By Valeria de los Ríos Escobar
Translated by César Albarrán-Torres
In their 2010 book Novísimo cine chileno, Ascanio Cavallo and Gonzalo Maza coined the term ‘New-new Chilean cinema’. Under this umbrella concept they grouped filmmakers who through a couple of features each captivated local and overseas audiences. Even if they recognized that these filmmakers had radically different aesthetic and narrative drives and that the term was hyperbolic, Cavallo and Maza wrote a short prologue that linked these directors with those of the New Chilean Cinema of the seventies. They also highlighted their connection to film history: they were avid followers of filmmakers of the past such as Sergio Bravo, Pedro Chaskel, Patricio Guzmán and Raúl Ruiz. They wrote this without disrespecting the “creative autonomy” of the new filmmakers. For the authors, these directors did not do copycat versions of the work of the seventies auteurs: they were merely familiar with them, just like they knew their global contemporary fellow filmmakers, people like Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Béla Tarr, Jim Jarmush, Aki Kaurismäki and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Another shared characteristic among these filmmakers was their standing in the film festival circuit, particularly the Valdivia International Film Festival, as well as their university education. The filmmakers of the Novísimo cine chileno studied at institutions that were reopened during the nineties after they were shut down during the Pinochet dictatorship. These film schools included the Escuela de Cine de Chile, led by Carlos Flores and Carlos Álvarez, as well as ARCIS, UNIACC, and the Universidad de Valparaíso. Cavallo and Maza’s book gathered a total of 21 filmmakers, a generation made up of diverse, often conflicting voices. 1 The book does not attempt to identify a common poetic voice or thematic connections. On the contrary, the authors isolate a generational condition. With the exception of Alberto Fuguet they all share a similar age range.
In 2013 Carolina Urrutia published her book Un cine centrífugo: Ficciones chilenas 2005-2010, a long essay that attempts to unearth a common poetical drive in eleven of the filmmakers included in Novísimo Cine Chileno 2 Just like Cavallo and Maza, Urrutia argues that since 2005 Chilean cinema “seems to believe in nothing at all, it surrenders to images (movement, landscapes, bodies, light) devoid of content (discursively as well as allegorically) and ambiguous in their expression. Narratives are situated in a space that becomes the protagonist, where that which is lost is the people, the community, the mass (which escapes the frame) and what remains is the landscape. Landscape and space seem to free themselves from the story, they become narrators as the main character turns passive, or just contemplative. The protagonist watches as he is watched by the landscape.” 3
What is notable about Urrutia’s analysis is the linking of this cinema from the early 2000s with contemporary cinema. Her concept, “centrifugal cinema”, even if restrictive, allows us to connect Chilean cinema with Gilles Deleuze’s time-image, with critiques to Raúl Ruiz’s central conflict theory, with the surge of “new realisms” that assume a narrative self-consciousness, and with that zone of indeterminacy between fiction and documentary filmmaking. These twentieth first century filmmakers reach out to modernity in a globalized context, acknowledging the existence of a worldwide exhibition market defined by the international film festival circuit. They also know that the local is valued because it is unique and so have the capacity to appeal to a cosmopolitan audience.
As Urrutia recognizes in the last section, the book is modelled after Gonzalo Aguilar’s Otros mundos: Ensayos sobre el nuevo cine argentino, where he proposes that the main point of difference between new cinema and old cinema is the relationship with the spectator. This is manifested through open endings that allow for active acts of interpretation, the poetics of indeterminacy, the absence of emphasis, the existence of ambiguous or “zombie” characters, a rejection of schematic forms of cinema, a somewhat erratic narrative, the lack of contextual data and a rejection of identity-related and political demands (a tired narrative model, costumbrismo). 4. The most evident result of these changes is the lack of defined storytelling structures 5, which counters the idea that film is all about the development of a story. As such, we are faced with countless potential narratives and a “return to the documentary”. The propensity to capture surfaces (streets, gestures, bodies, movement) is also a result of technological change. High definition digital cameras allow for a cheaper and more easily manipulated registry of life. As Jens Andermann points out when discussing the New Argentine Cinema, characters (often children and teenagers) focus on the sensorial: sounds, smells, flavours and textures, the non-linear, the non-causal, everything that goes against the adult prevalence of the visual. 6 According to Andermann, in this new cinema landscape is “space freed from events”, and is manifested in dead time or in moments free if diegetic motivations. In other words, landscape functions as a stage, as an arbitrary space in relation to narrative. 7. These same characteristics could be extrapolated to global contemporary cinema, where local film industries provide specific modulations of these worldwide changes.
Critical debates in the Chilean context mushroomed after the concepts of Novísimo cine chileno and “centrifugal cinema” appeared. Numerous critics questioned the work of many of these filmmakers because they deemed them self-absorbed and lacking in political commitment. In his book Intimidades desencantadas. La poética cinematográfica del dos mil Carlos Saavedra Cerda bashes seven twentieth first century movies: Play (Alicia Scherson), En la cama (Matías Bize), El cielo, la tierra y la lluvia (José Luis Torres Leiva), Se arrienda (Alberto Fuguet), La vida de los peces (Matías Bize), Navidad (Sebastián Lelio) and La buena vida (Andrés Wood). These movies share an intimate narrative, “minimal adventures of individuals confined to private spaces, close to a symbolic projection of contemporary Chilean society: claustrophobic, biased and afraid.”8 Saavedra continues:
this cinema proposes a gaze in which men and women interact in closed spaces, with a strong confessional drive, a rejection of the past and constant questioning about their sexual or affective lives that is laden with guilt or cynicism. We think that this is not a sign of auteur cinema, but rather a global format or model that has created a production line of this type of films. It is appropriate to think that the dominant model of the big film markets has been taken as a reference point. Here, the motivation for filming is no longer questioning reality or society. This is replaced with a rhetoric than centres on the individual. 9
Saavedra contrasts his very limited selection of films with the New Chilean Cinema of the seventies. This comparison is somewhat melancholic and ignores the fact that context generates patters in terms of aesthetics and politics. In a book that will be published in the coming months, El cine en Chile (2005-2015): Políticas y poéticas del nuevo siglo, Vania Barraza tries to evidence, among this heated debate among local film critics, the political reaches, or perhaps the un-political reaches, 10 of this type of cinema that leans towards introspection. Barraza identifies the footsteps of the dictatorship in the dismantling of collectivistic efforts after the imposition of the neoliberal economic model. The political reappears in relation to these films not through the content itself, but through the interpretations they trigger.
The wonderboys: Pablo Larraín and Sebastián Lelio
Undoubtedly, out of this generation the filmmakers that have achieved the most explicit international recognition are Pablo Larraín and Sebastián Lelio, as well as the female directors Alicia Scherson and Dominga Sotomayor. Since 2006 with Fuga and then with Tony Manero (2008), Post Mortem (2010), No (2012) and Neruda (2015), Larraín earned the spotlight of local and overseas film critics. His movies have been praised in terms of their craft, as well as their thematic structures related with social and political contexts key to understanding twentieth century history. The mise en scène is key for Larraín, particularly in his trilogy about the Pinochet dictatorship (Tony Manero, Post-Mortem and No). His movies reveal special care in recreating a past historical moment. This goes as far as emulating the U-Matic movie format used in the times of the plebiscite recreated in No. His films deal with local myths and public figures that had a considerable international impact: we can think of the Pinochet years, the Unidad Popular and the death of Salvador Allende, the plebiscite that made Pinochet step down, and the political activism of the Nobel Prize winner, poet Pablo Neruda.
Larraín’s scripts revisit these historical moments. They offer particular perspectives that somewhat modify preestablished historical judgements. For example, instead of dealing with the horrors of the dictatorship, Larraín focuses on a marginal, psychotic character that is obsessed with the success that appearing in a televised danced competition might bring him (Tony Manero). In No, instead of showing the social complexities of the plebiscite or introducing characters that fight for the return of democracy, Larraín argues that the success of “no” was the result of a successful marketing campaign. Larraín’s formula has proven successful: he deals with known historical and social issues in an oblique manner. This formula, however, has also been criticized due to Larraín’s own privileged upbringing and his ideological position vis-à-vis the dictatorship.
Perhaps the main issue concerning his body of work is a disjoint between a contemporary visual aesthetic that used diverse techniques and formats, and a somewhat old-fashioned take on human nature in which an individual’s faults are blamed on psychological factors or socioeconomic context. The end result is a collection of classic narratives where conflict resides in psychological imbalances or marginalised social and cultural settings.
Sebastián Lelio also began his filmmaking career in 2006. His first feature film La sagrada familia (The Sacred Family) was followed by Navidad (Christmas, 2009), El año del tigre (The Year of the Tiger, 2011), Gloria (2013) and Una mujer fantástica (A Fantastic Woman, 2017). His work is characterized by the use of sequence shots and hand-held camera, as well as a certain degree of improvisation by actors. In The Year of the Tiger improvisation is key to the mise en scène. It is one of his lesser known films but one of his most interesting ones as it deals with a time of crisis: the 2010 earthquake in the Maule and Bío-Bío regions. The story follows a prisoner who escapes jail after the natural disaster only to find a devastated wasteland. Starting with Gloria, Lelio has worked with scriptwriter Gonzalo Maza, who has the knack of providing a naturalistic feel to dialogues similar to improvisation. This is due to the fact that financing relies on finished scripts, which makes full improvisation practically impossible.
Lelio’s first two feature films have young protagonists. We could say that his whole body of work centres on a defiance to the traditional family structure and its two-faced morality. A Fantastic Woman, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 2018, is based on that act of insubordination. Its success can partially be attributed to the incorporation of a trans character. However, instead of delving into the issues of trans subjectivity or collectivist action, the film focuses on the way in which the traditional family violently rejects those who could destabilize its structures.
Alicia Scherson has released four films so far: Play (2005), Turistas (Tourists, 2009), Il futuro (2013) and Vida de familia (Family Life, 2016, co-directed with Cristián Jiménez). In Scherson’s cinema the senses, and not the main conflict, are at the centre stage. Ever since Play, in which smell and hearing are key elements, as well as the character’s movements through both city and nature, Scherson has explored these dimensions in female main and secondary characters who relate to their environment in a sensorial fashion. Her two most recent films are literary adaptations: Il futuro is her take on Una novelita lumpen by the globally renowned novelist Roberto Bolaño, and Vida de familia is an adaptation of the homonymous short story by Alejandro Zambra, who was chosen by Granta magazine as one of the most notable voices in Latin American literature.
Another female filmmaker, Dominga Sotomayor, has recently earned international acclaim. She has released two feature films, De jueves a domingo (Thursday till Sunday, 2012) and Tarde para morir joven (Too Late to Die Young, 2018), which won the Leopard prize for best director in the latest Lorcano Film Festival, the first time ever a woman has gotten the award. Her films focus on child or teenage protagonists who undergo processes of growth and transformation. Thursday till Sunday is a road movie mostly filmed inside a family’s car. Too Late to Die Young is set in an eco-community in the outskirts of Santiago a few years after democracy is reinstated. Her films have traces of documentary filmmaking as she often works with non-actors. Her directorial style and her scripts emphasize everyday life and human relationships. In her work, words are not always what communicates, but rather silence, body language and affect.
Both Larraín and Lelio have shot their latest films in the United States, Jackie (Larraín, 2016) and Disobedience (Lelio, 2017), while Alicia Scherson and Dominga Sotomayor have released theirs in prestigious film festivals. This evidences how deep these directors have penetrated the international film market. But beyond these examples, I would like to focus in other contemporary films that reveal the heterogeneity and continued expansion of Chile’s national cinema.
The critical accounts of the cinema of the early 2000s that we have discussed are useful to single out the trends and conflicts that define contemporary Chilean cinema. Even if some of these critics realize that new films experiment with the liminal zone that separates fiction and documentary, they focus on fictional cinema and as such they reinstate the dichotomies that they themselves try to blur in their analysis. Documentary filmmaking has had an equally rich development as fictional film, with notable directors such as Patricio Guzmán and Ignacio Agüero, young voices like the team made up by Bettina Perut and Iván Osnovikoff, Maite Alberdi with her awarded docos El salvavidas (2011), La once (2014) and Los niños (2016), Bruno Salas with his first film Escapes de gas (2014) or Cristóbal Valenzuela Berríos with Robar a Rodin (2017). In terms of autobiographical documentaries, 11, the subgenre has been present since the emblematic El edificio de los chilenos (2010) by Macarena Aguiló, leading to Marcia Tambutti’s Allende, mi abuelo allende (Beyond My Grandfather Allende, 2015). These films focus on post-memory and give an account of the dictatorship through the lens of the children of those who fought for Unidad Popular. Alongside these films, there is a group that focuses on the executioners: we can think of El mocito (The Young Butler, 2010), directed by Marcela Said and Jean de Certeau. Some others focus on second generation relatives of war criminals, such as Lissette Orozco’s El pacto de Adriana (Adriana’s Pact, 2017). There are also more experimental features like Ignacio Agüero’s El otro día (The Other Day, 2012) and Como me da la gana II (2016), as well as the work of directors such as Tiziana Panizza, José Luis Torres Leiva, José Luis Sepúlveda and Carolina Adriazola, Niles Attalah, Christopher Murray, Jerónimo Rodríguez and Camila José Donoso.
José Luis Torres Leiva’s El viento sabe que vuelvo a casa (The Wind Knows that I’m Coming, 2016) is titled after the epigraph for a poem written by Chilean Jorge Teillier. The director uses the island of Chiloé as the backdrop of an impossible love story starred by filmmaker Ignacio Agüero. The plot follows a casting call among students of a boarding school at Achao, as well as numerous interviews with people from the island of Meulín. The students stage artistic performances in front of the camera while answering the director’s questions. While this happens, Agüero delves into the love story, in which a couple disappears after their families oppose their relationship. One of the interviewed female students recognizes the story and tells how families used to oppose relationships between lovers whose surnames had a different origin. The fictional love affair is suddenly revealed as a mere excuse to incite conversation. The purpose of this self-reflective documentary is to go deep into the island’s emotional and everyday existence, which is why the interviews veer towards issues such as family life, people’s trades and holidays. The images and sounds linger on the landscape and the animals, as well as the ways in which the community at the Chiloé archipelago is formed. The long sequence shots include fauna, flora and objects, thus experimenting with a temporal regime that is not exclusively human. There are also constant winks to film history, a trait that is found in Torres Leiva’s earlier feature films, among them Ningún lugar en ninguna parte (2004), El cielo, la tierra y la lluvia (The Sky, the Earth and the Rain, 2008), Tres semanas después (Three Weeks Later, 2010) and Verano (2011).
Tiziana Panizza’s ouvre has often been linked to documentary filmmaking. Her work includes the visual epistolary structures of Dear Nonna: A film-Letter (2005), Remitente: Una carta visual (2008) and Al final: La última carta (2012). Beyond this experimental tryptic that uses home video formats and found footage, she has directed films such as Tierra en movimiento (2014) and Tierra sola (Solitary Land, 2017). Panizza approaches cinematic craft as a visual artist faces an installation: she is concerned with the materials, colors and shapes of analogue film, with the framing and chromatic variation of objects, with the sound design and the layers in voice overs. In Tierra en movimiento Panizza deals with the consequences of the 2010 earthquake. Instead of making destruction look beautiful and sublime, Panizza takes her time capturing the remains and fragments of what used to be. She does not emphasize the feelings of mourning o melancholy, something television would do. On the contrary, hers is a study of the emotional energy of matter on a personal and collective level. She builds her narrative using poems by Chilean Germán Carrasco as a departing point, and then builds a fragmentary story. For Tierra sola she used Easter Island, Isla de Pascua, as a subject: she collected valuable archival material to put together a montage in which the voice over questions ethnographic and ethnocentric gazes. Panizza shows the life inside a jail in Rapa Nui as a metaphor of this island located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and whose inhabitants were subject to all sorts of imprisonment. In a similar tone (first person narrative, memory-driven narrative and archive images), Jerónimo Pizarro uses fiction as the drive of El rastreador de estatuas (2015), a feature about the search for a statue. The search develops through long walks and streams of consciousness as it relates to neuroscience, a father and a country.
Niles Attalah also experiments with materiality, textures and colors. His debut film Lucía (2010) was a first approach to combining fiction and documentary, as it is based on a childhood recording of his romantic partner and the film’s protagonist, Gabriela Aguilar. His enquiry into the value of documents extends to his latest film, Rey (2017), based on the diaries of Orélie Antoine de Tounens, a French lawyer who in the nineteenth century proclaimed himself king of Araucanía and Patagonia. The storytelling is multidirectional and populated with hallucinations that are conveyed with stunning visual experimentation. Thus, Attalah questions the very nature of History, the conflict between real and fictional. This questioning is extended to the materiality of film, which is here intervened and drawn on effusively.
The creative duo made up by José Luis Sepúlveda and Carolina Adriazola has had a strong and steady film career starting with their 2007 film El pejesapo (2007). This feature soon caught the attention of local critics. It was a rarity in the Chilean film industry: a low budget film shot in the farthest corners of the city, with handheld camera and in a doco style that captured the adventures of a man after a suicide attempt. A trio of films soon followed: Mitómana (2009), Crónica de un comité (2014) and El siciliano (2017). Documentary style is persistent in these films, as well as an attempt to interrogate the aesthetic, ontological and material borders that separate documentary and fiction, further blurring the divide. The label of “marginal cinema” has often been used to describe Sepúlveda and Adriazola’s work. I would argue, however, that far from being marginal their cinema escapes the gaze of the socioeconomic class usually associated with the film industry. In a recent interview, Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel pointed out that historically the hegemonic gaze in cinema has been white and middle class. Sepúlveda and Adriazola’s ouvre escapes these manacles and is developed through a process in the film workshops taught at the Escuela Popular de Cine (http://escuelapopulardecine.cl/) and the Festival de Cine Social y Anti-Social (http://feciso.cl/).
Another director, Christopher Murray, has also used collective work as a methodology. His first feature film, codirected with Pablo Carrera, is Manuel de Rivera (2009). In it, he places his protagonist in the periphery, an island in Southern Chile, so he can connect to a community through a documentary gaze. Similarly, his latest film, El Cristo ciego (The Blind Christ, 2016), which was launched at the Venice Film Festival, tells the story of a young man who travels to perform a miracle to cure his sick friend. Along the way he stumbles upon characters and communities who either embrace or reject his messianic crusade. Murray is also the cofounder and general manager of the documentary project “Mapa Fílmico de un País” (www.mafi.tv) and the main director of the collective documentary Propaganda (2014), which won the jury price at Visions du Réel 2014.
Camila José Donoso is also worth naming. She has released three feature films, Naomi Campbel (2014), Casa Roshell (2017) and Nona: Si me mojan, yo los quemo (2018). She approaches her craft from an interstitial condition. She situates herself in borderlands where fiction and reality are hard to tell apart and where identities mutate. In her first two films Donoso worked with non-professional actors and trans characters. Every single decision she makes as a director seem to highlihhy interstates of being, escaping classification and normative dictates. Space itself turns into a labyrinth-like entity. In Casa Roshell this fluidity leads to a dreamlike state. In her cinema, subaltern cultures have a voice: previously voiceless individuals are allowed to talk and, in Naomi Campbel, they even shoot part of the film. With Lorena Best, Donoso founded the Transfrontera film festival, which brings together people from Peru, Bolivia and Chile and which works as a residency program for people with little experience.
As a closing remark, I would like to highlight the heterogeneity of contemporary Chilean cinema, its multifarious accents and tones. Films coming out of Chile are gathering critical acclaim and have sparked heated debates. The expansion of the country’s film industry is due to its internationalization, but also to an emphasis on the local and the collective. Chile’s contemporary cinema tests the limits of film, bringing fiction and documentary closer together.
- These directors are: Matías Bize, Fernando Lavanderos, Sebastián Lelio, Alicia Scherson, Alberto Fuguet, Pablo Larraín, Ernesto Díaz Espinoza, Sebastián Silva, José Luis Sepúlveda and Carolina Adriazola, Rodrigo Marín, José Luis Torres Leiva, Elisa Eliash, Alejandro Fernández Almendras, Christopher Murray and Pablo Carrera, Cristián Jiménez, Che Sandoval, Martín Seeger, Nayra Ilic, Niles Atallah, Théo Court and Camilo Becerra. ↩
- Her selection includes: José Luis Torres Leiva, Alejandro Fernández Almendras, Cristián Jiménez, Christopher Murray and Pablo Carrera, Elisa Eliash, José Luis Sepúlveda and Carolina Adriazola, Camilo Becerra, Alicia Scherson, Pablo Larraín, Sebastián Lelio and Che Sandoval. ↩
- Carolina Urrutia Neno, Un cine centrífugo: Ficciones chilenas 2005-2010. (Santiago: Cuarto Propio, 2013), p. 16. ↩
- Gonzalo Aguilar. Otros mundos. Un ensayo sobre el nuevo cine argentino (Buenos Aires: Santiago Arcos Editor, 2010), p. 27. ↩
- Ibidem, p. 19 ↩
- Jens Andermann, Nuevo Cine Argentino (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2015, p. 81. Read his take on contemporary Argentinian cinema in this Senses of cinema dossier ↩
- Ibidem, p. 67. ↩
- Carlos Saavedra Cerda, Intimidades Desencantadas: La poética cinematográfica del dos mil (Santiago: Cuarto Propio, 2013), p. 15. ↩
- Ibidem, p. 21. ↩
- Roberto Espósito defines the unpolitical or impolítico as “the search of a third way, which is not only conscious but always highly problematic”, without giving in to “the modern distancing from politics” (p. 33). The unpolitical does not imply a weakening or falling down of politics, but an intensification and radicalization of politics (p. 11). In: Roberto Espósito, Tercera persona: Política de la vida y filosofía de lo impersonal (Buenos Aires and Madrid: Amorrortu Editores, 2007). ↩
- In her introduction to The Cinema of Me: The Self and Subjectivity in First Person Documentary (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2012), Alisa Lebow argues that the term “film in first person” is a discursive device: these films “talk” from the point of view of the director, who recognizes their subjectivity (p. 1). This “first person” can be singular or plural. In fact, many of these movies do not focus on the filmmaker, but rather on someone who is close, a loved one or simply someone interesting. However, in all cases the film speaks to the director’s self-awareness. Some books deal with Chilean autobiographical documentaries, such as Documentales autobiográficos chilenos (2010) by Constanza Vergara and Michelle Bossy (http://www.documentalesautobiograficos.cl/), as well as feature articles by writers such as Elizabeth Ramírez and Paola Lagos-Labbé. ↩