On the 26th of April, 2010, Matías Piñeiro arrived in New York for a one-night screening of his second feature, They All Lie, at the Museum of Modern Art — an engagement ceremoniously christened by the Department of Film as “An Evening With” the Argentine director. Piñeiro sat outside the cinema with MoMA film curator Joshua Siegel during the projection of the movie and the pair discussed his plans for the future. Did Piñeiro really want to stay in Buenos Aires? Siegel told him about a fellowship for filmmakers at Harvard that he expected would gladly take him. Siegel said he ought to move to the United States. “Yes, that’s interesting,” Piñeiro nodded. But in truth he wasn’t interested at all. “I had everything in Argentina,” Piñeiro told me recently. “My crew, my people. It was not my idea to want to leave.”
Piñeiro couldn’t have known then just how prophetic Siegel’s advice would prove. He couldn’t have known that a little over seven years later he’d be an ensconced New Yorker — a New York filmmaker, no less, whose latest picture, the marvelous Hermia & Helena, belongs firmly to the local scene.
Romance inspired the transposition, naturally. Piñeiro fell in love: Back in Buenos Aires he met a young man who was set to study abroad in America. Enamored, he didn’t want to lose his beloved to another country — so he thought hard about how he could emigrate with him. Then he remembered the fellowship. Piñeiro applied and was accepted, as Siegel had predicted, and in the fall of 2011 he followed his partner stateside, an official fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. The young man became his husband; the United States became his home. “I changed my life, and for very sentimental reasons,” he says.
This would be uncharted territory for Piñeiro. He works, invariably, with the same intimate group of actors and collaborators, a family with whom he shares an inimitable confidence. How could he continue if he left these companions and colleagues behind? “I really thought I was losing myself as a filmmaker, in a sense,” he recalls. Which is why, in the sixteen days before the move, he hastily whipped together Viola, his third feature. “It was clear that I wasn’t going to make a film in New York, because I didn’t know anyone, and why would I make a film somewhere that was not my place without my people? So I thought, ‘Let’s just shoot this now, because I don’t know when I’m going to get to shoot again.’ ”
It would be another three years before Piñeiro felt comfortable enough in his adopted city to attempt to make a movie in it. (He made one more film in Argentina, The Princess of France, which he shot over two weeks there on holiday. “Sort of like a heist: You get in, do the job, and get out.”) Shot mainly in Chinatown, in and around Columbus Park and City Hall, Hermia & Helena is rich in local color and seems possessed more of a native’s eye than that of a tourist. Not that Piñeiro was ever certain it would turn out that way. “I was worried about changing my context,” he says. “Would I change a little? A lot?” He remembers speaking to María Villar, an actress with whom he’d worked many times prior, at the end of a day on the shoot. She told him his American crew reminded her of their friends in Argentina. “The moment she said that,” Piñeiro told me, “I thought, ‘OK, this film just might work.’ ”
Piñeiro flew many of his former collaborators to New York to work on the project. The rest he found in what he calls “the cinephile world” — and almost every American in Hermia & Helena will be familiar to those versed in independent cinema in the city. Keith Poulson, a fixture of the Kim’s Video era, plays romantic foil to leading lady and Piñeiro regular Agustina Muñoz, while elsewhere filmmakers abound: Kyle Molzan (For the Plasma), Dustin Guy Defa (Person to Person), Dan Sallitt (The Unspeakable Act). This is partly the result of Piñeiro’s inclination to surround himself with artists — everyone he works with in Buenos Aires is a musician or playwright or novelist. But the effect here is unique. The presence of so many New York indie luminaries seems to induct Piñeiro himself into their tradition.
“How do you shoot a city that has been shot so many times?” The question is posed to every filmmaker working here, and Piñeiro, when he began to conceive Hermia & Helena, took it seriously. “I wanted to produce a personal vision of the city,” he says, “without falling into the trap of the city shooting itself — of the city telling you how she wants to be shot instead of you and your narrative deciding how you want to show the city.” Chief among his concerns, as someone still somewhat new to town, was avoiding cliché: dodging “the postcard view,” as he describes it. “I didn’t want a generalized impression of the city,” he says. “I needed to be focused. I needed a concrete expression.” Before he could make his New York movie, in other words, he had to really see New York, to know its people and understand its aesthetic. He had to feel at home.