Rios). Martel gives each performer a kind of introductory portrait, filmed in medium closeup as they state their name, along with snippets of biographical detail, with each given voice via the film’s ongoing voiceover narration. It’s an odd mesh of musical styles, for sure, but what emerges is a sort of counter-history of marginalized and oppressed musicians.
Terminal Norte doesn’t look much like any of Martel’s other films, besides setting key moments amidst the lush greenery of wooded areas. It feels like a sketch, an assemblage of sequences that function like footnotes to a larger, more thorough work. This isn’t a criticism, exactly; what the film loses in scope it makes up for with a sense of immediacy, a special kind of energy that comes from a lack of polish. It’s very reminiscent of the old Jeonju Digital Projects series, in which the annual Jeonju Film Festival commissioned a veritable who’s who of international auteurs to complete short, half-hour digital works. That series produced more than a few acclaimed works by the likes of Jia Zhangke, Lav Diaz, Pedro Costa, Claire Denis, and Tsai Ming-liang, and it offered a chance for filmmakers to try out new ideas and new forms, taking on the patina of a kind of automatic writing. Terminal Norte would have fit right in with this aesthetic agenda, allowing Martel to forgo her typically precise mise en scene and instead tinker with the unique formal qualities of digital cinematography.
Of course, like all of Martel’s work, the film is also unabashedly political; La Cienega and The Headless Woman are razor-sharp eviscerations of the upper middle class, while Zama is one of the great chronicles of the soul-deadening effects of colonialism. Terminal Norte is more concertedly direct, less opaque in its polemical agenda. In putting these performers front and center, what emerges is a unifying sense of collective defiance in the face of conservative social mores. The 36-minute film is almost non-stop music, as each musician is given a chance to sing and dance for the camera. Despite the wildly disparate genres on display, each performance depicts an overriding sense of loss or anger. It’s not exactly clear what these women have lost, or what obstacles they’ve faced, but given the presence of a wide spectrum of LGBTQ representatives, it’s not hard to imagine the worst. Ultimately, Terminal Norte becomes a rousing portrait of solidarity, a rallying cry that demands these artists be seen and heard. It’s a “minor” work, perhaps, in both length and scope, yet still bracing in its boldness, and a fascinating addition to Martel’s small but important oeuvre.
Published as part of Berlin Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3.