Augusto Roa Bastos and Hugo Gamarra

Hugo Gamarra Etcheverry, aged 46, is a filmmaker, Director of the Asunción International Film Festival and President of the Paraguayan Cinémathèque. We met in April 2002 at the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, where Hugo was a guest. We chatted over drinks at the first of the many festival-organised late evening and early morning gatherings that followed a day of film viewing and arranged an interview-lunch a couple of days later. We also went to see the wonderful Manuel de Oliveira film Vou para casa/Je rentre à la maison/I’m Going Home (Portugal/France, 2001). During the lunch-interview Hugo spoke about his background, film culture in Paraguay and his cinephile tastes.

– NK

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Noel King: Could you outline your film cultural work from your earliest involvement in film in Paraguay to your departure for the United States at age 19 to study, to your return seven or eight years later to make your own films, start a Cinémathèque, and eventually run the Asunción Film Festival. I gather that it was actually the reading of a Paraguayan novel that persuaded you to try to make a career in film.

Hugo Gamarra: My passion for film started with my grandfather (I was raised by my grandfather and grandmother) who was an obsessive filmgoer and who would carry me with him to the movies, when I was very little, where I would eventually fall asleep. He took me to the movies for the first time when I was one year old! Thanks to my grandfather I also learned as a child to enjoy comics and later read my first books: novels by Jules Verne, Paul Feval and Victor Hugo. I use my second last name as my surname in memory of him.

At high school I started writing film criticism and speaking on the radio about the films that were being released in Asunción. Although I was learning more about film it was happening in an amateur manner with no hope of ever turning it into a profession. Then in high school I read a novel by the great Paraguayan novelist, Augusto Roa Bastos: his most famous novel at that time, Son of Man (Monthly Review Press, 1988). And somehow reading that book gave me the certainty that I could be a filmmaker. The book tells Paraguayan myths through human stories that are mythical, epic and yet related to Paraguayan landscapes and Paraguayan history, specifically the Chaco War of 1932-35 (1); universal stories that are Paraguayan in their basic elements. Once I had the conviction that I could become a filmmaker, I began exploring the possibility of studying in the United States.

Since Paraguay was (and is) a small country, of four and one-half million people, with no tradition of filmmaking, it seemed a very wishful thought.

But I was helped towards this dream by an adopted father-in-law. Together we played a little trick on my father who was a navy man. Paraguay is a landlocked country but has a navy, and my father, a very humble, simple man who came into his military life from the countryside, was always prepared to finance any of my educational pursuits. He supported my learning of English, drawing and painting at a young age, from about ten, by allowing me to study at special academies. His support was justified when I was 19. A respected Paraguayan art critic saw my sculptures made of nails on wood and offered me our most prestigious gallery for a solo exhibition, which happened in 1974, two months before I left for North America. And he supported my desire to study in the States. I had told him I was going to do a degree in journalism, or “mass communications” as it was then called, in the early 1970s. He agreed and I applied to various universities. I was out of high school by now and working on a magazine, and in a relatively short period of time, I attended a big journalism conference in Mexico, and went on to the University of Arizona, Tucson to take further courses in English. From there I went to Kent State University, Ohio and spent two years in their department of Journalism, and from there I moved to the University of Texas at Austin specifically to study filmmaking. Besides studying photography, art history, literature and anthropology, I had done some film courses at Kent State, in the School of Art, with Richard Meyers, and had learned a lot from the American independent and avant-garde films he showed. I discovered film as a true art form. I liked Bruce Baillie’s films, with their lyrical, long-take observations on reality, and Pat O’Neill’s “diary” films with their mixture of natural and urbanized imagery and the tour de force of optical printer montages. I learned editing and made my first film poems in Super 8.

I spent three years in Austin at their Radio, Film and TV School, from 1977 to 1981. A dear professor named Bill Mackie taught film production, veteran director Edward Dmytryk an editing workshop and I took film criticism courses with Tom Schatz, and did a lot of what would now be called interdisciplinary study, mixing courses in folklore and anthropology and psychology with courses in Communications and film studies. As one of my filmmaking projects I made a documentary for the Ministry of Agriculture on a watermelon ceremony that takes place each year in a town near Austin. I also tried screenwriting and won the first prize at the University of Texas Competition with a free adaptation of Julio Cortazar´s short story Taken House. The prize was a few rolls of film which I used for my graduation film Pygmalion´s Wish, an experimental film or as I prefer to call it a film essay about the real and illusive nature of motion pictures. Prof. Mackey took it to Monterrey (Mexico); it was my first film to be shown at festivals.

NK: So during your time at Austin you got to listen to C&W at The Broken Spoke, eat steak at Threadgills, and attend the South by Southwest Festival?

HG: It was a great time to be in Austin, such a beautiful city filled with artistic and cultural events in some places that are no longer there such as Armadillo Headquaters and the Varsity Theatre on the main drag (Guadalupe Ave.), where we could see 8 outstanding films from around the world every week. The South by Southwest Festival came much later though with the same people I met and worked with in the Cinema Texas film program at the University. In 1980, around the time I was graduating from Austin, I was invited by people in the Paraguayan government to go back to Paraguay to make a film about the Chaco War of 1932-35. The same people had made an earlier film about another war in which Paraguay was involved, the so-called “Triple Alliance War” of 1864-70 (Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay against Paraguay), and now they wanted to make a film about the Chaco War (2). The previous film, Cerro Cora, had been the first Paraguayan dramatic feature totally funded by the State. So I accepted this opportunity to return and to lead the project of Paraguayan film studio. I had left Paraguay when I was 19, thinking, as one does, that Asunción was too small for my dreams, and when I returned at 26, I felt like a foreigner in my own culture. It took me five years to re-embrace Paraguayan culture.

Pilgrimage in Paraguay

During my first five years back I was disappointed to realize that the people from the Paraguayan government were trying to use filmmaking for their own political-economic purposes, to support certain political attitudes rather than try to foster a real national cinema. Film production was being used for corrupt purposes, to make money for some individuals and to confirm the idolatry of the Paraguayan dictator, Alfredo Stroessner. So when my dream of making that particular film didn’t come to fruition, I founded my own film production and distribution company, Ara Films Productions (in the Guarani language, Ara means sky). I began making documentaries and sold them to TV in the States and Europe. Filmmaking was almost impossible because of the costs involved and Paraguay does not have a film lab; the closest ones are in Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo. I tried television production and direction, making musicals, specials and a 45-minute drama, Marcelina, which I adapted from a Paraguayan short story. It was my first experience directing actors. I decided I did not like television and went back to New York and Austin, where I edited an English version of a 16mm documentary Pilgrimage in Paraguay. When I returned to Paraguay, I gathered a group of friends to make the first Paraguayan television feature, using video as if it was film. We sold El Secreto de la Señora (The Secret, 1989) to the most important TV network in Paraguay just at the awakening of a new Paraguay. When Stroessner’s 35-year dictatorship finally ended in 1989 the opportunity arose to re-establish a Cinémathèque. A group of friends and I gathered together to create this film cultural institution, a privately funded organization called the Cinémathèque of Paraguay. In 1990 I worked full-time on this project, and continued with it for the next eight years.

At the Cinémathèque, we felt our main task was to form an audience in Paraguay for foreign films other than those from America. In relation to trying to foster film production, I confronted the dilemma of trying to persuade Paraguayan private investors and the State of the necessity to make Paraguayan films at a time when we did not have access to Bolivian, Chilean, Brazilian, Argentine films. So it was like trying to grow potatoes in a desert. It was impossible to take that last step that would see one able to organise a distinctively Paraguayan film production.

NK: Was this the first-ever Paraguayan Cinémathèque or had one been running earlier and then discontinued under the Stroessner regime?

HG: A Cinémathèque had existed in the ’60s and early ’70s. As a young man I attended those screenings and saw my first Buñuel film, and some Bergman films, both directors who were much admired by the wonderful man who was running the Cinémathèque at that time, Oscar Trinidad, a lawyer and a very cultured man.

NK: Nice to hear because not all lawyers are!

HG: He was also one of the best art and film critics in Paraguay. He was our André Bazin and our Henri Langlois. He managed to buy 16mm copies of particular films and these would be screened and followed by discussions and debates. I attended some of those screenings and, really, the first film course I took was a seminar with him, around the time I was doing my radio film “criticism”, just before going off to study in the States. Oscar died one month before I left for Mexico and then to the US. When I returned in 1981 almost nothing but his memory remained.

In 1989 my group of friends and I decided it was time to revive the Cinémathèque, to try to continue the film cultural work begun by Oscar Trinidad. We were all intensely aware of the huge gap that existed in Paraguayan film culture. All the small cine-clubs of the ’60s had disappeared and my first decade back in Paraguay, the ’80s, was Stroessner’s last decade in power, and so we completely lacked any cinephile institutions. During those two last decades there had been a great deal of persecution of artists and film discussion was considered subversive. As is usual with all authoritarian governments, they had a network of informers and undercover police who would attend film screenings and discussion sessions. In the ’60s, when I was very young, I had seen some Polish and Czechoslovakian films courtesy of Oscar Trinidad’s work and the Salesian´s Don Bosco Film institution, but in the ’70s it was much harder to do that because censorship was so strong. Some of Costa-Gavras’s films were banned, Z (1969) and State of Siege (1972), for example. So when we revived the Cinémathèque it was a way of reconnecting to the work and cultural vision of Oscar Trinidad.


In 1990 when we established our revived Cinémathèque, we showed the work of Fernando “Pino” Solanas who was very famous at that time having won a prize at Venice for Tangos: the Exile of Gardel (1985) and the 1988 Cannes Best Director award for Sur (South) (1988). We showed three of his films and the fact that he attended gave strong encouragement to our project. At that particular moment commercial cinemas in Paraguay were closing as cable TV and video were expanding, and people were going to the cinema far less often. So our Cinémathèque project started at a very inauspicious time of low public support for theatrical cinema screenings. And I began working with embassies to bring in Eric Rohmer films, Swedish and Polish films such as Wajda´s Man of Marble, a lot of the classic Cuban films that had never been seen in Paraguay, such as Tomás Gutiérrez’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) and Humberto Solas´Lucía

NK: They had been banned?

HG: Yes. For a long time affinity with anything related to communism and especially Cuba could see you sent to goal. No man could wear a beard because of the supposed reference to Che and Fidel. Our screening of the Cuban films and videos was a great success. The young audience attended and applauded with enthusiasm.

NK: Could you tell me a bit about the demographics of the Paraguayan population, and the city of Asunción, and also say something about how Paraguay relates to its two giant bordering countries, Argentina and Brazil?

HG: Paraguay is the size of California, divided in half by the Paraguay river; the east side is the most populated, fertile agricultural land with many streams and rivers, the west side is mostly deserted but with plenty of cattle and wildlife. One interesting demographic aspect of the Paraguayan population is that of almost 5 million people, largely “mestizo” (mixture of Spanish and Guarani aboriginal), 70% is under 35 years of age, and almost 50% is under 25. And we have almost two women to each man. So in some ways Paraguay is still a paradise! Asunción is a city of a little over one million and it is still a very relaxed city where you can run into a friend in the street, stop, have coffee and talk. Our summer is very long, six to eight months, and very hot, up to 39 to 40 degrees centigrade. Australian weather! But probably more humid than Australia.

NK: It sounds like northern Queensland.

HG: Paraguay has lots of rivers and streams and it’s very sad to see them spoiled by toxic wastes, and to see forests being devastated. We had a lot of precious wood that is almost gone. And business interests in Brazil and Argentina have done much of the stealing and expropriation. Paraguay is today a small country surrounded by two giant countries who have, across history, almost caused Paraguay to disappear. In the 19th century, when Paraguay was the most prosperous nation in the continent, with an independent economy, the infamous “Triple Alliance War” (Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay against Paraguay) saw Paraguay lose 35% of its land, 96% of its male population (only 15% of the 14.000 males that stayed alive were over 20 years old) and 76% of its total population. Even Paraguayan women and children fought heroically to the final tragedy of a country in ruins. Uruguay was a third party in the Triple Alliance War. It couldn’t say no to these developments, and was manipulated into the war by Argentine politics. The Paraguayan government wanted to help a Uruguayan leader, and did this by sending boats along rivers, through Argentine land, which provided the alibi for starting the war. Well, that’s a small part of the story…. That war had been building up for 20 years or so because the British were against the model of national economy that Paraguay was practicing, a self-sufficient economy, independent of British capital and interests. And so Britain financed the war and masterminded the destruction of the most glorious Republic in Latin America at the time. And it was also easy for Brazil to move into the war with their desire for imperialist expansion and decadent monarchy; slaves were promised freedom if they enlisted in the war.

So that’s a very significant episode in Paraguayan history and one that made a definite mark on its future. Although courageous historians are slowly unveiling the truths about that terrible conspiracy, lies, political propaganda and silence still cover much of the largest conflict in the history of Latin America (one of the most revealing books is American Genocide by Brazilian author Julio José Chiavenatto). If Paraguay was totally destroyed; Brazil and Argentina ended the war so much in debt that their economies were forever tied to foreign capital. The only victor was the British Empire. (3)

Since then, economically and culturally, Paraguay has depended on Argentina and Brazil a great deal. However, we have a very distinct culture, which is related, geographically, to the south of Brazil and the north of Argentina (which belonged to Paraguay before the Triple Alliance War); each of those areas is pretty much Paraguayan in cultural terms. We have our own music, language, money and character. Both officially and in everyday cultural practice, Paraguay is a bi-lingual nation; most people speak two languages: Spanish and Guarani since the times of the Jesuit Missions (17th century).

NK: But Paraguay is not part of the Brazilian film market, presumably because of the Portuguese language. You are bundled in with Uruguay and Argentina.

HG: Yes, Brazil, with Portuguese as its main language, looks more across the Atlantic, turning its back on Latin America. That fact that has been pointed out very often over the last 20 years, especially in relation to the “Mercosur,” the “South Market” treaty that was signed in Asunción in 1990, and which saw Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina found a common market. Later Chile and Bolivia joined. But Brazil is such a big country with a different culture and it has always followed its own line. Paraguay, more than Uruguay, has ensured the political equilibrium in the Rio de la Plata region.

NK: How do these various economic and cultural links and divisions manifest themselves in the specific area of film exhibition?

HG: In terms of film distribution, Paraguay depends very much on the Argentinean market. When a distributor in Argentina buys the rights to the distribution of a film they also have the rights for Paraguay which they then sell back, here in Buenos Aires, to Paraguayan exhibitors and distributors.

So in order to run the Cinémathèque I realised I was going to have to handle this situation of Paraguayan dependence on films from Argentina. But I had a good start by receiving an invitation from Cuba to attend their Havana Film Festival, and I was the first Paraguayan to go to the Havana Film Festival in the new era of Paraguay. It was December 1989 and Stroessner had been overthrown earlier that year. It was a very hectic time and we still didn’t quite know what was happening. And I remember asking friends if they thought I would be able to get back into Paraguay if I went to Cuba. So I went to Cuba and had no trouble returning. And that period signalled the start of democratic processes in Paraguay. The connections I made in Havana were very promising and I also received help from other Latin-American countries — Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador: all these countries saw the revived Paraguayan Cinémathèque as a sign of cultural hope.

NK: I understand that when the Paraguayan Film Festival started in 1990 the first thing you did was arrange a homage to your great writer Augusto Roa Bastos who had also been a screenwriter in his years of exile in Buenos Aires.

HG: Yes, he had written more than 20 screenplays, and many of those films had been celebrated and won international prizes – Shunko (1960, directed by Lautaro Murúa, with a screenplay by Roa Bastos) was chosen by UNESCO as the most important Argentinean film of the 100 years of Cinema. So he was Paraguay’s major film auteur, as a screenwriter. In 1990, with Stroessner gone, Roa Bastos returned from his exile to again live in Paraguay and we showed a selection of the films he had written. He gave a speech and it was all very emotional. He and I became good friends and some years later I made a documentary about his life and his artistic vision of Paraguay. The documentary-fiction feature is called The Gate of Dreams; it played in many festivals and won some prizes. I am now working on a book about the relationship of literature and film in Roa Bastos´ oeuvre.

NK: What are the titles of some films that have done well at your Festival?

Un Lugar en el Mundo

HG: The Festival grew slowly with a special space for Latin American shorts in competition, where my fellow Paraguayan producers could also compete. At first it was hard to build up an audience. At the first edition of the Festival, Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Spain, 1988) was a great hit. I also showed Elem Klimov’s Come and See (Idi i smotri, USSR, 1985) and some Cuban films, Latin American and Polish films. We showed some Andrzej Wajda films. It was a big cultural event for Paraguay, thanks to the support of the media, the private sector, the city authorities and the audiences grew slowly until in 1993 our fourth Festival proved a great success, with more than 11,000 people attending across 11 days. That year we showed some films from Argentina: Adolfo Aristarain’s Un Lugar en el Mundo (A Place in the World, 1992), Tango Feroz (1993) and Dónde estás amor de mi vida…? (1992) were very popular as was Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) and Ricardo Larrain’s La Frontera (Chile, 1990). The following year crowds were very pleased with Patrice Leconte’s Le marie de la coiffeuse/The Hairdresser’s Husband/El Marido de la Peluquera (France, 1990) and Peter Weir’s Fearless (USA, 1993) and even more with Alfonso Arau’s Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate, Mexico, 1992) and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio’s Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate, Cuba, 1993).

NK: A chocolate theme….

HG: Yes it was the chocolate film Festival … but also a dream had come true: Latin American films were successful with the audience and the critics! It was a turning point for cinema taste in Paraguay in synchronicity with a change in Latin American film production. From then on it was a relatively easy ride in terms of maintaining our audience and last year, 2001, we had 7,000 people come to an 11-day event.

NK: Although that number is down on your 1993 success of 11,000 people, it’s very significant given the fact that 2001 was the return of the Festival after a two-year lay-off? What caused that hiatus?

HG: It ran each year for nine years and took a two-year break in 1999 and 2000 because of the sociopolitical turmoil in Paraguay (the assassination of the Vice President and resignation of the President of Paraguay in 1999) and because the mayor of Asunción turned its back on the Festival and other artistic activities; thank God our recently elected mayor knows the importance of culture and art for the people. Paraguay was in an economic crisis that didn’t allow the Cinémathèque to run a festival because the money mostly comes from the private sector. We usually bring in the Festival jury and some guests of the Festival, no more than 15 people. The Festival costs around Australian $200,000, which is a lot of money for Asunción, but that figure doesn’t include the gifts in kind the Festival receives by way of promotional publicity and sponsorship on radio stations and TV networks. That is free and if we counted things like that plus the participation of hotels and restaurants the figure would be much higher than $200,000. I resumed the production and direction of the Festival last year, though decided for a non-competitive edition until the city authorities reestablish the necessary funding.

Moreover, thanks to economic aid from UNESCO and United Nations in Paraguay, I was able to put together the 1st International Forum about Culture, Cinema and Development in Paraguay at the Festival. The national media offered generous coverage and the Festival turned out a great event not only in Asunción but for the first time in another city of Paraguay, Ciudad del Este (at the border with Brazil). The eager moviegoers, tired of American films, embraced the full program of 23 features from 13 nations, endorsing my quest against the dominance of commercial American cinema in Paraguay. The kinds of films that have screened include: Mikalkov’s Urga (Russia-France, 1991), Diegues’ Vea esta canción (See this Song, Brazil, 1994), Chereau’s La Reina Margot (France, 1994), Wild Horses (Argentina, 1995), Egoyan’s Exotica (Canada 1994), Luna’s La Teta y la Luna (Spain, 1994), Fons’ El callejón de los milagros (Mexico, 1994), Tamahori’s El amor y la Furia (Once were warriors, New Zealand, 1994), Yimou’s La Reina de Shangai (China, 1995), Cama para tres (Gazon Maudit, 1995), Wideberg’s La Belleza de las Cosas (Lust Och Fäbring Stor, Sweden, 1995), Rymer’s Un ángel a quien amar (Angel Baby, Australia, 1995), Paskaljevic’s La Otra América (Someone Else´s America, Great Britain-Greece-Serbia, 1995), Iglesias’ El día de la bestia (Spain, 1996), Sol de Otoño (Argentina, 1996), Cilantro y perejil (Mexico, 1996), Link’s Las Voces del Silencio (Beyond Silence, Germany, 1996), Deseos y sospechas (The Daytrippers, USA, 1996), Aristarain’s Martin h (idem, Spain, 1997), Pineyro’s Burned Money (Argentina, 2000), Ocelot’s Kirikou and the Sorcerer (France, 1998), Panahi’s The White Balloon (Iran, 1996), Nutley’s Under the Sun (Sweden, 1998), Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine and Loach’s My Name is Joe (Great Britain, 1998), Paskaljevic’s The Powder Keg (Serbia, 1999) and Noe’s One Against All (France, 1998) among others. The upcoming edition will include more recent productions, audience awards and hopefully next year we will have again the competitive version of the Asunción International Film Festival.

NK: What have you tried to do with the Festival? What would you say has been your cultural mission?

HG: I believe that motion pictures are the most powerful tool of communication and the reason I call it “a luminous mirror” is because of its capacity to reflect the world and at the same time to bring light within us. I’ve tried to get people interested in alternative cinemas, different forms of cinema from many nations which aren’t shown in Paraguay. My struggle is to defend the sovereignty of images, the right to know plural visions, cultures, realities and ideologies, the freedom to know, to dream and to imagine. These are only possible if we have diversity instead of uniformity. Even now, almost 90% of films shown in Paraguay, as in the rest of Latin America and most of the world, are American films and the other 10% are made up of non-American films brought in by American distributors like Miramax and Fox-Searchlight. For the last 30 years in Paraguay we haven’t had any distributors dedicated to the idea of the auteur cinema or of independent films. Free to air television is also dominated by American production. The American distributors only want to show their products, even using most unfair tactics of dumping or extortion in order to occupy all screens all the time with their films. We don’t have any repertory cinemas or an educational-cultural television station and one thing I managed to do with the Cinémathèque was work closely with city councils and administrations to run repertory programmes of older films, mostly shown on video. It is possible to build a critical audience and a variety of tastes but that takes time and consistency, not an easy task for underdeveloped countries with no money or devotion to long-term goals. The pathetic reality is this: most people from countries like mine are doomed by cultural colonization, they are condemned to dream the dreams, reality and identity of others, to be aliens without and within themselves.

NK: What kinds of films do you show at the Asunción Film Festival?

HG: I try to show films that people in Paraguay, in Asunción, would not be able to see if it wasn’t for the Festival; thus I do not program movies that are booked for release. Latin American, Spanish and French films are a priority; the rest is an exotic mixture from Europe, Asia, independent American movies, and seldom from Australia, until now nothing from Africa. One of the big problems for us is always the availability of prints with Spanish sub-titles. In Asunción we cannot afford to provide the electronic subtitling that is done here at Buenos Aires. I try to make an eclectic selection in which, with some films, I am pushing a little beyond the taste of the average Paraguayan audience. Some films are directed towards children and families; we had a great success with Kirikou and the Sorcerer (France, 1998) and I also select films that I think will appeal to women viewers because they are such a significant audience. So I program women directors, like Maria Novaro from Mexico and María Luisa Bemberg from Argentina; we have shown almost all of their films.

Hugo Gamarra and Nikita Mikalkov

Thanks to a generous donation from a Paraguayan sculptor, Hugo Pistilli, the Festival also presents prizes for best film in Spanish, best foreign language film, best actor, director, and so on. Among the foreign language directors, Peter Weir, Nikita Mikalkov, Serguei Bodrov, Zang Yimou, Neil Jordan, have all won the “Panambi” (“butterfly”) prizes. Since 1994 we also awarded a special “Oscar Trinidad” Honorary Panambi, in memory of that dear mentor. The first one was for the Argentinean director Maria Luisa Bemberg; the second for a hero of Latin American film archives, the Brazilian Cosme Alves Netto; in both cases the awards were blessed with good timing, since they unexpectedly died in the following months. The Argentinean film magazine Sin Cortes (100 editions), the Gramado Film Festival in its 25th Anniversary, the Argentinean director Juan José Jusid and the Paraguayan film critic Jorge Aiguadé were the last recipients.

Some of the films shown at the Festival have proved so successful that the Cinémathèque released them commercially, films like The Crying Game and Tango Feroz and the two “chocolate” films. We released them because Paraguayan distributors didn’t want to risk their money on these films. However, the Cinémathèque doesn’t have its own theatre and that’s what makes it so precarious as an ongoing enterprise. I am also proud of another accomplishment: the election of short films for every edition. There used to be a prejudice against shorts: the audience considered it a simple fill in, not an artistic form in its own right. Wonderful shorts from France, Canada, Spain and even from Latin America made the magic. The public became so enthusiastic of them that at the 8th edition they could vote and choose their favorite, as they did with the features since the first festival. The last Panambi prizes voted by the public went to the Collection of Annecy´s Festival French Animation Films (1956-1992) and Veit Helmer´s Surprise! (Germany, 1996).

NK: Can you say in more detail how you understand the cultural function of your Festival, perhaps indicating how film screenings connect with your desire to see a strong Paraguayan film production industry develop?

HG: If the first function was to develop film culture by building audiences that would be sensitive to different forms of cinema, the second plan was to build things to a point where these audiences would ask, ‘when are we going to see a Paraguayan film?’ They were seeing films from neighbouring and nearby countries like Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Chile and they would ask, ‘where is Paraguay in all of this?’ And in fact it happened that way: people started saying, ‘we have a strong culture with many stories to tell, where are our Paraguayan films?’ And all the visitors to the Festival spoke of the need for Paraguay to express itself through film. In terms of cinema, Paraguay is an invisible nation, a nation without images, without audio-visual stories. And in the mid ’90s, a Chilean director was at the Festival and became captivated by Paraguayan society and culture, and one year later made a co-production here, with Sweden and Chile, called Miss Ameriguá. In 1998 another film was made, The Call of the Oboe/O Toque do Oboe that I co-wrote and co-produced. It was directed by a Brazilian with a cast mainly of Paraguayans, one Brazilian star and two Argentines, and cost around Australian $2 million. It was filmed in natural locations within Paraguay and played in over 40 international film festivals around the globe, including Sydney, and won some prizes. During the two years hiatus of the Festival, I was nonetheless very busy with the nationwide distribution and exhibition of The Call of the Oboe (Brazil-Paraguay, 1998) and my other production about our great Paraguayan writer, The Gate of Dreams (Paraguay, 1998). I traveled throughout Paraguay in mobile projection units thanks to the support of private companies and the Hubert Balls Fund from Holland, since movie houses in towns and most cities of Paraguay have disappeared during the ’80s. Around 100,000 Paraguayan students saw these 2 productions this way and I learned more about my land, my people and their need for audiovisual identity. Younger filmmakers are now using digital cameras to tell stories, despite the total absence of audiovisual legislation or even a film institute to promote our productions. Paraguay may be a revelation in festivals during the next two decades.

NK: You’ve indicated some of the struggles involved in trying to maintain a Paraguayan film festival, having suspended operations for two years. How strong is the film festival scene in other Latin-American countries?

HG: Mexico doesn’t have a festival. Acapulco used to have one long ago. Peru has one in Lima, run by the Catholic University. Brazil has one in Gramado (south), one in Bahia (north) and another in Rio (middle) dedicated to Ibero Latin American films, and two international ones in the big city of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Uruguay has a festival, organised by the Cinémathèque of Uruguay, in Montevideo and there is another in Punta del Este. Argentina has the Mar del Plata Festival and more recently the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema. Chile also has two film festivals, as does Colombia, the one in Cartagena being the oldest in Latin America. The one in La Havana has been very important for our continent during two decades. Also very important for us are the Spanish and Latin American festivals in Chicago and Miami (USA), Toulouse (France) and Huelva (Spain). So all the directors of the various festivals know one another and get together and sometimes we are able to co-operate through having different contacts and relationships with people and institutions. The Association of Ibero American Film Festivals is a new organization that brings together almost 20 members and will keep growing.

NK: Could we close by having you talk a little more about your cinephilia, what kinds of films you like?

HG: The most direct answer is, French cinema, especially the films of Truffaut, Vigo, Resnais and Rohmer. I’m drawn to a humanist and poetic cinema, so for me that also means the films of Renoir, Fellini, Kurosawa, De Sica, Ford, Capra, Fernando Solanas, Emilio Fernández and Resnais. I love the force of Kurosawa’s images, the way they seem to be natural elements in his stories, and the way he is able to combine the physical with the psychological. I like atmosphere in cinema and I appreciate films that take me on an emotional-imaginative journey, that make me wonder and also make me think, films that provide deep emotions and strong ideas and philosophies; after all, my other passion is literature. But I also love kinetic cinema, a cinema of action and suspense. I was raised on good American cinema and it would be hypocritical of me to say that I didn’t like Hitchcock and most of the films of Spielberg, Cameron, Eastwood, Huston, Coppola and Zemeckis. And yet I like the fascinating and perverse reveries of Lynch, Polanski, Clouzot and Buñuel. As you can see, I have very eclectic taste.

NK: When we were talking earlier, you said that you very much enjoyed the Australian feature shown at this Festival, The Bank. Perhaps because I arrived into an Argentina in economic meltdown, with the banks in Buenos Aires closing the day after I arrived, and no doubt because so many interesting documentaries have been scheduled on banks and the IMF, I found that as I watched The Bank here at this Festival, I kept thinking of Bertolt Brecht’s great line, “it is no more of a crime to rob a bank than it is to found or own one.” I know you hope to get The Bank for your Asunción festival this October, so what did you like about that film?

HG: Thanks for mentioning Brecht’s very wise line. I believe The Bank has a strong humanistic approach, an excellent cast, a well-constructed screenplay, very effective mise en scène; it’s a very polished production. It engages intellect and emotion in a very entertaining way. It is a fine film and I would be very happy to show it in Paraguay. (Postdate end of June 2002: 1) The producer John Maynard has kindly agreed to include the film in our upcoming festival; 2) A prestigious bank in Paraguay (the bank I trusted and operated with) has recently filed bankruptcy. Scandalous frauds have been detected in the handling of savings and many people (including me) do not know if we will get our money back.) So I found The Bank to be a very interesting story, very well told, very lucid in its message and ideology.

NK: “I just hate banks…”

HG: And as I was watching the opening sequence it made me remember earlier Australian films I had enjoyed as a youth, Outback (Wake in Fright, 1970) and Walkabout (1970). Those were the first films that made me imagine a mythical Australia.

NK: I like both of those films too. The first was directed by a Canadian, Ted Kotcheff, adapted from an Australian novel that has recently been reprinted by a Melbourne-based press called Text Publishing. And since I know you like Nicolas Roeg’s films – especially Don’t Look Now (1973) and Bad Timing (1980) – you know Walkabout was directed by an Englishman with a screenplay by a British playwright, Edward Bond. So they are both co-productions from the period just before the revived Australian cinema took off in the early to mid ’70s. One director who came to international prominence at that time was Peter Weir, and I know you love his films, so could we close by having you say what you admire about his cinema?

HG: The Last Wave (1977) was the first film of his that I saw (in Austin) and it’s still one of my favourites. I am proud to remember that I programmed the only screening of The Last Wave in Asunción and later Fearless for the 5th Asunción Film Festival (1994), when it won the Panambi award for Best Film in Foreign Language. (As a matter of fact I do not know if Peter Weir received the award we sent him though Warner Bros.) I like the intercultural theme that comes through all of his films, the way he juxtaposes cultures, dramatises encounters between cultures, the way he builds suspenseful atmosphere and includes magical, surreal or supernatural elements in the telling of the stories. I like Witness (1985), Gallipoli (1981), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Fearless (1993), The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), and I also like Green Card (1990) a lot. As I said, I really like the cinema of Peter Weir! You tell me I have missed some of his early films, like Homesdale (1971) and The Cars that Ate Paris (1974) and his TV film, The Plumber (1979). Maybe you can help me to find some videos to fill these cinephile gaps!

NK: It will be a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to tell the Senses of Cinema readers about film culture in Paraguay.

HG: My thanks to you. I am honored.


  1. The Chaco War of 1932-35 refers to a territory dispute between Bolivia and Paraguay over the area known as the Chaco Boreal, as two land-locked nations tried to gain access to the Atlantic ocean. The real reason for the war was “potential” oil from the land in dispute. (No wonder the Standard Oil Co. was behind the finance of the war). Bolivia had another war with Chile for access to the ocean. That was never a problem for Paraguay since our navy uses the Paraguay river and the ports in Argentina and Brazil.
  2. The so-called “Triple Alliance War” of 1864-70 occurred with Paraguay as a non-British aligned country.
  3. I cannot avoid mentioning that in the middle of all this there was a most romantic story: the love of the Irish red headed woman Elisa Lynch (divorced from a French officer) and the President of Paraguay, the young general Francisco Solano López, who lead the armies to the final battle until his death. They met in the court of Napoleon III, when López was there in diplomatic mission, fell in love and he returned with her as his lover. His father, then President of Paraguay and the high society morality did not allow them to marry. They had children and she remained his official mistress, the most powerful and cultured woman in Asunción, promoter of the European arts and fashions of the time. She stayed at her free will during the war until the end, the final battle where her sons and López died. She buried them with her own hands and her life was spared because of her foreign nationality. She was sent back to Europe and was not allowed to get off the ship, when she returned years later to claim for her state. There are many books written about her and López, with the backdrop of the international conflict (a recent one is Demand the World by Graham Shelby). A great story for the movies, indeed, but a complex one too. There have been many projects and screenplays written to this date. Anthony Quinn was eager to produce one early ’70s. Rachel Welch was appointed to play Lynch. There is a new project now o the works, perhaps a coproduction between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay with European countries.

About The Author

Noel King teaches film at Macquarie University.

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