March 10-20, 2005

Translated by Carlos Morreo

Cinema and Politics: A Brief Historical Recount of the Festival

During the opening night of the Festival Internacional de Cine de Mar del Plata (Mar del Plata International Film Festival) an untitled short documentary with a somewhat institutional character was screened; it narrated the history and the development of the festival over its chequered existence of the past 50 years. This small film, whose objectivity is easily misplaced, is a lucid example of the ups and downs the Festival has endured since its beginnings.

The short begins by making reference to the non-competitive screenings that together gave origin to the Festival in 1954, under the directorship of Raúl Alejandro Apold. Images from this era follow, while a famous narrator from those early days, Carlos D’Agostino – who worked for Sucesos Argentinos (“Argentinean Events”), and who would become the Festival’s first official host – informs us with a clear and direct voice that the new festival is now truly under way (en marcha). The first image this institutionally sanctioned documentary offers us is that of a train arriving in the city of Mar del Plata, where the festival is about to take place. The image is paradigmatic and its inclusion is not arbitrary: these are trains from the Peronista Argentinean Rail Company that appear on the screen as a symbol of progress and the development of the nation (peronismo, that curious leftist-fascist mix). Images of the first editions of the festival are mounted together with close-ups of stars and celebrities such as Gina Lollobrigida, François Truffaut, Catherine Deneuve and Vittorio Gassman walking down the Rambla of Mar del Plata.

However for political and ideological reasons the 11th edition of the Festival (in 1971) was not held. It was the era of the dictatorship and of what would soon become some of the most difficult times the country has ever had to bear. At this point the documentary undertakes an elliptical jump that corresponds to the 25 years (1971–1996) that it was on hold. The film charges forward to the year 1996, the year the Festival is re-established. It is no longer the grain that governs the texture of the film but the pixel; we have left behind the black and white, now replaced by the realism of colour and an audio that is already synchronised within the production phase. The festival is now at the helm of the Festival’s President, Julio Maharbiz, the same man who presided over the Instituto Nacional de Cine y Artes Audiovisuales during the Carlos Saúl Menem (whose presidency spaned an entire decade, from 1989 until 1999) era. Yet we are quickly presented with images that refer to the last two editions of the Festival, which were under the directorship of its actual Artistic Director, Miguel Pereira. Filmmakers Fernando E. Solanas and Fernando Birri appear on the screen, among others, as the key guests of last year’s festival and as an evident marker of the particular profile that the Festival now wishes to present.

A clear political and ideological thread can be discerned in this short, a film that in a way exemplifies why it is that the title of the Festival’s official prize has changed from the “Gaucho” to “La Cruz del Sud”, to the “Cóndor” until 1970, and then from 1996 to 2004 to the “Ombú”, and has now become the “Astor”, a name that alludes to a not entirely unknown musical exponent of a genre that has little to do with cinematography, despite its being a very revealing type of music. Only three Argentinean presidents appear on screen in the documentary: Juan Domingo Perón, Carlos Saúl Menem and Néstor Kirchner, the latter becoming President during the 19th edition of the Festival, in 2004. Thus Kirchner’s appearance must be seen as an historical marker. But what is crucial here is not the omission – which may have been the result of mere absent-mindedness – of names of other people that during those years governed Argentina. Rather, it is the exclusion of two of the Festival’s editions, the 16th and 17th in 2001 and 2002 (Artistic Director: Claudio España), from this historical retrospective – an exclusion that may not be a simple matter of forgetfulness – and a fact that clearly reveals a political stance, and that attests to the various omissions already mentioned. Others will become tomorrow’s presidents, and there will be other artistic directors, and perhaps once again what had preceded the present will have been erased or excluded in order to once more write a new history, a “proper” history (su propia historia), which would give way to the political discourse of that moment. Yet this self-repudiation will always constitute the basis of a defect: it would be wiser to put to one side the political and to concentrate on the most intimate aspects of cinema. This would reveal a proper understanding of the fact that it is not the same thing to make films about politics as it is to do politics with cinema.

A Latin American Question

For many decades, the search for identity has been one of the constant features of Latin American cinema. During the 1960s this cinema’s ascension contested the prevalent conception of the seventh art and attempted, on the basis of an idea of identity, to revolutionise images, content and actual political systems of the continent of South America. The Brazilian Cinema Novo, with films such as Terra em transe (Glauber Rocha, 1967) and Vidas secas (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1963), among others, manifested a certain “aesthetic of hunger and dreams” and revolutionised the image with violence. The cinema of revolutionary Cuba also made itself felt via the Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográficos with Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Julio García Espinosa, and the latter’s utopian conception of “an imperfect cinema”, in which the available technology would “socialise” cinema, thus transforming it into an “art by the masses” and not into an “art for the masses”. Other exponents, such as the Bolivian Jorge Sanjinés, director of Ukamau (1966) (and who still appears to maintain his radical position), made themselves known with their “cinema-as-weapon” philosophy, or the Chilean Miguel Littín, who made El chachal de Nahuel Toro (The Jackal of Nahueltoro) (1969), and who, like many others, was influenced by that first Encuentro de Cineastas Latinoamericanos in Viña del Mar in 1967, where many filmmakers learnt about the Cuban and Brazilian experiences. At this time in Argentina a new cinema was emerging on account of a documentary that did not go unnoticed. Fernando Birri, who had recently returned from Italy after having studied under Cesare Zavattini at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografìa di Roma, presented his Tire dié in 1960, and with it a socio-critical cinema was born that would plead for the realism of the documentary and thus give way to the now legendary Escuela Documental de Santa Fé.

La sombra del caminante

At the Festival, much of this could still be seen, though no longer as the basis for a political position, given that cinema is no longer a (political) weapon. In his La sombra del caminante (The Walker’s Shadow) (2004) – a film presented as part of the América Latina XXI section of the Festival – Ciro Guerra reveals in a rather crude manner the day-to-day reality of the marginalised in Colombia. Unemployed adult men are forced to invent and make do in order to endure life in a violent Bogotá. The omnipresent shadow presupposes a cruel past filled with war. Violence is present not only in all of the film’s insinuations (which is not merely nor coincidentally expressed through video images of Colombia playing on a TV in the film, reminding us of the country’s past, never far from memory), but also by means of the basic plot and the central argumentative thread of the film. Guerra’s main mechanism is the concept of humiliation, permitting him to display the atrocious, and he submerges his characters into complete marginalisation. Yet the outcome of the use of B&W and digital video, contrary to what García Espinosa expected, is that the film loses the viewer’s interest because of the monotonous discourse it assumes and its obviousness.

Signs of contemporary violence are also visible in Mala Leche (Bad Milk) (2004), a film that, in contrast to La sombra del caminante, surprises in its use of certain cinematic resources that aesthetically enrich the narrative. Director León Errázuriz presents the predicament of two youths who must steal in order to replace the money they have lost after a bungled drug transaction. Mala Leche is also a film about the marginalised and the dispossessed living in yet another violent city of Latin America. Santiago de Chile is the backdrop where we find these youths who are ruled by a law of force, a law of “might is right”. Here it is a gun that is exposed as the element of strength and power: in one of the scenes, in which Marmota (Luis Dubó) hands over his gun, it becomes clear how the play of power is established on the basis of who controls this weapon. These are youths that have dreams fuelled by their dispossession and marginalisation; they suffer from a lack of understanding on the part of their elders and they are themselves the result of much misunderstanding among their family. For this reason, socially deviant occurrences, such as robbing a restaurant or possessing a weapon, are presented as some of their ambitions.

Mala Leche

Also in the América Latina XXI section, Mala Leche makes good use of the hand-held camera, the saturation of colour, non-professional actors, dialectic dialogue, and exteriors, which maximise the film’s sense of realism. Films such as Pizza, Birra, Faso (Caetano-Stagnaro, 1998) or Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000) are clear reference points as indicated by the imaginative use of its resources, its linguistic articulation and a certain thematic resemblance. Mala Leche is without a doubt one of the latest manifestations of a new Chilean cinema, which could not be linked to the “new cinema” associated with the earlier Latin American cinema boom; it is in fact much closer to a novel post-’90s conception of cinematographic language.

The clearest example of this can be found in the film Ipanema (Gustavo Postiglione, 2005), which participated in the Argentinean film section – Vitrina Argentina in last year’s Festival. Postiglione is a film director who has renewed the vernacular of Argentinean cinema with films such as El asadito (2000), where narration and story are concepts that intermingle in a film that pursues a philosophy of temporality. Ipanema is an essay on art, above all on the subject of what art might be and what relationship it must sustain with any socio-political problematic.

Fernando “Pino” Solanas’ breakthrough cinema work (co-authored with Octavio Getino) was La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces) (1968) in which he pushed to the vanguard a new conception of cinematic grammar. His latest film, Memorias del saqueo (A Social Genocide) (2004), is an actualised vision of recent political events in Argentina; the eruption of the crisis in the last months of 2001 forms the basis of his account. Likewise these same events are presented in Postiglione’s film. But if indeed it is true that both films use the same spatio-temporal reference (the Argentinean crisis of 2001), they differ in terms of their use of discourse, syntax and language. Memorias del saqueo re-actualises Solanas’ late ’60s socio-political gaze, though no longer in the manner of a polemical pamphlet but rather as a personal reflection. Ipanema, on the other hand, disposes with social discourse, in order to enter into a metalinguistic essay regarding the position that cinema and art must assume when confronted by such events.

In Ipanema we see a couple watching on television the social events that marked the fall of the Argentinean government. Sebastián (Carlos Resta), a friend of the couple drops by; he has just been at the protests on the streets. The friends enter into a debate over the position that each one assumes in reference to these events. Sebastián upholds his socially committed stance of protest, whereas Juán (Mauricio Dayub), the painter in the couple, who records images with his video camera in order to work them through as collage in his paintings, is solely concerned with knowing and constructing an artistic discourse on the basis of the televised images. From here certain grand questions arise, such as: What is art? What is its function? And, what must be the role of art in the face of such circumstances? But the respective stance taken up by each character is merely meant to reveal the error of judging cinema as a weapon (this could be Sebastián’s case), a position reminiscent of the revolutionary cinema of the ’60s. Some of the recent manifestations of recent cinema make it clear that the use of cinematic space–time is much more closely related to aesthetics than to politics, and to all that the term encompasses.

The Other Gaze

However, there are other gazes. Gazes that negotiate the state of being in its most intimate form, interrogating it psychologically, existentially, corporeally and intellectually. These are types of cinema that relate to the modernism of the 1960s, the historic vanguards and the underground and independent cinema movements. Indeed, among Latin American cinema, Argentinean film stands out in this regard, it has for several years now presented certain stylistic traits in each of its major filmmakers, traits that have evolved and renewed the prevalent conception of mise en scène, montage and framing.

In this way Adrián Caetano – who came to prominence in the portmanteau Historias Breves I (Brief Histories I) (1995), a film comprised of nine shorts directed by those who would a few years later be the names of contemporary Argentinean cinema, including Lucrecia Martel, Ulises Rossell Sandra Gugliotta and Daniel Burman – brings together in Después del mar (After the Sea) (2005), also part of Vitrina Argentina, a prostitute and a writer who attempt to find their own paths by virtue of a constant search. Después del mar is an unusual film in Cateano’s filmography, as it was proposed to him by Victoria Carreras, the film’s actress, screenwriter and producer (which allows us to think of a type of “film by demand”, and would therefore be an exception in Caetano’s filmography). Still, Caetano does in fact experiment in terms of language. He had just finished directing the television series Tumberos when he began working on Después del mar. Such an antecedent is interesting given that this was the first film that Caetano made using digital video. And as he himself has said, the film starring Carreras is one that experiments with the High Definition format, not only in terms of image quality but also in its production, postproduction and cinematic language.

Después del mar

Después del mar was shot in exteriors without the use of artificial lighting. This allows a certain freedom in the use of camera, due to the fact that there is no established lighting and, for that reason, no single camera angle which to privilege. Yet, the film does not deliver on various points. If it is true that what is most interesting about this film is its experimentation, there emerges, nonetheless, frame after frame, a certain language that is ultimately reminiscent of television, which in this case corresponds to the title credits in the film. At the same time – given that here we are concerned with the adaptation of a theatre play – the acting does approximate that found in Latin American soap operas rather than integrate into a cinematic aesthetic concerning the body and its staging. This allows us to reach some conclusions that suggest the film might be a work of authorial hybridisation, in which story, narration and staging seem to blend into each other, oppose each other and, at certain moments, enter into conflict with each other.

Leaving to one side the curious experience that is Después del mar, I should mention two films that screened that do reveal a different Latin American perspective; films marked by the novel post-’90s cinema: Temporada de patos (Duck Season) (Fernando Eimbcke, 2004) and Tatuado (Tattooed) (Eduardo Raspo, 2005), both as part of the official selection, non-competitive and competitive respectively. These films share certain revealing features and display a singular gaze upon the youth they portray.

In Temporada de patos, Fernando Eimbcke narrates the story of two young boys whose Sunday has been altered by their neighbour’s visit and by a pizza-delivery boy who is reassessing his life situation. Shot in B&W and in a single location (for the most part of the film), it is almost a minimalist work. Its handling of dead time, made palpable due to the use of montage and framing, is one of the prominent features that helps accentuate the rootless nature of the four lead characters, their unfulfilled dreams and their hopes for the future. It is a claustrophobic film, an in camera film, and one which reveals to us the interior world and thoughts of the characters by means of its mise en scène.

From this same perspective Tatuado emerges as another interesting film. Director Eduardo Raspo narrates the story of an adolescent (Nahuel Perez Biscayar) who undertakes a quest with no clear paths. This he does in order to uncover the mystery of a tattoo that he has on his arm, given to him years earlier by his mother who then abandoned him before her death. This quest can be summarised as the search for identity: to know who he really is, to know who those that surround him really are. A search that is related to the elemental themes of existence, to know where he comes from, and what might be the meaning of his own existence. Tatuado is a simple, linear and psychological account that immerses us in a young boy’s voyage, an endeavour involving nothing more than the search for his own self. It is an accomplished piece that builds on silence and the unspoken. It is the images that lead us to perceive that which we do not hear; a film of sensations where the past is drawn into the present.

About The Author

Fernando Madedo is a Professor of the History of Cinema at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), and a critic for the internet cinema magazine Otrocampo. He has directed four experimental shorts, which have screened and have received prizes at various international events. He is Coordinator of the Simposio International “Imágenes del Cine Argentino e Iberoamericano” and the Concurso Iberoamericano de Cortometrajes.

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